WHEN WE WERE KIDS, camping was the standard cheapskate vacation. Throw mom, dad, Buddy, and Sis in the Vista Cruiser, add fishing poles, perpetually damp flannel sleeping bags, and an army surplus metal-framed tent-o-minium, and you're set for a fun-filled week with nothing but calamine lotion between you and the great outdoors. These days, a week in the woods generally starts with a spree at REI, complete with techno-packed freeze-dried meals, titanium folding chairs, and tents built to withstand Everest temperatures. But if Visa has politely suggested you refrain from purchasing any more expensive gear until you are once again gainfully employed, not to worry. A relaxing week in the wild can be had for little more than it costs to park your car downtown for a day.
With gas prices at $2 per gallon and climbing, it pays to look at the state parks that are reachable on a single tank of fuel. Federal Way, Des Moines, Enumclaw, and Olympia all contain surprisingly lovely parks with overnight spots available. Going primitive can save you a few bucks—while standard campsites have upscale amenities like picnic tables and a parking spot, the primitive sites provide merely a fire pit and pedestrian-only access. For a $10 ferry ride, the parks surrounding Port Townsend offer all sorts of old military bunkers in which to wander and contemplate the meaning of life. With luck, you can spot the elusive underage couple learning the delicate arts of intimacy inside these concrete shells. Along with the impressive beaches and forests all these parks have, you'll find plenty of opportunities to admire the variety of shapes and sizes rodents come in, witness the food chain at work, and cringe when your fellow campers admonish their children to "stay the fuck away from the ocean" or "take bigger bites."
Tear your thoughts away from the strange beauty of those freeze-dried meals and listen up: Any normally edible vegetable matter can be wrapped in a double layer of foil and thrown in the coals for a true gourmet experience. The double layer is the only crucial step; ashes have mysterious powers that allow them to weave through a single fold, so wrap well, don't peek, and you'll be well rewarded. Stop at a farmers market for some serious deals, or get a little more hands-on and harvest your own. Blueberries are the easiest U-pick crop around, and a quart can be had for about $2 from July through September. Those berries and a box of granola make a fruit crisp so good you won't want to bother with any of that "balanced meal" hooey. Sticking with the foil 'n' fauna cooking method cuts down on what you'll need to pack—foil, paper towels, matches, pocketknife, and a spoon. For those who can't live a week without protein, try your hand at fishing. A dead fish can be foil-wrapped as easily as fruit, and with the addition of some onion slices, you've got one tasty main dish. Feel free to experiment with marshmallows and other spices; experienced foil cookers can create anything from candied yams to curried couscous, even if they can't boil water at home.
NO NEED FOR an expensive designer tent. Chubby and Tubby sells cheap tarps, which can be strung with twine in any number of creative configurations. Clever campers can turn this into a contest and avoid lifting a finger. Award an extra baked apple (or beer) to the person with the best design, and appoint yourself judge. Set a 45-minute time limit and take yourself on a happy- hour hike.
Some campers may only need a blanket when sleeping under one of these art installations, but most of us feel more refreshed after sleeping without a pinecone wedged under our butts; thus, an air mattress is a good investment. Priced at $10 to $35, expensive mattresses are self-inflating and flocked, while the discount stores carry them with built-in drink holders and pirate-themed graphics. Sleep ahoy!
One last word to the wise: Make your reservations early this year. You're not the only one dying to postpone the job hunt and unable to afford Spain, so expect those nearby campgrounds to fill up early. Unemployed folks should take full advantage of their slacker schedule and camp Monday through Friday. Not only are the sites relatively deserted, some offer online coupons through the Parks Department Web site. Maybe you drive a Legacy instead of a Vista Cruiser, but gear-free camping will whisk you back to the glory days of childhood, before you'd ever heard the words "stock options," "downsizing," or "advertising supported."
Utility (hookups, fire pit, picnic table) $16; standard (drive and park at site, fire pit, picnic table) $13; primitive (drive and hike in, fire pit) $8; primitive (hike or bike in, fire pit) $6. All prices for four people; additional $2/person for adults. Not all campgrounds offer every type of accommodation.
Reservations for all camps: 800-452-5687.
One gas tank away:
Dash Point,5700 S.W. Dash Point Road, Federal Way, WA 98023, 253- 661-4955; 138 campsites, fishing, hiking, swimming
Kanaskat-Palmer, 32101 Kanaskat-Cumberland Road, Ravensdale, WA 98051, 360-886-0148; 50 campsites, fishing, hiking, rafting, canoeing
Millersylvania, 12245 Tilley Road, Olympia, WA 98512, 360-753-1519; 191 campsites, swimming, hiking, fishing, environmental learning center
Saltwater, 25205 Eighth Place S., Des Moines, WA 98198, 253-661-4956; 53 campsites, hiking, fishing, clamming, scuba diving
Ferry ride away:
Fort Worden, 200 Battery Way, Port Townsend, WA 98368, 360-344-4400; 80 campsites, swimming, boating, fishing, historical interest1
Old Fort Townsend, 1370 Old Fort Townsend Road, Port Townsend, WA 98368, 360-344-4412; 40 campsites, fishing, swimming, hiking, clamming, historical interest
Fort Flagler, 10541 Flagler Road, Nordland, WA 98358, 360-385-1259; 116 campsites, fishing, hiking, boating, clamming, historical interest
Fort Ebey, 395 North Fort Ebey Road, Coupeville, WA 98239, 360-678-4636; 53 campsites, hiking, beachcombing
HELPFUL WEB SITES
www.parks.wa.gov (state park info and reservations)
http://dnr.metrokc.gov/wlr/farms/upick.htm (local harvest seasons and U-pick farms)
www.wafarmersmarkets.com/ (Washington farmers market directory)
www.ohwy.com/wa (Washington online highways; directions and info)
Overlake Blueberry Farm, 2380 Bellevue Way S.E., Bellevue, WA 98004, 425-453-8613
Guile's Blueberry Farm, 3719 Gull Harbor Road N.E., Olympia, WA 98506, 360-357-7458