We just returned from a week in San Francisco, our first vacation in over two years. It was the ideal post-Covid travel choice for us because we were able to fly non-stop from home, we returned to a familiar destination, and most importantly, we spent time with dear friends whom we had not seen in ages. No trekking, no schlepping, no hassles — just luxurious and uncomplicated. This was definitely my kind of trip.
It wasn’t always so. Back when I was in high school in South Texas, the biggest, most anticipated summer vacation plan wasn’t a leisurely stay in a five-star hotel in Florida or Cancun, but a trip to go camping along the Frio River in Garner State Park. Now let’s remember that the world was overwhelmed by teenagers in the 1960s, kids whose entire lives revolved around social activities with their cohorts, in person. Winter may have meant school events and sports with hometown friends, but summer presented a whole new range of social possibilities, especially on a vacation destination that drew new faces from all over.
Parents, already wearied by the time their exuberant baby-boomers had reached puberty, struggled to find a vacation spot that was both affordable and attractive for the whole family, as well as reasonably safe and controlled for the teens. And so someone, somewhere, long before the popularity of RVs, came up with the idea of camping out, literally, as in outside under the stars. (After all, who in their right mind, whether parents or kids, would want to be pent up all together in a big box day after day rolling from one place to another?)
So this is how “We’re going to Garner” became an enviable phrase.
My single mother was always working, but my BFF came from a traditional family in whose household I was more or less a permanent fixture. Her mother, whom I’ll call Frankie (because that was her name), was a stay-at-home mom who cooked and sewed and laughed and gossiped. Her father, whom I’ll call Gene (because that was his name), was the breadwinner who worked long, hard hours for days at a time on the railroad. Frankie and Gene had been high-school sweethearts — a fact pursuant to nothing in particular except as a possible explanation for their youthful tolerance for the antics of their two daughters and their daughters’ friends.
Daddy Gene usually took his vacation sometime in late June, but the domestic preparations for our big Garner excursion started much earlier, well before school was out. First off was the list of girls being invited to go along: always my friend, her younger sister and I, and a couple others. About five of us. The big thing was the wardrobe planning, designed and mostly sewn by Frankie (she is the person who actually taught me how to sew through these preparations). She/we made cute, cool little crop-top and short sets, simple sundresses, and those all-important terry towel robes (remember those?) to usher us to the showers and back in the campground. Once our outfits were in order, we girls considered ourselves ready to go.
Frankie readied everything else: food, bedding, cooking utensils, cots, TV trays and folding chairs, all to be loaded into the huge, 1958 4-door Mercury Monterrey the night before departure. Bedding, linens and soft goods were stacked from the floorboards up in the back seat until they were level at the windows. We girls sat on top, legs stretched straight out in front of us, for the whole trip. The gargantuan car trunk contained “furnishings” (including a rug, because Frankie wanted a clean campsite), provisions such as dried foods and canned goods, and all the other necessary campsite accoutrements: the Coleman Camp stove, kerosene lamps, a huge cooler, mirrors (to be nailed to trees so we girls could do make-up), one tent (for Frankie), tarpaulins (to be stretched from the trees for covering the rest of us), and the tools needed to put it all together. And there was the luggage, of course, with all our cute little outfits. Those great 19th century British expeditions into the African bush had nothing on us except maybe the polished silver and the manservants!
We always left early in the morning in the hopes of securing a favorable camping site along the main road that circled through the park (the better to see and be seen, you know). Garner is only a little less than four hours west out highway 90 from Victoria where we started, but somehow, the trip always took longer. (Might five teenage girls in the back seat have had anything to do with that?) On the way, we would stop in Uvalde, about 30 miles from the Park and the nearest town of any size where we could get perishables. When we finally arrived, we’d eagerly help to get the camp all set up in time to get ourselves ready for the nightly dance held down at the Pavilion, where new dance steps and summer romance were sure to follow. (A South Texas version of a summer in the Catskills.)
Mr. Gene tried to relax, bless him, by swimming and fishing and napping under the trees, while Frankie was always busy cooking, tidying up, and riding herd on her charges. There was really only one rule in camp: we were not allowed to leave the Park without an adult, not even to grab some snacks or do a laundry in nearby Uvalde. We did, of course, violate that rule a couple times, including once to go see a local concert by B.J. Thomas (a Texas singer later famous for hits such as “Raindrops Keep Fallin’” and “Hooked on a Feeling”) where he sang his newest song, “Garner State Park.” Lucky for us, we never got caught, though some of us (me) got one of Frankie’s “talking tos” in her tent for other, less serious infractions.
When we weren’t getting ready for the dances or eating (Frankie did all the cooking, often inviting others from nearby campsites to join us), we spent our days walking among the Cypress trees, making friends and flirting with boys, and sitting down by the Frio River talking and talking, as girls will do, while listening to music on our transistor radio. Once, we even found a six-pack of beer someone had left nestled in the rocks of the clear, cold water. Usually, our stay only lasted about a week, but it was always a memorable week, and we returned home with lots of stories to tell and the names and addresses of new friends (or new heartthrobs) with whom we promised to stay in touch until we saw them again next year.
The 1960s were a tumultuous time of social unrest and the Vietnam War. We kids were not unaware of the conflicts around us (indeed, some of us would soon begin to protest one cause or another ourselves), but we were afforded safe spaces and lovely places in which to grow and learn and have fun without worrying about tomorrow, even if only for a while. Generations of Texans share similar memories of those simple, carefree summer camping trips and have forever associated Uvalde, Texas, with Garner State Park.
Sadly, not anymore.