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Monday, April 26, 2010

Newspaper Column for April 2010

Geese, cows, pigs and seaweed: a perfect vacation

Quite a few of my childhood vacations were spent in a tent in the middle of a farmer’s field. I never realized during those years how creative my parents were in squeezing out awesome vacations on a shoestring budget. Like a lot of parents with growing children and the usual household expenses (This was back in the day when folks seldom used credit. It was mostly cash or do without.), Mom and Dad didn’t have a lot of extra money lying around to send us on a funship cruise to be constantly entertained and waited on night and day. Thank goodness. Instead, we packed our stuff and headed for the outlying regions of England or Wales. Since we lived in the landlocked middle of England a lot of our vacations tended to be in coastal towns.

Talk about firing a kid’s imagination. There's nothing like it. A camping holiday is different from a holiday where you stay in a hotel. Even if you stayed in the same place you would experience it differently in a tent than in a hotel. There’s a freedom, a closeness to nature when camping that you lose when in a building. When camping, you feel the coolness of the early day and the wetness of the morning dew on your toes when you step outside, you hear the morning song of the birds - or the moo of the cows - and are more likely to see the sunrise. Somehow you feel more alive. And everyone knows that food tastes so much better when it’s cooked outdoors. Our meals were simple but hearty and full of flavor. And with a “dining room” like we had, we considered ourselves dining in first class indeed. We usually had company on our campouts- Mom’s sister and her family, or some of my parent’s friends and their children would go camping with us so there were other kids to play and go exploring with.

One of my fondest vacation memories is of a holiday spent on a farm in Wales. It was an ordinary farm - we didn't camp in commercial campgrounds. Mom explained that it was much more fun to do your own thing and have lots of space rather than be crowded in by campers and non-stop activities all around you. What Mom didn’t say was that it was also much cheaper - such a smart Mom I have! So, as we passed Butler’s campground with its blue painted swimming pool and plastic water slide we felt a little sorry for the kids whose parents didn't know any better and were stuck in that campground, hemmed in by campers, tents and noise on all sides; and, worse, having to make do with a crowded swimming pool while we had
the wide sea or sparkling mountain streams to swim in and glorious open hills and fields to run and play in to our heart's content.

The only camper’s amenity at this Welsh farm was a simple outdoor bathroom with a sink and cold running water. For city kids, it was roughing it at its delightful best. It was a chance to roam free: no school, no homework, no teachers telling you to sit still and pay attention, no lumbering double decker buses to watch out for as you crossed the road. Just miles of blue sky, lush green fields dotted with cows and sheep, beautiful beaches and miles of narrow country lanes that curved temptingly out of sight, beckoning to adventures just ahead. I could not imagine that even Heaven itself was more beautiful than Wales.

The farm was a working farm whose owners allowed a few campers on their property each summer to earn a little extra money. Campers were not catered to in any way except for a quick warning from the farmer’s wife not to chase the geese who had the run of the farm (they peck a lot harder than you think), plus - we found out - they’d chase you back. Also free roaming were the cows... right into the field we camped in. I was a city kid. I don’t think I’d ever gotten that close to such a large animal that wasn’t in a cage in a zoo. I remembered wild west movies and wondered if milk cows stampeded? Sure hope our tent was out of their path.

But the farm inhabitant that made the most lasting impression on me was the pig. As a city dweller my only acquaintance with pigs was sausage, ham and bacon. When we first arrived at the farm that would be our home for the next week, I noticed a pen on the right side of the driveway with a good-sized pig in it. I meant to visit that pig as soon as possible. It didn’t take me long. After settling in, a few hours later I was up at the pig pen. Expecting a plump pink cherubic creature as often depicted in children’s books, I was quite taken aback when I got close to him. He seemed to be as curious about me as I was about him because he ambled up, snorted, and boldly stuck a flat wet snout through the fence. His
snout glistened light pink and there were bits of dirt stuck all over it. I stared at him in fascination, both drawn and repelled. His ponderous body was hairy and mud-caked. He grunted and stamped his feet up and down which slopped more mud up his legs. I tried to equate this dirty, decidedly uncherubic thing with the sizzling smell of bacon and delicious sausage links. It was work even for my active imagination. He kept pushing his nose through the space in between the wooden boards. Was he asking for food? I decided he was, so I pulled up some weeds and offered them through the fence boards. I immediately gained new insight into the expression “eating like a pig” and decided that perhaps it was best not to ruminate too long on the source of one’s food.

Grubby pig aside, the farm was a place of many delights, chief of which was the beach. What a beach! The farm was situated next to the sea, but was much higher than sea level. It was actually on the top of a small cliff, that at the time seemed dangerously and excitingly high. The beach was a horseshoe-shaped bay hollowed out from the seaside cliffs. A stone footpath carved into the side of the cliff led to the beach below. Best of all, because it was part of the farm it was a private beach and since most other folks were cooped up in Butler’s Campgrounds (poor deprived unfortunates) we almost had the whole beach to ourselves. Mom was right - this was great!

Us kids had the time of our lives. English and Welsh coastlines are frequently rocky so you often see caves in the side of the cliffs, tide pools on the beaches with crabs, tiny fish and creepy crawlies in them and all sizes of rocks on the beach which active young minds can find myriad uses for. Some rocks were big enough to hide behind, some just right to build with, others nice to sit on and watch the sea. And who knew whether there might be hidden treasure in a cave... left by some pirate many years ago who met a watery demise and never returned to claim his loot?

In addition to the rocks, there was also lots of different kinds of seaweed, both on the beach and in the water. Some of it was bubbly and made a fun popping sound when you squished the bubbles. Some of it was long and stringy, and after we got over the “yuck factor” my cousin, Beverly, and I used the stringy seaweed to arrange all kinds of elegant (or so we thought) hairstyles on rounded rocks. Imagination fueled our play. There was no television and no telephones during our vacations. Heck, there wasn’t even electricity! And we didn’t miss any of them one bit. There were too many fun things to do and interesting places to see.

I realize now how incredibly lucky I was to have parents wise enough to give us the kind of vacations that exercised our minds, bodies and spirits. We explored, we played, we learned, we daydreamed. Perhaps that’s why, even today, I’ll take a quiet beautiful spot over a noisy, commercialized theme park any time. I prefer God’s theme park: clean blue skies with drifting clouds, lapping waves on a shell speckled beach, country lanes dotted with wildflowers, breezes rippling the clear waters of a lake, or just simply enjoying the everyday pleasures right here in my own garden.

Nature and simple things... still the perfect vacation.


knittingdragonflies said...

That sounds wonderful! I agree and I still love camping, thanks for sharing that memory with us.

Rosie said...

I'm with you on the quiet out of the way places for a holiday or a day out. I never went camping as a child - was in my mid twenties before I gave it a try. My parents always stayed in little guest houses in Devon or Cornwall - perhaps because they were 'older' parents i.e. in their forties when I was 6 to 16 years old:) I've enjoyed reading about your camping memories!

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