[Spoiler alert: the following has nothing to do with a dog. My daughter won’t read it if it involves a dog. She claims that in every book and movie that has a dog character in it, the dog always dies in the end – particularly in Stephen King novels. For her sake and ours, this is not a weepy dead dog story]
The campers and recreational vehicles have arrived, announcing the unofficial start of the summer tourist season here in Zug. Tents and trailers are beginning to fill up the picturesque lakeside campground.
It’s a sweet little park, with roomy manicured grounds and picket fences all nestled against the beach. There’s even a Swiss style restaurant with flower boxes and a patio beer garden attached.
Today, as I ran through the small compound, I was quite impressed by the innovative efforts people make to be comfortable in their temporary outdoor homes. There were some elaborate hammocks, a few solar garden gnomes, some twinkly strings of lights and colorful flags displaying proud campers’ homes from all over the world.
Now, I love the outdoors and spending time in nature. And I’m pretty hardy, with my share of endurance, but I wouldn’t say that I’m rugged. I’ll admit it – I hate camping. Our family has only done a little, but in truth, it’s been mostly Mac’s initiative.
To me, camping is just a lot of grunt work. Sure, it’s a novelty to build a fire and cook things. And s’mores are truly the food of the gods. But in my mind, camping is mostly drudge labor, not a vacation. It’s basically taking menial household chores and doing them outside in the dirt, with limited essentials and crude tools.
No, give me the creature comforts – a real bed, hot water for a bath and a perfectly brewed cup of joe. In theory, yes, camping sounds awesome, but for me, the thrills are definitely overshadowed by the constant and inescapable feeling of being dirty and uncomfortable.
Anyway, seeing those trailers lined up today in little rows put me in mind of The Rover – my father’s short-lived experiment in mobile RV camping when I was ten years old.
I can picture her now, proudly staked under the big maple in our backyard, brown sticky sap stains on her racing striped aluminum sides, with the decal of a regal German Shepherd on her front and some mildew patches on top. Her propane tank was rusty and there were huge, crunchy hornets trapped between her tiny screens and windows.
She was a used, older model and very musty and dank inside, but that was okay. She was small, but could sleep 6 people tightly – the dining table dropped down to make a double bed and there was a bunk above the couch/master bed. And of course she had a miniature bathroom and a compact kitchen with real vinyl flooring.
The Rover, as we called her, was brought home by my dad after a funeral or a wedding or something that he had performed, as some sort of inheritance, thank-you, or barter payment, we weren’t exactly sure.
But honestly, these things did happen with Dad. He brought home things like free firewood, and one year there was a beautiful ceramic Mary and Joseph. We even “inherited” an old Chevy Impala that I drove well into my college years, and I can’t remember all the other stuff. We never really knew how Dad actually came by these goods – some agreement, some leftovers from the deceased?
But we didn’t care because The Rover was the mother lode of them all. The Rover was so undeniably cool, something our parents never in a million years would have bought for our family. To me, it seemed like only rich families, or really cool ones, had camper trailers – and now this meant that we were a cool family too.
Dad had some pretty big plans for our vacations with The Rover. And I can’t believe my mom went along with them. But I think she was in it partly for the decorating – it was another challenging space to remodel, and way more fun than the rectory.
I remember the 70’s style yellow and orange hued glassware she bought. And those clever, plastic fish-shaped holders for the paper plates. And the bumpy, amber-colored glass citronella candle that was supposed to keep mosquitoes at bay.
Mom sure was a good sport and she’d follow Dad on just about any of his hair-brained adventures.
And as you might guess, owning and operating this vehicle wasn’t really in character for Dad. I can now see that he was in a little over his head. And, in hindsight, that we kids probably should have been afraid.
Because Dad just wasn’t the type to know how to do camp stuff – like hitching things up securely (I recall string), staking (why not sleep at an angle?), hooking up sewage, stringing up tarps, all that woodsy stuff.
For some reason Dad felt it was utterly fine, perfectly safe, to have all four of us kids ride in the back of The Rover while driving on our vacations. He and Mom would be in the station wagon up ahead, enjoying the quiet, while we rolled around and fell off the bunk bed and just had a wild-ass time.
We would laugh hysterically as Dad cut the wheel sharply and all our dishes and snacks would go flying every which way. With the little windows wide open, the bathroom door would flap wildly, and the toilet paper would unfurl all across the room. The fact that we were tenuously tethered to our parent ship by a tiny metal pin never crossed our young minds.
We only had a handful of trips with The Rover, mostly to the beaches of Delaware and North Carolina. But one thing they all had in common was rain. A particularly vivid memory I have is of pulling in to Nags Head just as a hurricane was gathering strength. The campground had been evacuated and the emergency sirens were blaring intermittently.
