Some of my fondest memories as a child are of family vacations.

Each year, we took a family trip to visit my grandmother in Tampa, Florida. And every year we drove. I vividly remember those early mornings. My mom would wake me and my brother around 3:00 a.m. The air and entire atmosphere are different at 3:00 in the morning, at least to a child. The sky is still dark and you can hear crickets and other nighttime creatures making noises. It’s like a forbidden time when only adults are allowed to be awake. This was back when car seats weren’t required. My brother sat in front with my father and I had the entire back portion of our powder blue station wagon. I was stuffed beside the suitcases, but for me, it was like a secret, special hideaway.

I lined the space with a few soft blankets and always brought my pillow, covered in either a rainbow pillowcase or Teddy Rupskin. I had my Walkman CD player and my favorite blue blanket. I remember laying on the hard floor, staring out into the darkness, listening to my favorite songs and fantasizing about singing on stage like Britney Spears and Mandy Moore. Those car rides were my favorite part of the entire trip. We always stopped somewhere in South Carolina to spend the night in a hotel, before completing the drive the next day. Along the way, we’d stop at each state’s rest area and try the juice, collect brochures, and raid the vending machines.

I remember the smell of my grandmother’s house – clean bleach and laundry detergent mixed with oranges. She had an orange tree in her backyard and did her laundry in the garage. The floor was slippery linoleum. The garage was also where she parked her oversized tricycle that my brother and I used to take turns riding up and down the street, sometimes him in the driver’s seat with me in the white basket that hung off the back.

My memories of Florida are only matched by my memories of camping. Maybe because of the laid-back atmosphere that accompanied camping or the people that we went with. My parents were different people when we were camping. They were more relaxed, more lenient, more fun! We were allowed to get dirty, explore in the woods and ride our bikes to the camping store to buy endless amounts of candy. It was me, my brother and our cousin, Andrew. The boys were usually pretty good about including me, though I was the token annoying little sister.

We played pretend, went swimming, messed around on the playground, and went fishing down near the waterfall. My uncle always made us the best sticks for roasting marshmallows. He used his pocket knife to expertly sharpen the tips. He was amazing with his pocket knife and made some pretty impressive wooden creations from cupholders for his beer to a fishing rod holder. He was a quiet man, but very talented.

I can remember the smell of last night’s potatoes cooking as this morning’s hashbrowns. Eggs, pancakes, sausage — you name it, and we had it for breakfast. Individual boxes of cereal were one of our favorite snacks. My uncle would slice the box open with one quick swipe of his knife. We melted styrofoam cups and plastic plates over the fire, my parents paying no real mind to the fumes we were likely inhaling. Showers were taken in flip-flops up at the bathhouse and nature was our bathroom. Camping meant getting dirty, staying up late, endless adventures and lots of laughs.

I love nothing more than carrying on these vacation traditions with my own son. Though we don’t drive to Florida, we spent the last 10 years flying into Miami to visit my mother-in-law in the Florida Keys. We started taking my son when he was just 3 months old and only recently stopped, following my mother-in-law’s passing. But my son remembers the airport, the car ride to the house, boat rides to the sandbar and walks down to the park and beach.

Camping is part of who we are. Though we don’t tent camp anymore and have upgraded to a fifth-wheel trailer, the adventures and good friends have not changed. The kids play for hours outside, using their imaginations, riding their bikes and visiting the camping store. The adults spend hours around the fire at night, telling stories and watching the flames dance around the wood. We fish, we swim, we cook, we laugh and we make memories.

I know my son will always remember our camping trips, the same way I remember mine as a kid. And I can only hope he chooses to continue that tradition with his family. And I can only hope he finds friends as wonderful as ours to share those experiences with. Not all memories stem from vacation, but some of my best and most vivid, do. And those memories have morphed into family traditions that I will cherish forever.

Featured Photo Courtesy: Creative Market