Dinosaur Valley State Park, Camp Vol. 6

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We packed the car on Wednesday. It was Fall Break weekend. We left the apartment in shambles, only later realizing that we had even forgotten to empty the very full trash can in our kitchen and start the very dirty dishwasher. My brain was awhirl and frayed from packing and prep. The whole family drove our loaded down car to pick up Seb from school, and then it was onward and upward to Dinosaur Valley State Park. That little wonder-boy of ours, a spritely 7-year-old wearing his heart on his sleeve, positively bolted out of the building and ran at full speed toward the car (his wheeled backpack flying and skittering behind him like a plane attempting take off) and the biggest beaming smile on his face.

I knew at that moment that this camping trip would be a very good thing. That face, the enthusiasm, this was the feeling I wanted my children to remember about their childhood.

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Bruno asked earlier that day as we ran a few last errands, “Why do we have to do all this junk before we go camping?” Umm, right?! Bruno has a way with words, once describing our struggle to find a pair of shoes that wouldn’t aggravate his ant bites as, “That whole concert about the shoes.” He also calls a portion of something a bale. “How many bales of candy can I have?” Describing the drudgery of tearing our apartment to bits, looking for all the moving parts of a camping trip, can definitely be described accurately with the word “junk.” But despite his awareness of the less-than-fun nature of travel prep, he kept a good attitude and put on his patience-pants as we packed and prepped and collapsed in haze of exhausted fumes a number of times. 

The drive was just over an hour, which was a welcome change from our previous trips, which had all included no less than 2.5 hours on the road. It was refreshing to arrive at our campsite with ample energy and happy moods all around. Road trips are not my forte, despite the fact that we do them often, so I was relieved that our car time was minimal. What a difference it made as we unpacked, explored, and set up our tent.

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One of our camping strategies with kids is that we don’t cook on the first night. We aren’t opposed to changing this strategy, but typically, after driving and then setting up camp, no one has energy to cook and clean as well, and the kids are usually demanding a bit of attention. So meat and cheese sandwiches with fresh fruit and veggies were our supper, and some ice-cold Oktoberfest beer for the adults signaled a cheery start to our camping adventure. The boys played at the camp playground for a bit, and then we began to settle in and get ready for bed.

We bundled everyone up in preparation for the 50 degree temps forecasted for that night. The big boys even wore the cutest little knit caps that I had bought for them in Germany. How, 3 years later, these hats still fit perfectly, I don’t know, but it made me the very happiest to see my babies fall asleep in those same familiar stripes I used to see bobbing around on their toddler heads in another life. Cosmas, hot-blooded baby that he is, wore more clothes than he’s ever worn in his life. It was actually cold enough for a fleece, footed sleeper; one that Seb and Bruno both had worn (the nostalgia was heavy that night) and which was covered in green dinosaurs. What, you didn’t think Cosmas would neglect to bring his dino apparel on our camping trip to Dinosaur Valley, did you?

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I was exhausted, so I went to sleep almost as soon as Cosmas, while Cody, Seb, and Bruno stayed up and played cards by flashlight. Mostly the night went well, though I don’t sleep very much these days anyway with Cosmas waking up at all hours to nurse. Cody joined the ranks of sleepless parents this time, tending to a bathroom need from one kid and some other need from another. I think at one point Bruno begged to see the stars, so Cody had to remove the rain fly. Then one of the boys woke in the middle of the night saying it was too cold, so Cody had to put the rain fly back on. It was a bit of a musical chairs kind of sleeping arrangement, but as any parent knows, this experience isn’t exclusive to camping.

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In fact, I think it might just be this understanding that makes camping with kids work. You know that you’re going to deal with uncomfortable situations. There will be skinned knees, hangry moods, and all the needs at the most inconvenient times. Does this mean you should stay home? Nope, because the same things happen there, too; kids don’t discriminate based on location or convenience. They just live their lives and do their thing. Camping has been a great time for us all to practice patience and kindness in the midst of discomfort.

