Over the last four years, Campsgiving has become a hallowed tradition in the Styf household. We’ve explored aircraft carriers, stepped in dinosaur tracks, and walked the streets of the Big Easy. We’ve visited healing animals and walked along the Gulf. We’ve gladly foregone the American tradition of spending money we don’t have on stuff we don’t need and fighting Black Friday crowds to do so.
But what were we to do during a global pandemic with clear recommendations from the CDC to stay home and avoid gatherings?
Even more so than before we headed to Colorado for our summer vacation, we dove into deep conversation about what we were going to do. We made our reservations at Lake Mineral Wells State Park months before the fall surge began. There were reports that the fall was going to get bad but it seemed so far off. We invited my sister-in-law and parents-in-law to join us for an outdoor Texas Thanksgiving long before health officials were telling people that it was the only relatively safe way for Americans to gather over the holidays.
But after phone calls, COVID tests, intentional additional isolation outside of school and outdoor activities, and one anxiety-driven sobfest by yours truly, we packed up for our fifth annual Campsgiving trip, hopeful that four days of outdoor family togetherness would keep us safe while giving us the familial interaction we all craved.
We don’t regret our decision.
As seems to be the case with everything in 2020, our plans for the week were ever-shifting. We had initially made one set of reservations and then discovered that our family schedule required us to be home earlier than anticipated. After adjustment, we cut our four days down to two on one end of the week and added another day on the front end of the week. That meant moving after our first night, but at least we would get one more night with family.
It was a longer drive, so we pulled into the state park right before dusk. We nervously drove down the road that took us below the lake, past a spillway, and towards the campsites.
We had just enough light to pull into our spot and set up camp before it was too dark to see anything. As luck would have it, the campground bathrooms were still unusable due to a sewage issue, so we resigned ourselves to possibly being even more self-contained than normal.
By the time we were all set up, there was no way we were going to be exploring the park. We settled in for the night, our evening complete with outdoor dinner, a campfire, a short thunderstorm burst that included hail, and a little drama on the side, courtesy of one of our neighbors. (I recounted that particular drama on Twitter.)
We got a slow start to our first full day at Lake Mineral Wells because we had to move sites, which meant both cleaning our site and waiting not-so-patiently for the current occupants of our new site to pack up and leave. With the kids hanging out at my sister-in-law’s site, we moved the camper, set up at the new site, drove over to the office to check in, and finally stopped at the park store to rent life jackets in case we decided to take our new kayaks out on the lake.
By the time we had moved and completed all of the “must do” tasks, we were rapidly losing daylight. Jeff was determined to take our new inflatable kayaks–a spontaneous Amazon purchase that had spent the last month sitting on our garage floor–out on the lake. I think it’s been well established that of all the typical camping activities, kayaking ranks just above fishing, which I avoid with reckless abandon. The sun was already on its afternoon descent, the temperatures were dropping below 60, and I knew the water wasn’t very warm. We also had to inflate three kayaks (because my sister-in-law had also purchased one for herself) and hope that we got back to shore before it was too dark to see where we were going.
I was not excited.
It didn’t matter. I got our daughter, Jeff got our son, and we headed out onto our very own sunset cruise. With each transition of my oar, my legs got wetter and colder, but by the time we were out in the middle of the lake, I forgot my misery long enough to look out at the skyline and the last rays of sun glittering on the water.
Ok, I’ll admit it. I’m glad we went out on the lake, despite my need to change into much warmer clothes and sit by the fire once we got back to the campsite.
I had ambitious plans for Thanksgiving Day. Not only were we going to prepare a full Thanksgiving meal, but we were going to go for a hike beforehand and a bike ride after (Lake Mineral Wells is on one end of a 20-mile long rails-to-trails trailway).
We were only partially successful.
We got a later start than usual, but that’s pretty normal for us (which is why Jeff always wonders why I try to have ambitious plans while we’re camping). By the time we drove over to the trailhead for the Red Waterfront Trail, which would take us to Penitentiary Hollow, we were already approaching the time we would need to start making Thanksgiving dinner. Instead, we were hiking along the lakefront, climbing over rocks, and praying that our adventurous and fearless children wouldn’t fall off of the many boulders that they insisted on climbing the entire way along the trail.
The trail is gorgeous, the rocks are plentiful, and it appeared there were a lot of people who were trying to squeeze in a pre-dinner hike.
When we finally returned, we got started on Thanksgiving dinner. The kids headed over to their aunt’s campsite to craft while Jeff prepared the turkey. I took care of some things around the camper before starting on the rest of our Thanksgiving dinner, all cooked using our outdoor cooking devices.
Yes, it is possible to cook an entire traditional Thanksgiving meal outside; you just need to have all of the right tools.
I know that this shows no humility, but it really was a delicious dinner. The bacon blanket on the turkey made for an excellent appetizer and kept the turkey perfectly moist, the sides were all delicious, my sister-in-law’s ham added an excellent final touch, and I still had enough left over to take home so I could make my traditional post-Thanksgiving tetrazzini.
Once again, Campsgiving dinner was a perfect success.
By the time we were done with dinner, it was clear I wasn’t getting my bike ride. Trying out the trail would have to wait for another trip to a state park I was quickly falling in love with. Instead, I left everyone behind for a solo sunset hike along the Blue Waterfront Trail, which follows the lake from the two main camping loops. It was a break I desperately needed, and by the time I returned to the camper, nearly all of the dishes were done.
The rest of our trip was quickly absorbed by an evening of crafting, another warm campfire (which cut through the unseasonably cold evening), using our cheap telescope to look at the moon, and finally all of the adults helping to replace my sister-in-law’s falling apart awning.
The kids and I enjoyed one final adventure when they showed me the old gazebo that they had found after following paths from their aunt’s campsite, which was in a separate loop from ours. We had all seen the structure while we were kayaking out on the lake, but had no idea how to get there. While they waited for the adults to finish the work of packing up and camper repair, they had done some of their own exploring to find the “castle” structure and I was happy to oblige them with a short hike to see it for myself.
After a year of anxiety and constantly shifting “norms,” our Campsgiving trip was probably one of the most “normal” things we did in 2020. We didn’t have to change our Thanksgiving traditions because our traditions took us where we were safest, especially if we kept our masks handy whenever we were going to be meeting people. And while there was still anxiety about meeting up with family, the small size of our group and the consistent outdoor activity made for as safe of a gathering as we could have hoped.
Why would we want to do Thanksgiving any other way?