Franck, left, and Jackson Franck, right, play a game
of cards near their air conditioned tent at Lanier's
Campground in Holly Ridge, N.C. The RV in the
background has a flatscreen TV on its exterior.
RIDGE, N.C. ó We pulled up to a picnic table on Skeeters
Drive, emptied our minivan ó known affectionately and
accurately in our family as "Big Stinky" ó and
took stock of our camping gear.
came the 10-man tent ó preposterously large for just me
and my two sons.
the camp cots, the sleeping bags, flashlights, inflatable
kayak, clothes and food ó so much food.
the objects of our little experiment: a free-standing air
conditioner and a waist-high refrigerator.
in the humid swelter of eastern North Carolina, I
immediately doubted the questions that plagued as I made
the 1,000-mile road trip to get here.
you climate control a tent to any reasonable degree in the
peak of coastal swamp summer?
a vacationing family in that lowly tent co-exist in an RV
park filled mostly with resident retirees?
it really possible for three people to take a five-day
trip to the beach for little more than $500, including
gas, food, entertainment and something resembling lodging?
most importantly, can all that be done while
strengthening, rather than destroying, the bonds between a
man and his sons, age 17 and 10?
answer to all that is yes, yes, yes and surprisingly yes.
perhaps I should qualify that, because it really depends
on your tolerance level for travel discomfort and your
relationship with camping, RVing and some strange
combination of the two.
accustomed to the pampering of concierge-class beachfront
resorts may want to stop reading, or else continue on for
the sheer pleasure of sneering at my squalid itinerary.
is there much by way of useful travel advice here for
those who camp only off-the-grid, with ultralight
provisions packed neatly in a backpack no larger than a
I can relate to both groups.
done high-adventure backpacking with my oldest son,
including an 80-mile, nine-day trek in New Mexico with
just one shower. So I know how to rough it.
while Iím cheap, I can splurge on travel. Our familyís
most typical vacation involves a beachfront condo, with
pools, jacuzzis and tennis courts.
this was another kind of trip, a spontaneous one that we
hadnít saved for.
had time off, but my wife didnít. Nor did my daughters
ó one who was at a summer term at college, and the other
with a friend in Florida.
we had all but called off previous plans to attend a
family reunion near Jacksonville, N.C., a half-hour from
the Atlantic coast.
the beach kept calling me, and my two sons were itching to
get out of town.
knew oceanside hotels were out of our budget. So, too,
were condos rented online. Even if we could find a
last-minute deal, it would certainly be for a full week
ó time we didnít have.
why not camp? Itís was just the guys, after all.
if youíve ever tried to sleep in a humid, mid-summer
tent, you know how miserable all this sounds.
I thought of my air conditioner.
bought my AC last year to cool a shed that I use as a work
area. Itís the standalone kind, the size of a
dehumidifier, thatís capable of cooling several hundred
square feet. It vents hot air out of a flexible plastic
duct, one that can easily be sent out of a zippered tent
isnít a hair-brained concept. Or if it is, at least itís
not my hair-brained concept. There are actually websites
like that that cover all this.
we packed the unit into the minivan. With only three
passengers, that left all kinds of room for creature
comforts, including the fridge ó because why not?
destination was the beaches of Topsail Island, N.C., or as
close to the beach as we could reserve last-minute. We
would attend the family reunion on the last day.
picked an RV park, rather than a state park, because I
needed access to electricity, lots of it.
also opted for the kind of park with a pool, shower houses
and laundry ó three essentials for battling the sand,
saltwater and sogginess of the beach.
found all that at Lanierís Campground, 1161 Spot Lane,
Holly Ridge, N.C., on the Intercoastal Waterway about a
mile from the beach.
paid the lean price of $100 for three nights combined. We
saved even more by stopping by a friendís house in
Hickory, N.C., on the way for a free night of lodging at
their lakeside home ó with water skiing thrown in.
