When my childhood friend returned home from vacation, I’d run to her house and ask about the trip. She hiked in the mountains and slept in a tent and fell asleep to night sounds of crickets and tree frogs and hooting owls. They cooked meals wrapped in foil and roasted marshmallows on sticks.
Fascinated, I asked my parents one night, “Can we go camping?”
It was uncivilized and dirty, Dad said. And black widow spiders lurked in the bathhouses and snakes slithered into sleeping bags, and bears and criminals hid in the woods. So, no, we couldn’t camp.
Our family stayed at Holiday Inns.
I longed to sleep in a tent and listen to night sounds and cook meals in foil and roast marshmallows, but I was afraid of the spiders and snakes and bears. So campgrounds remained both a tantalizing and fearful mystery to me well into adulthood.
Years later, when my husband and I had our first child, I remembered my friend’s foil meals and marshmallows and tents. My husband grew up camping, so maybe we could pull it off.
“Let’s camp,” I proposed.
He agreed, so we bought a big tent, borrowed a two-burner Coleman stove, grabbed a pot and frying pan and threw it in the trunk. With some Kraft macaroni and cheese, peanut butter and jelly, and a bag of marshmallows, we were ready.
We drove south and stopped in Chattanooga, Tennessee, for my first night of camping.
The light was fading fast when we drove to our campsite situated along the edge of the woods at the bottom of a hill. We set our 14-month-old daughter next to us strapped in her car seat while we wrestled the tent up. As I started clipping the rainfly to the tent poles, I looked into the dense, dark woods. Before we left, Dad had reminded me of the bears and poisonous spiders and snakes. We were foolish taking our little girl into the woods to sleep in a flimsy nylon tent, he’d said.
“What’s wrong?” My husband asked.
I glanced at the woods. “What about bears?”
“We’ll put the food in the car. They won’t bother us.”
I whispered, “We’re right by the woods. What if someone’s waiting there, ‘til we’re in the tent, sleeping?”
He touched my arm and whispered, “Nothing’s going to happen.”
We finished assembling the tent and then I fumbled with the stove to heat water for macaroni. I thought about abandoning our tent and calling around for a hotel. Or we could sleep in the car and drive home the next day. Just then, a stranger came to our campsite and invited us to the group shelter where they were hosting a spaghetti dinner. No cost. Just come.
“Can we bring our daughter?”
“Should we bring something to contribute?”
“No, just come on over. We’d love to have you!”
I wondered aloud to my husband: Are they going to poison us? He insisted we at least walk over, so I scooped up our daughter, and as we approached, we looked up at a giant banner stretched out across the shelter.
“Look!” my husband said.
They were a Christian climbing club. He whispered, “I’m hungry—come on! I think their spaghetti will be safe.” We joined the line, and as I was loading my plate, I heard someone call my name. I looked up and saw a friend from college filling the big drink dispenser.
“Hello! What are you doing here? Are you part of this group?”
She said her husband was an avid climber, so she came along to help with the meals. “We take up so many campsites, as a gesture of gratitude we always offer a meal on the first night.” We chatted about climbing and camping, and I admitted it was my first time to camp. She sensed my nerves, or maybe I told her.
“I’ll pray for you,” she said.
We had to get our little girl to bed, so we said goodbye and walked down the hill to our campsite. We checked that all the food was in the car before we climbed into the tent. I patted the outside of the sleeping bag with a shoe, feeling for snakes.
“It’s amazing you met your friend here,” my husband said. “Your first night camping, and God surrounded you with Christians—including someone you know. Will you sleep a little better?”
I smoothed out my flat, snake-free sleeping bag. “A little.”
I lay in the tent listening to crickets and tree frogs, just like my childhood friend had described. But I also listened for snapping twigs and suspicious rustling in the leaves, praying over and over for safety. My daughter’s breathing grew slow and even. My husband rolled over and fell asleep.
Finally, I drifted off, too.
The next morning, my husband asked how I slept. Our daughter was just beginning to stir.
“Fine. Some weird dreams, but we’re still alive and that’s all that matters.”
I crawled out of my sleeping bag and whacked the heel of my shoe against the ground to shake free any poisonous spiders that had crawled inside overnight. Nothing scrambled away, so I pulled them on and hiked up the hill to the bathhouse, breathing in the fresh morning air and watching squirrels scamper across the gravel road and up the tall oak trees that shaded the campground.
Tomorrow night, I thought, we’ll roast marshmallows.
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Reprinted with permission of The High Calling, from Best Vacation Stories: Tomorrow Night, Marshmallows, by Ann Kroeker.