Our first Thanksgiving in Texas, Jeff’s parents came down from Michigan to help us celebrate a traditional family holiday in our new home. They were our first official visitors, and while the visit was short, it was wonderful to see them and to not feel like we had essentially exiled ourselves to the far flung reaches of the United States.
But the next Thanksgiving no one was planning to visit us and the kids and I had the whole week off for the holiday. We weren’t sure what we were going to do. Finally, Jeff suggested that we look into camping spots and I laughed at him. I’m Midwestern raised. Only a diehard camper or a seasoned hunter would suggest camping at the end of November. But we lived in Texas now. The weather averages were forecasted to be perfect camping weather. With the extra vacation time, it didn’t take me long to agree to a camping trip in a new Texas location with my family.
We spent our first Campsgiving at Goose Island State Park, nearly 200 miles down the Gulf Coast. Our son and daughter wandered around the park in their Gryffindor and Ravenclaw robes (we were going through a serious Harry Potter phase at the time), we walked along the rocky shore and the kids picked up sea shells, we saw ancient oak trees, we stopped at the U.S.S. Lexington on our way down to San Padre Island National Seashore where we planned to get a National Parks passport stamp, and the kids played in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
And during that whole time, we still managed to cook an entire Thanksgiving dinner outdoors at our campsite. We fired up the Charbroil oil-less fryer for the turkey, I cooked rolls on the Traeger mini-grill, and I used all three of our outdoor stove’s burners to prepare mashed potatoes, gravy, and stuffing.
After two full days of camping, we headed home refreshed. We didn’t have a house to clean up after a huge gathering. We weren’t tempted to look at Black Friday ads and we weren’t missing the commercial pull of buying things we didn’t need just because it was cheap. We weren’t exhausted from staying up way too late to watch movies we had seen many times before. Instead, we had spent our time camping focusing on each other and on forming precious memories.
We couldn’t wait to do it again.
The following spring we ran through our list of options for the next Campsgiving. The number of people in our booked campground the previous November showed us that we were not unique in our desire to go camping for Thanksgiving. We knew that we wanted to go someplace new and since I would once again have the whole week off, we knew that we wanted to go somewhere that was more than one to two hours away. Dinosaur Valley State Park, just southwest of the Dallas/Fort Worth area, had been on our radar for awhile, but by the time we had our calendars for the following school year and we could make our reservations, the campground was booked.
It was time for plan B. We made reservations at Cleburne State Park, 25 miles east of Dinosaur Valley. We figured it got us close enough to Dinosaur Valley that we could kill two birds with one stone in a single extended weekend. Then we invited Jeff’s older sister to check out the distance between Denver, Colorado and Cleburne State Park to see if she would be able to drive down with her family. Then we invited local friends who had expressed interest in the idea of camping during the holiday. Then they invited a couple of their family members.
Before we knew it, our numbers ballooned from the four of us and two dogs to four family groups and four dogs. This time, there was a Thanksgiving feast coming from all directions, with our friends preparing one turkey ahead of time and us pulling out our Charbroil oil-less fryer for another perfectly cooked turkey. The Thanksgiving spread covered every spare surface that we had available for our use, forcing us to eat in our camping chairs carefully placed around the fire pit.
The next morning, instead of rushing off to stores to buy stuff and frantically trying to clean our house from the mess of several guests, we explored Dinosaur Valley State Park, hopping from rock to rock to cross the Paluxy River, exploring fossilized dinosaur tracks along the river shoreline, and hiking to the top of the Paluxy River Scenic Overlook. At the top of the overlook, all the adults started hearing the pings and dings of cell phones finally finding service, and after nearly 48 hours without any cell service while camping in a state park in the middle of nowhere, there were a lot of notifications. We laughed as we simultaneously celebrated being unplugged from the world and quickly posted to social media where we all were. We looked down below one more time and then headed down the path, ready for one more evening of campfires warming the chilly night before we had to pack up and return to civilization.
After two years of traveling to Texas state parks to celebrate Thanksgiving, Jeff and I decided that it was time to make another attempt to take our family camping in Louisiana. (We had initially tried a Louisiana camping trip during our first spring break in Texas, but heavy spring rains and flooding kept us out of the state, at least for camping.) Average November temperatures in southern Louisiana are similar to the Houston area, so we figured that we wouldn’t have to worry about cold temperatures and with a couple extra days, it would give us a chance to make a day trip into New Orleans to show our kids the more family friendly portions of the French Quarter. There are a couple state parks within an hour or so of New Orleans, so I checked out all of them and looked for the park that would give us the best camping experience while still being a reasonable distance from New Orleans.
Then I looked at the U.S. map and jokingly told Jeff we should invite his younger sister and family to drive over from Florida. Then we asked his older sister if they wanted to once again join us from Denver. Then his parents, who were feeling left out even though I really didn’t expect them to want to drive all the way to Louisiana for Thanksgiving, asked if they could come too. Then Jeff’s brother and sister-in-law decided that they could join Jeff’s parents for the drive down from Michigan. Suddenly our quiet family Thanksgiving involved nearly everyone.
Of course, making reservations proved to be the easiest part of planning a destination Thanksgiving for fourteen people, especially with jobs, kids, and the general business of life for everyone involved. A month before we were all set to leave, I set up a Google Doc with delusions that it would help us plan meals, but even I didn’t look at it for weeks after I made it. Most of our “planning” was done via Facebook messenger. Within the two weeks before we were set to leave, I made my standard camping list and just kept adding to it. Since we had the space (we were the only ones bringing a camper) we bought the turkey and ham, and then we prepared for a much needed family trip away.
