Some families take ski trips to Colorado or travel to Europe for the holidays, but for the Koon girls of Buncombe County, it's all about their annual Christmas camping weekend with dad.
The week before Christmas, they pull out the camping gear (or, more accurately, their dad does) and head out to meet old friends — other fathers and their offspring — for a weekend of rock climbing, zip-lining and other play. The tradition began years ago, when Karl and McKenzie Koon weren't much older than their kids are now. Karl was a student at Asheville School from 1969-74, and McKenzie was at Roberson High School around the same time. Both attended a mountaineering camp held each summer at Asheville School.
James G. "Pop" Hollandsworth, a physics teacher who headed up the school's mountaineering program, started the camp in 1967. (He was also the first director of the North Carolina Outward Bound School.)
The first Koon family Christmas camping weekend was in 1972, when students, faculty and assorted friends came together for a "Mountaineering Camp Reunion." In those days, the gatherings were held after Dec. 25, which gave everyone a chance to show off their Christmas loot — new camping gear — while reuniting with friends from the summer program. Among the original dads from those early trips were Karl, Bob Jones of Atlanta and Craig Murray of Winston-Salem. Every year, they join Pop (who's now 94) for the reunion. But at this point, it's not so much about who got what cool camping gear: It's about kids, and passing on a mountaineering tradition to the next generation.
One quirky but much-loved part of that tradition, say the girls, is the MREs (meals ready to eat) an Atlanta friend always brings.
The current crop of girls, ages 7 to 16, haven't missed a single year of Christmas camping since the eldest — Kelly, now a junior at Asheville School — was 3 years old. So besides camping equipment, the dads also needed to stock up on diapers, favorite blankets, toys (many a Barbie has made the trip) and stuffed animals for the annual excursion.
And while some of the kids have grown up and moved on, new ones arrive with their dads each year. No one wants to miss out on the fun: falling in creeks (someone always comes home wet), getting so cold someone ends up in dad's sleeping bag, and (what camping trip would be complete without them?) scary stories. For Karel Koon, that's the best part. But no one is allowed to repeat the tales to mom when they get home.
So why aren't the moms also part of this tradition (especially those like McKenzie who attended Pop's original camp)? The short answer: This way, they get a weekend to themselves. "That's the weekend the elves come out at Inadu Lodge," says McKenzie, referring to the family home off Jones Cove Road in Asheville.
The minute the campers drive off, McKenzie begins retrieving Christmas presents from monthlong hiding places, sliding baking trays into ovens, tying bows on boxes of truffles for friends, and all the other tasks involved in turning the ordinary into the magic of Christmas. So when the girls return home after their weekend of roughing it with dad, Christmas has arrived. (Some women do join the men for the reunion, but most opt out in favor of precious, uninterrupted time to prepare for the holidays.) McKenzie remembers years when she stayed up all night just to savor her time alone, listening to Christmas music, baking and wrapping.
Meanwhile, the annual event is not complete without a trip to the Pisgah Fish Hatchery — and a gift for mom. Every year, McKenzie gets a new stuffed animal to add to her growing collection of "critters" the girls pick out for her. And every year, the girls return tired, wet, full of MREs and scary stories but with Christmas just a weekend away and still a lot to look forward to.
The men? Well, Karl didn't have much to say about what they did after the children were finally conked out in their sleeping bags. Maybe they just reminisced around the fire, telling scary stories all their own.
Cinthia Milner lives in Leicester.
Every year, the girls return tired, wet, full of MREs and scary stories but with Christmas just a weekend away.