By Ernest Herndon
When Well-Being Managing Editor Lana Turnbull asked me to write a column on my first campout, she didn’t realize she was dealing with a victim of Post-Traumatic Camping Syndrome. My two older sisters, older brother and I are still in recovery from a trip that took place more than half a century ago.
My parents grew up in southwest Mississippi during the Great Depression, when people warmed themselves by a fireplace, cooked on a wood stove and drew water from a well. Understandably, they were never much interested in roughing it. But for some reason, when I was 3 years old or so, they decided to go on an overnight family outing to Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee, in the middle of summer, even though we didn’t even own a tent.
I have only flashes of memory of the outing. They include parking among towering trees, eating supper at a picnic table, sleeping outside on a canvas army cot and being eaten alive by mosquitoes until my parents put me in the back seat of the car to sleep. It was sweltering in that car, but when I cracked the window, mosquitoes got in.
I have apparently blocked out a memory of being stung by a hornet that for some reason singled me out as its victim.
In support group fashion, I polled my siblings by email for their memories.
Robert, who was 10 at the time: “Dad and I went fishing in a rowboat, 95 degrees and 90 percent humidity and no fish biting. We also had those Army hammocks, which I came to love, but the mosquitoes bit through those, too.”
Sandra, who was 17: “(Sister) Shirley got the hammock with no holes in the mosquito netting, Dad took the other one with holes, Mother and I each had a canvas cot where we slept under a wool army blanket, and the mosquitoes just conveniently bit through both. I recall that it was so miserable that we got up in the middle of the night, packed, and drove home.”
Shirley, then 13: “I did get assigned the good mosquito-netted hammock, and then as the night progressed, I heard all the kvetching, so compassion for my little brother Rah Rah (Robert) compelled me to give up my comfortable perch. When he crawled in, apparently so did about 500 mosquitoes, so he was trapped in a mosquito-netted hammock with the pesky bloodsuckers inside rather than outside.”
I suspect a lot of people’s first camping experiences were similarly awful. And my subsequent camp-outs for a long time were pretty uncomfortable, whether freezing at a fourth-grade group camp, sweltering in a flannel sleeping bag in the back yard, or cramped in a tiny, damp tent with my wife and then-young son.
Over the years, though, I did learn how to get comfortable in the outdoors. I went on to make cozy camps in the most wretched of circumstances, from a mountain blizzard to an alligator-infested swamp. I survived to camp another day, and so can you.
Ernest Herndon gives advice on camping in his book Canoeing Mississippi. He is also author of Canoeing Louisiana and coauthor (with Scott B. Williams) of Paddling the Pascagoula, all published by University Press of Mississippi. Herndon is a longtime reporter for the McComb, Miss., Enterprise-Journal.