It’s a risk, yes. But bee stings and poison oak and cracking skulls against volcanic rocks are not the chief dangers one faces while camping with kids. A trip to the campground also brings one’s family in contact with unpredictable wildlife: both animal and human.
After 40 years of state park vacationing, I have seen my share of wildness in the campground and emerged relatively unscathed. I offer this handy guide to identifying the four most common types of human neighbors you may chance to sink tent stakes alongside – and tips on how to love them:
The Single Mother with a Teenage Daughter.
They are besties. They play cards. They’ll have a modest pop-up tent camper, and they won’t be loud. They’ll offer you their spare firewood when they leave, since it’s against the rules to transport anyway. They’re considerate like that. You will wish they had stayed.
In this case, it is more blessed to receive than to give.
The Extended Family Over Two Sites.
Their babies may cry. (There will always be babies and toddlers and an assortment of aunts and uncles.) But otherwise, this group will remain fairly calm and appear to genuinely enjoy being together. Responsible adults will take turns cooking food at normal times and apparently without fighting about it, almost like it was pre-planned. Try not to gape with an open mouth or ask to be adopted. Grandpa will help your own small fry tie fish hooks, and Grandma will offer your tween her own tent space when the partiers move next door.
To love these neighbors, help your kids practice saying “Thank You.” Resist the urge to offer passive aggressive commentary comparing your own campsite cook’s 8:30 p.m. campfire mac ‘n cheese to the Extended Family’s fresh-caught fried fish dinners and other planned meals.
Vow silently instead to follow their example in your own golden years, if you don’t die of hunger or indigestion first.
Will arrive at 3 in the afternoon and park two times more than the allowable number of vehicles per site. This is your first clue. The second clue? You will see no grandparents around. They will set up three tents at the bare minimum and immediately begin drinking in a circle around the campfire ring while their children run off unsupervised toward the lake. Notice the flashing neon LED bracelets they attach to their hair by late afternoon and the fact that every adult, always, has a cup and not a Nalgene or Hydroflask water bottle in their hands. They are not here to kayak or watch birds. Expect instead an itinerary something like:
6:30 p.m. “Turn this song UP!!!!”
9:30 p.m. Partier screams for kids to get into PJs [About this time you may first attempt to ask nicely that the music be turned off so your own kids can sleep.]
10 p.m. Partier Offspring yells from the tent, “Mom, too loud!” and is answered with “Then shut your ears!”
10:30 p.m. Tears have started over on the Partier site, the ones from the adults, accompanied by loud and slightly less loud mutterings such as: “You are just not nice people.”
11:30 p.m. Resist the urge to offer marriage counseling when you overhear: “Why don’t we just get a divorce?!” and “I’ve never made out with anyone!” both at a volume audible three campsites away.
A trip to the campground also brings one’s family in contact with unpredictable wildlife: both animal and human.
After a midnight walk to photograph Partiers’ license plates, you may need to get religious. Do it judiciously. When one drunkenly proclaims for the 20th or 25th time, “I’m only here one [expletive] night!” that’s the moment to punctuate with your own shout of “Hallelujah!” possibly adding raised hands and “Thank you, Jesus!”
12:30 a.m. Two adults in the Partier camp will fight. “Physical assault? Are you [expletive] kidding me?” “Are you going to physically assault me? I [expletive] hate you. Get the [expletive] away from me.”
During the Partiers’ occupation, send your children to all the junior ranger programs available and generally avoid your own campsite whenever possible since the campground host will sleep through it all, not hearing a thing. Watch and pray for new neighbors to move in next door.
Do not “suffer the little children.” If you can keep an eye out on the dock and playground for the Partier’s offspring, please do.
Middle-Aged Corporate Couple.
You’ll know this species by their spotless teardrop camper (which may or may not be an Airstream), the tangerine camp chairs and twin kayaks in perfectly matched hues, and the fact that the only item that sits on their picnic table when they are not eating is their camp stove. They’ll unpack from tidy storage containers in 30 minutes of well-oiled choreography. Their camping wine glasses will definitely have stems.
They will not warm to you. Or your kids. Because your child is filthy, having spent the last five minutes lying by your own campfire ring literally swimming in the dirt, probably the breast stroke. But Middle-Aged Corporate Couple won’t harm you, either. They’ll just keep a wary eye on you until you leave, muttering, “There but for the grace of God…”
All God’s creatures need their space. Just give these their own (or sufficient) room and keep the noise down after 9 p.m.
No matter who your neighbors might be, each morning comes early with the gray light and the screaming birds. Plant your camp chair with a view of the lake, river or mountain. Maybe grab a Bible to thumb through. Contemplate the wisdom of Psalm 8 and what in the world God was thinking putting all this wildness into human hands.