You don’t always realize when a tradition starts. Often it’s only apparent years later.

We went camping last weekend with my son’s elementary school class. It was the ninth consecutive year.

The credit for creating the tradition goes to Bill and Nico. They loved to camp and decided it would be fun to invite the other parents and kids in the class.

My son was in kindergarten at the time. Bill and Nico picked a weekend and a place in the tri-state area. We typically went camping twice a year.

We went to state parks, mostly between 90 minutes and three-hours drive from New York City. They included Kenneth L. Wilson, Taconic State Park, Swartswood State Park and Fahnestock State Park.

Being from the city, most people had never camped. The first time several literally bought their tents on the way to the campground. Some had to hitch rides because they didn’t own cars.

The kids were enthralled by bugs and the threat of tics and bears. They loved carving sticks and poking them into the fire and then waving them in the air. Their air mattresses deflated during the night.

The groups were large, as many as 40 people. But there was something about being in the woods, disconnected from cell service and any outside influences, that brought people together.

When your kids start elementary school you don’t realize you are about to meet a score of people who will become your best friends.

At first you gravitate to people who seem most like you. You soon realize this is pointless. You will become friends with the parents of the kids your kids like. If you have a boy, it will be the parents of a boy.

Going camping disrupted that pattern a bit. It made it possible to talk to everyone. Not only possible, but probable since being in the woods ensured you would run out of other things to do.

Camping also leveled the social playing field. Suddenly the skill that mattered most was the ability to make a fire. You might be a lawyer or doctor at home, but that didn’t matter much in the woods.

The guys did the cooking. Bill made a vegetarian paella and Joel whipped up banana and strawberry pancakes in the morning. John brewed the coffee.

In the early years everything from meals to hikes were chaotic. Over the years, people learned to bring bug spray and towels and assumed responsibilities. Christina brought the wine and music. Someone else could be counted on for beer, chips and salsa.

Things have changed. We only go once a year now. Nico has moved to Palo Alto. Bill fled the city to New Paltz, but he is still the catalyst for the event. We all complain about the drive, but come nonetheless.

When the kids were younger they hovered around the fire and delighted in S’mores. Now they mostly disappear into the fields to play soccer and woods to talk.

This was the last trip before the teenagers scatter to high schools all over the city, so it had a special significance.

The adults shared memories. The trip where Jeff forgot poles and borrowed a tent from some Boy Scouts. The time Richard’s tent flooded and he got up at 1 a.m. and drove back to Manhattan.

Over the years we have learned a few things about car camping.

I discovered the value of folding chairs to sit near the fire. The one picnic table never has enough space.

Billy learned an air mattress isn’t optional. He spent years sleeping on the cold, hard ground until he admitted he needed one.

John said he cannot survive or without coffee. He brought a bag from Joe, a coffee shop on the Upper West Side.

I asked Bill, our most experienced camper, if he had learned any lessons.

He thought about it for a moment and nodded slowly.

“Be happy with a small tent,” he said.

It was an obvious metaphor so I waited for him to extrapolate.

“You can put it up and take it down easily,” he said.

I didn’t have to ask again. I knew exactly what he meant.

**Published by Ted Merz Jun 30, 2016 **