before reaching our campground, we dropped by a Wal-Mart,
loading up on all the empty calories that a motherless
trio of boys could desire.
we were high spirits when we unpacked "Big
Stinky" at Lanierís on a Thursday afternoon. We
formed a small mountain of gear on the sandy seagrass of
our 15-by-30-foot plot, complete with picnic table, water
spigot and power pole.
took about 15 minutes, with an additional 45 minutes
arguing over tent pole configuration and the distribution
were all proud of the fabric cabin we had erected.
was plenty of room for our cots (the bulky kind, almost as
nice as a bed), a kitchen area with card table, a fully
stocked fridge, and lots of electronics like a two-screen
portable DVD player.
30 minutes or so, the AC was doing a decent job of
battling the heat. It wasnít winning, of course. Tents
lack virtually all insulation, so you canít expect
chilly comfort under a blazing sun. But even so, the cool
circulating air tames the misery. And at night it was
downright wonderful, with the unit actually shutting down
a few times because it reached the target temperature.
spoiled is a relative term at Lanierís Campground, a
place that really isnít a campground at all.
was the only tent we could see among the dozens of plots
on the compound that day.
later came across one small tent across camp occupied by a
particularly amorous couple, lovebirds too distracted by
each other to know or care that they didnít have so much
as a box fan to keep them cool.
is better described as a mobile home park, especially on
the weekdays. The trailers and RVs that fill most of its
lots have not been on the road for months or even years.
wheels are covered with gardening lattice. Most have decks
and three-season rooms attached, in some cases larger than
the trailers themselves.
up camp there is like visiting a new cultural ecosystem.
Confederate flags hung in our corner of camp, along
Skeeters Drive. Even so, it was a fairly racially diverse
the day and into the evening, golf carts circled the
complex, with teen and preteen drivers living out the one
summer perk of being dropped off for weeks with the
these gangs of grandchildren formed a kind of summer camp,
one swallowed by a retirement community, with all its camp
counselors and rules spit out.
came the weekend, and with it a whole new dynamic.
Friday afternoon, convoys of roadworthy RVs and popup
trailers pulled in, filling most every vacant pad. Along
with them came fellow tent campers, seeking a few days at
our van-sized tent was hemmed by a canyon of big rigs. We
were like the last two-bedroom ranch house in a
neighborhood torn down for McMansions.
beast parked immediately behind us had a flat-screen TV
attached to its exterior side. The owner roasted hot dogs
over a fire pit while "Law and Order" episodes
played on satellite.
hope I donít sound like Iím dissing the whole scene.
In truth, the three of us found life at the RV park to be
a kick, and often a refreshing one.
soaked up every last one of its many features. The huge
concrete pool dwarfed any found at a hotel or condo
complex. The shower house was clean and private. The
laundry room was essential.
the air-conditioned clubhouse, with an arcade, Wi-Fi and a
makeshift diner was a vital hangout. I lavished the boys
in quarters and watched them dump them into the claw
machine or the pool table, marveling at how well the two
were getting along.
recreation complex at Lanierís Campground in Holly
I would drive by RV complexes nearby ó some directly by
the beach ó and see none of extra amenities.
up a tent at those more primitive places would be more
comfort than I was willing to sacrifice.
really gets to the heart all travel decisions.
of us must decide what we are willing to give up as we
chase adventure or natural beauty or leisure. Even on
vacation, we do not entirely escape our budgets or our
fixation with status and appearances.
when weíve finally settled into our lodging and hit the
beach, none of that matters.
ocean does not care where you roomed the last night. It
offers the same waves and sunsets to residents of
beachfront mansions and tent dwellers alike.
so you dig your feet in the sand and soak it all in,
satisfied that it was worth the cost and effort ó and in
some cases the deprivations.
watch your two sons crash into wave after wave, seeing the
seven years of age that divide them temporarily disappear
in the sheer joy of each othersí company.
you store away as vividly as you can memories without