The ridiculously terrible mother-daughter camping trip that taught me when to let go.

One woman's Mother's Day tribute to her strong, nonconforming mom.

I’m not sure if it was my idea to join Girl Scouts or if it was my mother’s.

In September 1998, I was starting fourth grade in a new school, and I was really looking forward to rebranding myself. Small and shy, I had enjoyed origami club at my old school, and I spent my weekends reading "Little House on the Prairie." But faced with a whole new peer group to befriend, I determined that I should be less of a "weirdo."

I quickly picked up that in our new town, playing sports was the quickest route to popularity and a sense of belonging. But given my size and aversion to running, I quickly ruled that out as a viable option. Some of the cool girls were joining Girl Scouts, though, and I loved nature.


Image via iStock.

My mother is an artist and a wholly sophisticated person.

Before my brother and I arrived, she worked in fashion: living in Greenwich Village and flying to Paris and Milan for runway shows. While she raised us, she designed and painted textiles from our home, taking the train into Brooklyn for painting seminars on the weekends.

My mother’s studio in 1996. Photo by the author, used with permission.

I spent most of my early years playing on the floor of her studio, surrounded by art supplies from Pearl Paint (RIP), rummaging through her sketchbooks and fabric swatches.

For my mother, and for me, fitting into our new suburban town did not come naturally.

It seemed like everyone else’s dad worked on Wall Street, and everyone else’s mom drove a Chevy Suburban. The town had three separate soccer leagues: one recreational, one school-run, and one competitive. Later, in my angsty teenage years, I would not be able to imagine why my parents chose to move to such a homogenous, boring place.

Of course, I know now that every single thing my parents did between 1985 and 2010 was for my benefit. My mother saw the good schools and the safe neighborhoods and resigned herself to coexisting with J.Crew-clad peers for the next decade. But at 9 years old, I was determined to fit in — come hell or high water.

The first official Girl Scout trip of the 1998-1999 school year was to Hershey, Pennsylvania.

We were going to visit the amusement park, see how Hershey kisses were made, and most importantly, camp next to an actual river. I had lucked into bunking with three extremely popular girls, and my excitement level was high. If my mom was less enthused about the trip, she didn’t let on, but she was concerned about the weather — there was heavy rain predicted all weekend.


Photo via iStock.

While the three other girls packed their sleeping bags into my mom’s car, she talked to the troop leader about the impending downpour headed our way and got the brush off: We weren’t worried about a little rain! We were Girl Scouts. We would tough it out. Not wanting to be alarmist, my mother decided to go with the flow.

I don’t remember much about the amusement park or how Hershey kisses are made, but I do remember what a lime green Girl Scouts of America tent looks like as it gets washed away in a flash flood.

The campsite “next to a river” turned out to be in a literal river basin. By day two of our trip, it became apparent that the rain was going to be a little more than we’d bargained for. After a soggy lunch on the second day, we returned to find the campsite in very different conditions than when we’d left. The peaceful green river was now muddy and brown, surging, and full of debris.

Photo via iStock.

The water in our camp was knee-high, and as everyone scrambled to move their possessions to higher ground, my mother registered two things: The river was already lapping over the sides of the only bridge out of there and the campsite closest to it was completely underwater.

She made an executive decision: We were done going with the flow; the flow was now a whitewater rapid.

As a tent from the campsite next-door bobbed away downriver, my mom threw me and my backpack into her car and peeled out of the parking lot in her Swedish sports car.

Somewhere in her rearview mirror, a group of blonde women in Hunter boots and North Face fleeces continued “toughing it out.”

They all survived, of course. Apparently camps were assembled in a nearby parking lot, and it amuses me now to imagine what the rest of the trip must’ve looked like. I picture 20 soggy 9-year-olds camping between SUVs, their mothers resolutely singing the Girl Scout smile song over the sounds of a raging river, never conceding defeat.

I spent another four years trying to get mean girls who played sports to like me before I transitioned seamlessly into the aforementioned angsty teenager phase.

But I’m fairly certain that for my mother the charade ended in that very moment, while dragging a 10-year-old and her pink sleeping bag through knee-deep amusement park water.

She was just plain out, and she gave not one thought to the opinions of others in that moment.

It took me another decade or so of growing up to understand the real lesson in my mother's decision during that camping trip.

We’re always taught to never give up — “don’t be a quitter” — but honestly, what does “not giving up” look like in a flash flood?

When you’re slogging it out, giving something your all, don’t you ever stop and think, "Even if I could eventually break through this brick wall with my bare hands, do I really want to spend the next five years clawing at it?"

I suppose it depends on what’s on the other side, but sometimes I really think it takes a stronger person to back up, redirect, and choose a new goal. It’s something my mother does well and something I wish I did better.

These days, when I’m staring at the proverbial brick wall, trying to figure out why it still doesn’t like me, I try to recall the look on my mother’s face as she watched that tent float away downriver.

And I laugh, and remember that sometimes it’s just not worth it.

Pre trick-or-treating 1998, just after realizing that everyone else was going as a Spice Girl. Hand-made costume by my mother, of course.

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