Little Tent in the Big Woods

Growing up, summer vacations meant loading the car up with sleeping bags, pillows, the tent, the portable stove, the cooler, the box of dry goods and snacks, and endless books and cassette tapes to entertain my brother and me on the road. For us, there were no hotels or cruises or time shares, just the eight hundred and some odd miles between our house in Seattle and our relatives in Northern California - a distance that we broke up by camping our way down and back up the coast. 

When I got old enough to realize that most families don't spend their annual vacations in national parks with the great outdoors, I attributed the trips to my parents' overall liberal, hippie-ish (although they hate that word) sensibility. Later, I learned, it was because (more often than not) they couldn't afford plane tickets for the four of us. My brother and I, for our parts, were happy sleeping all cramped together in our modest tent, hiking, cooking over the campfire, and running amok in old growth forests and along Pacific Ocean beaches.

As we moved into high school, and later college, getting involved in extracurricular activities and internships, it became more difficult to organize vacations together. We still made time to fly down to California to visit family, but I missed the trips of my childhood - the long stretches of highway that seemed to extend forever, stopping at diners in random small towns, washing bugs off the windshield at gas stations, the hiss of the gas stove that my father (and only him) operates, the beckon of a crackling fire to lure me from my sleeping bag on a cold morning. 

So when I visited my parents in Seattle last month and begged them to go camping, it was with a little trepidation that it wouldn't be as great as I remembered. But as soon as we made camp in Mount Rainier National Park's Ohanapecosh campground, I realized that the rituals were all the same, albeit the tent felt simultaneously emptier without my brother and yet fuller because I was more grown than the last time we'd all slept in it.

Surrounding us, however, were signs of change. Even though Washington is not as short on water as California, it was impossible not to notice that bodies of water marked lakes on maps looked more like puddles; that all the foot bridges we crossed on hiking trails passed over streams that had totally dried up; that meadows that should be spectacularly lush with flowers this time of year were sparse and barren.  Not to mention that most campsites can be reserved online now, at whopping rates of $20 per night.

Each day we set out on a different hike, my favorite being the Burroughs Mountain Trail, which took us tantalizingly close to the summit of Mount Rainier. (Or so it felt, at least). I asked my parents whether the view motivated them to scale the mountain but, alas, they did not share my rabid enthusiasm for mountaineering. As one chapter of my life as an outdoors(wo)man closes, another begins.

See more of MRNP here