Our trip to Catoctin Mountain Park was a negotiation from the start. My partner and I brought vegan hot dogs, peanut butter and jelly, and apples. The couple we traveled with brought a cooking tripod and a pot, ingredients for veggie chili, pancake mix and eggs. When it came to camping food, we wanted to assemble, and they wanted to cook.
Of course, camping is always a series of negotiations. What to eat, yes, but also where to sleep. Tent? Lean-to? Fully furnished cabin? RV? And there’s the kind of experience you want to have in nature: Do you choose a quiet backcountry site, or one with a parking spot?
We knew what we were getting with Catoctin, a National Park Service site in north-central Maryland. We came to see the park the federal government built and to stay in the rustic cabins the Works Progress Administration constructed in the 1930s and ’40s as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal. The government purchased 10,000 acres here as part of a larger plan to establish recreational areas close to major population centers, and to provide employment opportunities through the WPA and the Civilian Conservation Corps. Workers in those departments came to build a wilderness on a site cut clear of trees and covered with struggling farms, and to create the infrastructure that would help the public enjoy it.
Like camping, the creation of Catoctin was itself a negotiation between state and federal officials, and between government agencies and landowners unwilling to sell. Even today, tensions physically surround Catoctin. Just before we entered the park, we pulled off at Catoctin Mountain Orchard for fruit. Protected parkland borders the farm to the west; to the east, vinyl-sided houses press up against rows of peach trees.
Fully stocked, we drove into the park and stopped at the small rustic ranger station to pick up the key to our cabin. The ranger handed us the kind of plastic, diamond-shaped key chains that motels used before electronic keycards took over.
The parks cabins make up a site called Camp Misty Mount. We were allowed to drive to our cabin to drop off supplies but had to drive back out and park our car near the ranger station. We liked this rule: It offered all the convenience of car camping, but none of the guilt that comes from having a vehicle at your campsite and feeling that you just barreled into nature.
Cabin 37 struck the same balance. Its wooden walls, floors and ceiling gave off a pleasant woodsy aroma. The screen windows offered fresh breezes. Lumpy vinyl mattresses on metal cots meant that we wouldn’t enjoy the comforts of a hotel bed, but we also wouldn’t struggle with the lumpy, rocky ground. Cobwebs in the corners were a nice touch.
That night, we ate veggie chili and sat in beach chairs around a campfire. The flames illuminated branches slowly blowing overhead. We chatted late into the night, until one of our friends fell asleep in his chair and started snoring, a sign that it was time to move indoors.
The next morning, we showered in the communal bathroom, where a muddy tile floor checked the pleasure of hot running water. But relatively clean, and relatively refreshed from a night of so-so sleep, we drove into neighboring Thurmont.
We were going outside the park to explore one of the more interesting things in it. Besides Camp Misty Mount, Catoctin is also home to Camp David, the presidential retreat. FDR first came to Catoctin in 1942. He stayed at one of the park’s existing campsites and enjoyed it so much that the government quickly built the more comfortable complex that U.S. leaders have enjoyed since.
We couldn’t see the real Camp David, of course, so we settled for the Camp David Museum. The museum is part of the the Cozy Village complex of roadside services, which includes a meat-and-potatoes restaurant with breakfast, lunch and dinner buffets; a motel with presidential-themed rooms; and a gift shop that sells White House Christmas ornaments and extra-large T-shirts that say “Get Cozy in Thurmont.”
The Camp David Museum is in a small room just inside the restaurant entrance. It’s arranged by president. Photographs and news clippings explore presidential work and play at the site. We read stories about the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel, negotiated here in 1978, and saw photographs of the Clintons cross-country skiing. A bust of George W. Bush sat in the middle of one wall, in front of a large gold-framed mirror and flanked by the U.S. and Maryland flags. Of course, museum curation is just another form of negotiation, usually over content and cost. Many of the photos in the Camp David Museum were torn at the edges. The exhibit on the second Bush included only a few photographs, and tape marks where it looked as if others had been removed. President Obama currently has no panel.
Back at our camp, we grilled corn and veggie dogs. Thunderstorms moved in, and we took our chairs up onto the cabin porch. We spent the night talking as the rain fell around us; we were happy to be both in and out of nature at the same time.
We couldn’t escape the moisture the next morning. We wanted to hike to Chimney Rock, a 1,400-foot-high quartzite ridge that we were told offered the best views in the park. The rain fell in spurts as we climbed. When it stopped, the emerging sun created a steamy mix that had us sweating and ultimately wetter than we’d been in the rain.
We hiked through hardwood forest. The park here has very little understory, so the trees stand out dramatically. We climbed over Wolf Rock on our way to the top. The 15-foot-high wall of quartzite was covered with slick, wet lichens; we had to be careful not to slip and fall into one of the deep cracks in the rock. Turkey vultures perched here. They spread their wings wide to soak up the sun’s heat.
Sweating even more, we marched on to Chimney Rock and its panoramic views of Catoctin. Frost and vegetation are slowly breaking down the ridge here, and large boulders collect at the bottom. But the eponymous rock still stands tall.
The forests kickstarted by the CCC spread out in all directions from Chimney Rock. We sat in the shade to cool off and take in the views. We wondered whether Barack and Michelle, or George and Laura, had ever climbed up here. We talked about where we might camp on our next trip. And we decided that, at the end of this sweaty hike, we were all having cold beers.
That was non-negotiable.
Smith is a Philadelphia writer.