The golden light of an Arkansas morning fell across my sleeping bag as I crawled out to make my morning coffee. My wife, Christina, snoozed in the tent alongside our 13-year-old daughter, Ursula, who was curled tight against our new dog, a black-and-white mutt named Domino. My 2009 Toyota 4Runner was parked not far away. As the sun crept higher, the scene was both eerily familiar and strikingly far out. I am a veteran outdoors writer with a family conditioned to camping; at the same time, the dog, the truck, and the location reflected a pandemic pivot many Americans experienced last year. Let me explain.
Our original summer plan had been simple: Send Ursula to camp. Her absence, in turn, would allow me time on the East Coast to see my dad, and Christina would work from home. Then early last year the cancellations started: First, Alpengirl Camp dropped its all-girl multisport sleepaway offerings; in June, my wife was laid off; and, finally, the airlines canceled my flights. Rerouting would now require 14 hours of travel to reach Boston. Plus two more tickets. And the dog.
So, like many Americans who found their lives upended, we made lemonade out of the lemons 2020 had served us and hatched a fresh escape plan. It came in the form of a reverse Kerouac, driving from our home in Texas to New England, on a zigzag route that hit state and national parks across the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic. Camping would allow us to maintain safe social distances while we got to know Domino and saw how she handled life on the road. We would explore wild American landscapes that still eluded me after years of travel writing, a plan bolstered by my files showing how open-air activities benefit our mental health.