Vail Novice Mother: The kid gets good and filthy |

Vail Novice Mother: The kid gets good and filthy

Genevieve Coffey
Novice Mother
Vail, CO Colorado

VAIL, Colorado –“We got an air mattress,” one friend tells me. She follows this declaration with a shamefaced grin, but then laughs it off. “Best piece of camping gear I ever bought. I’m not about to share a Thermarest with my three-year-old.”

Recently, the husband and I joined two other families on a camping trip in Fruita. We packed the car with all sorts of child-friendly accessories –buckets, balls, board books – and parked at the site. There we unfolded our camp chairs, grilled up some steak, reclined around a fixed fire pit, and watched the rugrats roll in the dirt.

Once upon a time, before the arrival of the Kid, my whole idea of camping derived from an attention to mileage. There was a starting point and there was a destination, and these two things were not one-and-the-same. We actually abandoned our car at some trailhead or other; then we hoisted our packs and set out to traverse the landscape. Each day began with boiled water and idle calculations: How many flavor options are left in our stash of instant oatmeal? What distance might we cover, given the terrain and the potential for thunderstorms? And most importantly, how much longer before that methodical “backpacker’s high” kicks in?

In those days, minimalism was key. A weightless sleeping bag, a reliable ground cloth, a water filter – these were the trappings of necessity. Take your two-person tent and multiply its capacity by one toddler, though, and your entire belief system as an outdoor adventure seeker will change. I’ve seen many a backpacking loyalist adjust their principles when faced with integrating a two-foot tall human being into the adventure. Gone are the days of the fuel pump camp stove, with its windscreen and stuff sack … Now is the time of the Coleman two-burner stove.

During our days in Fruita, we alternated between riding the single track and supervising the kids. These events were, in turn, exhilarating (single track) and exhausting (kids). Hanging out with the toddler set involved jumping in the tent, running in the dirt, downplaying the allure of pointy foliage, delaying immediate gratification, and -most tiresome of all – managing property disputes. By the time evening rolled around and the kids were down for the night, we collapsed in our chairs and stared at the fire.

We hadn’t covered a significant distance on foot, we certainly hadn’t hauled dense packs over rough topography, but our weariness in the twilit hours was vaguely akin to that of the old days. The difference? This was spiritual mileage.

Once upon a time, my approach to camping was plain and resolute. If, as Henry Thoreau famously observed, “our life is frittered away by detail” than the purpose of getting outside for a couple of days was to erase any redundancies. At least for a little while. It was a purge, a cleansing exercise, and I was a believer. If anything, the Kid’s presence has tripled the surplus. But here’s the question: Is this experience any less authentic than the old Spartan approach?

I don’t think so.

You see, the Kid’s the point. Simplicity is restored by her sudden wakefulness to the world – her sense of novelty in the smallest things. It’s found in an indiscriminate collection of rocks, in the clean smell of sagebrush, a scattering of juniper berries in the shade, the sound of a breeze stirring our rain-fly in the night … And as I sat in my thoroughly unnecessary camp chair, digesting a heavy meal of delicious non-essentials and staring at nothing in particular, I got it. Camping doesn’t get much better than this. Life doesn’t get much better than this.

Genevieve Coffey is The Wife. E-mail comments about this column to

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