When I was a boy growing up in South Texas, my family would take off for about two weeks every summer and go camping. The first camping trips I remember were to the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee.
I remember taking family pictures in our “Dirty T-Shirts” in front of the park’s entrance sign.
I remember walking up the inclined ramp to the top of Clingman’s Dome, thinking, “Are we ever going to get to the top?”
I remember the awe that I felt seeing real live black bears up close and personal, not trapped behind bars at a zoo. And I also remember being a little bit frightened (OK, maybe more than just a little bit) hearing the bears dig through the garbage cans right outside our tent at night.
I remember vividly the time that I went exploring and got lost. I sat down on a log by the side of the road and began crying my eyes out. After what seemed like hours (but I’m sure was only a few minutes), my Dad came walking up whistling, carrying one of my brothers on his shoulders, and took me safely back to our campsite.
Hill Country Camping
Then there were the summer camping trips to the River Bend Campground, located near the small town of Leakey in the Texas Hill Country. I remember so well the many, many times we drove from River Bend up to the Pecan Grove Campground with our inner tubes, and “put in” the Frio River, commencing a one-and-one-half-hour to four-hour river float (depending on whether we stopped at our campground, or continued on to the Utopia road crossing). Those memories are so vivid that, when I close my eyes, I can almost feel the Frio’s crisp, clear, cold water as I splash my arms and legs over the sides of my tube. I can see in my mind the spot along the river where there is a beautiful house on the edge of a cliff, looking out over the river. I can feel the anticipation of approaching a set of “rapids”, and the exhileration of shooting the rapids at warp speed! Wow! That was fun!
One summer, we went horseback riding over at Pecan Grove. My younger brother David got a really old, slow horse. About halfway through the trail ride, the guide dropped back to stay with David, and told the rest of us to just follow the trail back to the stables. Being the caring brother that I am (and perhaps motivated just slightly by how cool it would be to ride all by myself), I left the group several times and went back to check on David. The last time, after checking on David, it took longer than normal to catch up with the others. I came to an open field and saw the group up ahead, galloping back toward the stables. I thought, “Here’s my chance!” I gave my horse a good kick in the belly, and away we went! “Man, this horse is fast!” He was loping, with me bouncing gently in the saddle. We had to be going at least a hundred miles per hour! The blood was coursing through my veins, my hair was blowing in the wind … and my right foot was gradually slipping through the stirrup.
“Boy, I’m in big trouble now,” I thought. And I was right. A couple of bounces later, my foot slipped all the way through and down I went. There is one major problem with falling off of a galloping horse while your foot is caught in the stirrup. The biggest problem is not hitting the ground. That hurts, but it’s over with pretty quickly. No, the biggest problem is what happens after you hit the ground, with your foot still caught in the stirrup and the horse still running full speed. Fortunately, the horse didn’t step on me as he dragged me.
Finally, the stirrup broke. The horse now had the stable in his sights. With a total lack of concern for anyone other than himself, the horse kept running toward home, leaving me to fend for myself. I checked for broken or missing body parts. Finding everything still pretty much intact, I picked up the broken stirrup and began “hoofing it” (pun intended) back to the stables. Besides some nasty scrapes and bruises, the only thing hurt was my pride.
Around the Campfire
One of my favorite memories of our camping adventures is the “O’Rear Family Singing Hour”. Before heading for the hills, Dad always borrowed several church hymnals and packed them away as essential camping gear, right along with the Coleman stove and lanterns. On many evenings, after we had roasted marshmallows and gorged ourselves on S’mores, Dad would whip out the song books and pass them around, and the singing hour would commence. Quite often, neighboring campers would wander over to sit and listen, and sometimes would join right in. “Amazing Grace”, “The Old Rugged Cross”, and “Farther Along” somehow sound just a little bit sweeter when sung around a campfire late at night, with a Texas Hill Country full moon peeking through the trees.
Lots of Wonderful Memories
On Sundays and Wednesdays we would worship with the Leakey Church of Christ, a small congregation filled with warm, caring country folks. They would always have a special Wednesday night singing service when we were in town, which we thoroughly enjoyed. Quite often, we would be invited to someone’s house for dinner or just to visit. We developed close friendships with many of the people from the Leakey church. Some of those friendships have lasted for years and years.
I could probably go on for hours on end, recounting the wonderful memories of those summer trips: Fishing for baby perch with tiny hooks, using broken-off little pieces of worm for bait. Going crawdad hunting in the river late at night with waterproof flashlights. Seining for minnows in the rapids. Jumping off of the “big rock” into the beautiful blue water of the Frio. Hiking all over the campground in search of adventure. Riding our bikes up to the Happy Hollow grocery store to buy fishing worms. Playing volleyball with the other campers. Charley the Squirrel who would eat out of our hands. The Big Flood. Baby brother Clint coming roaring down the hill on his Big Wheel, wearing nothing but a diaper. Oh, the memories!
And that brings me back to my original thought. “In the race to be better or best, don’t miss the joy of being.” We live in a world of instant coffee, microwave ovens, self-serve gas stations with pay-at-the-pump convenience, drive-through car washes, and 50- to 60-hour work weeks. Our lives are characterized by instant gratification and fast-paced living. There doesn’t ever seem to be any time to “stop and smell the roses”. Roses, however, were intended to be smelled.
And so here is my challenge. Take time to enjoy life. Parents, make the time and expend the energy to help make memories for your kids. There will always be a million and one other things that need your time and attention. But I would suggest to you that nothing needs your time and attention more than your kids do. Take your kids camping. Go to the zoo. Spend a Saturday in the park. Visit important historic sites. It doesn’t really matter what you do. Just do something to make memories with, and for, your kids.
My brothers and I are all grown up now. Our childhood years are gone forever. We can never recapture those years, but we can re-live them. You see, my Mom and Dad understood the importance of taking the time for family. And that is why we went camping every summer. If they had kept putting it off until there was more time, it would have never happened. And now it would be too late. Thankfully, I have lots of wonderful memories from my “growing up” days, because they didn’t put it off. Those memories are precious gifts that I will cherish for the rest of my life.