Note: This is part four of a seven part series about our camping trip up north during the summer of 2018. I had originally written this as part of a much longer memoir manuscript, but as I continue to rework what has been been written, the original is taking a different shape. However, I still wanted to share everything our family experienced and learned while on that vacation. So as I take a writing break so I can successfully make the transition back into my classroom over the next few weeks, I’ve broken down and revised the 2018 summer journey, which was a very different adventure from our 2019 vacation.
Our stop at Starved Rock had been short, too short to really do any exploring. But we had a new state to camp in as a family and our kids had a new state to visit, so while I would have loved to take a hike to one of the state park’s many waterfalls, there was not time. When we finally packed up our site and I had delivered lunches to everyone, we headed towards Wisconsin, passing rolling Midwestern fields of corn and soy, crossing the Mississippi for the second and then third time of our trip up north, and finally arriving at Nelson Dewey State Park for three nights and two full days of camping and relaxation before starting our trek back south.
We had tried camping in Wisconsin ten years before we made this a part of our family vacation; our first attempt as a couple had been one month before the conception of our daughter. It had been a summer of long work hours and the start of more intensive fertility treatments. We needed a relationship reset, and camping had always been how we did that. We also needed something that we could afford on our small budget. Jeff recalled going to Wisconsin for a camping and bike trip with his parents and siblings when they were kids. Jeff was born in Wisconsin, but since he moved from the state when he was only ten days old, he rarely claims the state of his birth. However, his parents still made occasional return trips with the whole family and this was a trip that had left a definite impression on Jeff’s formative years.
“Besides,” he said, “Wisconsin state parks are awesome. If we can get a spot at one of those parks and then bike the Elroy Sparta Bike Trail, it will be a perfect long weekend.”
Only he didn’t take two things into consideration. First, we were trying to get a state park camping spot in Wisconsin in a popular area of the state during the summer and we were making these plans on the spur of the moment. Second, we were both in terrible shape. We had no business riding our bikes ten miles, let alone the twenty-plus miles that we ended up riding on the nearly forty-mile trail. The first rails-to-trails project in the U.S., Elroy Sparta Trail covers 32.5 miles one way, going through three dark train tunnels and five small Wisconsin towns, all catering to bikers who decided to do all or parts of the full 65-mile trip. It was a scary proposal, but I was ready to give it a try.
We weren’t able to find a state park spot, but we found a private campground close enough to the trail to accommodate our needs. I made the reservations for three nights, hopeful that the three-day romantic getaway would be our last getaway as a childless couple before we were able to announce to the world that we were going to be parents.
We arrived at the campground in time to set up our tent before nightfall, but we noticed something bothersome about the site; it appeared to be right across from a swampy area and was buggier than we would have liked, especially for daylight hours. We were experienced tent campers by this point. We had been to several state parks in Indiana and Michigan and we had tent camped to Yellowstone National Park and back. We knew a good site when we saw it.
The same could be said for a bad site
By nightfall, we found ourselves running from our truck to our tent to avoid being carried off by a swarm of mosquitoes.
Just when I thought that we couldn’t have a worse start to our weekend, my body decided that it was going to have the last laugh for the weekend. For days I had been ignoring the headaches, cramping, and mood swings, attributing them to the hormones that I had been on and the anxiety of waiting to take yet another pregnancy test. But that morning, like clockwork, my body let me know that I definitely was not pregnant. What was supposed to be our last trip as a childless couple was now just a regular, non-celebratory camping trip.
Crushed, I told Jeff the news as we prepared to leave. Determined to distract both of us from another month of disappointment, he rushed me into the truck so we could get on our way. We spent the day riding our bikes up and down the Elroy-Sparta trail, although neither of us remembers exactly how far we went on our adventure. All we remember is that we were out of shape and had no business doing the trail, but we did it anyway and admittedly had fun while doing it. But then we had to return to our tent. Usually heading back to our tent meant that we were returning to our home away from home. This time we dreaded what we would discover when we got back to our site.
It was dusk when we returned to our tent. In the headlights we could see that the mosquito situation had not improved and we steeled ourselves for the run from our truck to the tent. When we finally settled in for the night, we had a decision to make. We had never cut a camping trip short. We had suffered through rain, cold, and uncomfortable heat, because once we staked our tent down, we were committed for the time we had paid for. And mosquitoes? They are an unfortunate reality of camping in most places in the United States. There really isn’t any escaping them. But this wasn’t a typical annoyance. This was a swarm, taking us from a mild bother to ire-raising irritation.