With the whole week off from school, we decided at the last minute to leave a day early for Louisiana. When we called to find out if we could extend our reservations an extra day, we were told that the spot we had reserved for the week was still being used by another family for that Tuesday night. Our best case scenario became staying with Jeff’s sister the night before if we couldn’t get into our spot. We parked in front of our house and spent Monday night packing up all of our non-perishable items. The next morning I got up early and let Jeff sleep (since he was going to be driving the whole way) and I finished getting everything that I could packed into the camper. When we were finally ready, we packed the four of us and both dogs into our truck and headed down the road. Thanks to a later than planned start, a short stop at Buc-cee’s (a Texas staple and practically a required stop for our family every time we pass one), and rush hour traffic in Baton Rouge (proving once again my belief that I10 is the WORST interstate in the United States), we arrived at Tickfaw State Park after dark. Shortly before we arrived, Jeff’s sister sent us a message that the family that had occupied our spot had already left and the park ranger on duty gave them permission to tell us that we could take occupancy a day early. Relief washed over both of us. We wouldn’t have to move the camper once we were parked. With the help of a fellow camper offering the use of their headlights and the careful placement of our LED lanterns, Jeff safely parked our camper into the spot that we would establish as base camp for the next three days.
Despite the unplanned trip into town to get supplies that we had unexpectedly forgotten (including a Fitbit charger since I had accidentally left mine at home), most of the the next day was spent relaxing, exploring, and waiting for the arrival of the rest of the family. The sun set on a row of four tents, four cars, our camper, and five families, the firepit on our site surrounded by fourteen chairs and family members talking with each other and over each other for the first time in three and a half years. The last time the family had been together was right before our move to Texas. We spent the July 4th weekend camping on the shores of Lake Michigan at Indiana Dunes State Park. This time we were in a much different setting at a very different time of year.
While I didn’t get a run in during the daylight hours, I enjoyed a hike around the nature center with our daughter and my older sister-in-law. Since our move down south, I’m often struck by how familiar the landscape can be, until I get the jarring reminder that I’m not up north anymore. It can be a random cactus off of a path, moss hanging from trees, the various palm trees growing up next to oak trees, or the signs reminding hikers of the potential for alligators and venomous snakes. But I’ve come to appreciate the beauty that accompanies the potential dangers in every direction off of the beaten path.
Thanksgiving Day we all slowly woke up to sunshine and comfortable temperatures that burned off the fall chill from the previous night. A large cooked breakfast of eggs, sausage, bacon, and everything else that we could prepare satisfied the whole crew until it was time to make dinner. I finally convinced our kids and niece to hike with me to the playground, which was nearly a mile away on a nice boardwalk path past scenic fall swampland.
We broke out the Chex mix that my mother-in-law, younger sister-in-law, and we had brought so the kids could judge which was best, and while we lost to Jeff’s sister, we still believed ours to be the best of the three. We fired up the deep-fryer and the three-burner stove, prepped turkey and ham, peeled potatoes, and “cheated” with boxed stuffing, packaged gravy, and Pilsbury rolls. But by the time we all sat down in the circle of camping chairs for a Thanksgiving feast, we had successfully prepared enough food to keep us fed for days (and enough leftovers for Jeff and I to take home for our favorite Thanksgiving leftover dishes).
A post-dinner walk by my brother-in-law and his wife led to the discovery of what appeared to be a dead alligator on the shores of the fishing pond. We all walked around the pond and right past the alligator, convinced that it was harmless. Two days later my brother-in-law reported that not only was the alligator no longer on the shores, but there appeared to be baby gators. Apparently, the alligator was not as harmless as we had all assumed. Oops!
We spent the evening hours using our limited cell service to obsessively check the weather forecasts for the following day. The forecast was for steady rain starting at noon, and we were planning on the whole family going to New Orleans for the day. The next morning, despite our good intentions of getting on the road early, we needed to put things away to prepare for the possibility of rain while we were gone. When we finally got on the road, we headed for the Algiers Ferry, where we would be able to park outside of the city and ride across the Mississippi River for a couple hours of exploring in the Big Easy.
In the course of a five hours, we ate yummy New Orleans cuisine, walked along historic streets, wandered around Louis Armstrong Park and took pictures at every statue, watched live street performances, got our beignets at Cafe du Monde, and finally figured out where the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park was located (although we found it long after it closed, giving us a reason to make a return trip with our family). And after all that concern about rain, we didn’t see a drop until we were safely seated back in the truck, headed back to our campsite.
Campsgiving 2018 was a success and Jeff and I were already discussing our our own plans to return to Louisiana next year, only this time going to the same state park we stayed at when we went to New Orleans for our 15th wedding anniversary. We continue to be impressed with Louisiana State Parks (after all, how many state parks around the country offer campers free laundry facilities?) and the kids were thrilled to finally be able to add the Louisiana sticker to our camper, three years after we initially planned our first camping trip to the state.
The bonus for the week? The time with family. The additional bonus? When we got home we didn’t have to put our house back in order from days of family revelry. In three years we have yet to be convinced that we want to do Thanksgiving any differently. And despite listening to a crushing Michigan loss, we all agreed that the time we spent together with family was well worth the preparation and time spent on the road. I hope my in-laws feel the same way.