A-campin’ we will go…

For the past 4 or 5 years, we have wanted to go on vacation.  Specifically, go on vacation to the Crater of Diamonds State Park in Arkansas; the world’s only public diamond mine.  However, little Mrs. FrugalPants (me) just couldn’t turn loose the extra money to go.  But, five years of my family’s pleas, as well as my own longing to go on vacation, finally turned the tide.

Trying to avoid any unpleasant surprises and wanting to know more about where we actually were going, I did a couple of week’s worth of research on the park and surrounding area.  Mrs. FrugalPants was having a VERY hard time justifying staying at a hotel.  Visions of burning dollars went up in flames in my mind.  So I suggested getting a tent.  Mr. FrugalPants thought I had lost my mind.  Visions of leaky 2’x4′ pup tents from his Cub Scout days went through his mind.

“No way.”, said Mr. FP.  After pulling up several family tents on Amazon and Cabela’s, I showed him that today’s tents weren’t designed with only people under 5 feet tall in mind.  We ended up going for the Coleman Bugaboo, a five person tent with a too-cute name.  Technically, it’s a Bugaboo Two, which possibly tipped it in my favor.  (Okay, not really, but still…) I rationalized that for less than the cost of one night in a hotel, I would come out with a tent and all of the supplies.  If I hadn’t done my research, I could be telling you a camping horror story quite easily.  Here are some tips on choosing a tent if you decide to ever take the plunge.

Besides, I told myself, it sure would be nice to wake up there at the park, rather than have to drive back and forth from the hotel.

After reading through some camping stories, I decided that it would be best to set the tent up immediately when it came in and seal the seams with a liquid sealant.  I also elected myself to spend a night in the tent with the kiddos pre-trip for a trial run.  If you learn nothing else from me about camping, know this:  SLEEPING BAGS ARE NOT OPTIONAL.  This is funny now, but not funny at the time.  When we went to the sports store to get our camping gear and sleeping bags, Mr. FrugalPants said, “Nah, I don’t want one…I’ll just bring a comforter.”  So I thought, well…it would save us a bit of money, so I won’t get one either.

Night of the trial run:  I had my queensized blowup mattress.  Check. Two thick comforters. Check.  2 pairs of sleep pants and thick socks.  Check.  The temperature was supposed to get down around forty degrees.  I thought that surely 2 fluffy comforters would get me through the night.  I may as well have slept nekkid on the wet grass, covered by a paper towel.  I tossed, I turned, I rotated, I got in the fetal position.  When I heard some roosters crowing, I thought THANK GOD my night is done!  I’ve made it! Time for coffee!  I grabbed my phone to check the time and it was………two thirty.  AAAAAMMMMM.  I had woken up no less than 30 times in FOUR HOURS.  Since the kids were in bags (and not moving) I assumed they were either frozen or asleep, and I limped into the house on my frozen icecube toes.  I have to edit this to tell you, but I woke up Mr. FrugalPants  at 2:30 a.m. to tell him that in no uncertain terms were sleeping bags EVER to be considered flip-flapping optional. And, for the record, no the children did not get cold, and were completely unscathed since they were…in sleeping bags. I guess you can tell, I was a complete camping virgin.  No longer.

So how was the trip?

I have only been to Arkansas one time before, as a young ‘un, so I had never actually driven through it.  When you cross into Arkansas on Interstate 30, you immediately notice that all new construction stops with the Texas side.  Which is actually pretty nice.  Urban sprawl drives me insane.  I don’t need a Bed Bath & Beyond and a Wal-Mart every 15 feet.  The next thing that you notice is that there is nowhere to turn around on the interstate.  I didn’t notice any overpasses.  Let me clarify….there WERE indeed cut-throughs, but they all had a sign which stated, “For Authorized Personnel Use Only”.  Well, I won’t tell you how we turned around, but we did.  The entire reason that we had to turn around was because of the third thing about Arkansas we discovered.  The road numbers apparently change with some frequency.  My map (a Texas map with a corner of Arkansas on it) told us to take Highway 4 out of Hope.  Well, there is no Highway 4.  I don’t know if there was ever a Highway 4 or if it was just a cruel joke by Texas cartographers, but we sailed right through Hope (no pun intended) and missed our turn.  After calling the state park, the friendly operator informed me that she was not aware of a Highway 4, but that I needed to take road #278 out of Hope.  Naturally, we had passed that six miles back, but oh well.

We noticed (and enjoyed) the small roads, which would be called Farm to Market, or FM, roads here in Texas.  A few miles out of Hope, the road shrunk a bit and we thought we had entered the 1800’s.  The road narrowed and 19th century houses lined the streets.  What really caught our eye was the thousands of Narcissus (daffodils and jonquils) in bloom over the entire town.  We found out that we were at the Washington State Park. Like a miniature Williamsburg.  I needed a map after our Highway 4 fiasco, so I picked one up at the Courthouse AKA Washington State Park visitor’s center, where I was informed that Arkansas ‘changes their road names all of the time’.  Hmm.  Maybe it’s the Arkansas cartographers with a sadistic sense of humor.  Anyway, we got back on the road.

