Oh, the irony. Sixteen years ago this month, we embarked upon our first family camping trip. Much like the Griswolds, we were ready enjoy the open road with the kids. Our destination? Taylor Park Reservoir, a dirt-bike-riding mecca that friends and family members have been enjoying since the 60s. The same spot where I’m sitting right now, writing in our camper.
This took place in 1998, so the kids were 4 and almost 6. The perfect ages to get them started on the joys of camping in the mountains, right? That was the plan. We lived just north of Kansas City at that time, in Smithville, Missouri. Escaping the heat sounded pretty good.
We didn’t own a camper, so we picked up Scott’s dad’s tag trailer in Wichita and set off across southern Kansas. We were headed to meet Scott’s brother Steve and our sister-in-law Stephanie and some friends for a fun-filled family vacation. It was a typical Midwestern summer day, about 150 degrees with humidity to match.
If you’ve never driven across southern Kansas in July, you’ll just have to take my word that it’s an aromatic experience the likes of which you may never experience elsewhere. It’s not so bad with the windows rolled up and the air conditioning blowing at maximum capacity. But, since we didn’t own a camper at that time, we also didn’t own a truck that was quite up to the task of towing one. So there we were, driving through America’s feedlot in sweltering heat with the windows wide open. And the flies. Let’s not forget the flies.
Don’t get me wrong, I love beef and the hard-working ranchers who make it possible for us to enjoy it. But it is a smelly business in July.
Have I mentioned yet that the truck had leather seats? Sweat makes the leather slippery, to add to our travel pleasure. You know what happens when kids are hot, bored and tired, right? The bickering kicks into high gear. Our daughter was sobbing and screaming, “He’s looking out my window! Make him stop looking out my window!” That naturally made our son look out her window even more, both of them squirming around on the sweaty leather seats trying to hit each other. Thank goodness for seat belts.
We tried distracting them with the alphabet game and by counting windmills to no avail, and finally resorted to playing their favorite tape. I would like to go on record saying that there’s a special place in hell for whoever decided to record Goofy singing, “There’s a hole in my bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza.” Sixteen years later, it still makes my eye twitch.
It was dinnertime when we got to Buena Vista, which, if you don’t know better, seems like just a few quick miles from our destination. For those of you who’ve driven Cottonwood Pass, you know better. It was getting dark as we left town and headed up the pass, and pitch black by the time we reached the summit. On the way up, the road is curvy, but it’s paved. Scott was white-knuckled, hoping the truck would be able to pull us to the top. It did, but it was a long, slow drive. Fortunately, the kids were full from dinner and exhausted, so the sobbing and screaming had changed to a more tolerable level of whimpering and sniffling. There was also some muttering and swearing, but that was coming from me.
Coming down the pass was a whole different story. The pavement ended, the tight switchbacks began and the washboard gravel road shook everything in the truck and camper like a paint mixer. In hindsight, it was probably good that we were driving in total darkness that first time. If I’d been able to see the drop-offs, Scott would probably have had to turn around and take me to an emergency room. I’m not big on heights.
Once we reached the bottom of the pass, our directions were pretty simple. Turn right when the road ends, then take your first left turn into the campground. Easy peasy. Unless it’s so dark that you drive past the campground. (Time stamp: midnight.) We drove a couple of miles out of the way and, about the time we realized we’d gone too far and should turn around, we encountered a large cow standing in the middle of the road. She was not inclined to move, so Scott had to turn the trailer around on a skinny gravel road with no shoulders without jack-knifing, dropping a wheel off the road or hitting the cow.
This time we turned into the campground, but missed the first loop. We circled through the lower loop twice, trying to find our group. We finally woke someone up and, believe it or not, asked if he’d seen someone in a white camper with a white truck. That described approximately 75 percent of the setups at every campground in America. (Time stamp: 1 a.m.)
We headed back out, completely missing the first loop again, and drove back the way we’d come. When we reached the opposite side of the reservoir, we turned around again and came back to the campground. This time we saw the first loop and found our group. Hooray! Since this was our first time unhitching and setting up the camper, we were not exactly quiet and woke everyone up. Finally, we got settled in enough for the four of us to collapse in our beds. (Time stamp: 2 a.m.)
It didn’t take us long to fall asleep, which was good because the carbon monoxide detector started going off at 3 a.m. We scrambled around, got the kids up and carried them to Steve and Stephanie’s camper, waking everyone up once again. It turned out to be dead batteries that set off the detector, not carbon monoxide, but that still involved spending the next day trying to find new batteries.
The rest of the week went a lot more smoothly, but it didn’t really matter to me after what we’d gone through to get there. I’d made up my mind. Not only was I never, ever going to go to Taylor Park again, I was never going camping. Period. End of story.
Flash forward nine months, and we had purchased our own trailer and were heading out on a 17-day trip with the kids. Keep flashing forward to 2014, and we are living in our RV, giddy to spend three of our first four weeks on the road at Taylor Park.
I can’t count how many times we’ve been here since our first disastrous trip. There were two years that we didn’t make it, but others when we were here as many as four times. We’ve been snowed on here on Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. Some of my favorite memories have been made in this spot. Steve and Stephanie, their kids, and many other friends and family members make the 16-hour trek here from Missouri nearly every year. We park the trailers in a circle on the Taylor River with the campfire and a volleyball net in the middle, dogs and kids running rampant. Heaven on earth.
Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for more Tales From the Empty Nest.