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Something quite spectacular happened yesterday.

I  spent Memorial Day this year writing an essay for the Coleman Camping Heritage Essay Contest.  I had discovered the contest on the Internet and became inspired to write about my love of camping, and of Coleman gear, and how that had encouraged me to get my son back to nature.

I didn't grow up with a camping family. My dad is a no-nonsense farmer and we already lived in the country. He spent long days in the fields during the summer. I suspect that what he most cherished when he got home after dark was a soft bed and a good night's sleep. I can still hear him my head "If you want to get closer to nature, we can just move your bed out to the cornfield.".

That's not to say my dad isn't an outdoorsman. He's an avid hunter and in his retirement, has probably spent as many nights  in the wild and hiked as many miles as I have.  When you walk into my parents' living room, you are greeted with a gigantic elk head, a trophy from one of his more challenging hunts. So while I probably inherited a sense of adventure and a love of nature from him, it was not something that we shared together.

My real camping adventures began in Girl Scouts. with Brenda Harriman and Peggy Burfeind as our fearless leaders. Every year, they and twenty or thirty girls set up camp in the woods behind the Burfeind farm and spent two weeks living in the "wild."  Despite being within a few hundred yards of electricity and indoor plumbing, we set up a full camp, built fires and dug latrines.  That's where I learned to make cowboy stew, and dump cake, probably my first Dutch Oven recipe and one I still love to make (and eat!).  Beyond that magical two weeks, we took numerous trips throughout the year. Maybe my memory has embellished a bit, but it seems like it always rained when we took our trips. I remember girls shrieking "Don't touch  the walls" of the tent, the sole nugget of wisdom that prevented us from becoming hopelessly soggy. According to legend, any spot where a hand found itself would open up to the downpour, (Truth be told, on the wetter nights, one prayed to be one of the lucky girls to first stake a spot in the back of the Harriman's old station wagon.)

We spent the non-camping season working on our merit badges, to be awarded during the final night of camp, Family Night. I will never forget my mother laughing from the crowd when I was given the Housekeeping Badge. She was right to be amused; I still don't merit one of those!

Without Peggy and Brenda, I would not be the camper I am today. They taught me to make a fire, to tie knots, to stake a tent and, of course, to cook outdoors.  My love of the outdoors grew from the love they shared with us. The precious time they devoted is priceless, a shining example of the community spirit that made my small town of Malta Bend, Missouri, such a wonderful place to grow up. For their dedication (and that of all the parents who devoted time to making sure we country kids were never bored), I will be eternally grateful. They are my inspiration.

So, back to the contest. Yesterday I was notified that I won, and will be rewarded with more gear than I may be able to fit into my car. (A little irony, I told someone just last week that camping was sure a lot easier when I just had a tent and sleeping bag to take with me. Of course I was joking; one can never have too much Coleman stuff!) As Caleb so perfectly stated when I read him the list of prizes: "Mom, we're rich with camping gear!" I see a beautiful future with Caleb and my old friend Coleman.

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 toddler from the 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 among the other scouts. Inevitably, some tiny slope of ground magically grew steeper through the night and we all 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.