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The payoff of simple camping

July 08, 2011|Alicia Notarianni | Making Ends Meet

It cracks me up, looking back.

For years, I'd return over long holiday weekends to the small town where I grew up. My sister, Jolene, who was camping with her in-laws and friends, would come in to town to see me and go back out to camp.

Jo, as we call her, still lives in the area where we were raised. I never knew where she was camping, and she never invited me there. Far be it from me to invite myself. I didn't want to go cramping her camping.

I wouldn't admit it, but I was kind of intrigued. Where was she? What was she doing? What was it like and why weren't we welcome there?

As it turns out, Jo thought I might sniff at her camping style.

My hometown of Johnsonburg, Pa., has a population of about 3,000 and a total borough area of around three square miles. While I was growing up, we had to drive an hour though the woods to go to a mall or see a movie.

Though the Hagerstown area where I live now has a semi-rural setting, to some of my relatives it might as well be a metropolis. By virtue of living in another state, and because of this area's proximity to Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, my kids are the city cousins.

Finally, a couple summers ago when I was home, I began questioning my sister about this camp of hers. Was it a public campground? Was it a clandestine locus in a cave beyond a secret waterfall? Was there a password?

Jo seemed a little surprised and somewhat pleased that I cared. It turns out that her camp is neither a commercial site nor a grotto in the wild. It's somewhere perfectly in between.

Way off the beaten path, along the dusty ATV trails of the Allegheny National Forest, Jo's contingent mows a clearing and sets up camp. Some have campers, some tent. There is no fee, as it's not an official campsite.

"It's really rugged. There's not much out there. I don't know if you'll like it," she warned.

My husband and I commonly pitch a tent in our backyard, and we've camped in state parks and at commercial sites. Our camping has included bathhouses, swimming pools, water slides and big-screen outdoor movies.

At Jo's camp, men in steel-toed work boots burn campfire wood they've chopped with their own hands. Not "city-logs" picked up at the grocery store for chiminea cookouts.

My older boys were proud to wield the ax, and thrilled to venture off exploring with their cousins. My younger ones blew bubbles and excitedly played hide and seek.

The whole scene appealed to the girl in me who grew up catching crayfish from the "crick" behind my house

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I didn't sniff at it. I relished the craggy simplicity. Hearing the birds call, the crickets chirp. Looking family and friends in the face and talking, laughing, connecting, relating.

Water slides and movies can be fun. But sometimes getting away from them is even better.

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