In front of a crackling campfire at Scenic State Park in northern Minnesota, Betsy Putzier of St. Paul sits in a folding chair, leaning toward the radiant orange glow. A scarf around her head, an insulated mug in her hands, and a blanket on her lap help ward off the fall afternoon chill. Tonight and tomorrow night she will camp here with her son Paul as temperatures cool to the mid-30s. Last night, they camped at Franz Jevne State Park on Minnesota's northern border, where it dropped below freezing.
They are sleeping in a tent, as Betsy always does when she camps. She is 86 years old, turning 87 in a couple of weeks.
Paul's brothers and sisters have been ribbing him about this late-season trip with their mother. "My siblings thought I was trying to kill her," he says jokingly.
But make no mistake, Paul is not the driving force behind the outing, and his siblings know it. He is here to support his mother's quest to camp in a tent in every Minnesota state park that offers tent camping. That's 62 parks, and Betsy has fewer than 10 left on her list. Today she crossed off Jevne. Tomorrow she'll cross off Scenic.
Betsy unwittingly began working toward her goal more than 15 years ago as she traveled and camped with her husband, Mike. Betsy and Mike explored Minnesota and the world on adventurous trips. A rigorously organized planner and note-taker, Betsy kept close track of all the Minnesota state parks where they camped, from Afton to Zippel Bay. When Mike's health faltered and he was less able to travel, she drafted new camping companions, no previous experience needed. She first asked her sister Rose, who had just retired.
"I said, well, Betsy, I really haven't been camping," recalls Rose, "but let's try it once and see what happens." They went to several North Shore parks, and Rose took immediately to it. The two ended up being simpatico campmates for more than a decade.
Camping in all the parks didn't occur to Betsy until one day when she was looking through her trip logs. "I thought, gosh, I've been to a lot of these places," she says. "And then I started thinking, well, maybe that would be a fun thing to try to do them all."
As she ticked through the list, the composition of her camping parties changed. Mike died in 2005. Rose developed health issues that kept her from camping. Betsy's children, though, became aware that their mother was quietly doing something remarkable, and they are now helping her reach her goal.
"We knew she loved to camp and was doing this with Rose, but we didn't know she had this book and was keeping track on all of her maps and everything," says Paul, the second of Betsy and Mike's six children, who range in age from 53 to 62.
Mary, the fourth oldest, says, "All six of us were like, 'Oh my gosh, we've got to get her to the end of this park thing.'"
The "kids" are all coordinating to join Betsy on camping trips in 2019, checking off her remaining parks and planning a family campout at Interstate State Park in September to celebrate the completion of her goal.
Mary camped with her for the first time last summer, joining her on trips to Lake Maria and Banning state parks.
"It was an eye-opener," says Mary. "She's a tough lady. She doesn't look for help to do things."
Most of the time Betsy stays at drive-in campsites, but at a few parks, such as Glendalough and George Crosby Manitou, she's staying at cart-in or backpack sites.
She doesn't go to a Minnesota state park just to check it off her list. She is there to see the park, to feel it, to hear it, to smell it. To hike the trails and soak up the sense of place.
She doesn't mind camping alone, and as recently as last summer she was still slipping off on her own to some parks. She drove to Whitewater and Monson Lake state parks for solo campouts, and this season she may go to Carley and Rice Lake. Most of her 2019 camping docket is booked with family members. Rose even plans to get back out and join her on a visit to the newest state park, Lake Vermilion–Soudan Underground Mine.
Asked to name some of her favorite state parks, Betsy muses aloud.
"Well, I love Zippel Bay. But now that I've been to Franz Jevne too—I don't know, they're both so beautiful.
"I like Blue Mounds also, down in that corner [of the state]. And I love Afton.
"And all along the North Shore—every one of those is a favorite.
"I guess that takes me all over the state, doesn't it?"
Betsy's camping style is spare, low tech, and highly organized, with precise lists of items to carefully pack in wine boxes that serve as her gear totes. She shelters in a simple but tough decade-old dome tent. During the camping season she stands ready to go with little notice, keeping her kit clean and stocked. As a self-proclaimed foodie, she takes care to pack quality food and drink.
"Lamb chops for dinner, that's a tradition for Mom," says Paul.
When Rose and Betsy camped, they had a routine.
"She was in charge of breakfast—bacon and eggs or bacon and pancakes, and coffee of course to start the day," says Rose. "And I would make the fire in the fire pit and make dinner over the campfire. We would rough it with rack of lamb and herbed potatoes."
