I spent a night at Ratcliff Lake Recreation Area in this 1984 VW camper van. Pam LeBlanc photo

Last week’s trip to East Texas took me back in time in more ways than just the 1984 VW Westfalia campervan that I drove to get there.

I spent a night at Ratcliff Lake Recreation Area in Davy Crockett National Forest, a campground I’d visited a few times as a kid, again as a college student, once more with a boyfriend after college, and most recently 15 years ago with my husband.

I remembered it for its tall, swaying pine trees and small, amber-hued lake. When I was little, my family staked out our big blue canvas tent on a pine needle-cushioned spot just across from the swimming area. Our Austin neighbors came along, and we spent a long summer weekend running amok in the woods and paddling on the lake.

The park offers fishing, hiking and swimming. Pam LeBlanc photo

In college, eight or 10 of us piled into a couple of cars and drove out from Texas A&M University with gear borrowed from the school’s recreation department. All I remember about that trip is waking up in a thunderstorm, our tent flooded so badly that we had to bail out and seek shelter in our cars.

After college, my then-boyfriend and I pitched a tent in a woody nook of the park alongside the lake and pulled out fishing rods. I didn’t catch a thing, but Roger reeled in an old tennis shoe – with a tiny fish inside it.

Most recently, my husband Chris and I made the trip with my sister and her husband. We grilled dinner, toasted marshmallows and hiked through the dogwoods.

The park is filled with loblolly pines and oaks. Pam LeBlanc photo

It had been so long since I’d been here that I didn’t know exactly what to expect. I found a nearly vacant park – but the cozy feeling that those shoulder-to-shoulder loblolly pines provided remained.

I’m not quite sure why it was so empty – no kids swimming, only three or four of the more than 50 camping sites taken, including the spot I chose, once again, directly across from the swimming area.

Sure, it was hot. Even the lake felt like a cauldron of soup – not refreshing at all. But the hush of the woods felt like a reward after three and a half hours of driving that old 1984 Westfalia here from Austin.

I jumped in the lake, lit a fire in the firepit, grilled a couple of bratwurst and sipped a glass of white wine in my special  “Always Be Prepared” camping wine glass.

Put it on your camping list. It wraps up everything that I like about East Texas into a quick weekend escape: Pines, a lake, hiking trails, a paved road for pedaling, and plenty of stars.

And it gave me a healthy dose of nostalgia, too.

The pines stretch to the sky. Pam LeBlanc photo

If you go: Ratcliff Lake Recreation Area is located near Kennard, east of Crockett in Davy Crockett National Forest. Camping is $15 per night; $20 with electric hookups. For more information go to www.recreation.gov/camping/campgrounds/234362.


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