(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: JULY/AUGUST 2006)
"DO YOU KNOW WHAT THIS IS? "
Bill Goff asks while pointing to a trail leading down a steep bank into the Little Missouri River. Four campers from Indianapolis stare blankly at their campground host. It’s been a long time since they’ve visited any campground, and now they find themselves preparing to camp in the badlands of North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park (135 miles west of Bismarck).
"A buffalo trail, " Bill says before they have time to think about an answer.
"An abandoned trail? " Sally Butler asks hopefully.
"Oh, no, " Bill replies. "You might wake up and hear a buffalo crossing the water or shedding his coat against a cottonwood...or your tent. "
And with that, their trial run in the camping world is under way. Steve and Sally Butler and Chris and Beth Edwards don’t consider themselves the roughing-it types. But they enjoy the outdoors. And armed with a sport-utility vehicle full of modern camping equipment, they’re out to see whether roughing it can be as cushy as promised in the latest gear catalogs. They’ll face the wide-open West with not just tents and sleeping bags, but an espresso maker. And a folding kitchen. And, of course, the makings of a pretty decent tomato, mozzarella and basil salad.
As the Butlers and Edwardses size up the mounds of camping gear spread around their site, they’re reminded how long it’s been since any of them pitched a tent.
Steve and Sally, who have raised five children in 28 years and work long days as radiographers, only nervously traded the hotel rooms of their normal vacations for a tent. Chris, a history teacher, and Beth, a recreational therapist, jumped into camping several years ago as newlyweds. They trudged home with rain-drenched gear, bruised egos and, in Beth’s case, a vow that they had just experienced their first and last camping trip together.
Now, in the golden light of their first North Dakota sunset, the couples realize that some aspects of camping never change. Setup, for example, still takes twice as long as they expect, though pitching a modern tent is a pleasant surprise. Connect a couple of poles, latch them to a base and voila!—a cozy home springs to life. It’s relatively painless, except for a missing rain canopy. "You’d better hope you didn’t accidentally stake our tent on top of it, " Beth warns Chris, who is still huffing from carrying a cooler 50 yards before realizing it has wheels. (The forecast, he reminds her, calls for only a 20 percent chance of showers.)
The setting sun soon reminds all four why they chose to retry camping: the romance of sundown, campfire stories, starry skies and an escape from any device with a keypad. The experience has timeless appeal for many Americans. One-third of us have camped at least once in the past five years, according to the Travel Industry Association of America. Afterward, only 6 percent said it wasn’t for them—flattering feedback for any activity.
The Butlers and Edwardses boosted their chances for a good trip by bringing along the latest amenities of luxury camping, a trend that turns outings into something more like Friends than Survivor.
Need the daily caffeine fix while watching a campground sunrise? Brew a cup on the camp stove with a portable espresso maker. How about a cold treat in the afternoon? Pull out the hand-cranked blender for smoothies. Also tucked away in the campers’ vehicle are folding chairs with footrests, inflatable sleeping pads and shatterproof champagne flutes.
The star toy is the collapsible galley unit bigger than the kitchens in some city apartments. It has two pantries, a spice rack, utensil hooks, roomy counters and, yes, even a kitchen sink. (To go truly luxe, they could’ve added a hot-water heater and shower enclosure complete with a shampoo niche.)
The gear makes camping newly appealing to people who demand a little pampering, says Mike May of the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. "Some people think of camping as roughing it and bugs and sleeping on dirt. That’s a fallacy, " he says. Manufacturers now fill shelves with gear that’s simpler, more comfortable and less likely to break in a rookie’s hands. "Those who like camping, they’ll put up with pretty much anything, " May says. "But those who are novices in camping, that’s your real audience that you’d like to invite to the experience. "
With shelter secure, it’s dinner time. Beth, excited at the possibilities of their cutting-edge camp kitchen, arrived in North Dakota with plans for an ambitious menu. First up: lemon chicken sauteed with artichokes and capers. She pulls the chicken out of its marinade, places it on the grill and quickly learns it’s hard to gauge the temperature of a clean butane flame. Despite a cloud of smoke, the chicken escapes without severe burns.
Later, when everyone is tucked into their sleeping bags, the campsite grows quiet. But every few minutes, there’s a soft stirring as a camper peeks through the tent window to make sure it’s only the wind that’s rustling and not a bison looking for a back scratcher.
