Quick: picture in your mind your favorite family vacation memory from your childhood. Don’t think about it too hard. Now let me guess: you’re imagining yourself on a mountain lake, or pitching a tent with your dad, or sitting in the back seat of the family station wagon, nudging your brother in the ribs. Right?
If your childhood vacations were anything like mine, they rang of simpler times: pack the car, grab a map, and just add water. If I was lucky, I had a Walkman to keep me company on the interstate (my brainy sister preferred her Rubik Cube). My own kids are growing up with a different definition of family vacation. Time away seems more elusive now, making the impulse to ‘pack in as much as possible’ hard to resist. Often, I feel I have to ‘go big’ on vacation, providing my kids with resort programming, busy theme parks, or long-distance plane rides. With a travel writer for a mom, my kids have sampled a little bit of everything, from five-star luxury resorts to rustic yurts, but to my continual surprise (and pride), they prefer our outdoor vacations hands-down. They’d rather see a tent at the end of their travel day than a Jacuzzi suite. Forget kids’ clubs, Zagat ratings, and turn-down service: all my boys want is exactly what I loved as a kid…a little dirt, a lot of water, and to be out-of-doors with their parents, exploring the world.
Turns out, that’s harder to pull off than I initially realized (insert phone call to mom and dad, thanking them for all those camping trips). If you’ve tried to recreate a similar childhood trip, you know a lot of man hours go into a ‘simple’ family vacation in the outdoors. There’s food to prepare and pack, equipment to purchase, and guides to study. Even after years of experience with backcountry and camping trips with our kids, our boys start off each adventure with two harried parents.
Enter a rafting trip: the quintessential American family vacation, 2.0
Here’s a family travel life hack: a rafting trip includes all the makings of fun childhood memories without any of the stress, all wrapped up with a bow (well, you’ll have to provide the bow, but you can handle that much, right?). How about an example? When we received our packing list upon booking our five-day Rogue River rafting trip in Oregon, I literally turned the single-sided paper over, expecting the list to continue on the back. Nope. Nothing there. All we needed, we could easily stow in one waterproof duffel (provided) apiece. Seriously? Seriously. What about food, I thought? Covered. Well, but snacks. Lots of snacks. And water bottles. A water filter for a fresh supply. Trash bags. Toys and games. Utensils and plates and pots and pans and a good camping knife and eww, toilet paper. And what about a shelter from the sun, tents, chairs…I started to feel overwhelmed, then it hit me: all of the above, every bit of it, was taken care of for me. Hello, vacation.
My son and I set out on our rafting trip with only a bag of clothing, personal essentials like sun protection and water shoes, our sleeping bags, and the smiles on our faces. I still worried about those snacks…right up until the second hour of our five day trip, when our trusty guide Jenae popped open a container of the most delicious trail mix we ever tasted (why does food taste so much better outside?). The treats just kept coming, and throughout our journey down the Rogue, we were continually amazed by the gourmet offerings our guides could concoct in the middle of nowhere. Best of all, none of it was cooked by me.
For the following four days, I found myself reliving those family vacations of my past. Our guides took care of everything, from itinerary decisions to clean up to entertainment, leaving me free to play like a kid again. I’d forgotten how wonderful it felt not to be in charge of, well everything. This was different than sitting by the hotel pool, trying to relax while worrying about the excursion booked for the next day, or closing my eyes on the plane just to reopen them to hunt down that next set of boarding passes. During our trip, I felt myself truly unwinding, each tense muscle relaxing in the warmth of the summer sun. In the late afternoons when our rafts nosed to the banks of the river and the guide team set to work making camp, I hopped out and did as I liked. As a kid, I would have waded in side streams and collected river rocks, and as an adult, I basked in the setting sun, cracked a beer, and watched my own child live out the antics of my past.
I remained blissfully on ‘river time’ for the duration of our trip. Our days took on a simple rhythm of whitewater, campfires, great food, and cozy sleep, punctuated by good company and good wine. The kids made new friends (is this perhaps summer camp 2.0 as well?) and my cell phone sat like a paperweight at the bottom of my bag. My primary responsibilities included sunscreen application and sunset viewing, and I even found time to sit back and stare at the clouds, just as I’d done on countless summer days in my youth. Once, when my son asked me for the time and I mumbled something about ‘afternoon-ish’, I saw a look in his eyes that said, ‘Did OARS break my mom?’ I knew the opposite was true. And as I sat around the campfire, watching the kids laugh, their hands sticky with marshmallow residue and their faces dirty, it hit me anew that I could have been viewing a Kodak slide from my own childhood. Right then and there, I made a mental note that for our next rafting trip, we’d invite the grandparents. I want just one more trip with my mom and dad.