But we calmly set up camp, put the fish plates on the table (anchored by rocks) and listened to the squall threaten to blow every trailer and tent down the beach. And while the ocean water surged up onto our concrete trailer pad and Rover started to rock, we watched Dad’s face. Without even eating a bite, he conceded, gave the nod and we packed it all up, unhooked and got back on the road.
I remember the water coming up over the highway on the way home -it was quite a dramatic view from back there on the dining table/bed, way more memorable than the camping would have been.
Another time, at Bethany Beach, the six of us were trapped inside Rover by a downpour all weekend. Dad burned his hand badly after dinner when he was attempting to drain hot cooking oil into an empty margarine tub. The thing melted like candle wax all over his hand and down his arm.
I had never before heard swear words put together, four in a row, like that. Dad had never used those words – that was kind of scary. But one thing about him, he never let that stuff ruin a trip – and he never, ever complained. He wore that mitt bandage up to the pulpit the next Sunday without even a mention of the event.
I remember the scratchy sand all over our sunburned bodies that we desperately tried to rid ourselves of. It was in our bathing suit tops, in the waistbands of our underwear, and caking the parts in our hair. And no amount of outdoor showering before bed could keep the tiny grains from the bottom of the sheets. We would wake with our eyes swollen shut with sand.
It even found its way into the hot dog buns as we chewed the rubbery meat speckled with the invisible grit.
Mom cooked up something she called “Camper Stew”, with chuck beef and vegetables in a hearty Worcestershire sauce – delicious. We ate it up by the shovelful. She brought it on every trip.
But nowadays, whenever I go to my old cookbook and flip past that recipe, an immediate salty, smoky burned taste comes up in my mouth. I really can’t bring myself to resurrect that particular recipe – some things are better left to memory.
There were good times, too. I remember playing with Nicky, my pet rat, showing him off to the other kids we’d met from the trailer next door. And also sitting under the plastic lanterns strung above our awning after dinner, with only the quiet sounds of dishes clinking from the other sites.
And waiting for the sun to go down so we could weave through the campground paths in the dark to see who had a better camper trailer than The Rover.
Sometimes there was motorcycle drama, someone peeling out after beer bottles being thrown into the fire. But mostly it was just lots of very, very tanned older folks, tan beyond any ethnic recognition. Were they Native American? Because we knew people from all over the world camped in these intimate communities.
But my favorite memory was Dad pulling us in to a new campsite in Delaware, early in the afternoon, and snagging the prime spot right next to the bay. Which was very hard to do, beating out the retirees on the national holidays.
And I remember then, after setting up, me and my sisters wading out at low tide, further than we’d ever dared, holding tight to each others’ hands, daring ourselves to go further. And then discovering clams and digging them up with our toes. And looking back to shore at the tiny speck of campground.
I can’t believe all six of us actually slept in that undersized vehicle. Was it bonding? Are we closer for it? What did we talk about? I don’t have any memory. But for me, the biggest takeaway from the whole experience was watching Dad perform in a completely foreign environment, way outside of his element.
No longer was he my gentle father – pastor, book lover, intellectual – he was a man in the wild world of nature. And he was so upbeat and undeterred, believing that each trip would be meaningful for us – that it gave me such a warm feeling inside. And a palpable sense of excitement tinged with abject danger – a feeling that only Dad could instill.
To a kid, it was a rush like no other, let me tell you.
But after a while The Rover receded into the background. She looked tired and she sagged to one side a bit. My sisters and I played house in her a few times, that was fun. And now and then we might have opened her thin aluminum door and peered in – but her insides felt empty of spirit.
And as we got older there were no more excursions – either the excitement had worn thin or my parents had decided camping was just too much work. It seemed Mom had cooked her last Camper Stew. I’m not sure what happened at the end, at what point someone came and hauled her away.
Did Dad swap her for something? But I’ve never seen another Rover brand RV since, and if I do it will be a poignant reminder of those days with Dad.
So I think I’ll leave the camping to the rugged tourists this summer. Except I admit I’m intrigued by these Swiss hiking huts – and apparently in some of them you get to sleep in an actual hayloft – so who knows? I figure maybe I can handle hay over the beach sand any day.
But honestly, it’s a lot more fun to simply observe. The RVs are way more posh and sophisticated than The Rover. Things look almost comfortable if not clean. And some of these families have it down to an exact regime and seem so competent and well-traveled – not like my family all those years ago.
But they will all have a blast, no doubt, sleeping out under the summer stars. Just like we did.
And meanwhile, a few blocks away, I’ll be snuggled into clean white sheets, after a hot bath and maybe some Thai food, with my pillows plumped and ready for gentle sleep.
And in the morning, when the hard-core campers crawl out of their sleeping bags to marvel at the sunrise, I’ll be right here too, on the terrace, watching the sun lift the mist off Lake Zug – feeling refreshed, with a big mug of perfectly brewed Italian coffee in my hand, one that is blissfully free of sand.