(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.)