“I need a shower, mom,” my teenage son insisted late in the day. “I’m really dirty.” We were in the Badlands, and we were deciding whether to pitch the tent for another night or decamp to a hotel.
My right eyebrow lifted a quarter inch, just like my mother’s does when someone has tried to pass off some chunk of bullshit as truth, and she is not having it. Those five words, after all, rarely emerge from my son’s lips in close proximity. “I need [blank], mom,” is certainly a common verbal template in our house; it’s just that the word shower is never placed within it. This kid is the king of taking long, hot baths and emerging without a single wet hair. Soap is an irrelevancy; shampoo merely a decoration I keep in the shower stall. I’m not buying it.
“You mispronounced ‘internet connection’,” I replied dryly.
One of the downsides of having kids is that they are often as smart as you are, and your field of intellectual advantage, ample in the first decade while their brains are developing, narrows rapidly and dramatically in the second decade. We’ve almost reached the halfway mark of that second decade, and my child now has a commanding and nuanced understanding of how to use my own principles against me.
He did need a shower. He was really dirty.
Plus, he is not a tent person in the same way I am a tent person. The night before, we had stayed in a campground an hour east of the Badlands. My friend, Kathy, was staying there too. Kathy and her husband recently sold their business and their home in New York State, packed their lives into their RV, and headed out on the road. (She is writing about it with her customary wit here.) Through sheer luck, we realized we were going to be in roughly the same place at the same time. As soon as we arrived at the campground and pitched the tent, Sean and I headed over to Kathy’s RV, which captured Sean’s heart as soon as he walked in the door, and for good reason. I have seen homes on HGTV that weren’t as well-appointed as Kathy’s RV. It was genuinely beautiful, and yet compact in that way that makes RVs so ingenious. Sean was rapt. And after getting to know Kathy’s dogs, he asked the $64,000 question: “Does this have wifi?”
“We have satellite TV and wifi,” Kathy’s husband, Dave, replied.
Sean quivered a little, and his eyes widened. I was pretty sure he was having one of those moments we all have at one point during our childhood – and he confirmed this for me later – when we wish just for a moment that we’d been born into a different family.
After we visited with Kathy and Dave and their dogs, we wandered back to our tent, encountering three toads and a rabbit, which was enough for Sean to pronounce the evening worthwhile. As we ate some pizza in the campground store, he began a thorough investigation of what he had come to view, in the last half hour, as a family tragedy: Why We Don’t Have an RV.
“But why, mom? It’s the best way to travel!” he insisted.
“Well, there are a few reasons. I’ve been spending most of my money these last few years on funding your college account and maintaining a home big enough for three kids.* And RVs don’t come cheap. Also, tents are just how Travis and I like to sleep. We sleep indoors all the time. We love the feeling of being outside while we sleep, of feeling cool breezes and waking up to birdsong and the smell of campfires. Not everyone feels the same way, and that’s okay.”
There was more, of course. Travis and I like to see remote, lonely places, and typically, a tent or a backcountry hammock is the only available shelter when you’ve packed all your necessities into a lonely place. It’s the price we pay for going where we go; and it happens to be a price I like. When I was small, my parents took a notion to drag four of their children out to the Colorado Rockies for two weeks and camp in tents. I was hooked. I wasn’t even five years old at the time, and still I remember what cool, golden morning light feels like on your skin; I remember my mom making what we affectionately called “Tuna Slop” on the campstove, and my dad pretending to be the Boggy Creek Monster, his shadow looming eerily and yet thrillingly on the tent wall. (Family lore has it that I leaped into the tent door when he did that and cried “Phaser on stun!!” I’m a little less bold with big shadows on tent walls these days, thankfully.)
In short, tents were part of the happiest days of my childhood. That may be how things get wired into our brains. Or it may not; my sister and I are the only ones who retained a love for sleeping on the ground after those trips, and my parents mostly avoided tents afterward.
But as I was approaching the turn where I would choose whether to veer down the gravel road toward the Badlands’ Sage Creek Wilderness Area, or continue straight to the tourist trap town of Wall, and therefore a hotel, I remembered what it’s like to have your preferences validated by your parents, instead of dismissed. Sean will sleep in a tent when called for; I can allow him a bath and an internet connection in exchange. He’s almost fifteen, and right now, the person he is remains Not As Much A Tent Person as Mom. So I put the rope down. He was going to have the room to be who he is, and not have his self crowded out by a mother who wants him to be like her, all the time. So we slept under a roof that night, and ate at a restaurant, and he spent a lot of allowance money at the candy store in Wall Drug.
But I still probably won’t buy an RV. Yet.
*Also, photography gear and travel. But I left that part out.