By morning, Steve and Sally have dishes hanging on the utensil hooks. A stars-and-stripes tablecloth covers the picnic table. Everyone is rested (thanks to Sally’s discovery that inflating the sleeping mats makes a significant difference!). Sally toasts bagels over the fire grate; Steve proudly sips coffee brewed with a java press and says, "I could get used to this. " Except for the occasional bison trudging behind the junipers across the river, it could have been a Sunday morning in suburban Indianapolis.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
At moments like this, it’s clear that much of the satisfaction in luxury camping comes from getting comfortable in a place that can test visitors—beating, to some extent, a tough environment. Adventures at Theodore Roosevelt National Park provide a vivid reminder of the rugged world campers keep at bay with a variety of modern amenities, including quick-drying fabric and bug repellent.
Still, on the second day, Chris and Beth are eager to catch the badlands scenery in its best light, so they drive out of the campground before sunrise. They pull over near a towering butte and climb to its smooth peak. Their eyes widen as dawn breaks over the landscape, softening canyons into smooth hills rolling endlessly across the horizon. First sun filters through the low clouds, illuminating the chalky formations into glowing mounds of amber. Not far below, a buffalo herd grazes in a shallow, green valley. The seconds that pass by may as well be centuries. Modern life continues to melt away during horseback rides at the Peaceful Valley Ranch, a 19th-century cattle ranch in the park. Four wild horses prance outside the ranch’s split-rail fence, including a rippled gray stallion that whinnies at the ranch horses.
The freedom the mustangs enjoy is a matter of policy at Teddy Roosevelt. Marked hikes exist, but rangers tell visitors the best way to explore the badlands is to set their eyes on a nearby butte and hike across the grasslands and over the rock piles until their feet rest upon it.
Horseback trail rides can be just as boundless. Neil Tangen, the ranch operator, leads the campers across the Little Missouri River—"Toes up, heels down and kick! " he yells—and along rocky buttes. The riders navigate past fragrant junipers, purple coneflowers and western prairie roses as the horses’ bellies scratch over silver sagebrush.
Minutes later, Neil’s horse looks nervously to his side at a lone bison resting on a flat rock. "There’s a Lonely George, folks, " Neil says, referring to male bison who travel alone. Farther on, cautious prairie dogs chirp warnings about a golden eagle soaring overhead, and a coyote prowls around the dusty holes.
Visitors who get lonesome out on the prairie take day trips to the stunning Bully Pulpit Golf Course (surrounded by badlands) and walk through the general stores and saloons of nearby Medora. After two days away from his usual suburban scene, Steve says, "We haven’t had time to get bored. "
When dinner time rolls around again, Steve has made peace with the stove and takes over as chef. He’s feeling so confident about cooking that he invites campground hosts Bill and Toni Goff to a dinner of sauteed shrimp with mushrooms and asparagus. It’s the best they’ve had in ages, the hosts declare during a toast of white wine in shatterproof flutes.
"I can’t remember the last time we took the time to toast anything, " Sally says. "That was nice. "
The campers keep the luxury theme going with grilled bananas stuffed with chocolate and marshmallows. And they’re willing to work for a cool treat: One afternoon, two campers hold down the blender base while the others crank. The sweet, berry smoothies are worth the sweat and curious stares from the neighbors. "I think smoothies taste better when you have to work for them, " Beth says as she finishes her drink.
As the last night closes in, the campers are comfortable enough to shut off their lanterns and enjoy hundreds—lno, thousands—of stars lacing the wide, black night. The only sounds are the meandering Little Missouri River and tents stirring in the wind.
In the morning, as Beth disassembles her tent, she gasps and yells, "Christopher! " She holds up a rain canopy that had been laying under the tent for two nights.
Before she can get too upset, Chris directs her attention across the river. A Lonely George is taking long, slow sips from the river, his heavy beard dragging across the water’s surface. He raises his head and plods slowly across the river toward the campsite. Reaching the bank, he takes a lengthy look at the campers—probably looking for the impressive kitchen he’d heard about, they later surmised—and veers around the site.
The crew watches in silence as the bison departs. Two days ago, they would have run for protection in the restrooms. Now, with a newfound faith in camping and themselves, they follow the bison across the prairie and head home.
THEODORE ROOSEVELT NATIONAL PARK South Unit information: 701/623-4466. North Unit information: 701/842-2333 (www.nps.gov/thro). MEDORA AREA Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation (800/633-6721; www.medora.com). HORSEBACK RIDES AT PEACEFUL VALLEY RANCH Neil and Laura Tangen, Shadow Country Outfitters (701/623-4568). CAMPING GEAR Thanks to Scheels All Sports in Bismarck for outfitting our campers by special arrangement. To find rental gear near your vacation destination, try these sources:
Ask local Convention & Visitors Bureaus or tourism offices about nearby outfitters.
Check whether your state’s universities have outdoor recreation departments that rent gear to the public.
Search the web for "rental camping gear" to find local outfitters and those who will ship rental gear to either your home or your camping destination.