So this time we were done.
The next morning we went to the office and told them that we were leaving a day early. Still on a very tight financial budget, we asked if we could have our money back for the last night, especially since we were leaving early because of the unfortunate situation of the close proximity of our campsite to a swampy mosquito breeding ground. After a short period of arguing with the manager about why we should be reimbursed for our unused night, he finally gave an exasperated sigh and said, “Well, some people just aren’t cut out for camping.”
Excuse me? We weren’t cut out for camping? We had survived a premarital bout of altitude sickness on our very first camping trip when we went to the Rocky Mountains and still kept camping. We had traveled from Indiana to Yellowstone National Park and back in eight days with the bare minimum of our camping supplies, setting up our tent and taking it down every day, sometimes in the dark with just a single propane lantern shedding shadowed light on our progress. We had chased off hungry raccoons and thwarted them from taking our food out of our screen tent storage locker. We had survived a thunderstorm on the sandy shores of Lake Michigan and kept camping even though water had gotten through the floor of our tent, leaving puddles at our feet as we climbed out of our bed.
We could handle a couple of mosquitoes, thank you. We just didn’t think it was necessary for us to tolerate hoards of them.
We didn’t know it at the time, but that trip to Wisconsin was one of our last camping trips in our tent. One month later we were driving up to Michigan to tell our parents that they were going to be grandparents, changing our camping lives forever. And when we finally got back into camping, Wisconsin was never on my radar, especially after our bad first experience camping in the state.
But with a wedding in Dubuque, Iowa, right across the river from Wisconsin, it seemed like a waste of vacation travel to not spend a couple of days in Wisconsin, taking our kids there for their first time and earning a camping sticker that we could place on our camper. So I found a location that would put us within shouting distance of Dubuque and appeared to be close enough for us to do at least one sightseeing activity in the state.
To be honest, I knew Wisconsin had its pretty spots, especially up north closer to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, but I had no idea just how lovely the Mississippi River portion of Wisconsin actually is. We drove into a park full of green trees, river overlooks, and a near-perfect reserved camping spot in the back of the campground. And even though our set up wasn’t easy (we had to use an adaptor to run water to our camper so we could fill up the tank, in the sprinkling rain, with thunder rolling in the distance), by the time we were in our spot, we couldn’t be happier with where we were. There was no playground, but our kids did what our kids do when there isn’t equipment to play with: they found a puddle and started making their own dirty fun. Over the next couple hours, while we set up and contemplated what we needed to do to get some of the supplies that we had run out of, they played with chalk, worked on a dirt pile, and made a “potion” in a pothole using dirt, a stick, and a water bottle they took from the truck.
Jeff and I finally decided that we needed to head into the small town to replenish a couple of the supplies that we had inevitably run out of, like bread and milk. Convinced that it couldn’t possibly be big enough to be the town grocery, we drove right past the grocery store and headed out of town. The problem? We didn’t have service and the next town was at least 15 miles away. Without the help of GPS, we started our search for a store. When my data finally kicked in for what seemed to be only a couple of minutes, we discovered that the store we had dismissed as being too small for a grocery store was in fact the only grocery store for miles. I was ashamed to admit to myself that I had judged the small town amenities as being insufficient for our needs. With more than a little humility, we headed into the sufficiently stocked store, got what we needed, and headed back to our campsite.
Our night got more complicated when we ran out of propane (something I had forgotten to put on my pre-camping shopping list) while I was cooking. Thinking I could get what I needed at the gas station, I discovered I had to wait until one of the main street stores opened in the morning. So much for my promise to make bacon, eggs, and sausage for breakfast.
Our final challenge for the night was teaching our kids how to get clean in single-temperature push-button showers. It didn’t help that Lydia was still recovering from her unfortunate encounter with the Arkansas ground just days earlier, her surface wounds still healing and sensitive to pressure. We got them just clean enough to get the “potion” dirt and bug spray off of them, thankful for push-button showers that lasted longer than a couple of seconds.
We were finally parked for more than a single night, ready for a day of exploration instead of travel. We just needed a solid night of sleep before we did so.