I like those old Coleman magazine ads where the kids stand by the stream with fishing poles, reeling in trout; Mom kneels near the picnic basket, driving in tent stakes; and Dad tugs at the station wagon, loosening the canoe. The cooler sits front and center, open and packed with ice, a reminder that springtime means being with family, setting up camp, and whittling.
Last spring break, we headed north to the Shenandoah River looking to recreate that very photo from my old Boy’s Life. But instead of bringing our canoe, we brought our 18-cubic foot car topper, loaded with Costco croissants, sourdough pretzels, and because they were calling for sleet, puffer jackets. The plan was to spend two nights in an A-frame cabin, which rented for $120 a night, make fires, and live like the Wilderness Family. The price was right, so we set off to summit the mountain.
Per AirBnB, we would “check in with the lockbox.” Without any strict timetable, we eased into our getaway by avoiding the highway. In our 2002 Lincoln, we moved through Gordonsville, Barboursville, Ruckersville, Stanardsdville, and McGaheysville. The town names fit the Ma-and-Pa simple life I imagined when I closed my eyes. Dawn loves Anne of Green Gables, and there was a bit of Prince Edward Island in the air. This had been her plan, so she got us all on board by drumming up the idea of being in a cabin in the woods.
In the car, the boys ate Slim Jims and Moon Pies while watching Boss Baby, their last bit of technology before the switch was thrown and every cellular signal was asphyxiated. Up front, Dawn and I listened to the podcast “American Serial.” We were prepping ourselves for a world without remotes, Netflix, and other rooms to escape to – or from. There would be no garage to tinker in or office to steal away to. We were setting out into the back country through the cradle of the Civil War. In the distance, I could see us putting up our feet next to the wood stove, eating cornbread, and looking for Old Yeller.
Our cabin stood outside of the town of Luray, literally over the river and through some woods, up a small mountain, and past some cows. Right before our turn off, we made an unplanned stop at Cooter’s Place and touched the real General Lee. The boys didn’t understand where we were, but I loved it.
“When I was your age, these cars were in my favorite show, The Dukes of Hazzard!”
“Who was the bad guy?” Levon asked.
I tried to explain that Boss Hogg was corrupt. Then, I added some details about The Boar’s Nest, Rosco P. Coltrane, and Uncle Jesse. It didn’t work.
“Dad, that show sounds really stupid.”
After a few photos next to the signature orange Challenger, we got back on the paved road that turned into gravel. A few minutes later, all signs of life disappeared.
The tiny A-frame cabin with a rooftop deck matched the online photos we had studied. A screened porch served as the main entrance to the house, which faced the Shenandoah River. Inside, the cabin had two bedrooms and a little loft, a tiny kitchen, and a seating nook. It all wrapped together intricately, feeling like the offspring of a jungle gym and a tent. But unlike our annual outing to the beach, I didn’t have to lug or carry any tent poles or the SPF sun shelter. When we arrived, camp was already set up.
On the lead-up to the trip, Atticus and Levon kept asking, “What are we doing for spring break?” When I was a kid, spring break meant getting dropped off at Grandmother’s for a week and eating Bugles. Dawn and I wanted to do something. As much as I was ready for my Birdwells, a sandy, exotic place was out, so we did what we could. Instead of surf and sun, we sat by the embers and felt the temperature drop. I could see John Denver’s round glasses staring at me while Country Roads played in my head. And though the fire and the river both exist in our own backyard, it was the going that we needed. A journey.
The cabin had its quirks. Heat came from a hefty electric stove in the center of the room, which made the boys’ sprints while getting ready for bed more dangerous. The floors squeaked, and there weren’t really any doors. Though we weren’t in one tent all together, it seemed that way. Vacation isn’t really a vacation with everyone outside their creature comforts and routines, but the cabin worked its charm. I jump-started an abandoned VCR, so we could watch Beethoven and dream about the dog that would soon be in our lives.
We unplugged (sorta) and got away.
It also helped that nobody goes caving in March. It was rainy and cold. We were one of three groups in Luray Caverns the day we visited, so the boys got to push the buttons that turn on the lights in each section of stalactites.
When I ask the boys about this trip now, they remember the loft where they slept. They remember the bad guy from Beethoven. They remember us fishing and launching bottle rockets, the wishing well, and the horseshoe pit at our campsite.
Dad remembered the fridge not being cold, wanting my fancy coffee machine, and missing my Casper mattress.
On the way back to Richmond, we stopped at Dinosaur Land, a 50-year-old roadside attraction with Mesozoic creatures – including a velociraptor, two T. rexes, and forty other fiberglass fossils. Dawn bought a blue sweatshirt, and the boys got some dinosaur eggs that hatched with some water.
As I eased our ride back into the garage, I spotted the 1954 Coleman cooler that I had picked up at a yard sale. It’s rusty, and the latch needs to be tricked into working. It’s not shiny like the one from the magazine, but neither are we. A little dust and a few scratches make some pretty good memories.