As long as we steer clear of castles, cathedrals or crumbling mounds of rock, we're reminded of how fun The Grumpy 5 Year Old can be. When I heard that the laid-back, West coast travel guru Rick Steves stopped traveling with his kids between the ages of 2-5, I figured the next few years would be challenging. In fact, one of Z's more recent quotes was, "Dad, I have some bad news. I don't want to be a traveler." Panicked, we decided to spend a weekend doing things he loves.
We've never gone wrong where there was a beach involved so living on a big island gives us lots of choices. As we do most weekends, we looked at the map to see which direction we hadn't been yet and saw it was time to head northeast, through the fertile fields of Suffolk and to the low-key seaside town of Southwold. Now I have to make a public apology to my English readers for my snarkiness in a prior post, where I implied there was no such thing as a truly free-ranging pig in the most densely populated country in Europe.
We were driving through farmland a good bit of the time and I warned C he would need to slam on the brakes if I saw a field of pigs. Then, where the road narrowed to barely one car width, I saw them, wading in the knuckle-deep mud of a flooded field looking very, very happy. The sun was shining brightly and I squelched up the roadside berm to get a photo. So there you go. I've atoned.
This particular weekend we wanted to try out our new Scottish tent. A few months ago, after a cramped and damp camping trip in Snowdonia using our lightweight backpacking tent, we decided to invest in a more substantial one. It's not surprising the Scots build great tents. I've heard that not only does it rain almost year round, but that rain often blows horizontal to the
ground rather than perpendicular to it. C and I have gone through a half dozen tents in our 20+ years together but when it came to buying a "family" tent it seemed as though the designs in the US just got dumber and dumber. Why, when you're trying to keep an infant warm and need enough space for the camping cot, diaper bag and toys, must your tent be tall enough to stand in? We had one of those for about two weeks. I swear, staring up at the ceiling I'd see spiders and mosquitoes waving down at me, thanking me for all the heat.
Our tent looks like a giant sausage roll cut in half. It has sleeping areas on both ends that can zip up into their own rooms. The space in between is a covered vestibule, big enough to prepare a 3 course dinner, store all the muddy boots and keep everything you could possibly need for camping handy and dry. It took C over 30 minutes to erect it. The thing smelled like a chemical bomb, so we left it to air out for the next few hours. From our site it was a short stroll to the expansive beach made up of smooth multicolored rocks.
Two wispy-haired guys sat silently in lounge chairs next to 15 foot fishing poles. Their lines were taught and unmoving. Eventually one of them would get up and start tugging on a pole, making it look as though he'd hooked a giant swordfish. But after reeling it in, all that emerged was either a wad of seaweed or a tiny two-bite fish. As far as the eye could see there were no castles or cathedrals and Z was happy. He ran his dump truck along the wet sand, hardly noticing when sea foam engulfed the wheels. One valuable thing I've learned since moving here is to bring rubber boots (Wellies) and waterproof clothing on every road trip. You're never far from a body of water and if it's not rainy it's muddy and if it's not muddy it's just about to rain.
Getting Z off the beach is like trying to get a cat to come when you call except cats at least look in your general direction before ignoring you. He usually starts following if we tell him we're leaving but not before we're a speck on his horizon. Then he'll spend the next 10 minutes screaming "Wait! Wait!" while other beach strollers glance sideways at us and consider speed dialing Child Protective Services. Generally, I like his ability to lose himself in activity and think it will serve him well as he grows. But I can't tell you how often my fingers have frozen and my whole body chilled before this child has caught up to me. Fortunately another thing I love about this country is you're never far away from a cozy pub. The one we entered had a blazing wood burning stove, tapestries on the walls, and a gentle black dog who was more than happy to let Z rub his face. We sat in squat, overstuffed chairs sipping our pints. Z scaled the bar stool and sucked down his cloudy apple juice, staring at his reflection in the mirror behind the liquor bottles.
Back at the tent we were eager to sleep in our new condo. Thanks to feather down sleeping bags and fleece-covered foam mats, we were cozy in no time. The waves kept a steady count of the passing hours. We all slept soundly and Z didn't emerge from his bed until 12 hours after he had crawled into it. He may not be a traveler but he l-o-v-e-s sleeping in a tent. C made the coffee and cocoa without having to step outside and we finally got moving around 11.
When you consider even the most basic accommodation here is at least $80-$100/ night, I'm thinking the tent investment will be recouped in just a few weekends. And really, what could be more satisfying than waking up nose to nose with a sweet child. It makes me think about how families may have slept together thousands of years ago in caves, snuggling close to keep warm. How that experience must have deepened their connection with each other. How, perhaps, the hardships of daily survival slipped away as the comfort of togetherness surrounded them, and they were reminded that these people are their tribe, their lifeline. I think camping for us is much more than a way to save money. It's a way to re-connect, to listen to nature, and remember that despite irritations, wet feet, cold hands and thinning patience, we really do love being together. And that grumpy 5 year-old? He was a total angel.