A 1970s Cinderella (Camping) Story

How our family of nine saw the country from an old pop-up camper and found summer magic that changed our world.

In the summer of 1978, a volunteer pumpkin began growing in our Ft. Wright backyard, slowly transforming from a tiny thing with green stripes to a fat orange gourd we picked in September. My dad put it in the garage and started saying, “I think this pumpkin is going to turn into a van.”

Family photograph courtesy Judi Ketteler

I was sure Cinderella magic had happened when a blue and white van Chevy appeared in the driveway the next January. But it was refinancing, not a fairy godmother, that allowed my parents to buy the vehicle that would change our lives. It gave us both space—two huge bench seats!—and the means to tow the old pop-up camper my aunt was getting rid of.

“Vacations” were rarely part of the budget for our family of nine, but it seems we had found a loophole. We would become campers.

Family photograph courtesy Judi Ketteler

We took a test run in the fall of 1979 to General Butler State Park. Even though my two adult brothers didn’t go, there still weren’t enough beds. The solution was to put the youngest—4-year-old me—in a lounge chair, squeezed right in front of the door. It was one of those old school chairs, with thick green and white webbing and sliding arms that easily pinched you.

If I was suspicious of this terrible idea, I don’t remember. But I do know that when we returned to General Butler the next summer, we had a tent for the overflow and more gear, including a Coleman stove and lantern, plastic camp dishes, and camp stools. We also knew to bring toilet paper, soap, and flip-flops for the bath house.

We hiked in the morning, swam in the lake in the afternoon, and had a campfire at night under a sky crawling with stars. At last, we weren’t just a large family, but a family at-large. It was the start of everything wonderful that camping would become: Wet bathing suits drying on the line, the smell of canvas and outdoor cooking, games with my sisters on the drive, our dad yelling at us to stop giggling, while my mom spread maps on her lap, charting our course. It was being with the people I loved most in the world, in situations that were not like the ordinary, in places where there was everything to discover.

Family photograph courtesy Judi Ketteler

We towed that pop-up with the temperamental crank all over the state of Kentucky, from Natural Bridge to Lake Barkley. We went farther afield too, going to places like Myrtle Beach and Washington, D.C., where we camped at beautiful Shenandoah National Park. One year, we went all the way to Corpus Christi, Texas, to visit my cousins. We camped in their driveway for a few days—what a sight that must have been!—before setting up on the beach at South Padre Island.

Family photograph courtesy Judi Ketteler

Eventually, my sisters outgrew camping, getting jobs or getting married. Soon my brother was too cool to go. By the late 1980s, it was just me, sometimes bringing a friend. We went to gorgeous places like Niagara Falls in New York, Acadia National Park in Maine, and McLain State Park in Northern Michigan, where I swam in freezing Lake Superior. Then I grew out of it, too, because while a camper can take you anywhere, time only moves in one direction.

But I’ll never forget that piece of pumpkin magic that dropped into our lives one summer and opened up the world.

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