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Vacation tent tales

A hotel stay may be more comfortable, but it can't beat the tales that roughing it in a tent is sure to provide.

As I peek back through summer's quickly closing door, my heart aches for a night on a leaky air mattress, stuffed in a sweltering tent with my husband, my children, and a few mosquitoes.

What's wrong with me? How could I miss my family's usual summer camping adventures when, instead, we flew to our vacation destination and stayed in wonderful lodges? I'm a toiletry-toting, blow dryer-wielding woman. Ordinarily, I consider electrical outlets in the bathroom essential to my survival. What could I possibly miss about tent camping?

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Could it be the freedom of the road? Hmm... My husband and I pack the car so tightly that I often wonder if we'll crush camping-gear atoms and cause a nuclear explosion. Then we set off in a vehicle that may not be reliable for transportation to the corner grocery. Inevitably, the temperature and humidity soar, especially if we head south. (I won't even mention all the years we did this without air conditioning. Why didn't we spontaneously combust?)

It must be the actual camping I miss. We arrive bone tired after two or three days of hard driving. Setting up the tent helps work out some of the kinks.

Fortunately, we've learned to check for poison ivy and camouflaged train tracks before we empty the car's contents.

Then we get to work pounding stakes (jackhammer, please; campground dirt is like concrete), sorting poles (please, let them all be here), and pumping up air mattresses (do this inside the tent, we've discovered, and you'll sweat like a human sprinkler). In half the time it takes to build a hotel, we're good to go.

By then we're hungry enough to eat tree bark, but we hold out for the campfire supper. What could be better than weenies on cheap white buns, a can of pork and beans (oops, forgot the can opener. Not the ax, Honey!), and roasted potatoes (done to perfection two hours after we've chowed down everything else, including a week's supply of s'mores).

Then it's time for the true test of our vacation endurance. Silently we march toward a nondescript building, easily located by a scent that's anything but understated. With trepidation, we open the door to the campground bathroom, knowing this very act may unleash an overwhelming olfactory assault.

If we're fortunate, we're able to hold our ground. Then, commando style, we survey the facility. Whoa! We've got company: jungle-sized creepy crawlers everywhere. There are probably a dozen undiscovered species in there.

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When we get a good look at the bathroom sinks, our eyes really pop. Imagine a hundred people sharing a bathroom that's cleaned once a week.

By then the emotional wear and tear of the bathroom visit plus the sweatfest fatigue from getting our campsite set up has probably consumed the last of our energy. If so, we are best prepared to face our final trial: attempting to actually sleep in the tent.

Zipping ourselves in, we are vacuum-packed, preserved perhaps for all eternity, in a pyramid-shaped furnace. We lie flat on our backs, motionless except for our lips, which suck in vain for a solitary molecule of oxygen.

At any moment there may be a raccoon fight two feet from our heads, but for now, we pass the time in silence ... except for the crickets – billions of them – which are louder than rocket launchers. Have mercy on us and mate already!

And that's just Day One. We usually stay for two weeks.

Imagine the good times we have: rain blasting as if from open fire hydrants into our unzipped windows during a day-long excursion. Sleeping bags almost as rank as the box of dead crabs someone stashed under a car seat. A midnight tent collapse.

The stories go on and on. They've become family legends, and they only get better with the telling. You don't come home with tales like this when you stay at the Holiday Inn. And that's what I love about tent camping.