Lora Batterson remembers peering down from her bedroom window, past the crisscross of power lines and the white glow of an alley light, to check on her family's backyard adventure.
The tent her husband and children had pitched on a hot summer night in their tiny Capitol Hill courtyard was glimmering with yellow lights. It looked like Christmas or a fancy outdoor wedding. "They'd set their jar of fireflies free inside the tent. And it looked just beautiful," she said.
Then, a really long ziiiiiip. And Dad came tumbling out, waving both arms madly.
"It looked nice, but after a while, we realized it wasn't the best idea to let all those bugs loose inside the tent," recalled Mark Batterson, a Capitol Hill pastor, the dad and chief architect of this escapade.
The summertime ritual of backyard camping usually means the musty smell of an old pup tent, the wetness of summer grass and the blue glow of the next-door neighbor's television, replacements for the sting of campfire smoke, the scent of pine trees and the moonlight of real camping.
But when the adventure goes urban, campers face a new brand of outdoors that can include the wail of sirens and the scritch-scratch of scurrying rats.
Never mind. The kids think it's great.
"It's kind of like a vacation. But not really," 9-year-old Parker Batterson said as he prepared for an evening in the tent, armed to attack the backyard insects. He wore shin guards, Dad's fingerless biking gloves, blue plastic "X-ray night vision" goggles and the look of a hunter as he emptied two cans of spring-scented spray. "It tastes kind of like bubbles," he said, grimacing as he sampled the clouds he had released over the petunias.
For the Battersons, urban camping began as many great inventions are born: out of parental desperation.
They are a busy Washington family, and it was just before Fourth of July weekend that Mom and Dad realized they didn't have a plan. They called every campground their trusty gray tent has seen, from Maryland's Rocky Gap State Park to Delaware's Cape Henlopen State Park. No vacancy, booked, filled, out of luck.
So Mom suggested they camp right in Northeast Washington. She fired up the grill and cooked hot dogs. "What about dessert?" she wondered.
The answer: "banana boats."
"They're reaaaaallly good," said Summer Batterson, 8. "You take a banana and open it up and put all kinds of stuff like chocolate and marshmallows in it," she said, doing a jig that sent her legs and arms bouncing and flailing. "And then you cook it on the barbecue."
Mom's quick thinking gave the Battersons a family activity for the rest of the summer that was both cool and weird. Every couple of weeks, they hauled out the tent and had a quick getaway out back.
At first, the courtyard's bricks were a challenge. "It really, really hurt to lay down," Parker said.
So they added a futon mattress in the tent, and that worked well.
Recently, on one of their last faux camping trips before the start of school, Summer wrestled with how she would tell her classmates what she did on summer vacation.
"I don't know if any of my friends did this. It's kind of weird. But fun," she said as brother Josiah, 3, helped Dad pitch the tent.
Before they had a chance to zip the door shut, a loaf-sized rat zipped through the back yard, narrowly missing the opening of the tent.
Mom shuddered a bit. She volunteered to stay inside, where she spread out on a big, empty bed and carefully regulated the air conditioning.
Dad and three little Battersons settled in -- optimistically -- right at the kids' 9 p.m. bedtime.
Then Summer did some yoga, and there was jockeying for who got to sleep next to Dad. "Rock, paper, scissors!" Parker yelled.
At 10, sirens rang out. Dad let each of the kids listen to his iPod, figuring that his "chill out" playlist might be more soothing than the urban soundtrack.
The kids didn't nod off until about 11:30, and Dad proceeded to have his most comfortable night of camping ever.
At the brink of dawn, Summer opened her eyes. "It's 6:03 a.m.," she declared. Parker and Josiah woke up right after.
Bleary-eyed, Dad realized that one of the best parts of backyard camping was yet to come. "Go inside the house and watch cartoons," he told them, and rolled over and went back to sleep.