Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Vacation on the cheap

If adults ever sat around a campfire, here's the kind of (true) story we could tell:

You are a newly single dad with two kids. It's your daughter's sixth birthday and you want to do something special to "wow" her, but on a tight budget. You decide to take her and her little brother camping on the beach, the perfect vacation on the cheap.

Can't you just smell the disaster brewing? I swear I can hear ominous background music!

First, he tells the kids. Mistake Number One. (If you tell the kids, you can't back out when you realize the error of your ways.)

Next, he searches for the tent he used to camp in before he got married. When he finds it, he decides to erect it in his living room. He does this and then discovers that it is a pup tent. Of course he knew this, but had forgotten just how small a pup tent is. There is no way he can cram all the junk he's going to need for a long weekend camping into this tiny square footage. And, he's already told his kids.

So he goes to WalMart and buys an eight-man tent. Mistake Number Two. (Ask around, fella. Somebody you know has a tent you can borrow.) It costs just shy of a hundred bucks, but it sure will be cheaper than a motel. (This remains to be seen, but I don't want to spoil the surprise.)

Now Mr. Dad lives in Cleveland and is going to take his kids to a beach on the coast of South Carolina. I can't remember the exact name and it is irrelevant to the story anyway except that Ohio is a long way from South Carolina. That is relevant (and obvious to anyone with access to a map). His plan is to pick up his kids from his daughter's birthday party, toss them in the car and hit the open road. He figures they will go six hours or so and crash in some cheap motel along the interstate. It's a double-header! Mistakes Number Three and Four. (He can't drive that far - he has two little kids who are going to need to stop every fifteen seconds and there is never a cheap motel around when you need one.)

Prior to the departure, our hero goes to the grocery store and spends an obscene amount on food. (Mistake Number Five.) He buys staples for the actual camping trip, as well as lots of juice boxes and snacks for the car riding portion of the trip. It costs more than it should have, but he will make it up by not having to stop and eat at restaurants, right? Mistake Number Six. (Everybody always thinks that they will make every meal when they go camping, it's part of the charm of "roughing it." They all end up eating out more meals than they had imagined they would. He will prove no exception.)

The ex doesn't know of the plan and this is on purpose, so she can't throw in a monkey wrench. Or can she? In fact, she is able to pull off a minor coup, in the form of allowing the birthday party to stretch out for about an hour longer than it is supposed to. A small, but crucial point because, as we know, timing is everything.

Finally the happy group is on their way, beachward bound! It's evening, but it's a pleasant night and the kids are groovin' to the kid music in the car. They listen to the same CD over and over the entire trip. (You probably thought I would count this as a mistake, didn't you? Well, it's not. Kids love repetition and Dads are used to tuning it out. He gets a "bye" on the music. It's a freebie.)

When they get to Beckley, West Virginia, they are all pooped and a bit crabby from the drive. (No surprises there. It's hours past everyone's bedtime.) They decide they'll pack it in for the night. It's not quite as far as he thought they'd get but, allowing for the late start, it will do just fine. Mistake Number Seven. (Unbeknownst to Mr. Happy Camper, Beckley, West Virginia, is roughly half way between Cleveland, OH and Charlotte, NC. He does not know this, but the owners of the motels certainly do. Location! Location! Location! There is not a cheap room to be found.) Everything is over a hundred dollars and a hundred dollars is a little rich for his blood. He gets his second wind. They hit the road again and drive a couple more hours where the rates are more hospitable and the names of the motels all start with "econo."

Next morning, bright and early, up they get. Motels with "econo" in the title, don't offer free breakfasts. They decide to eat out because Dad doesn't want to unpack the car for just this one meal and, besides, they can economize at lunch and supper because they have all the camping food. (See what I mean? Everybody does this.) After breakfast, the road warriors ride the highway and the rest of the trip to the campsite is uneventful. Of course, they stop a couple of times for the kids to run around and they enjoy putting quarters into the vending machines at the rest stops. Everyone is in good spirits and looking forward to some serious water fun. It's vacation!!

They arrive at the campsite, choose a prime spot and set up camp. Then they go off to the beach. Finally! Looking forward to some water fun, they barely notice Mistake Number Eight. They've chosen to go to the beach in August. Not just any old August! No, this is a record breaking summer - the hottest ever.

