To paraphrase Robert Duvall’s character in Apocalypse Now, “I love the smell of old canvas in the morning.”

That musty, weather-worn aroma of the canvas that made up the outer skin of our family tent meant summer vacation and invoked a host of images, most of them good ones.

The night before we would leave on these yearly journeys as predictable as the migration of wildebeest across the Serengeti, I would lay awake, unable to sleep, filled with a great sense of excitement over the adventure to come.

Now when you’re a big Catholic family with a bunch of kids, a grocer’s salary, and a Ford station wagon that always seemed to be exactly 10 years older than the current year we might be going camping in, your vacation options are somewhat limited.

We didn’t know it at the time but we owned an SUV, only for us, it stood for Seriously Underserviced Vehicle. Regardless of how our mode of transport might be characterized, Bermuda or two weeks in the South of France were not part of the vacation option package. But a week in the south of California, at a national park, was certainly within the budgetary constraints.

If you were our dad, you borrowed a hundred bucks from the local credit union, put the one and only credit card you owned in your wallet, and used your newly borrowed resources to secure food, gas, and five or six nights worth of camping lodgings at Sequoia National Park in the lower part of central California. The credit card was a Chevron gas card and was to be used only in the case of an emergency with the station wagon. Like our camping supplies, this credit card was used on an annual basis.

I also remember that seating was going to be at a premium when it was time to “load up.” The problem of where to put all the camping equipment was solved by the acquisition of a utility trailer at the local tool rental yard. But when it came to securing a comfortable seat inside the station wagon, things could get ugly. This was when being the “baby” of the family was a distinct disadvantage, as I found it almost impossible to attach an enforcement protocol to my jurisdiction of “dibbing” the bucket seat in the second row. This usually meant I was relegated to the least favorite seating arrangement of them all, the spot in between my parents in the front seat.

There was such a ritual to all this. Camping equipment had to be loaded just right and according to the rubrics long ago set in stone by our father. There would also have to be the requisite number of curses, creative ones on our dad’s part, which never included the Lord’s name or any of the “bad” words that were prohibited in and out of the house.

And of course, blood would be spilled — usually our father’s.

 Our dad had this fragile Irish skin with the consistency of wet tissue paper. If he wasn’t bleeding after hooking up a rented utility trailer to a rented hitch he had already hooked up to the bucket of bolts station wagon registered in his name, then he had missed a step along the way.

Sequoia National Park in the Sierra Nevada Mountains was almost always our destination, and though it was not all that far from home, just a little more than 200 miles, it felt like a journey to the end of the world. And it could feel even longer if you weren’t able to declare “dibs” on that elusive and coveted bucket seat.

Once on the road, we were allowed to sing in the car, even Beatles songs if our dad was in a particularly open-minded mood, but we were to remain silent as the grave when it came time for our dad to face down his nemesis, Ash Mountain.

There were other, more radiator-friendly ways to get to Sequoia National Park, but for some reason they just did not meet our father’s standard for a challenge. So climb Ash Mountain we would, with all eyes fixed on the temperature gage on the dashboard, watching as the red needle edged ever so closer to the red H at the top of the gauge, knowing that gauge was all that was between us and destiny.

Usually at this same time I had to contend with a demon of my own. Ash Mountain was one of those evil serpentine and narrow roads designed by a sadist. And although I prided myself on a rather strong constitution, this road, and speculating whether the radiator hose or my dad’s blood pressure was going to blow first, gave me a severe case of kinetosis, which is a $15 word for being car sick.

Of course there was always a respite because our overloaded, overtaxed “SUV” never failed to fail and would, with the exactitude of a fine Swiss timepiece, boil over just seconds before our dad’s systolic pressure did. We would invariably have to pull off into a turn-out, our father would invariably have to throw his baseball cap to the ground, but my mom would fish a bottle of 7 Up out of the camping cooler and attend to the patient with car sickness. With cooler heads, cooler engine blocks, and a more settled stomach, we were soon on our way again.

Once we reached our destination, Sunset Camp in Sequoia National Park, all thoughts of car trouble, the heat of the San Joaquin Valley, and our dad’s short fuse vanished. There were meadows to meander in, trails to blaze, bears to see, caves to explore; in other words, paradise.

You shouldn’t have to ask how all this applies to the Catholic faith. Our parents’ lives were all about sacrifice; even when it came to having a good time, they were giving up parts of themselves for their children. And if our vacation plans coincided with Sunday, well that was no problem either.

Mass at Sequoia National Park was very different, and yet, it was very much the same. Mass in the park was conducted outdoors in an amphitheater usually reserved for forest ranger talks about the flora and fauna that surrounded us. But on any given Sunday morning in the summer camping season, it was packed with people just like us; fellow travelers who, by the looks of the size of their families and the conditions of their “SUVs” weren’t going to be going to the Côte d’Azur anytime soon either.

It made a lasting impression.

When I travel with my own family, if it’s Sunday, we’re at Mass. When my brothers who served their country in the Air Force and the U.S. Marines Corps found themselves in such diverse places as Hawaii, Texas, Okinawa and Vietnam, if it was Sunday, they were at Mass. I guess this is an American Catholic Family article less about summer vacation and more about our mom and dad and how their sacrifices and example helped forge their children in the faith.

Every year the forest ranger would tell us how some of the mighty redwood trees we walked amongst were alive at the time of Christ.

I think they were trying to teach us how majestic nature was. But as we knelt down on the hard ground of that amphitheater as the visiting priest consecrated the host and cup in this outside venue surrounded by these huge and silent geriatric trees, we learned an even more important piece of information.

The Eucharist, the trees, our faith — these were solid things, things that lasted. And our family was part of them.

Robert Brennan is a television writer living in Los Angeles.