My fondest memories of childhood are around camping trips taken with my grandfather. Even at an early age, I loved the idea packing up his van and heading for the mountains (and occasionally, the beach). My grandfather has a love for the mountains, and all things nature. I can close my eyes and instantly jump back twenty years to imagine a cool, fall morning at an overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The chill in the air; the quietness of being above traffic; the fresh smell of the air, and of course the beautiful views of the mountains and valleys below. It’s an image I hope to share more with my own kids.
The Frugal Camper
What I did not realize all those years of camping with my grandfather was that he was really preparing me to grow up to be a frugalist. Instead of buying a giant RV or trailer, like most people we stayed next to along the way in campgrounds, my grandfather outfit his GMC van to handle all our camping needs. In fact, he did it twice. He kept that first van eighteen years, and the second is now nineteen years-old.
Before joining the Marines, my grandfather spent a lot of time in and around carpentry, and I’m convinced he could build just about anything. After buying the second van, he spent some time building a platform extending the width of the van in the very back that would support a twin mattress. He then designed a second platform running the length of the van behind the driver’s seat that could support a second twin bed, and could fold up during the day. It was high enough to store coolers and a couple suitcases underneath. For privacy, he used blue tarp with well-placed grommets, and a system of clothesline and hooks to cover all the windows. It really was ingenious.
Frugal Meals On The Road
We cooked 90% of our meals on a camp stove, eating from two coolers that we packed meticulously before departing. Lunches were cold-cut sandwiches, chips and a drink, and dinners were usually built around a pan-fried meat, along with a starch and mixed vegetable. A few of our favorites dinners were smoked sausage with red beans and rice, pan-fried chicken with noodles and green beans, and for the last night on the road, a steak and potatoes.
We boiled water after dinner to be used in cleanup, and boiled a second batch that we poured up in a thermos for overnight storage. In the morning my grandfather had hot water for coffee, and I had hot chocolate, and we shared a Pop-Tart or a bowl of cereal. We could generally go a week before having to stop for supplies.
Some nights we had electricity and running water, but other nights we stayed in campgrounds that did not. We passed the time before and after dinner learning games like chess, backgammon and poker (my mom was not thrilled with me learning poker at such a young age, but we played for chips instead of cash). My grandfather introduced me to classical music, and helped cultivate my love of reading.
Technology, Who Needs It?
Most trips were to the Smokies and back, usually less than a week around a school break. One time we headed all the way to Niagra Falls, then across Vermont and New Hampshire, and back along the East Coast with stops in Maine, New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C. Even for that extended two-week trip we survived on the contents of our van. No television, no cell phones, only a few restaurants (if the weather was bad), and for several nights, no electricity.
Can you imagine taking a similar trip today with no cell phones, no GPS units, no televisions, no iPods, and no laptop? Of course, today these things can easily be transported, but that doesn’t make it is a good thing. After all, it is hard to appreciate the nature that surrounds you with your head buried in a computer screen all day. It is hard to hear the gentle stream running over the rocks with music blaring in your ear buds. It is hard to get lost in an adventure trying to find a waterfall, and stumbling on a beautiful, unadvertised view with the help of a GPS unit. Believe it or not, some things are more fun without technology.
I hope one day soon I can take my own kids on a frugal adventure like the ones I went on growing up. And I hope to inspire the same frugality in my kids that my grandfather instilled in me at an early age. Oh, and that old van? I still drive it to and from work today. It is nineteen years-old, and besides a busted radio and a few creaks here and there, she still runs just fine. Some mornings when I get to work I glance back at the old beds, the built in closet, and those old red coolers that served as our rolling refrigerators, and smile.