The Francis family tradition of backyard camping began simply enough. We had one tent in our garage that fit two people. A backyard camping idea, like a premonition gilded in white light, came to me. I wanted to build it and my father — after what I have to imagine was some deeply baleful pleading — consented to help out. The thing snapped together and, along with it, my plan to sleep outside. I convinced my parents, who had no particular reason to resist, to let me nest for the night in a backyard camping tent on a grass patch that was flat and covered by a long row of trees. I’d sleep within feet of the swimming pool.
It was not as though my desire to sleep outside stemmed from some sort of curiosity about camping. I had been camping with various YMCA father-daughter groups and alongside my brother’s Boy Scouts troop. I liked it, but knew the difference between that and sleeping in the yard. Still, for a kid, even the smallest sort of adventure is an adventure. And every adventure has its benefits. Outside, as dusk fell on Dallas, I let my imagination go into overdrive. I decided I was camping in the shadow of mountains. Then I decided I was sleeping on the shore. I imagined that I was very far from help and I imagine that I was fine with that.
I can’t help but think about those backyard camping adventures today, for the millions of kids who are staring down the gauntlet of a summer-less summer, a summer without sleepaway camps or recreation centers or sleepovers with friends. For many families, summer vacation is already cancelled, due to valid concerns about coronavirus and engendering a second wave of infections. But the backyard is always there. Grabbing a tent and trucking it out to a manicured lawn hidden behind a privacy fence isn’t nothing. And it was certainly something to me, even in normal times, even 20 years ago.
I wasn’t the sort of kid to get lost in a fantasy, but I was the sort to savor a possibility. And possibilities grew like weeds in the backyard, so I took to sleeping there semi-regularly.
On days my parents agreed to let me homestead their yard, the tent went up around noon and I spent the afternoon out there trading Pokemon cards with my chosen game partner, usually my brother, or playing make-believe. We’d play hide and go seek. We’d play cops and robbers. Before nightfall, we’d rush into the house and gather flashlights, coloring books, sleeping bags, midnight snacks, our stuffed bears, and blankets. We’d change into warm pajamas.
Dinner was almost always the same: burgers on the grill (as much like a campfire as it got) followed by s’mores, which had to be eaten and made next to our fireplace inside of the house. Of course, slow-roasted marshmallows and chocolate over the firepit would be better than over a gas-fired hearth, but we had no firepit. And more than anything, the s’mores were about ritual and the sense that we were getting as connected to nature as we could with our limited resources. After a series of sticky, gooey s’mores, my brother and I would retire to the tent. That’s where the real fun (and fear) would begin.
I’m not sure what it is about being a kid that makes ghost stories and hand puppets so fun. But huddled up in a sleeping bag with our big flashlight propped up against my knee and onto the backside of the tent, those shadow puppets came alive. I would laugh and laugh at stories about their various adventures, which were generally canine in nature as we only knew how to make the one type of shadow. After that, we’d tell ghost stories and frighten ourselves enough that our senses would go on full alert.
I’d hear the noises that my backyard and the “wilderness” that surrounded it offered; there was an owl I heard every night that I believe lived for the entirety of my life in that childhood home. There were creeping cats, and the inexplicable noises of sticks breaking, of what I knew had to be footsteps, of dangerous ghosts in the night. The hum of all of the generators in every backyard of every house in the neighborhood would lull me to sleep.
And then I’d wake up in the morning. My dachshund would bound outside and right into our open tent door with the only toy that he ever cared about, a rubber newspaper. My mom would call us in for a much-wanted breakfast of either pancakes or hot donuts with some pigs in blankets (a Sunday specialty). We’d eat inside as my dad took down the tent and the valuables that we placed in it.
And that experience, contained as it was, always felt like enough. Why? Because it gave me the smallest sliver of independence, a crack in the door separating me from the sort of choices that turn people into explorers — choices I wanted desperately to have.
For 24 hours over the weekend, I could be the sort of person who didn’t sweat the odds and could build a campfire no problem. I could feel that, even though I never did actually build a fire myself. What my parents provided for me, in that very safe backyard, in that quiet, green neighborhood with curbless roads, was the opportunity to truly make a day my own. I don’t know why I couldn’t do that inside. I just know that I didn’t. I needed the 15 feet of wilderness separating me from the back door.
After I came home, returning from my expedition, I would clean up and prepare for school. I would go back to being another kid in another house with another backyard. However, I knew that I had braved the wilderness — that I was different. Sure, my time in the tent was an adventure in miniature, but it was my adventure.