Full darkness had set in as my husband and I stuffed wet camping gear into the back of our Subaru. We had arrived at the state park with our daughters earlier that afternoon and set up our campsite. Then our site flooded during a brief rainstorm. We returned from dinner to find our tent standing in water. Our fire pit was an island in the middle of a small pond.
We lost track of time in the scramble and now it was nearing 9 p.m. Josh and I were moving all our stuff to another site on drier, higher ground. Into the car went the bedding, the lawn chairs, the tent poles. My arms were damp from carrying our wet tent. Droplets of water left over from the storm slipped from the trees above us and echoed through the woods.
On that late wet night, I briefly thought about how much easier “regular” vacations are, where we could stay in a hotel and visit Disney World or Hawaii or even tourist traps like Wisconsin Dells. Our daughters would love a weekend at the Great Wolf Lodge.
But we live primarily on my husband’s teacher income. One night in a hotel can buy us five nights of camping at a state park.
Our family vacations each summer consist primarily of two things: 1.) Camping trips at state parks in the Midwest. 2.) Visits to my parents’ house in my hometown on the shores of Lake Michigan in Indiana. It does sound glamorous to say we make an annual trip to the beach.
Mumbling Mommy writer Katie also appreciates low-key family vacations. Her family recently “schlepped” across the country in their minivan. They visited relatives and slept on couches and in spare bedrooms, and her kids loved it. She described to me how enjoyable it was to watch her kids play in her parents’ front yard one evening. They were having so much fun, she told her husband she had no problem continuing to do the low-budget vacation routine at least while the kids are young.
Even if we do sometimes get flooded out of our campsite, or we go to the same beach (with cold water!) every year, I like simple vacations for several reasons:
Simple vacations leave room in the budget for additional fun things. Instead of pouring all our funds into lodging or going to one expensive destination, we go cheap and have money leftover for other treats. We rent canoes for a float down the creek and eat at the ice cream parlor. We let the kids ride ponies and we go on cave tours. Some of the state parks where we camp have an inn with a restaurant on the property, and we enjoy a rare dinner out, stuffing ourselves with fried chicken and sugar cream pie from the buffet. When we visit my parents’ house, our girls love to eat out with all our relatives who live in the area — their cousins, uncle, aunts, and great-grandmother.
Simple vacations give kids opportunities to make their own fun. When we camp, our kids love running around outdoors and catching bugs and toads. When we visit my parents’ house, they play with toys from my childhood or explore my mom’s garden. They spend hours playing with plastic buckets and shovels on the beach. In my parents’ backyard, our daughters and their cousins ate Popsicles, read books, and hunted lightning bugs. Entertainment is low-tech and low-cost but memorable.
Simple vacations make unique memories. Some of the best stories come from our camping vacations. We focus on people and doing things together. A few years ago when we had a big family reunion at a state park, my octogenarian grandfather, who was staying in the park’s inn, stayed late one night at our camp site because he wanted to see for himself the prowling raccoons we had told him about. His eyes grew big when a raccoon actually did amble out from the woods. When grandpa passed away a year later, we fondly remembered that night.
One of my favorite memories from this summer was an evening my 7-year-old daughter and I spent with my dad in my hometown. He was feeding fish in a saltwater tank for some church friends who were out of town, so we tagged along to see the anemones, coral, and a starfish. My daughter got to feed shrimp pieces to some small fish. Afterward, we drove a few minutes to Lake Michigan. We arrived at that golden time when the sun was setting. We took pictures and strolled along the pier to the lighthouse. It was my daughter’s first time walking out to the lighthouse.
Going back to that rainy night at the campground this summer, it was sometime after 10 p.m. by the time we set our campsite up for the second time. While Josh and I were sliding tent poles into fabric slots by lantern light, our daughters found a toad preying on the flying insects attracted to the bathhouse lights nearby. They floated small toys in a puddle. They kicked off their flip flops and ran barefoot in the wet grass.
I sometimes dream of luxury vacations in posh hotels. Then I remember hearing my daughters’ laughter that night at the campground, and I realize we don’t need anything more to make us happy.
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