Still, I never know the depths of my miserable soul until I go camping. One of our cardinal rules of camping is, “Always cook, eat, and clean up BEFORE dark.” Of course, with the unpredictability of camping and hikes, we only seem to be able to follow this rule half the time, and the other half I’m a raging lunatic because we broke the rule that keeps me sane. I realized this trip, after a severe bout of brooding and snapping and generally trying to make everyone as miserable as I was, that this rule could be abolished if only we purchased a sensible lamp or two. It was a literal lightbulb moment, if you will. We never seem to have enough light after dark, even in our tent, so we’ve resolved to remedy this before our next trip. But come to think of it, maybe I need a little more of the kind of sanctifying that comes from prepping supper in the dark, because I did not handle it well. Do you find that everything is more extreme when you’re camping? I love it for the more sustained times of peace and actual relaxation, which seem completely to elude me at home. I feel over stimulated in our small, often-cluttered space, but outside in a tidy campsite, I feel like I can breathe.

But what about all the stuff of camping? A picnic table can become a cluttered pile of trash in a matter of seconds when there are more than 2 people camping. We deal with this in two ways. The first is a practice we’ve been incorporating at our campsites for our last 3 trips now. We always, always, always zero everything out before leaving our site or going to bed. It’s the same principal that we often hear of in regards to housekeeping—clean up, tidy up, give yourself a blank slate to start fresh with in the morning. This makes a crazy big difference for me, and I just wish I could somehow master this practice in our apartment. Visual noise is suffocating to me, and it’s something that really threatens my peace wherever I am. Taking all HSP housekeeping suggestions right now! The second strategy has more to do with camping prep and the gear we choose to acquire. Disposable items are just that, disposable, which literally means you have trash sitting on your table once you’re through eating. There’s definitely a space for some paper products (yes it’s trash, but clean up is quick) but we’re trying to keep our camping style as close to our at-home style as possible. We use a collection of enamelware plates I picked up antiquing in Michigan, and not only do they not blow away in the wind, but they’re completely beautiful. We are still using paper towels on our camping trips, but my goal is to use cloths only, just like at home. Norwex? Linen? What say the people?

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Our first day at Dinosaur Valley started out chilly, and stayed that way just long enough for me to fulfill a long-held dream of mine. That is to put one of my babies in this delectable baby-bottom-soft wool sweater I picked up at a consignment sale in Germany. Yes, I’ve waited 3 years to cloak one of my offspring (all boys) in this perfect lilac sweater. It was just as delightful as I had hoped. I also realized at the same moment that Cosmas really really needed a haircut (less delightful). The campground at Dinosaur Valley is one of my favorites—perfect for a family with little kids because of its cleanliness, nice bathrooms, and the open nature of the surrounding trees and bushes. We could always hear or see the boys playing, and often they were tucked up in a tree, or concocting a plan to defeat pirate papa. Cozzie even stood up from a squatting position for the very first time. Nature, I tell you; it’s where the magic happens.

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Cody cooked our breakfast mainstay, breakfast tacos, with our new and extremely tiny camp stove. It might be the cutest camping item I've ever seen, folding up into a little container about the size of a deck of cards. This stove was a huge gift to us on this trip. Normally we would have built a fire in the morning as well as in the evening, but with this little stove, we were able to take it easy in the morning and not wait quite so long for some hot coffee.

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After our delicious breakfast was enjoyed and cleaned up, we headed out to locate some fossilized dinosaur tracks. The Paluxy River runs through the park and remains unaltered by dams or reservoirs. This makes it a rare, pristine river, with clear water perfect for swimming and wading. Much of the river was shallow with large stones perfect for hopping and exploring. The boys were occupied for hours at different spots in the river, which was cold and fresh, making it a perfect spot to soak our feet and cool off from the sunny day. Later, we returned to camp, ate a late lunch, and had rest time in our tent. 

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We enjoyed two hikes, one at sunset, and one on our last morning at the park. The boys enjoyed doing the challenges in their Junior Ranger books, and learned a lot about how to care for nature and watch for signs of animals. When we left the park, Bruno realized that he had brought a stick from our campsite with him, “Oh no! Can I still be a Junior Ranger?” Well kid, you broke the Leave No Trace rule, but I think they’ll let it go just this once. These trips, these experiences, they really sink in and capture their imaginations in the sweetest ways. I like that camping shows our kids that ordinary, slow working and living, and sweating it out and not showering and bundling up to sleep on the hard earth, though somehow miserable sounding, is actually the exact opposite. It’s in those quiet spaces that creativity spills forth. It’s in the hard moments that laughter is found. Even curmudgeonly old me couldn’t help but be slightly amused at the difficulty of washing dishes with a flashlight sandwiched between my knees.

I guess it’s that slow living craze everyone is talking about.

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Mary StreckerComment