You'll love camping!" My husband's eyes glowed. "Did I ever tell you about our Boy Scout Jamboree? We had to catch a chicken and cook it!"
I pictured a thousand starving Boy Scouts chasing one scrawny chicken. "Did you earn your chicken-killing badge?"
"Survival." Steve beamed.
"The poor chicken didn't survive," I pointed out.
I knew I wouldn't, either.
Sure, I cherished church camp memories. But who wanted to sleep in a tent with preschoolers and a crawling baby whose favorite flavor was dirt?
When our Sunday school class planned a campout, Steve lit up like a Coleman lantern. I tried to douse the flame. We owned no camping gear, I argued. Who would cover his solo medical practice? Steve's work allowed little family time and even less couple time. Yet he wanted to waste a precious weekend camping?
I told the love of my life I'd rather do other fun things—like undergo a quadruple bypass. I addressed God's Complaint Department, but no apology ensued. Instead, obstacles disappeared. Other physicians agreed to cover Steve's patients. Someone offered to loan us his entire camping set-up. Worse yet, my prayers brought growing conviction that God saw this camping trip as the catalyst to bond us to each other.
Would I obey Christ or wallow in decadent pleasures such as flush potties and central air?
Finally I told Steve yes. "Only if I don't have to kill any chickens."
The first night matched my worst nightmares. An emergency with a patient delayed our arrival at the campground until dark. The blind leading the blind, we tried to set up the tent. Our girls danced around the campfire like shrieking aborigines. Our baby's dislike for camping matched my own. He informed the entire park of his feelings. All night.
After sparse sleep, I awakened to a dank, drizzly morning and counted the hours until Sunday check-out.
"I'll watch the kids." Steve grabbed a bug before the baby could stuff it into his mouth. "Sleep."
I collapsed—and awakened to sunny skies and a fun afternoon of canoeing with new friends. Our play-weary children hit their sleeping bags early, and we adults sat around a perfect s'mores campfire under glittering stars.
"Okay." I toasted another marshmallow. "So I might have been wrong."
We started camping regularly. Over the years, it supplied cheap, fun, family time. But Steve and I also found camping played a big part in strengthening our marriage. Here's why.
We lose the clock
No plans to conquer the world. No practices, promises, or programs. Surrounded by towering trees and rippling lakes, a couple can drift into timeless mode.
When we're out in nature, Steve and I remember how to play. Did Adam and Eve watch clouds together? Did they draw tic-tac-toe in the dirt with a stick? As we relax, fresh thoughts spring up like green shoots through a forest floor. We even have time to think about each other.
Back home again, Steve and I transfer pockets of timelessness to our everyday chaos. We take walks. We hold hands and listen to music. We discover peace together in the woods; amidst the wild pace of daily life, we find it again and again.
We ignore image
On a campout, we impress no one. Steve gives up razors; I swear off make-up. We wear grubbies my mother would burn and lounge outside our tent in rickety lawn chairs.
During one stay, a gigantic Winnebago parked near us. A child in a designer outfit and spotless sneakers emerged to play with our three-year-old. Little Ralph Lauren Jr. asked, "Are you guys poor?"
Our son scanned the contrasting campsites. "Yeah."
Um, maybe we overdid it.
Camping teaches us to simplify and savor life. It's not about the biggest and best; it's about the relationship. Steve and I have learned to get past the materialistic fuss of our culture and celebrate us—even next to a giant Winnebago.
We talk without a cell
When we camp with kids, we talk over tea early in the morning, during hand-in-hand walks, and around the campfire while they sleep. Without television, we look each other in the eye and converse.
Today, cell phones, computers, beeping appliances, and satellite location systems bully couples 24/7. On campouts, our "emergency usage only" policy teaches us we can do without unnecessary gizmos at home. Occasionally my husband and I turn off all technology and tune into each other. We share truths God is teaching us and dream about our future. Restricting the yada-yada of hi-tech gadgets, we hear each other's voice—and each other's heart.
We ditch our roles
Because of Steve's demanding job, when our kids were young, I did it all at home: cooking, planning, refereeing, and kissing boo-boos. Camping changed our dynamic. Steve volunteered as cook; nothing tasted better than his pancakes and bacon served at a picnic table. He also drafted the kids into jobs I usually absorbed. He took them hiking so I could read a magazine. Steve loved serving. I loved being served! The change opened our eyes to a radical fact: Steve was a parent too. I dropped the notion I should personally supervise the kids' every bawl and burp, a first step in giving our family more balance.
We get physical
Swimming, canoeing, hiking, horseback riding, bicycling—all offer ways to play together and stay fit. We learned couple exercise wouldn't kill us and bought a tandem bicycle we ride at home and on campouts.
Just as Adam and Eve enjoyed the perfect sexual relationship in perfect surroundings, we discovered married couples can sample the joy the first man and woman knew—even if they bring little Cain and Abel. After an exhausting day, children without tv, Play Station, or computers often retire early. Although a two-room tent doesn't provide perfect privacy, it helps. Older children can sleep in a separate tent, which makes them feel grown-up and lets the grown-ups party. Couples' sleeping bags that zip together encourage major snuggling on chilly nights (my husband and I recommend quality air mattresses underneath). Daring? A little. But we, a very married couple, benefit from the call of the wild.
We face it together
Challenges inevitably arise on vacations. We campers often spell the challenge r-a-i-n.
When wet weather sets in, we pool creative talents to avoid miry moods. We head for wildlife centers, take mud hikes through verdant, dripping woods, and play wacko versions of Uno under a tarp.
One evening we set up camp in a downpour. As lightning flashed, my grouchy husband handed me metal tent poles.
"Hold these high."
I stared at him. Had he lost his mind? Worse yet, had Steve taken out a secret life insurance policy on me?
Such situations provide excellent fodder for honest, er, discussions. Years later, they supply us with lots of laughter—and serve as potent reminders we can make it through anything together.
We remember God
Serving as a human lightning rod raised my prayer life a notch or two. Fortunately, safer alternatives to spiritual growth abound in the woods. As we explore terrain and spot falling stars in black velvet skies, we cannot help but admire God's artistry. Reading the Bible together amidst a bird concert or praying by a campfire seems natural. Like padded cubicles, everyday circumstances separate us from each other and God. Meanwhile, nature celebrates Jesus! The trees clap, and "the skies proclaim the work of his hands" (Psalms 19:1).
A camping trip makes us want to join the applause. Even when Steve and I return home, our awakened senses notice God's custom-designed beauty in our own backyard.
Camping doesn't offer the easiest method to connect spouses and Jesus. But when, at God's and my husband's nudging, I traded my comfort zone for the camping zone, God unlocked our lives for further adventure together. And now I'm totally up for it.
As long as I don't have to kill any chickens.
Rachael Phillips, an MP regular contributor, is a freelance author. She and her husband have been married 33 years.
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.