We were supposed to kick off our fall with a camping trip with friends the last weekend of September. They ended up bailing on the camping, but invited us to come stay with them for the weekend anyway. We drove up on Friday and had a few hours to kill before our friends got off work, so we took the kids to the WonderLab. It was small but really neat, and the boys loved it. They would've gladly stayed an entire day, I think. Our friends don't have kids or plan to, so when I walked into their magazine-gorgeous house with its pristine vintage furniture, I looked at my small snot-nosed children and thought, oh, shit. Our friends were incredibly gracious hosts, though. Plus, the kids didn't break anything and Elliott only climbed onto their kitchen table twice. And cough-barfed during dinner once. But who's counting? We spent most of Saturday hiking at McCormick's Creek State Park, which was lovely. Nico was such a good little hiker and Elliott hung in almost until the end of the day in his carrier (when he decided he'd had enough and flopped limply to one side while screaming for his freedom). Elliott went on his first pony ride, which he was not sure about. It was cute anyway.
We spent the first weekend of October camping at Bell Smith Springs in Shawnee National Forest with our usual crew of camping friends. I camped there once during my freshman year of college, but I didn't remember anything about it. The website was short on details so I was a little concerned with what we'd find upon arrival, but it turned out great. I remembered from our trip to Shawnee a couple of years ago that we wouldn't have any cell phone signal there and that we'd need to buy firewood along the way. We ended up taking the least-optimal way in, along some rough gravel backroads, but I'm glad we did. That route took us through tunnels of golden afternoon light, tucked snugly under the canopy of the forest. This is going to sound unbearably hokey, but I could feel my spirits lifting as we drove under those trees, found myself with a smile on my face and a happy heart. The campground did not disappoint - it was well-maintained with nice big flat gravel campsites mostly screened from each other by big chunks of woods. We chose two non-separated sites on purpose because they were basically a big double site that we figured our friends would be able to share with us when they arrived. It worked out perfectly and the campground is lodged happily on my top five list now. We had a lazy camp supper in the failing light, then got the boys ready for bed. They were both pretty keyed up with OMGTENT excitement, but I finally turned off the flashlight and lay quietly in between them until they fell asleep, bundled snugly in layers of fleece jammies and sleeping bags.
The next morning Elliott and I went on a walk around the campground loop, and I think that might be one of my favorite memories from the whole trip. He marched confidently around in his first pair of big boy shoes - tiny bright orange knockoff Keens that he is so immensely proud of - charming an entire class of college students and a pair of hunters. He spotted the signpost for campsite 19 and trotted over to point, hollering "nunner nah!" (number nine). Our stroll did end in tears when I refused to let him follow the college students' vehicle caravan out of the campground. Once he recovered from that injustice, we all took a pretty easy hike down to a natural bridge, then came back to eat lunch and await the arrival of the rest of our party. After they got their tent set up, we went down for another, longer hike. I'm pretty sure we ended up wandering off onto a completely different trail than the one we intended to follow, but it led us to an incredible landscape of bare rock and tall trees, streams and scoured-out plunge pools, miniature forests of moss and lichen and lizards sunning themselves. We nearly had the place to ourselves and it was wonderful. MB and I decided that it would be wisest for us to head back with the kids after that, so we carried the boys on our backs down a long, long stretch of road to the campground, where I forced Elliott to attempt a nap in the tent with me. Mostly he just wandered around and periodically belly-flopped onto my head, but whatever. At least he wasn't outside throwing himself into patches of poison ivy.
Going into the camping trip I was legitimately worried how it would go with Elliott firmly entrenched in a very independent phase (which I suspect isn't a phase at all, but his permanent personality). He is still fun and sweet, but he has Opinions and woe to all when his will is thwarted. I won't say the trip was without challenges, but we had such a great time. MB and I agreed with some amazement that it was our least-stressful trip to date, and more than ever I came home with the dual feeling of being really grateful for a wonderful trip and being really wistful over not having another chance to camp this year. I've said before that I suspect it's a lucky consequence of our kids' particular dispositions that allows us to go on these trips, and I'm so glad that we can. Seeing Nico's confidence and physical boldness increase each season has been amazing, and Elliott started out bold but is getting more capable with each adventure. I hope that we are raising them to see the breathtaking beauty in this world and to understand that family is where you find it. Sometimes I dare to daydream that they'll keep going on these trips after we are too old or too uncool to be invited along, meeting up in quiet breaks in their own lives to share a sky full of stars and a crackling campfire, maybe even to feel that it's something they've always done, something a little bit sacred.