Throughout our drive, we noticed no WalMarts…no urban sprawl.  This was small town livin’ right here.  Beautiful countryside very much like East Texas.  When we arrived in Murphreesboro, I was a little shocked to see that it was pretty much a blip on the map.  No Wal-Mart.  No CVS or Walgreens.  No strip centers or malls.  Which was GREAT.  Cause I hate all of that crap.  Here, minus the Dollar General, was small town life.  A church, a few family restaurants, a handful of gift shops, and a hometown grocery store.

Arriving at the park, it was everything that we hoped it would be.  Newly renovated as of 2010, the park is nestled in the piney woods.  It is spotless and the camping sites are just nothing short of pristine.  When I saw the recycling bins for the campers, I think I cried a little.

First things first, we set up our ‘house’ for the next 2 nights and 3 days.  We arrived around 6pm, so there really wasn’t very much to do other than go grab some chips at the grocery store for our first cookout meal.  After that, it was shower time, and the public bathrooms were just great.  They are a little small (3 stalls and 2 showers for our section), but heated, clean, and plenty of hot water.  Not that many people camp in a tent, so we had no waiting issues other than waiting on a goofy woman with a smartmouthed pre-teen daughter.  But other than her, everything was fine.  I have a slight issue about using a public toilet for…you know…NUMBER TWO, but fortunately that wasn’t an issue because we were only one of a handful of nutty people who actually chose to sleep in a parachute with poles.  Everyone else (with any sense) got to do their business in their RV.

We bedded down for the night…kids on exercise mats and we were on inflatable mattresses.  Oh…and we were in our new sleeping bags.  I probably shouldn’t have to mention that the very next day after I nearly froze to death in my pre-camping trial, I went and plunked down some money on a pair of nice, thick, 30-50 degree comfort sleeping bags.  Anyway.  So we laid there a while and after about an hour, I heard it.  Plink, plink.   Plink, plink, plink.

Rain.  Of course it would rain.  But not just rain.  We went through three separate thunderstorms, each one increasing in strength through the night.  When I heard the first rolls of thunder, I admit that I got a hot knot in my stomach.  What was I supposed to do?  Wake up the kids?  Then what?  Run to the truck?  Then what?  So, I covered my head like the proverbial ostrich and hoped that they wouldn’t find us the next morning in a pile of melted nylon, fiberglass rods, and burned pine needles.  But at least we’d die warm…in our sleeping bags.  I have to say that the night, other than the storms, passed rather uneventfully.  Well, there was one point at about 4 am where I had to go pee.  Of course I did.  Here I am in the woods, in a tent…pretty far away from the restrooms and my bladder has mysteriously shrunk to the size of a pea and I really think I may wet myself.  It’s thundering, there’s lightning, and I’m probably surrounded by hungry bears and rabid raccoons who are just waiting….just waiting for a virgin camper with her pea sized bladder to emerge from her tent at four in the morning during a thunderstorm so that my screams will go unanswered.  I could just see their hungry, red eyes and glistening fangs.  But a woman’s gotta do what a woman’s gotta do, and after all, I didn’t want to soak my new sleeping bag.  Heaven forbid.

I made it to and from the tent, event-free.  Not even a drop of rain on me.  As I laid back down, I heard a child scream, “HELP MEEEE”.  I sat up like a meerkat on crack, straining my ears.  Then the thunder cracked overhead, the rain came, and I could hear nothing else.  I guess that the bears and coons got what they wanted…another camper with a pea-sized bladder.  (Nothing apparently happened.  We chalked it up to a scared child.  Murphreesboro CSI wasn’t taping off any areas and we saw no body-shaped chalk lines, so I think that is all it was)  I thought we had made it through the night with no leaks, but as Mr. FP informed me the next morning. There was one.  Just one, and the drips landed right in his eyeball. Literally.  So he slept the rest of the night with a hat on his face.  So, back to the seam sealing for me.

The rain apparently was due to a cold front.  Of course.  The high for our ‘big day’ was fifty.  And windy.  Yes, digging for diamonds in the cold mud and screening dirt in 50 degree water was a little bit discouraging, but not too much.  The kids found mud and that’s really all they needed.  We drove 4 hours for them to play in the mud.  Oh well.

The rest of the trip was really glorious.  Really, it was.  I had a great time, even on the 50 degree day. True, we didn’t find anything that would pay for us to retire, but we did come home with lots of beautiful minerals.  You can take out any mineral that you find (read: gem, crystal, rocks, whatever).

So, for this farm girl, I’m a camping virgin no more.  And by the way, I loved sleeping in a tent.  Yes, while I’d love to have an Airstream or a ‘canned ham’ vintage trailer, it’s just not in the cards for us yet, so a-campin’ we will go again!