My family believes in old-fashioned summers. We limit TV and electronics, but we indulge in junk food, late-night swims, sleeping in, and long, lazy days around the pool. We don’t usually take advantage of nearby amusement parks or water parks, but we do take advantage of nearby lakes and rivers. Our summers are a fun combination of wild and relaxed.
When my brother and his sons come from Washington, D.C. to visit us on our Arkansas farm, my desire to relax is sometimes at odds with our boys’ desire to be wild. With four boys, ages 10-13, between us and 100 acres of pasture, woods, and riverfront to roam, there’s never a shortage of things for the boys to do.
This year they wanted to go camping on the river – alone.
Talk about your old fashioned summer! Four cousins fishing, catching crawdads, roasting marshmallows! What an experience! What a treat! What an adventure!
What a terrifying idea!
On the one hand, the river is less than a quarter mile from our house, and the water isn’t deep this time of year. It’s not like we would be sending the boys into the untamed Outback.
On the other hand, I’ve read "Lord of the Flies."
Yet, I wasn’t nearly as worried about some sort of dystopian feud as I was about things like wild animals and snakes. Our farm is only a couple of miles from town, but it's still the prowling ground for coyotes, bobcats, and various poisonous snakes like cottonmouths – which come out at night to feed in and along the river.
Still, I took some comfort in the knowledge that an open campfire would likely deter most wild animals.
Of course, the problem with an open campfire is that it is, in fact, a fire – in the open. I envisioned a session of good-natured roughhousing landing one or more boys smack in the middle of the open flames. I pictured a stray spark landing on a sleeping bag and setting the tent on fire.
Naturally, when you have a campfire you have s’mores. Sharps sticks! Flaming gobs of goo! I toyed with the idea of insisting on nothing but flashlights and cold ham and cheese sandwiches, but then I remembered the coyotes.
Besides, everyone knows that half the fun of camping is camp food: S’mores, roasting hot dogs, waking up early to cook bacon and eggs over the fire.
Okay. So now we’ve got wild animals, open fire, flaming gobs of goo…and salmonella and listeria. Seriously, what are the odds that four unsupervised boys will cook everything thoroughly and wash their hands after handling raw meat and eggs? And where will they wash their hands? In the river? Where the snakes are? Snakes and other bacteria capable of making them sick!
My fears were mounting. And speaking of fear, what if one of the boys got scared? What if they all got scared? I imagined each of them spending a miserable night huddled in terror in his sleeping bag just praying for daylight because he was too embarrassed to admit his fear to the other boys.
What if one of the boys is too afraid to get up and go pee in the night? Or what if he’s not afraid and goes out in the dark alone and wanders too far from the protective, yet dangerous, campfire and encounters a hungry coyote? Or a bear? We could have bears. We’ve never seen a bear here, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I’ve never seen salmonella, but that’s definitely a thing.
Let’s see, that’s wild animals, snakes, fire, flaming gobs of goo, foodborne illness, deadly bacteria, night terrors and bears…
My fear was running wild now, and my determination to provide my son and his cousins with an old fashioned, free-range summer was dissolving.
But I have another fear. I have a fear of raising children who grow up to be fearful adults. I fight my tendency toward fear and worry every single day. Sometimes it’s a battle I lose. Before they leave the house, I pepper my kids with dire warnings about seatbelts and strangers and driving too fast. I'm relentless in my warnings about germs and sunburns. I remind. I caution. I put the fear in them.
Other days I’m better. I let my teenagers leave the house with nothing more than a quick kiss on the cheek and a “Have fun!” I don’t always remind them to wash their hands. And I don’t freak out when I catch them eating raw cookie dough.
Sometimes my struggle against fear is three steps forward and two steps back. This summer, when my son and my nephews asked to go camping alone, my brother and I took a step forward.
The boys were incredible. They made a list. The packed their cooler. They gathered their gear – forgetting toothbrushes but remembering Band-Aids. They organized and reorganized. They checked and double-checked. They were responsible and efficient.
So, with hot dogs, a box of fireworks, and a BB gun, the boys, followed by our dogs, set off for the river.
I was calm (on the outside) and encouraging. Bravely, I waved goodbye, half hoping that the heat or the mosquitos would drive them back home before dark.
In the end, it was the snakes that did it. Three hours into the campout we got a frantic call from my son. (We’re not so old-fashioned as to insist he leave his phone at home!) Between his sobs, we learned that our beloved dog Rufus had been bitten by a cottonmouth and was lying motionless in the weeds along the riverbank. We were there in a flash. My husband rushed Rufus to the vet while my brother and I tried to calm and comfort the boys.
It was touch and go for a bit, but Rufus pulled through. And I was assured that I'm not crazy after all. Of course, I’m not happy about the encounter with a poisonous snake, but there is something gratifying about the knowledge that not all of my fears are neurotic. Some things really are scary.
I guess in that way camping is a lot like parenting. There are dangers but if we pitch our tents, light our fires, and stick together, there’s a good chance we will have the time of our lives.
Despite my wild imagination, maybe I've even managed to communicate this idea of fun over fear to my kids. My son and my nephews are already planning their next adventure. And me? I’ll just be praying, putting on a brave face, and making sure there are plenty of marshmallows on hand for flaming gobs of goo.