David C. Hughes, Writer

“Whatever you do, do from the heart, as for the Lord and not for others” –Colossians 3:23 NABRE

Archive for the month “July, 2015”

Lessons from a Backyard Campout (Part 2 of 2) (2015-07-28 Daily)

Lesson 1: The night is noisy.

“Amidst the chaos of the cities,” Ram Mohan wrote, “a part of you always yearns for the silence of the woods.”[i] And to a point, I agree—I was raised in the woods, and I returned to the woods (or at least as close to the woods as you can get in North Texas) as soon as I could. Living in the country certainly has its advantages: fresh air, open land, solitude. We don’t have traffic, car horns, or car alarms blaring every five minutes. But as the day winds down and night settles in, an orchestra of frogs, toads and insects cues up and begins to play, accompanied by the soulful harmonization of resident coyotes. The silence of the woods ain’t so silent.

That night, as we lay on our air mattresses staring through the nylon mesh at the stars, and the neighborhood rolled over for a good night’s rest, bullfrogs began to harrumph for mates. Dogs barked across the rolling hills. Night birds called, horses neighed, owls hooted, crickets rubbed their legs against their wings in a romantic frenzy. The night amplified each twitch, each shift, each movement of bodies trying to find a comfortable spot on the crunchy, hard, lumpy air mattresses. Hannah got up once, to zip shut a thin nylon window in a fruitless attempt to keep out the night sounds.

Toward morning, as the last breath of night gave way to the first hint of dawn, a rooster ruffled us out of our thin, almost pointless slumber. For all the poetic waxing about the stillness of the night, the reality is, night can be far from quiet and calm. Night is full of passion, full of struggle, full of music, full of life and death and survival of both the fittest and the lucky. But if you lie quietly, if you remain still, if you allow it, you will hear God’s voice in all that frenetic order. The night is, indeed, noisy.

 

Lesson 2: Sometimes a sleeping bag on the ground is more comfortable than an air mattress.

Mary’s idea of camping comes equipped with at least two wheels and a pop-up lid. My idea of camping is packing a waterproof sack with a tent, a sleeping bag and a pillow, tying the bag to the thwart of a canoe, and shoving off in a river with a slow but steady current.

When we pitch the tent in the backyard, the first item through the flap is not a sleeping bag but a queen size air mattress. The second is an electric pump. The first thing to leave the tent is my good cheer as I sit in the 100 degree heat trying to coax enough oomph out of the pump to fill up the mattress. “This ain’t camping,” I grumble. “This is just sleeping with the door open.” You see, I’m old school. When I camp I don’t necessarily mind gravel poking into my shoulder blades and hardpan pushing against my back. I try to embrace simplicity—just the tent and the sleeping bag and a roll of toilet paper. Mary likes simplicity as well, but she also likes comfort. To me, the air mattress is one of the most uncomfortable things I’ve ever slept on. To her it’s the difference between camping and not.

Why do I think sleeping on the ground in a sleeping bag is more comfortable than sleeping on an air mattress? First, the air mattress has a built-in pillow, but the pillow’s so tall it induces a crick in my neck worse than sleeping with my head on a piles of rocks. So we both sleep with our feet on the pillow and our heads at the other end. All night long I feel like I’m in traction.

Second, sleeping on that air mattress is like lying on a half-filled water balloon. I’m a side sleeper, and I rotate from one side to the other several times during the night. Invariably when I roll over on the air mattress I feel like I’m at sea, undulating on four-foot swells.

Third, it’s bulky. The bag we store the mattress in is a big as the bag we store the tent in, and it’s twice as heavy. If we ever had the inkling to hike the Appalachian Trail, the air mattress would take up 95% of the allotted backpack weight and 110% of the allotted space. But, as the old wisdom goes, if Mama ain’t happy ain’t nobody happy. Mama likes her air mattress, and the smile on her face first thing in the morning makes it all worth it. That and the breakfast she’s about to cook.

 

Lesson 3: The night has a rhythm.

