The Great American Backyard Campout, coming up on June 23, was created for people like Jim McLaughlin.
McLaughlin, one of America's elite volleyball coaches who will begin his 12th season at the University of Washington in August, once conceded to me that he had not been camping for years.
Make that decades. Since McLaughlin last went camping, he has won 2 national collegiate championships (with the USC men's team in 1990; with the Washington women in 2005), gotten married and become the father of 3 daughters.
"Yeah, it's been a while," McLaughlin said. His best guess for when he was last in a tent: Probably the early 1980s, when he was a student at UC Santa Barbara, where McLaughlin (Malibu native; surfer; ex-high school quarterback; classmate of Sean Penn) became an All-American volleyball player.
His wife, Margaret, has been equally out of touch with camping. A 4-year starter (midfield) on the Notre Dame women's soccer team in the early 1990s, she was an assistant coach when the Irish upset North Carolina for the national title in 1995. But she hadn't been camping since was a kid in the late '70s or early '80s.
That's when her parents drove from their Cleveland suburb one summer to the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania for a campground stay. Margaret and her 2 siblings were playing by a stream when her parents were visited by a black bear at their campsite.
"It came up right behind my dad, just a few feet away," she says. "He turned around and said, 'Shoo.' It didn't move, and he didn't know what to do when it wouldn't shoo."
Eventually her parents safely moved away, rounded up the kids and hustled them over to a ranger station in the family car. They later returned and found their tent flattened and most of their food eaten.
"The only way we'd consider roasting marshmallows that night was if we had sticks that could reach from inside the tent to the fire," Margaret says. "We were still scared stiff hours later."
Obviously, this is a family light on camping know-how. Household camping equipment inventory: One sleepover-style sleeping bag and a purple, dinosaur-shaped indoor play tent. Even so, Jim and Margaret took me up on my offer: Give a backyard campout a try.
How did it go? The pictures that follow tell the story. Here's a clue: It went great.
Left: You've heard coaches equate tenacity with "chopping wood"? Well, here's a coach, and he's chopping wood.
Yet McLaughlin, who routinely pulls philosophical quotes out of his hat—da Vinci's "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication" is a current favorite—is more likely to apply a rowing metaphor to his team. "We're all in the same boat," he likes to say, "and we all just have to keep rowing."
Below: Camp McLaughlin takes shape.
Below: Molly McLaughlin, 12 (center), sister Megan, 14 (rolling in a sleeping bag on the left), and pal Carlee Bettermann, 12 (right), yuk it up inside an REI Half Dome 2 Plus.
Below: Margaret McLaughlin and 5½-year-old daughter Marit, inside an REI Half Dome 2, seem to be adjusting well to the idea of camping.
Below: S'mores in progress. In the center (her natural position) is REI staff member Katie Silliman, a former middle blocker for the Arkansas State volleyball team.
Below: Katie came up with a cool idea the kids really enjoyed: Use headlamps to create light art. Katie used a 6-second exposure to create this image.
Below: Jim McLaughlin gets in on the s'mores assembly line.
For readers unacquainted with college volleyball (note: in a parallel life, I cover the sport for The Seattle Times), here are a few of McLaughlin's career highlights:
• Only volleyball coach to win both a men's national championship (USC, 1990) and women's national championship (Washington, 2005).
• National Coach of the Year, 2004.
• Declined an invitation to coach U.S. women's team in 2008 Olympic Games due to the young age of his girls. "Maybe someday," he says.
Below: Inside an REI Kingdom 6 tent, McLaughlin gets the Daddy Bear treatment as he bunks down for his first night under the stars in nearly 30 years.
He's sleeping under a +16 Marmot Helium sleeping bag, one of several bags I brought for the occasion. Obviously it had been a while since McLaughlin had used a sleeping bag.
"They're so light," he said. "Initially when you were handing those out, I picked one up and thought, 'Dude, I need another one of these.' I thought I would have to put one on and another one on top.
"But once it touches your body all of a sudden you feel this warmth, and after a minute you're thinking, 'I've got to take this thing off.' They feel like they have a heater in them. I wasn't expecting that. It's crazy."
Below: McLaughlin eventually ditched the cot and plunked himself down on a Big Agnes Insulated Q-Core sleeping pad. "You can't do this without those pads," he said. He's learning fast. Here he shares dawn's early light with daughters Megan (center) and Marit.
Below: The morning gets off to a good start inside a couple of adjacent tents.
Below: McLaughlin, who spends many nights on the road while recruiting but has yet to sleep on the ground while doing so, is a contented king inside his REI Kingdom 6 castle.
Below: We packed 'em in for the night. That's my Big Agnes Copper Creek UL 1 on the near left. No reports of snoring; just a modest, steady freeway drone, some off-and-on frogs in a nearby pond, and a long-running chorus of songbirds at sunrise.
Below: It appears we have at least one camping convert in the McLaughlin household.
Below: Look, Margaret, Marit and Jim McLaughlin survived a night spent camping in their backyard. They even look happy about it. Would they do it again? Maybe even in a campground someday?
"We want to turn it in to an annual tradition and include more friends and neighbors," Margaret says. "Yes, we will definitely do it again." Readers, when was the last time you got a crew together for a campout? Keep it in mind: June 23 is the Great American Backyard Campout.