The family is out

Oliver is filthy. His knees are scraped, and his hands are caked with mud. His hair's a mess, and he's got two days' worth of messy toddler meals covering his smelly, wrinkled T-shirt.

I couldn't be any happier.

Normally this level of messiness drives me crazy. Normally, by now we'd have gone through approximately three major face- and hand-washing battles and at least as many outfit changes.

This was no normal weekend, though -- it was our first real family camping trip. We took our 2-year-old and 2-month-old outside to spend a night inside a tent and under the stars.

For weeks I'd wanted to go camping. Actually, I'd wanted to go for years, ever since our first child, Oliver, was born. Pre-kids, my husband, Jared, and I backpacked across the continental U.S. and through much of Europe, Mexico and even Africa. We pitched our two-man tent on many a roadside and mountaintop, and swore that as soon as we had kids, we'd take them exploring with us.

And then we had babies.

We didn't fully understand the complexities or the importance of bedtime routines for babies. Sleep issues plagued our first-born, and the idea of taking him out of his crib and expecting him to sleep on the ground and in a tent simply did not seem possible. The probability of disaster seemed near 100 percent.

There were other reasons we stayed inside. My mom got sick, my husband's work schedule got crazy, and we had another baby. In other words, life happened. We felt our dream of raising little nature babies slowly slipping away from us. There just wasn't room for all four of us in our little two-man tent.

We knew we needed to make a change. We don't want our kids growing up on TV and fast food. We want to foster an appreciation for the natural world and an ability to entertain themselves without electronics. I realized one day after my toddler told me he didn't want to play outside and instead wanted to watch Thomas & Friends that my family mission statement and my actual reality didn't exactly match up. We had to get outside.

Soon after this realization I received a glossy REI mailer with a photo of a family tent and a coupon for 30 percent off any clearance item. That's when I knew the Kingdom 6 was destined to become our home away from home. Sleep issues or no, we were going camping!

When the tent arrived, I ripped the box open, moved the coffee table and declared our living room our campsite for the evening.

"It's a BIG tent, Momma! A BIG one!" my son gleefully noted as he trotted in and out of its flapping, zippered doors.

There's something about pitching a tent that resonates in the hearts of children. I think they recognize the adventure a tent represents. Who doesn't have memories of building impressive fort-tents out of sheets and blankets draped over chairs? That desire to go somewhere undiscovered, to escape from the routine of the everyday and go exploring -- I don't think it ever completely leaves us.

We talked about where we'd go and what it would be like and scaled back our expectations. Instead of climbing Half Dome with our little ones perched on our shoulders, our dream shifted to simply spending a night car-camping at a nearby state park.

Right up until the last minute, we weren't sure we were really going -- there was an advisory for high wind and a 30 percent chance of rain, and the low temperature was a bit lower than we'd have liked. We even went so far as to look into the 10-day forecast in hopes the weather next weekend might look more promising. That's when we realized that if we kept waiting for perfect conditions, we might never go camping. We either needed to give it a shot or send the tent back.

I definitely wanted to keep the tent, so we loaded up the car and made our way to Lake Mineral Wells State Park.

The campground was far enough away to give me plenty of time to consider the multiple ways in which our trip was doomed. The thought of flash floods, a freak snowstorm and the possibility of having to hunt squirrel to survive the weekend came to mind.

We arrived at the campground fully prepared to take down the tent in a rainstorm with two screaming babies and just go back home if things went south.

But they didn't.

That evening we hiked down to the lake just before sunset. I wore my infant daughter in a carrier and followed closely behind my husband and our son. We followed the trail, climbed rocks and ducked under branches.

We made it to the banks of the lake and watched the water ripple while the sky turned from blue to pink and orange. Then, a great blue heron took flight, its skinny legs dangling for just a moment before its powerful wings lifted it high into the air.

"Look, Daddy! I see a bird! A big bird, Daddy!"

We made our way back to our tent, our new home-away-from-home, and sang songs and read bedtime stories to our children by headlamp. We put the kids in warm fleece pajamas and tucked them in for the night. I'm sure we all dreamed of sunsets and great blue herons.

In the end, none of my imagined scenarios of doom came to pass. The wind was calm. The temperature was perfect. We slept extra toasty snuggled side by side. It didn't rain, and both kids went right to sleep and stayed that way.

Jared says it's because they were so tired from playing outside all day, but I'm convinced it was the pleasant nighttime melody of the crickets that did it.

Here's to many, many more trips like these, full of sunlit afternoons by lakes and chilly mornings warmed with knitted hats and cups of hot cocoa. Here's to little boys dirty from a day of play outside, and to little girls unafraid of scraping their knees if it means they climbed a mountain.

I can always give the kids a bath when we get home.