Skip to content

Sponsored by Coleman and hosted by the Outdoor Blogger Network, this is my submission for the Coleman Camping Heritage Essay Contest.

Our Coleman home, at Wallace State Park near Kearney, Missouri.

I found treasure in a rusty-hinged plywood box perched atop a circa-1960s Army tent.

I had recently become a single mom and was moving from our suburban family home into a small city apartment. Between a stressful job and trying to distract my toddling son from the devastating loss of his father, life seemed endlessly cloudy.

I paused to open the chest.

My eyes lit up with familiar red and green; propane lanterns, a beloved camp stove, well-worn mess kit, tightly-rolled sleeping bag. Each piece bore the trusted Coleman trademark and captivated me much as it had twenty-some years earlier.

My camping gear!

Childhood memories flashed before me, scouting trips, telling ghost stories and casting shadow puppets in the glow of a Coleman lantern.

I held my sleeping bag, still scented by ancient campfires, and remembered staking out a rectangle of floor space until some tiny slope of ground magically grew steeper through the night as we inched toward the lowest corner of the tent, waking as one pile of girl.

We hiked until our soles blistered; ravenous, cooked cowboy stew over the Coleman stove, served on the plate of the very mess kit now in front of me. It was the best meal I remember ever eating.

Exhausted little boy on the trails at Rocky Mountain National Park in Estes Park, Colorado.

I will teach Caleb to camp!

The epiphany became a resolution of hope.

My vintage Coleman gear had aged gracefully but the old tent would have to go. Weighing just short of a ton and requiring an engineering degree to assemble, I would replace it with a Coleman dome, large enough for us and anyone who wanted to tag along, simple enough to put up myself. (That first year, a Coleman pup tent was home-away-from-home for my son’s potty training "throne.")

Learning to fish at Pamona Lake National Park in Kansas.

Fresh air cleared my mind as Caleb entered wide-eyed into a world of grand adventures, real and imagined, initial hesitancy becoming a gleeful embrace. One day on a mountain path searching for bighorn sheep, he told me he was the happiest kid in the world.

Rest stop during a canoe trip on the Buffalo River near Ponca, Arkansas.

We have taken many trips over the years, becoming ever braver in our choice of destinations. My mother and sister, neither of whom had ever slept in a tent, joined us for a week in the mountains at Estes Park, toasty at night in Coleman sleeping bags. We plan an annual camp-out with long-lost cousins and their children, my son’s nearest young relatives. Our extended family has grown to include many fellow campers we’ve met along the way. We stay in touch through Christmas cards and Facebook postings, waiting for spring to arrive so we can share a campsite again.

Campsite at Smithville Lake in Missouri.

I watched Caleb transform from a morose toddler into a confident young outdoorsman. He can identify dozens of native critters and proudly displays his backpack with badges rewarding successive years of overnight stays in Missouri State Parks, peak patches for all the Colorado hiking trails we have conquered and river pins celebrating Arkansas canoe trips.

We made precious new memories.

Hiking at Estes Park.

Last week, while setting up a makeshift campsite in the backyard to check our gear for the coming season, I heard:

Mom, can we sleep outside tonight?

Just as everyone knows the difference between a mere house and a real home, so it is with our Coleman tent. It’s a living thing, a part of us. Five years ago, life was like my old tent, frayed at the seams, parts missing and broken, leaks abounding, heavy and overwhelming.

In the Great Outdoors, we healed, and then thrived. Today Caleb and I, like our cozy dome home, are intact. Carrying the dust of a thousand miles of journeys to the next park, vibrant with memories of those with whom we have lovingly shared our campfire, we look ahead to our next great adventure under a clear sky.  Together with the treasure trove of reliable Coleman gear that continues to service us, we survived the storm.

"Mommy, I'm the happiest kid in the world!"

I have passed along my Coleman heritage and hope someday my son will share it with a family of his own. Maybe he will even learn to enjoy cowboy stew.

Some weekends are just better than others. This was one of the good ones.

I headed to the Country Throwdown -- a music festival originated by Willie Nelson -- with the boyfriend, my sister and her boyfriend. With a little foresight, I would have brought the DOs and had a tailgate bash. But alas, despite many, many things on the to-do list to prepare for the first camping trip of the year in two weeks, I rested until it was time to go to the show, completely disappointed when we arrived and noticed all the cooking (and beer drinking) in the parking lot. Beer drinking, not a problem, we brought plenty of that!

Lesson #1: whenever an outdoor event presents itself, do not forget that cast iron and hot coals make every party even better.

Side note: Bill and I both fell in love with the music of Corey Smith, a singer-songwriter out of Georgia. His music will provide a great soundtrack for the next camping trip.

From its website:

09/01/2012 |ARROW ROCK STATE HISTORIC SITE | ARROW ROCK, MO

A new twist has been added to this popular event. Come and compete in the first Arrow Rock State Historic Site Dutch Oven Cook-Off competition. There will be three different categories - meat, side dishes and desserts. You can compete in one category or all three.  Call the site for a complete list of rules and to preregister.  All dishes are due to campsite 15 for judging at 5 p.m.  Prizes will be awarded for the top winner in each category.

Event times: 1 p.m. - 6 p.m.

39521 Visitor Center Drive, Arrow Rock, MO | Tele: 660-837-3330

http://mostateparks.com/event/59509/dutch-oven-cook

1

Caleb, Mark Twain National Forest near Branson, MO

My first blog. Can you believe it? I've been involved with the internet for twenty years and even work in publishing, yet I've never put words out there for strangers and casual perusers of the web. I know many great writers  and feared that anything I wrote would pale (or absolutely suck) by comparison.

Why now?Because I've realized there's much more to blogging than the ability to write. It's about having a passion. I've been camping with my son for several years now,  teaching that city boy the beauty of falling asleep under a canopy of stars, waking to an avian symphony, eating fresh fish that didn't come from a produce department, playing in the dirt and exploring the joys and pitfalls of nature. I love that, I really do, love sharing it with him, but when it comes to outdoor ecstasy, my heart pounds most gleefully at the thought of cooking over an open fire. Our typical gear for a weekend usually consists of a small tent, a hundred pounds of cast iron, associated tools/gadgets/equipment, several grocery bags and an ample supply of adult beverages. I'm competent in my home kitchen; give me some hot coals, a dutch oven and a few simple ingredients and watch me awe the campers at the next site. It's a gift, it's an art form and in the end, it is very much a science. (Or maybe in the end I'm just too tired and tipsy to realize any differently!)

There are a lot of dutch oven websites on the internet and many campfire chefs with far more experience than I. Here's my hook -- I'm planning to spend the summer visiting some awesome state parks (and if you haven't been to Missouri, we have some of the BEST parks in the nation) while I prepare for my first ever dutch oven cook-off in September. I'll share with you our  "wilderness" adventures and recipes for  everything I cook along the way. Don't worry, the blogging won't be done once the competition is; after all, it's a learning experience. I see many cooking competitons in my future. Maybe someday you will take to the road too, forewarned and forearmed with what you learn here, prepared to call yourself a campfire gourmet.

Happy campfires!