I had no idea what to expect from European camping. Years before, I’d seen campgrounds next to the Mosel near Trier and Koblenz where campers, tents, and RVs stood in tidy, crowded rows along the riverbank. It never looked very inviting to me. I was a backpacker. I’d slept out in the open in Missouri state parks and in the south-central Missouri woods in state parks and wildernesses. I’d camped in city parks and on the banks of the Missouri River from when I walked from Montana to Missouri. My idea of a good time camping included open space. I liked places that didn’t have picnic tables or fire rings and that had the least possible human interference with the outdoors. An ideal spot allowed me to throw my canvas and sleeping bag on the ground next to a warm fire.
Euro camping, I knew, would be much different. The Europeans have less open space and wide-open, unoccupied land than Americans do. Their RVs and campers seem comically small next to their American counterparts. They dragged their trailers not with the oversized, overpowered pickups Americans used but with regular passenger cars and small SUVs. The European RV resembled more our camper van or cars with small, boxy living spaces attached to them. In all, European campers, trailers, and RVs all looked so cute compared to the big shouldered, portly waisted American versions of the home away from home.
There was little chance of sneaking off into a hedge row and setting up for the night, as I’d done that on occasion as I walked from Kansas City to Helena. Virginia is not a camper by disposition. Nick had proven himself capable of camping with me wherever we landed and in whatever situation. He’d been out with me in state parks at tent sites with no hookups. These camping trips were in organized slots where each site had a picnic table and fire ring. We camped out West, where we had, at best, a fire ring. He’d also been backpacking with me in a national forest wilderness in Missouri, where we made our own camp spots in the middle of the woods at the end of our day.
Udo had been camping with Nick and me before. He’d seen us operate and had slept out under the stars with us. But given a choice, he’d like a flush toilet and a spigot where he can wash his face. We had to keep Virginia comfortable and Udo within the civilized camping he liked. Anything but finding a place with electrical hookups and clean bathrooms would prove impossible.
Udo’s friends’ camper van came with a thick, unwieldy guide to campgrounds all over Europe. It gave rundowns of the amenities, such as restaurants, bars, and even bakeries associated with the camp spots. As I read through the guide, I wondered if RVers in the U.S. sought this kind of information as they poked around the country. My parents were RVers. They owned a thirty-some-foot fifth-wheel trailer they hooked up to their monster pickup and took off for state and RV parks around the West. They moved to Reno when I was 20 and lived in a fifth-wheel in the parking lot of the MGM Grand Hotel for seven years before buying a house about a half hour from the center of town.
The campground guide, however, was ambiguous about how to get to such places. There were cartoon maps. We tried to match the lines and numbers with our more- advanced Michelin road map. Still, we couldn’t divine where to go, how far to drive, or what to look for. Vesoul had a campground somewhere, we were sure of that.
We followed little “camping” signs on posts with other signs directing drivers to other towns and attractions. We wound up at a place outside of town. We looked it over with indecision. It didn’t look inviting. The day was hot and humid, the sun full. The place sat next to a creek in a pretty floodplain where trees grew next to the creek and the campers stood in a field exposed to the sun. Some kids kicked a soccer ball around in the dirt between the campers and RVs. Udo’s ambivalence, born of his reluctance to try anything new, made the situation worse. Where, exactly, would we set up among the other campers? It wasn’t clear. We felt like strangers at a party who didn’t know the rules for participation.
We wrung our hands until, finally, at my insistence Udo walked over to a couple who stood next to their trailer. Usually, I’m the guy who has to break the ice in a situation like this. Generally, I swallow my pride and embarrassment and dive right in. I asked Udo to do the same. These people don’t know us. If we embarrass ourselves with our ignorance, I said, we get to drive away and not see them again. Udo walked up to the couple, shy and apologetic. But he did spectacularly well. The man indicated through Udo’s beginner’s French that the campground was full. There looked to be plenty of space but since this was no state park in the middle of Missouri, I had no idea what to expect. We asked where we could go. The man, through a series of complicated gestures and stiffly dialectic French, which made translation even more difficult, indicated that another campground existed some distance from Vesoul.