Sure enough, at Scenic State Park, it's lamb for dinner for Paul and Betsy. Mary quickly learned that camping with her mother means a certain set of ritualized practices that guide campsite life.
"She has it very organized, and we have certain things that we need to do, and we follow the script," says Mary, laughing. "She loves sharing it, and she's very proud of what she's got going on. I mean, it all includes good food and drink, so it can't be bad."
Above all, says Rose, there is a primary guideline.
"She has to sleep in all of the parks before she dies. That's the rule."
When her children were growing up, Betsy did not camp. She was a nurse, her husband a lawyer, and they raised six children in their busy St. Paul home.
"Some of my friends did tenting and camping with their children, but I never did," she says. "It was just too daunting for me with six kids."
Instead her camping bug grew out of her travel habit, which also flourished when the kids were grown. When they were in their 60s, Betsy and Mike bicycled from Amsterdam to Paris, sleeping in a pup tent and dining at nice restaurants. Later they biked across Italy, catching a Pink Floyd concert on a floating stage in Venice. In 2000 they went to Syria, taking public transportation and exploring well off the typical tourist paths. Six years ago Betsy traveled with Mary to Mongolia.
Her experiences in Minnesota's state parks have been just as memorable. She and Rose vividly recall a magical night at Blue Mounds State Park, where a conservation herd of American bison roams on native prairie.
"You could hear the bison snorting," Betsy says. "And there was an owl that just wouldn't stop hooting. And we heard a band of coyotes just barking like crazy. So it was one of those special nights with a lot of night noises."
She remembers finding abundant chanterelles at Lake Maria State Park, sleeping next to the burbling river at Whitewater, and hiking the scenic trails along the falls at Cascade River. Rose recalls a time when they sought dinner in a small town that had few dining options. Looking for a decent restaurant, they asked a policeman.
"He said, 'Ma'am, you can punch me in the face and then for dinner tonight we'll give you soup and a sandwich—in jail.' And we just laughed so hard."
Here at Scenic State Park, Betsy is taken by the sturdy, handsome boardwalk that winds through stands of pines and cedars along the steep shore of Coon Lake. While she and Paul are here, they will hike this boardwalk as well as the Chase Point Trail that follows a long peninsula out into the lake. They'll also check out the Civilian Conservation Corps–built lodge and interpretive center. Deeper explorations like this fix places in Betsy's mind and broaden her appreciation for Minnesota.
Her camping project "has made me so aware of the diversity of our state," she says. "I just fell in love with so many parks. And they're all so unique."
Betsy's children are thoroughly enjoying the time they're spending with their mom on her camping quest. Always a close family, they have gotten closer, relishing the opportunity to collaborate and get together.
"It's a shared experience," says Paul. "I mean, it's a subject of conversation, and we love the planning aspect of it. I'm sure all of us are experiencing the same thing—just being able to spend some real quality time doing something she loves to do."
Betsy's camping quest has inspired them all to get out and do more, both with her and on their own. Mary, for one, has deepened her appreciation for her mom's adventurous spirit.
"It certainly has made an impression on me," she says. "Both my parents have been great role models to all of us. We're pretty lucky."
Betsy in turn attributes her adventurousness to her own mother. "My mother was a woman who, for her generation, drove a car very early and didn't seem to be afraid of anything," she says. "So maybe I got it from her. But it has inspired some of my grandchildren too, to get out there and do things."
Rose says of Betsy: "It's the unexpected that makes her happy. She has a lot of curiosity: what's new, what can she learn, what can she see, what can she do?
"It's all just the day and what the day offers you. You know, it's just how you live."
Drawing attention to herself is not Betsy's style. She sees her state park goal as a personal achievement but not a cause for fanfare.
Again and again, she downplays any notion that she is special.
"There's really not a lot of story here," she says. "It's actually just the joy of exploring Minnesota."
It's clear, though, that when her family gathers in September at Interstate State Park, they will be celebrating not just her camping milestone but also, in a way, Betsy herself.
"It is kind of a celebration of all she's done," says Mary. "We're all realizing she has been a pretty dynamic person in our lives.
"I don't know how many more of these things she's going to be able to do. But I'm sure she'll keep surprising us."
After all, says Mary, they went to Mongolia when her mom was 80—"and she wants to do it again when she turns 90."