Like all little kids, our four-year-old exuberantly engages in a bit of "sand throwing." He only gets a couple of handfuls into the air before he is told to stop and, being basically a very good child, he does, indeed, desist. However the damage has been done. Everyone was within range so all three got rained on - they had a little sand shower. There's grit in their hair! They feel dirty because, well, they are. They pick up shells on the beach, lots of shells and put them in the trunk. Mistake Number Nine. (All of us have done this and all of us know how those things are going to smell after a fifteen hour drive home in the heat.) They go back to the campsite for supper.

Time for bed!! Oops...we need to shower first because there is sand everywhere. It was about this time that it dawned upon our hero that he had made Mistake Number Ten. That's right, his tent site was across the entire campground from the bathhouse, something that grownups wouldn't necessarily notice (or care about) but when the group includes little kids, well, there are gonna be more than a couple of hikes to the latrines in the night. You can't leave a four-year-old (or a six-year-old for that matter) alone in a tent. When one of them goes, they all go. And, of course, they don't go at the same time. That would be too easy. As soon as they'd return from one bathroom excursion and get settled, there would be this sweet voice saying, "Daddy, don't get mad but...."

The next morning it's overcast. The group goes to a reptile type place, one with live snakes and alligators. I have an aversion for these sorts of creatures so I'm not going to dwell upon this portion of the vacation. Suffice it to say that it cost thirty bucks to get in.

After some more fun on the beach, it starts to cloud up. By late afternoon, there are ominous black storm clouds on the horizon. Hurry, hurry! Back to the tent! As the storm approaches, it becomes clear that it is a doozy and it is electrical. Our father here is no dummy and he's not about to be stuck in a tent with his kids in a nasty storm. He zips up the flap, throws the kids in the car and leaves. Sadly, he did not have time to put on the rain flap. [Mistake number....I can't remember any more. We are well into double digits now anyway. With this many errors, somebody better hit a home run fast!]

He drives for a while down the inter coastal waterway, stops at a pizza place to feed the kids supper and then he drives some more until he finds a place to stay. He doesn't care how much it costs, he just wants to be dry and safe in a nice room somewhere. It is from here that he calls us and says he's coming to visit us a day early. We can expect the group to roll in around noon the next day because we're four hours inland.

The next morning he calls us at about nine o'clock. He hadn't realized that they had driven about an hour and a half before finding a room, so it took them longer than they thought to get back to the site to collect their tent. Oh, and a raccoon had gotten into that tent during the night, enjoyed their camping food, generally messed up the interior of the tent and all its contents, then left - maybe. It was unclear at this point if there was a raccoon in the tent or not and they couldn't check right now because they were in the middle of another ferocious storm and were sitting in their car at the gas station near the campground. Oh, and since the rain flap wasn't on the tent, everything in the tent that the raccoon didn't destroy was drenched. Nice touch. (Truth really is stranger than fiction. I couldn't make this stuff up!  My imagination simply isn't this fertile.)

Locals say there is a time to go to the beach and there is a time to leave the beach. If you deviate from this window of time at all, you will get stuck in the tourist traffic. It turns out that you are not the only family from Ohio who thought an August vacation at a Carolina beach sounded like fun. That is why our soggy campers rolled into our neighborhood at four o-clock. Clearly they aren't local.

We had them immediately erect their tent in our driveway so it would dry out, which it did. We took the kids over to the playground to run off some steam, then brought them back and fed everyone supper. The kids needed baths to wash off the left-over beach party and then - around 8:00 - their Dad laid down with them until they fell asleep. He fell asleep, too. (No surprises there. He was exhausted. Being a single parent isn't for sissies.) They didn't wake up until morning. Nobody even heard the booming thunderstorm in the night.

Bright and early the next morning, the group tried to sneak out, but we are old and used to arising at the proverbial crack of dawn. We caught them writing us a note and persuaded them to stay for breakfast. After eggs and toast, my husband wound up the children by tossing them in the air, running after them, pretending to be a dinosaur, all the usual. They were pretty hyper as we strapped them into their car seats and waved good bye.

Was this a memorable vacation? Definitely. Was it "on the cheap"? Probably not. Either way, it's a good story.

1 comment:

Jack said...

I love it. I've done almost all of these things--most of them 30 years ago! It's comforting to know that some things don't change.