“God has a rhythm, just as we do,” poet and writer, Amena Brown, wrote. “God’s rhythm is unchanging and eternal, full of love, hope and grace.  Absolutely truthful, always available, incredibly powerful.”[ii]

One of my favorite activities is canoeing, and combining a camping trip with a twenty mile canoe trip is as good as it gets. When Mary and I were dating, I invited her to join me on an overnight float trip down the Brazos River. The first night, as I lay sweating and aching and completely content on my sleeping bag, I joyfully anticipated the first call of a whippoorwill.

Suddenly the distinct, high-pitched voice of that elusive night bird cut through the constant drone of crickets and katydids: whip-poor-will! Whip-poor-will! I smiled, knowing what would come next. After a few minutes, a second whippoorwill responded. Then another. I lay awake, listening to the birds call to each other, listening to the gurgle of the river flowing by, listening to the low hum of a faraway pump. The night had a rhythm, one which soon carried me into peaceful slumber and delivered me into the clarity of a new dawn and another day of rhythmic (and somewhat painful) paddling to the take out point.

“The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders;/” King David wrote, “where morning dawns, where evening fades,/you call forth songs of joy” (Psalm 65:8 NIV®). The night has a rhythm, and there is joy in that ebb and flow. We just need to be still.

 

Lesson 4: God’s creation celebrates Him.

Our tent is large, containing a central hub and two wings. The roof covering the hub is made of gray nylon, but the two wings are topped with a fine nylon mesh. For all intents and purposes, sleeping under those mesh ceilings is like sleeping under the stars, but without the mosquitos.

I love to lie on my sleeping bag and stare at the moon and stars drifting overhead as I drift off to sleep. Camping brings me back to my roots growing up in the woods, and the woods bring me as close to God as my physical existence on earth will allow. From the Big Dipper spinning around the North Star to the cycle of the seasons, from the germination, harvest, and death of our garden to caterpillars changing into butterflies, all of nature demonstrates God’s creative infiniteness, and all of His creation celebrates Him.

 

Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;

    let the sea resound, and all that is in it.

Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them;

    let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.

Let all creation rejoice before the Lord. . . .

—Psalm 96:11-13a NIV®

 

Lesson 5: Drink deeply of life . . . but lay off the water before you go to bed.

The last thing I want to do in the middle of the night is roll out of bed to go pee, especially when the bathroom is a fifty-yard walk across the lawn in the dark.

First I have to overcome the air mattress. The moment I concentrate my weight by sitting up, the bed invariably sinks, lifting Mary up. When I stand up, Mary drops. Fun in the day, annoying at night. Next, I have to fish around in the dark for my shoes ‘cuz I’m not about to walk across a yard strewn with fire ants, grass burrs, stinging nettle, and dog poo without putting something on my feet. Once I’ve managed to put on my shoes and stand up, I then have to unzip both door zippers without waking anyone. And when I leave the tent, I have to zip the door back up so mosquitos don’t invade and spend the rest of the night hovering around our ear holes. Of course, the whole tent-rattling process must be reversed upon returning from the bathroom, increasing the possibility of disturbing those smart enough to have laid off the water prior to going to bed (and increasing the possibility of retributive disturbances at dawn).

Exiting the tent at night in the backyard to tend to the call of nature is one thing. Exiting the tent at night in the middle of the woods is quite another, especially here in Texas where, after dark, orb web weaver spiders busily spin webs six feet across and ten feet tall across all paths leading to convenient relief stations (i.e., clumps of bushes). And the chance of walking up on a skunk, a raccoon, a tarantula, or a cottonmouth on a late-night jaunt to the nearest tree should be enough incentive to convince me to set aside that last can of beer or that water bottle before laying my head down on my pile of rocks for the night.

 

Lesson 6: Make good memories, and share them.

Our family is all about fun. We deliberately seek out fun venues, like water parks, zoos and sandy beaches, and we encourage each other to enjoy the experiences as they come. When Hannah was training as a competitive gymnast, the number one rule we imposed on her was to have fun. Number two was to listen to the coaches and to work hard.

All three of us are first-class goofballs, and when we’re not overscheduling ourselves, we spend time playing board games, flying kites and sitting in the kiddie pool holding age-appropriate beverages. To experience joy, it’s imperative to be open to it, and by digging holes in the sand, participating in “silly sound” competition or filling up on s’mores before camping out in the back yard all weekend, we invite gladness to join us. “So I commend the enjoyment of life,” King Solomon advised in Ecclesiastes, “because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 8:15 NIV®).

