When I was a child, I loved to camp. Exploring in the woods for hours, catching fish in the stream near by for dinner, and then ending the night with s’mores. I would watch the sun go down through the trees, then just watch lightning bugs fill the space all around us. As we laid in the tent, it would be hot from the deep south summer air. We’d just hope for a breeze to cross through.
When my husband, Sean, and I became parents, we looked forward to the time when our son would have his first camping experience, hoping he loved it as much as we did. Sean grew up camping too, going on adventures all over the country with his father, a wildlife photographer, and his two brothers. Throughout our relationship, I’ve heard stories of them camping in the Everglades, Utah, West Texas, Joshua Tree, and so on… marvelous trips that we dreamed of sharing with Tom Otis.
When Tom was around three, he started sentences often with, “When I go camping one day…” Sean and I just beamed, wondering when we would be able to take him on a proper camping trip. We wanted to wait until he could truly enjoy it, and I think part of us was really worried he wouldn’t like it. So we waited a few more years. Six. His sixth birthday would be the perfect introduction to camping and would also be a great present to him. So for six months, I gathered little things that would be meaningful to him, heirlooms he might one day pass down to his own child. A brass compass, a vintage book of camping lore, a pencil that can write in rain, a travel map, and so on. I filled this little collection into a backpack and waited until it was time to tell him that we were finally taking him on the trip that he had been talking about one day doing, each week for the past three years.
Two weeks before his actual birthday which is June 29th, we let him open a present early. A beautiful painting by artist Heather Sundquist Hall. It was a painting of a tent, with a plaid sky. Taped to the back was a map of the state park that we had decided to take Tom for his first camping trip. The idea was that he will look at that painting twenty, thirty years from now and still remember his first camping trip. He studied the painting and then the map taped to the back. Suddenly it clicked. He looked up at me, with tears building in his eyes and asked, “Are we going camping?” As Sean and I said yes, the tears rolled down his cheeks with excitement. Next we gave him a tent and the backpack of supplies. We had just made this little boy’s dream come true and we hadn’t even left yet. The very next morning, we packed the car and headed out on Tom’s first camping trip.
For the longest time, Tom told us he wanted to camp in the desert, so we planned on revisiting one of Sean’s favorite spots from when he was a kid in West Texas. Then about six months ago, he switched and told us that one day when he goes camping, he wanted to camp in the mountains. We began searching for state parks near us with mountains. Just a four hour drive away from Water Valley, Mississippi, we found Cloudland Canyon State Park in North Georgia. Complete with two large waterfalls, it was perfect for what we were looking for.
We were the first on site the day we arrived, so we had full pick of the tent sites. We oped for one not too far from our car, so that load in and load out was easy. On the drive to the camp grounds, we explained to Tom that camping os all about teamwork and everyone had a job. His was to help gather sticks for the fire. He didn’t waste anytime, once we got there, to began working. We found a stream just behind our site and Sean and Tom set out to go explore as soon as the tent was up and the firewood was gathered. The first night we let Tom stay up way past his bedtime, just to marvel in the wonders of lightning bugs filling the whole forrest. He also needed time to let his roasted hotdogs and s’mores settle in his full belly.
Since this was Tom’s first camping trip, we honestly didn’t know how it would go, so we decided to do one night in a tent and two nights in a cabin. It was a smart move because it was still 90 degrees at nine o’clock at night. We want him to love camping, not feel like we dragged him outside to drown on the thick air. We had the idea that if he just loves sleeping in the tent, we could set it up outside the cabin too and Sean and I could take turns sleeping in it with him. He didn’t ask to sleep outside again after that first night, even though he reminded me that he loved it. I think he likes AC too though.
The next few days were spent hiking a mile down the mountain to swim in the natural pool at the bottom of the waterfall, looking for crayfish under rocks, taking a cave tour, cooking dinner over the fire, picking wild blueberries for pancakes, looking for spiders and mushrooms, taking hikes along the paths, but mostly, hopefully making memories that Tom will remember forever about his first camping trip.
Erin Austen Abbott, born 1976, in Tupelo, Mississippi, studied photography at the Museum School of Fine Arts in Boston, MA and at the Photographic Center Northwest in Seattle, WA. She has had photography shows in Tampa, Seattle, Boston, Memphis, Los Angeles, Oxford, MS, Charleston, SC, Basel, Switzerland, Milan, Italy, Berlin, Germany and Water Valley, MS in the years 1999- 2017.
Erin has had her work published in Esquire, Bon Appétit, Visit Baton Rouge, Invitation Magazine, Country Roads, Liquor.com, Sycamore Magazine, Southern Living, Garden & Gun, Bitter Southerner, Teen Vogue, Alternative Press, LA Times, Uppercase, and Southern Spaces. She is a regular contributor for Design* Sponge, one of the leading interior design blogs in the world, Oxford Magazine, and also on the Splinter Creek journal, where she shares monthly. She also published her first book, How To Make It, on Chronicle Books, in the spring of 2017. Erin lives in Water Valley, Mississippi, where she is currently working on her second book, running her shop Amelia, and working on various interior design jobs.