“Camping with toddlers” is a sentence that strikes fear into most parents’ hearts. It’s most definitely not a “vacation.” There’s the tent, the sleeping bags, cooking outdoors, what to do with the baby that puts everything in her mouth or the toddler who has no fear in a land of snakes, and the tetris-like skills required to figure out out how to fit all that gear in a car. Some people love it and there is no shortage of pinterest-worthy, idyllic photos of parents blissfully enjoying a bonfire in the woods while their young kids play gleefully next to them. I fell victim to these. I had grandoise fantasies of watching my kids explore the outdoors, not worrying that they were covered in dirt - “It’s good for them!” I tell myself - but the reality is, I strongly dislike mud and dirt on my pillow and in my bed. But, I still love camping and bon fires and sleeping under the stars. So, we decided to try the whole family camping business when we headed to the Valhalla Missile Silo to do some diving. And boy oh boy, was it one of the most epically bad weekends of camping I have ever, ever, had.
It started about a week before we left. Our plan was to drive to Dallas after work on Thursday and then the rest of the way to Abilene on Friday, planning to arrive sometime in the mid to late afternoon. The weather forecast was predicting rain. No problem, we’ve camped in the rain before. And I hoped and prayed and hoped some more that the forecast would change. As we approached the weekend, the weather seemed to shift slightly - rain mainly on Friday and Saturday morning, but then it was supposed to clear out. “No problem,” we again told ourselves - most of Friday would be spent in a car, so the rain was not a big deal. When we woke up on Friday morning, there were flash flood watches for Dallas and Abilene. For a third time, we told ourselves “No problem” - the missile silo was situated at the top of a hill, so flash flooding wouldn’t be an issue. As we drove west from Dallas to Abilene, we drove through some brief periods of rain, but the radar showed the heaviest rain going north. We arrived at the missile silo - a nondescript two track off of Texas highway 277, 23 minutes southwest of Abilene with the only distinguishing features being a concrete staircase down into the ground, a couple of cement slabs that used to be former foundations, a lean-to, and a larger cement pad with an inset steel pad (we would late discover these were the now non-functional blast doors where the nuclear missile was held). We had driven through some rain on our way from Abilene, but it had cleared out. While the skies were gray and overcast, there was a breeze. “Perfect! The breeze will dry everything out! No mud!” we thought to ourselves. I think you can see the pattern here: we were becoming foolishly optimistic about the weather.
We set up the tent, got the air mattresses inflated and the sleeping bags spread out. The shade canopy was up and the stove was set up, ready for us to cook dinner (corn bread and chili). And that’s when we had problem #1. We had gotten dry ice for the cooler to combat the Texas heat all weekend. Well, it worked a little too well. Everything was frozen - eggs had burst, milk was solid, and the blueberries would have been great for smoothies. No worries, we would just forego the corn bread but the chili would be enough. And it was good chili! Somehow, the same recipes cooked outdoors and eaten from a red solo cup while sitting in a camp chair taste better than at a kitchen table from real dishes. Don’t ask me why; maybe it’s the fresh air.
Not long after we were done with dinner, the wind started to pick up a little more. And it started to drizzle. And then the wind picked up even more and got pretty gusty. And the rain really started falling. We had the girls in the tent, all changed into their pajamas, trying to get them to sleep. But, the wind was so strong at this point that the tent was starting to collapse in on itself on the windward side; I could tell Evelyn was scared. Each time there was a gust, and the tent would collapse in a bit, we would get sprayed with water coming through the rain fly. Aaron tried valiantly to put a second tarp over the tent, and tie it back with more stakes, but it hardly helped and he ended up soaked in the process. The weather kept up like this for a few hours, the tent feeling flimsier and flimsier in the wind; us getting wetter and wetter. In a valiant effort to keep everything dry, we pulled stuff to the center of the tent. But, this was also the area that took the brunt of the through-rainfly mist that fell. No where was dry.
After getting sprayed in the face approximately 76 times, trying - and failing - to get the girls to sleep for nearly 2 hours, and seeing that the forecast had the wind and rain not letting up until sometime the following afternoon, I called it quits. Never before have I ever called it a night while camping and gotten a hotel room. I was tired of getting rained on, and tired of trying to get the girls to sleep. We were out of there.
Before we could leave though, I helped Aaron set up our second tent. It was smaller, and had a rainfly that went all the way to the ground. He’s camped in worse, and was going to stay. So there we were, 10:00 at night, setting up a second tent, in the wind and rain, with little more than headlamps. We were both soaked by the end of it. As I left to head to our hotel in Abilene, I gave him a kiss, and told him, “Stay dry.”
The next morning, when we returned to the silo, my decision to get a hotel was reinforced. The tent could no longer even support itself. The wind was still blowing, and the rain was still falling - more spitting really, but definitely enough to get us wet.
We headed underground, down to the second floor of the former command portion of silo. There we stayed most of the day - out of the wind and rain. That afternoon, the rain let up, and wind died down. We took down the tents - both of them as Aaron had decided to join us at the hotel - and discovered that two of the four tent poles had broken. No wonder it couldn’t support itself. As we were cooking dinner that night (stubborn as we were, we still had a functioning camp stove and had prepped all the food for the weekend), the clouds cleared a bit giving us a beautiful orange West Texan sunset.
But, it wasn’t long before the wind and rain came back. And with it’s return, we headed back to the hotel for the night. We gave the family camping thing a shot, the good ol’ college try, but the weather had other plans. I won’t say I’ll never camp with the girls again - the brief bit of fun we had before the rain started and the wind picked up showed me that it really is good for kids to spend time outside. But, I will check the weather next time, and decide to cancel if it looks anywhere near as bad as it did that weekend. It was miserable at the time, but in hindsight, definitely makes a good story, but one we are sure to remember.