And what a better way to invite joy into our hearts than to make good memories and share them? “Happiness lies in good health and a bad memory,” the fortune cookie said. Good health, yes. But making good memories—and remembering them—helps to form a strong foundation for a good life, and there’s nothing like the togetherness of a backyard campout to strengthen that foundation. As the popular saying goes, “We didn’t realize we were making memories, we just knew we were having fun.”

 

[i] “Quotes About Noise.” goodreads.com. 2015. Good Reads Inc. 28 July 2015. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/noise?page=2

[ii] Brown, Amena. Breaking Old Rhythms: Answering the Call of a Creative God. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2013. 20.

Copyright © 2015 by David C. Hughes

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Lessons from a Backyard Campout (Part 1 of 2) (2015-07-24 Daily)

Driving back from a recent family beach vacation in North Carolina, we stopped at a Chinese buffet in Fort Worth to celebrate Hannah’s 2nd grade graduation. Her choice of venue surprised me because, as a rule, if the food is colored anything but a golden shade of fried, she won’t eat it. I, on the other hand, relish anything green, and the weeklong anticipation of devouring sautéed cabbage and stir fried chow mein had kept my mouth watering until we walked through the door and grabbed our buffet plates.

After two bites of a cream cheese Rangoon, however, Hannah was ready for her fortune cookie. So was I. With anticipation I cracked open the cookie and tugged out the fortune. “Happiness,” it said, “lies in good health and a bad memory.” Not true! I protested. Yes, good health is an amazing blessing, but for me, a good memory is more valuable than practically anything else I possess. After all, making good use of my memory is how I put food on the table, and some of my fondest memories are of my childhood growing up in the upstate New York woods.

In the 1970’s, my dad, my two brothers, and I occasionally camped at the edge of our backyard in an eight-by-eight foot canvas tent on sticky summer nights.  Tents back then weren’t as supple, lightweight and transportable as they are today.  In fact, this green canvas monster was so bulky and difficult to set up that my ingenious Dad built a permanent platform out of 2-by-4’s and plywood and used eye screws to affix the tent to it. We’d leave the tent up all summer where it doubled as a day-use fort.  But it was the nighttime campouts we most looked forward to.

You see, my Dad’s a natural storyteller, raised in a family of storytellers from rural southwestern Pennsylvania.  When he and his brother got together they’d spin hilarious tales about their childhood that left them holding their stomachs and us peeing our pants. So we looked forward to camping out with Dad not only because it was a backyard adventure, but because we loved cramming into the tent and listening to his stories after the sun went down and the mosquitos came out.

How we ever got any sleep is a mystery, but forty years later I still remember one of his stories in particular: his dad, my Grandpa, was walking alone in the woods one night and heard something following him as he made his way along the pitch-black deep-woods road.  As tree branches moved and twigs snapped behind him, he began to run, hesitating long enough to pick up rocks and throw them at the mysterious beast.  But instead of a rock, he picked up a toad and chucked it at the creature.  I don’t remember how the story ended, but I do remember laughing and being scared at the same time.

Both the love of storytelling and the fondness for camping in the backyard has stuck with me, and I’m excited to pass on both of these loves to my daughter.  Hannah’s first campout took place not long after she started walking.  I don’t even think she could talk yet when we drove to Dublin, Texas, to attend a Labor Day weekend campout and music festival at the Super C Ranch, owned by retired bullfighter Adam Carillo.

It was 96 degrees the day we attended, and even by the time we got to bed late that night, the temperature hadn’t dipped much below the 90’s.  And because we’d set up our tent along the access road to the concert stage, both Mary and I didn’t get much sleep that night.  But Hannah slept like, well, like a baby.  Since then we’ve camped out several more times, but our favorite activity is pitching the tent right here in our own backyard. At least we’re well aware of the cleanliness of the bathrooms and the friendliness of the campsite owners!

