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Easing back into group travel with a multifamily camping trip

Zephyr Martell, 8, right, and Lauren Black, 9, fish during a camping trip at Greenbriar State Park in Boonsboro, Md. (Nevin Martell for The Washington Post)

Ominous slate gray clouds began filling the sky as I drove from D.C. to Boonsboro, Md., on a Friday afternoon. I kept my fingers crossed that my son and I would be spared a spring downpour on our first camping trip since before the pandemic struck. Surely, after the year we weathered, we deserved a break.

No such luck. As soon as we pulled into our campsite at Greenbrier State Park in the Appalachian Mountains close to Frederick, it began to rain. It seemed like a gloomy portent for the weekend to come.

We had high hopes for our trip. For me and my 8-year-old son, Zephyr, it was our first group travel since 2019. We were reuniting with longtime friends: Will and his 9-year-old daughter, Lauren, and Scott and his 6-year-old son, Heath. We all met when the kids attended day care together years earlier, and we had camped together in the past.

Our expedition was planned in February with the hope that the world would be safe enough for us to venture onto a public campground together by May. We all felt camping with friends would be an ideal setup for inaugural post-pandemic group travel. Adventuring with familiar folks, whose personalities and preferences we already knew, removed one important layer of potential stress, which could be amplified by covid protocols, or other health and safety concerns. I saw the excursion as both a test case to see how we felt about traveling with friends and a way to determine best practices for further group travel this summer.

Before leaving, we had a quick check-in. All three fathers were vaccinated. We discussed what precautions we would take. We decided we could be maskless around each other at our campsites, but we would put masks on at all other times and stay socially distanced from other campers. These were also the park’s official rules, though other campers inconsistently followed them and we didn’t see any enforcement in effect.

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A couple of days before we left, we took a look at the forecast. Potentially wet and cold. We weren’t deterred. I added rain gear and warm clothing to the massive mound of gear we were taking. A little water wasn’t going to stop us from starting to travel again.

However, my resolve was tested as I struggled to set up our large tent in the deluge. Though there was a soothing quality to the sound of the fat raindrops pitter pattering on the leaves above me, I was stressed about the possibility of sleeping in a puddle. I let Zephyr stay dry in the car while I put down the ground mat and staked out the tent, but I needed a hand when it came time to put in the support rods and attach the rainfly. It was an adult-sized task, but they did their best. As we finished — a little soggier, a little grumpier — the rain stopped. We had to laugh, and found our spirits restored.

The other families showed up a short time later and set up without any rainy intrusions. We chose three campsites close to one another, but set slightly apart from the others. This made it easy for us to hang out together, while building in an extra layer of social distancing.

That evening, we had dinner and the requisite s’mores around a roaring fire. The kids were a nonstop whir of activity: pillow battles, tag and a series of high jinks that only made sense to them. By bedtime, no one begged to stay up later. They were done. My son slipped into the cocoon of his sleeping bag and fell asleep within two minutes.

When the sun rose in the morning, it revealed a sky flirting between light blue and dark gray. The forecast was all over the place. It was definitely going to rain, but it wasn’t clear when or for how long. Wanting to ensure a full, but flexible, schedule, we plotted our activities in advance but left their timing open. This relieved the pressure of creating an itinerary on the fly, while allowing us to plan activities that would allow us to essentially stay podded up for our trip. We decided we would first go for a hike around Greenbrier Lake, just a short walk from our campsites, and then fish from the shore in the afternoon.

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After chocolate chip pancakes were devoured, teeth brushed and day packs filled with snacks and water, we headed out. We were no more than 50 yards from the campsite when we heard the roar of an incoming thunderstorm. As we turned and ran back the way we came, a wall of rain washed over us. Finding shelter under the canopy tent, we chuckled at the timing. “I’m sure it’ll clear up quickly,” I remarked.

That’s when it began to hail.

Thankfully, the kids thought it was hilarious that ice cubes were falling out of the sky. They disappeared into a tent to listen to the rat-a-tat sound of the onslaught and continue their never-ending pillow battle. Us dads happily sat down to wait out the squall and rejoice at our oddly good luck. After all, when you’re a parent, unexpected downtime with no responsibilities is cause for celebration.

Less than an hour later, the storm stopped and we restarted our hike. As the kids played a three-way game of rock-paper-scissors, we made our way around the lake at a leisurely pace. When we reached the halfway point in the hike — literally the farthest away from our campsite we would be — the skies darkened again and the rumble of thunder began booming in the distance. We all laughed as we sprinted back to our campsites. Mother Nature had impeccable comic timing.

In the afternoon, the skies cleared again. We didn’t trust them, but we still trekked back to the lake’s shoreline to go fishing. The fathers gave the children casting lessons, then stood by to untangle the inevitably snarled lines and retrieve lures that ended up in the overhanging trees rather than the water. None of those misfires dampened the kids’ spirits. Neither did the lack of fish. My son swore they got a bite, but it may have been their imagination pulling on the line.

People kept walking by us, some wearing masks, most without. We kept ours on and kept our distance as best we could. Not that we felt anxious, as we probably would have earlier in the pandemic. Between our masks, adult vaccinations and the great outdoors, we felt safe.

That night, there were more s’mores, of course. The kids couldn’t stop talking about the day. Describing the fish they almost caught. Who won the pillow battle. Why it’s funnier to fart in someone else’s tent rather than your own. What they didn’t do was complain about the on-again-off-again rain. It was nothing but background noise to the good times they were having.

Sunday morning dawned. Soaked tents were taken down. Cars were loaded up. The children wolfed down usually verboten sugary cereals, while the dads pounded coffees and breakfast sandwiches. Spirits were high. We felt safe for the entire trip. We had a fantastic time. Everyone would do it all over again without question.

Finally, it was time to go. The dads congratulated each other on a job well done, as the kids said their goodbyes. Naturally, it started to rain again.

Martell is a writer based in Silver Spring, Md. Find him on Instagram: @nevinmartell.

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