September 8, 2010

Traveling Clothes

Filed under: Ann the Columnist:Essays — Ann @ 9:10 am

Recently on a hot summer afternoon I padded around barefoot in the backyard doing my chores, reveling in the warm pavement/cool grass contrast, and letting the hose water dribble on my toes when I filled Geronimo’s drinking dish. Later that night I was in the bathroom standing on one foot and then the other, using soap and a washcloth to render my feet sheet-worthy, and suddenly I was nine years old again, sitting in a tent at Hat Creek, taking my evening bath.

From the time I was very young, my parents took my brother and sister and me camping at Hat Creek, situated near Mt. Lassen. That was before Interstate 5 up to Redding was built, so traveling meant a long, hot dusty ride up Highway 99, the smell of alfalfa blowing in through the opened windows (out which, occasionally, my sister’s and my feet were sticking — this was before seat belts). The names of the towns charmed me, even as a child — Corning (Olive Town!), Richfield, Maxwell, Arbuckle — as did my parents’ vacation rituals, such as my Mom’s warning that “It’s going to be hot going up through that Valley!” and my Dad’s vacation morning, “Let’s get this show on the road!”

My Dad was responsible for fishing-related duties and packing the car, my Mom was responsible for cooking, cleaning up, and taking care of the three kids, which included our nightly “sponge baths” in the tent, usually by flashlight — the lantern turned off to maintain our modesty lest our silhouettes be broadcast against the canvas. It always felt so good to climb into my sleeping bag at night after a hard day’s play, the sweet smell of Ivory soap filling my flannel cocoon as I drifted off to sleep in my sleeping bag, the grown-ups’ voices outside at the camping table lulling me to dreamland.

But the memory which flashed back to me as I stood in my bathroom washing my feet was the concept of “traveling clothes.” My mother took pristine care of her kids, even while camping, making two hot meals a day on her Coleman stove (lunches were sandwiches and cream soda) and, as mentioned, seeing to our ongoing hygiene. And one of her cleanliness rituals was making sure that, tucked at the very bottom of the suitcase, was a fresh set of traveling clothes for her children.

The traveling clothes were the shorts and shirts we weren’t allowed to wear for all the weeks of camping, because on the last morning, after our final wash-up, on would go the clean socks and fresh shorts outfits, usually smelling of cool canvas from being at the bottom of the stack. And getting into these outfits would be the last thing we did before clambering into the Mercury to make the long sad trip from the mountains down to the flat, treeless East Bay. I guess my Mom’s thinking was that when we stopped at gas stations or rest stops (I don’t recall ever eating at restaurants), her children were going to be scrubbed and well-dressed. When I think about the effort she put in to making that happen, my heart does something funny inside my chest.

I loved childhood camping with my parents more than any other thing. So, many decades later, I was shocked to overhear my mother say that she never enjoyed those trips — too much work. Well, yeah! Of course, why didn’t I think of that? We were all playing and “vacating” while Mom was doing the same work she did back home, except without hot and cold running water, bathtubs, refrigeration or a washing machine. But not once, not ever, did I hear her complain about it at the time.

I don’t know if our everlasting gratitude could ever make it up to her. It sounds a lot more romantic to say, “My Dad taught me how to catch and clean a trout” than it does to say, “My Mom taught me how to give myself a sponge bath in a pitch dark tent in the middle of the wilderness.” But to me, the latter is no less a skill.

These are some of the things I think about, when I’m in the bathroom, washing my feet.


  1. Oh, Ann, that brought tears to my eyes. What a lovely interlude, being transported to your childhood camping trips! And how sweet and how sad that your mom didn’t enjoy them, but made sure that you did, without complaint. That’s a graceful trait that I think many people have lost these days, in the age of “free expression” and “tell it like it is.” Certainly there are times when it’s important to speak up about your needs and wants. There are also times to quietly let it be, and allow others to create wonderful, long-lasting memories, at no real harm to oneself. That selfless love – that’s a real mother’s love. It’s a love that I’ve had. I am so glad that you have, too. <3 Thank you.

    Comment by Laura Bohler — September 8, 2010 @ 10:00 am

  2. Thank you, Laura. I’m thinking/hoping that may have been just a bad moment; there were probably things my mother loved about Hat Creek – the setting, the smell of the mountains, the sound of the Creek, the nightly card games; but I’m sure much of her joy came from seeing her hard-working husband relax, and her children have so much fun. She’s phenomenal; I’m so glad you know that sort of love, too. xxxooo

    Comment by Patricia Ann Clark — September 8, 2010 @ 11:12 am

  3. Lovely. Especially the ” the long sad trip” back home. We spent our summers camping when the girls were growing up. Our last trip together was in 1998, the year before the divorce when Beth was 16 and Ciara 15. Many summers the girls and I camped weeknights and Jack showed up for the weekends. We have so many wonderful memories all over New England and Big Basin in California for the years we lived in CA. The trip home was always sad to me … I loved camping with my family and friends and it was work even with a pop-up Coleman camper. Three summers ago I introduced Gerry and Colin to camping in a tent and we love it. We don’t eat in the rest stops and no boy cares about traveling clothes, that’s for sure. This past summer I was able to convince my youngest daughter, Ciara, and my stepdaughter, Jill and her partner, Alyssa to join us in Vermont for one evening and I think it was one of the happiest days of the past decade of my life. You see, the couple we spent over ten years camping with all those summers was also the other one that was broken up in the divorce. For years I couldn’t fathom camping again. It is so wonderful to know that I can experience all the love and work and family-time again with my newly-created and blended family and have all those wonderful memories at the same time.

    Comment by Charlotte Canelli — September 8, 2010 @ 11:32 am

  4. This post brings up so many memories I don’t even know where to start, but oh yes, camping with my family, and more particularly road trips (my dad called them “day-days” as in “day trips” were SO wonderful for me. I wanted to stop and explore every creek and tourist trap and roadside stand.

    Just read the article on learning, and it’s fascinating because it makes a lot of sense in context of this post – because we spent years of our lives in a particular home and remember so little of it, but we spent weeks in exotic activities and remember SO MUCH.

    Comment by Alana — September 8, 2010 @ 11:58 pm

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