I asked Hannah one day if she’d like to camp out in our backyard.  “Yay!” she squealed.  “Yes, yes!  We can light a fire and eat s’mores and tell ghost stories!”  We scheduled the outing to start on a Thursday night, and I promised we’d sleep in the tent both Thursday night and Friday night.  Early Thursday morning it poured down rain as a cold front pushed through.  The weather forecasters had predicted rain that morning, then more later on in the afternoon, so I broke the news to Hannah that we may have to postpone until the ground dried up a bit.  By the time I got home from work and we finished dinner, the gray-bottomed cumulous clouds rising into the crystal azure sky pushed away all those bullying cumulonimbus.  The ground had dried out enough to pitch the tent, so we climbed into the attic and brought down all the gear we’d need for the next two nights.

All through dinner Hannah asked if we could set up the tent now.

“No, we’re not done eating!” I told her.

“No, we’ve got to clean up the kitchen!” Mary told her.

“No, we’ve already told you to wait until we’re done!” we told her.

But Hannah couldn’t contain her excitement.  She even put on her pajamas—winter pajamas—while we cleaned up.

“You can’t wear those!” Mary scolded.  “You’ll be way too hot!”

“But Mom. . . !”

When we finally dragged the tent into the backyard that evening, Hannah, now dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, jumped in and helped me push stakes into the soft ground to secure the tent base while we raised the roof.

Modern tents are so much easier to erect than those canvas monstrosities with their fixed aluminum poles that looked like they’d come straight out of some Civil War field camp lithograph. In no time the tent was up. Hannah unzipped the door and ran inside, squealing with joy.  She chattered non-stop, zoomed around the tent several times, and even ran back into the house as the sun set to put on her summer jammies without any prompting.  She couldn’t wait to go to bed.  First time that happened since the day she was born.

As it grew dark and we settled in for the night, we turned on our flashlights and began to tell ghost stories. Hannah spun the first one, a tale about an owl who waited for the sun to go down (emphasized by Hannah snapping off the flashlight), then went out to hunt for dogs, children and even grandmothers to eat for dinner. Hannah acted out the story on the crumply stage of the nylon floor, turning the flashlight on and off as her imaginary sun rose and set on the menacing owl’s story.  The owl—and the story—finally met an abrupt end.  Then it was my turn.  Bwah ha ha ha ha ha . . . .

True to the compass my own dad set for me, I figured I’d tell Hannah a scary story.  A really, really scary story.  “Once upon a time,” I began, “A family packed up their car and drove deep into the woods to go camping.  The woods were thick and dark, and the family—a mom, a dad and a little girl—was all alone in the middle of nowhere.  But as they set up the tent, the girl felt like someone was watching them.  She couldn’t shake the feeling, but she knew she couldn’t tell her parents because they wouldn’t believe her.  She was relieved when they finished setting up the tent and they crawled into their sleeping bags.  As she began drifting off to sleep, though, she heard a noise—something was walking around the tent.  A snap on the nylon wall made her sit up, eyes wide, startled.”

On cue, Mary flicked the tent wall.

Hannah whimpered.  “I’m scared, Daddy,” she whispered, but I could tell by the tone of her voice she was also excited.  Nonetheless I notched the scare factor down (after all, I had a vested interest in Hannah going to sleep that night) and changed the tone of the story’s ending with the girl’s dad stepping out of the tent to investigate . . . and finding a throng of toads migrating through the campsite. Hannah was relieved by the somewhat benign ending.

Mary then told a story about an old woman who lived in a house deep in the woods. The woman owned a dog that liked to lick her hand while she petted its head.  One night the woman fell asleep in her chair but awoke to the sound of scratching coming from her back door.  The dog continued to lick her hand until she got up to see what had made the sound. As she peeked out the back door she discovered her dog was outside on the porch.  “Then the old woman had a heart attack and died,” Mary finished.  “The end.”

“What?!” I said. “It was a good story until the ending. Gosh! You even had me sitting on the edge of the bed!”

Mary laughed. “That was an old Girl Scout tale we used to tell each other during campouts. Pretty good, huh?”

“Yeah,” I said. “The whole time you were telling it I was thinking about how to write it. Oh well.”

Story time over, we prayed over Hannah, then she prayed over us, and we all settled down for a good night’s sleep.  Only that ain’t how it happened.  And thus the lessons from our back yard campout . . . .

(continued)

Copyright © 2015 by David C. Hughes

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