Menacing slate gray clouds began to fill the sky as I drove from Washington to Boonsboro, Md. On a Friday afternoon. Fingers crossed that my son and I would be spared a spring downpour on our first camping trip since before the pandemic hit. Certainly, after the year in which we resisted, we deserved a break.
No chance. As soon as we got to our campsite at Greenbrier State Park in the Appalachians near Frederick, it started to rain. It seemed like a grim omen for the coming weekend.
We had high hopes for our trip. For me and my 8 year old son Zephyr this was our first group trip since 2019. We got together with some longtime friends: Will and his 9 year old daughter Lauren and Scott and his 6 year old daughter . son, Heath. We all met when the kids attended daycare together years earlier, and we had camped together in the past.
Our expedition was scheduled for February in the hope that the world would be safe enough for us to venture out to a public campground together by May. We all figured camping with friends would be an ideal setup for a post-pandemic first group trip. Venturing out with familiar people, whose personalities and preferences we already knew, removed a significant layer of potential stress, which could be amplified by covid protocols or other health and safety concerns. I saw the excursion as both a test case to see what we thought of traveling with friends and a way to determine best practices for further group travel this summer.
Before we left we had a quick check-in. All three fathers have been vaccinated. We discussed the precautions we would take. We decided that we could be maskless around each other at our campsites, but we put on masks at all other times and stay socially away from other campers.
A few days before our departure, we took a look at the forecast. Potentially wet and cold. We were not discouraged. I added rain gear and warm clothes to the huge mound of gear we were carrying. A little water was not going to stop us from starting to travel again.
However, my resolve was tested as I struggled to pitch our big tent in the downpour. While there was a calming quality to the sound of the large raindrops crackling on the leaves above me, I was stressed out about the possibility of sleeping in a puddle of water. I let Zephyr stay dry in the car while I laid the groundsheet and stake out the tent, but needed a helping hand when putting on the support rods and attaching the flysheet . It was a grown-up task, but they did their best. As we finished – a little more soggy, a little more cranky – the rain stopped. We had to laugh and we got our spirits up.
The other families showed up soon after and settled in without any rainy intrusion. We chose three campsites that are close to each other, but slightly distant from each other. It allowed us to spend time together, while also creating an extra layer of social distancing.
That evening we had dinner and the necessary s’mores around a log fire. The kids were a buzz of non-stop activity: pillow fights, tagging and a series of jinks that only made sense to them. At bedtime, no one begged to stay up later. They have been made. My son slipped into the cocoon of his sleeping bag and fell asleep in two minutes.
When the sun rose in the morning, it revealed a sky flirting between light blue and dark gray. The forecasts were everywhere. It was sure to rain, but we didn’t know when or for how long. Wanting to ensure a full but flexible schedule, we planned our activities in advance but left their schedule open. This relieved the pressure of creating an itinerary on the fly, while still allowing us to plan activities that would essentially keep us in shape for our trip. We decided to go for a hike around Greenbrier Lake first, a short walk from our campsites, and then shore fishing in the afternoon.
After the chocolate chip pancakes were devoured, teeth brushed, and day bags filled with snacks and water, we left. We were no more than 50 meters from the campsite when we heard the roar of an impending thunderstorm. As we turned around and ran back, a wall of rain overwhelmed us. Finding shelter under the canopy tent, we laughed at the moment. “I’m sure it’ll clear up quickly,” I pointed out.
It was then that he started to hail.
Fortunately, the kids found it hilarious that ice cubes were falling from the sky. They disappeared into a tent to listen to the rat-a-tat sound of the assault and continue their endless pillow fight. We dads happily sat down to wait for the gale to end and rejoice at our odd luck. After all, when you’re a parent, unexpected downtime with no responsibilities is something to celebrate.
Less than an hour later the storm stopped and we started our hike again. As the kids played a three-way game of rock-paper-scissors, we circled the lake at a leisurely pace. When we reached the halfway point of the hike – literally the farthest from our campsite we would be – the sky darkened again and the roar of thunder began to echo in the distance. We all laughed as we sprinted towards our campsites. Mother Nature had impeccable comedic timing.
In the afternoon, the sky clears again. We didn’t trust them, but we still went back to the lake to go fishing. Fathers gave the children throwing lessons, then stood ready to untangle the inevitably twisted lines and retrieve the decoys that ended up in overhanging trees rather than in the water. None of these hiccups dampened children’s morale. The lack of fish either. My son swore they took a bite, but maybe it was their imagination that pulled the line.
People continued to walk near us, some wearing masks, most without. We kept our own and kept our distance as best we could. Not that we felt anxious, as we probably would have done earlier in the pandemic. Between our masks, the adult vaccinations and the great outdoors, we felt safe.
That night there were more s’mores, of course. The kids couldn’t stop talking all day. Describe the fish they almost caught. Who won the pillow fight. Why is it funnier to fart in someone else’s tent than in your own? What they didn’t do was complain about the intermittent rain. It was nothing more than background noise for the good times they were having.
Sunday morning dawned. The soaked tents were taken down. The cars were loaded. The children usually devoured verboten sugary cereals, while the fathers pounded coffees and sandwiches for breakfast. Morale was at its highest. We felt safe the whole trip. We had a fantastic time. Everyone would do it again without a doubt.
Finally, it was time to go. The dads congratulated each other on a job well done, while the children said goodbye to each other. Of course, it started to rain again.