We drove around in circles for another hour until we found the campground. Farm fields of wheat and corn stood on all sides of the place’s copse of trees and bushes. A closed gate greeted us. A few people had set up their campers and RV’s in organized rows. A woman walked to a bathroom/shower house that we could see from the gate. At my insistence, Udo ducked under the gate and hailed the woman. Virginia, Nick, and I watched as Udo and she went through a series of animated gestures. Udo turned and walked toward us with a smile.
The sun was setting and shadows getting long. The sky turned sunset orange and purple. The wheat grew golden under the setting sun. Beyond the fence on one side of the campground, a wetland spread under the trees. The humidity hovered around the saturation point and festooned a small lake around which the campground spread with haze. The proprietors were gone, Udo said, but the woman gave him a code to unlock the gate. We drove in and around the lake until we found a site as far from the other campers as we could get. I ushered us into a spot sheltered against the rising sun so we could have those extra minutes of sleep in the morning. Frogs burped in the wetland next to us. The haze that hung over the lake hovered over the wetland. Our site was a mown square of grass that hedge hemmed in on three sides. It was a pretty place, similar to the organized spaces of a KOA. It wasn’t my favorite kind of camping, but we weren’t in a National Forest wilderness. Other people seemed to like it. I resolved to do the same.
Once we parked, the construction phase of our camping experience began. Udo pulled a collapsible ladder from beneath the bench seats in the back of the van. When he assembled the complicated device, he climbed up and unhooked the fasteners on the pod that rode on top of the van. He pushed the pod open. He unfolded a platform that hung over the side of the van. He then pulled the tent down over the side like a drape. With telescoping poles, we slowly erected our tent over the top and sides of the van. We struggled with zippers and Velcro strips. Virginia, Nick, and I would sleep on the platform under the canvas on top of the van, and Udo made his bed on the bench seats inside. We assembled another ladder to climb up to the platform. We learned as we went. At first Udo was in charge, since he’d practiced setting the tent up on his own in his driveway. He’s a real German like that. He wanted nothing left to chance.
But setting the tent up was obviously something one had to practice. Udo took suggestions from Virginia and me. Nick displayed a revelation or two—“Hey, this pole goes into this slot!”—as we moved along. When we finally had what we thought was a set-up tent, we found we’d missed a step or two. But, hey, who’s counting? What did it matter if we didn’t have Tab B slid the correct way into Slot C? The thing would do for the night.
After we had all the zippers zipped, we took the cooler, our water bottles, and a few other things from beneath the bench seats. I was dying for a drink of water. While I downed most of a bottle of water, Udo opened the hatch on the back of the van. He and Nick started unloading the folding table, chairs, and a propane stove from their appointed slots. Everything had a place, and I could tell that one thing put back the wrong way would muff up the entire operation.
The implements and accoutrements were miniaturized and sort of cute. The chairs were little folding canvas stools, and the table with spindly little legs was made of Formica and aluminum. Another table held the stove with the propane bottle beneath. Everything looked like it was made for someone Nick’s size and height. Udo looked like a giant among this elfin furniture as he chopped onions and mashed garlic. I cut bread with tiny strokes since there wasn’t enough room at the table for two men with big shoulders and workingman hands. Virginia towered over the stove, where she was boiling spaghetti. Nick wandered around the hedge, singing and talking to himself. Once this fiddling around with gear commenced, it continued until, somehow, dinner of spaghetti with red sauce and salad appeared.
Dusk brought whole new rounds of animal sounds to our impromptu dining room. By the time we all sat down, scrunched over the little dining table, we ate with flashlights to the music of the frogs next door. When everyone had eaten their fill, the fiddling began again with washing up, stowing dishes in the chest from which we’d procured them, and putting the camp in some order.
By the time we finished dinner, night had fallen. A bird squawked and let go with primordial croaks in the wetland next to us. Frogs burped and whistled. Beyond the confines of the campground a dog barked. In the windless evening, we sat back in the humid but cooling air satisfied that, that day, we’d done our best. After we’d crawled up the ladder and arranged ourselves in the tight space, Nick and Virginia fell asleep right away. I could feel Udo moving around until, I supposed, he fell asleep too. Salad smells of cut grass, the sump-like freshness of the wetland, and the smell of waterproofed canvas filtered up into our small cubby. The great croaks of the bird punctuated the night. It was otherwise so quiet that I heard the soft sound of the dew dripping off the trees onto the canvas above. When I fell asleep, I kept thinking how lucky we were.