the first time i went camping i was seven, alone and pitched my tent on the fenced in 10 x 10 patio of the condo where my mother and i lived. this first camping ‘trip’ was the result of two straight years of begging for a tent.
i thought that if my mother spent money on something, she wouldn’t let it go unused and would thereby be forced to take me camping. this logic had served me well previously.
after watching ice castles I was convinced I was born to wear lyrca and be whisked off the ice and lifted through the air by a handsome man in a matching shiny unitard. Once my mom finally bought me the black and red skating dress I wanted (complete with flesh toned sweater tights) she enrolled me in skate camp. After one lesson I realized that lifts were years away and spent the remainder of my four lessons in the ice rink bathroom marveling at my outfit in the mirror or eavesdropping on older girls conversations about getting to first base.
camping was different. I wouldn’t have to practice for years to roast the perfect marshmallow and I was already pretty skilled at board games. The problem with camping is that unlike ice skating it involved my mother’s actual participation in something that lacked indoor plumbing, had plenty idle time and copious amounts of dirt.
my mother didn’t believe in camping. she believed camping existed but simply didn’t understand why anyone would want to take part in it—sleeping outside, creating your own bathroom by digging a hole in the dirt or being forced to wear flip flops in the shower not to mention the insects and the possibilities of disease or infection. i’d actually seen her tuck her pants into her socks at a bbq in the suburbs after she overheard someone talking about someone else who’d gotten lyme disease. the fact that the lyme disease infected person was on a hunting trip in a wooded area over a hundred miles away didn’t matter to her.
the morning of my seventh birthday i ripped open the hello kitty wrapping paper and saw the box–four people: a mother, father and their children, one boy and one girl all sitting in folding chairs around a campfire, the lovely green and yellow tent in the foreground lit up from the inside like a shiny beacon of family togetherness. i was always longing for that sense of family. it was just my mother and i in those early years and nothing said family like a camping trip. i imagined we’d set out for our camping trip with the guy she was dating who had a son about my age. once we pitched the tent, we wouldn’t look any different from the family on the box. the other camping families would think we were just like them. they didn’t have to know that the man building a fire wasn’t my real dad (my own was a few states over in prison) or that the boy helping me gather sticks for kindling wasn’t my brother (i had two half brothers who were decades older than me that i’d only met a few times).
“so, when can we go camping?” I asked already opening the box.
“you can go camping right now,” she said pointing to our patio.
In that moment I understood that no matter how many tents or lanterns or sleeping bags she bought for me, she would never take me camping. Asking my mother to sleep outside was like asking her to lie down on the comforter of a hotel. The few times we stayed at a hotel always started the same, she’d make me stand at the door while she rolled back the comforter, neatly folded it, put it in the closet and washed her hands with anti-bacterial soap. After that, she’d pull out her bottle of Lysol and clean the spotless bathroom. it was as if she had a built in black light in her mind so she could see all the glowing secretions, bits of skin and fluids left behind by other travelers. I should have known that tent or no tent she was not a camper. she did however try her best to ‘take me camping’.
she swept the back patio and laid down a tarp, helped me pitch the tent, packed my backpack with granola bars, a bottle of water, a thermos of warm cocoa, a few books i’d ordered from the scholastic book club sale and a walkie talkie (just in case).
“if you need anything, I’ll be right here,” she said pointing to the kitchen table on the other side of the sliding glass doors.
the first hour was exhilarating. i kept telling myself, “i’m camping, look at me! i’m a girl who goes camping! that’s right I’m a camper! oh, who me? I’m just out here camping!” i read a book about native americans and corn, called corn is maize, cover to cover twice while taking tiny bites of my granola bar and sipping my cocoa.
i tried to ignore the sounds of the my mother’s sewing machine just a few feet away and the Ewing’s drama on Dallas coming from the little black and white portable television set up next to it.
Then, the cocoa was gone. i fished out the swollen marshmallows from the bottom of thermos while watching moths singe their wings as they flew into the patio light that my mom refused to turn off. i tried to hold my ground but i was getting cold and bored and my mom kept radioing me on the walkie talkie to see how I was doing…“base camp to camper nicole: what your 411?”
i gave up after only three hours. we packed the tent in the box and i never opened it again.
Every once in a while she’d ask me if I was “up for another camping trip” and I’d tell her I had too much homework or thought I might be getting a cold and should probably stay inside. I still dreamed of real camping though and in my college dorm I’d make my roommate recount stories of her family camping trips. The obsession never went away.
It wasn’t until my thirties that I really went camping. My tent was long gone, had been sold at a yard sale years before so I set out with a borrowed one, my boyfriend and a group of friends for three nights of actual camping in big sur. Naturally many of my mother’s ‘issues’ with dirt and germs didn’t skip a generation but I was well prepared with several rolls of quarters for the shower, ten pairs of clean underwear, enough baby wipes to last octuplets a year and a bag full of books, games, watercolors, colored pencils and two sketchbooks.
That first trip was everything I hoped it would be (learn more about this first real trip here and my second trip here). I pushed myself and went for two days without a shower. I went to sleep relishing in the campfire smell that was embedded in my sweatshirt and hair. we drank too much beer, made s’mores, roasted meats over the fire and stayed up too late talking long into the night under the stars I couldn’t see during my condo patio camping trip since the patio light was on. The morning we left I’d already begun asking my friends when they’d be available for another round of camping. Of course I didn’t like having to walk to the bathroom (especially in the dark) or how no matter how many blankets I piled on that the salty sea air chilled me in the middle of the night or waking up when the sun rose because it shot straight through the polyester tent onto my face…but in a way, I did like those things. I liked them because we all hated them and complaining about the cold or the being forced to wake up at 6:00am bred this camaraderie that branched out far beyond our campsite and became a topic of bathroom chit chat with camping strangers that became instant friends after bonding about the crappy water pressure. I was hooked.
Last week I got married. like most human beings, i dreamed of meeting ‘the one’, but when I turned 34 the day after a heart-wrenching break-up I thought, I was too old, too set in my ways, lived in too small a town, worked too much (the list goes on and on). I already had a full life—a career doing something I loved and supportive inspiring friends and family—so, I let it go. I stopped caring if I would ever walk down an aisle in a white dress or meet someone I connected with so much that I wanted to say, “let’s make sure we get to hang out together for the rest of our lives.”
Of course, just after I let go of the whole white dress-first dance-you and me forever thing, I met seth. seth is a natural born camper. unlike me, he’s perfectly happy sitting and doing pretty much nothing. Sometimes I’ll call him when I’m away on a business trip and our conversation will go something like this:
“what are you doing?” – me
“listening to a bob Dylan album.” – him
“that’s it.” -him
“but, what are you doing with your hands?” -me
“Nothing, my hands are just sitting here too.” –him
If I’m doing less than two things at one time I feel lazy, even though I know I shouldn’t. seth also puts very little thought into clothing. I don’t mean he doesn’t care about how he looks, of course he does. But if he doesn’t like how his hair looks, he puts on a hat. He also does very well with very little. You can give him a can of beans and a loaf of decent bread and he’s satisfied. He also sees everything in life as an experience not an emergency. I grew up thinking that danger was everywhere—a hotel comforter, an insect in the grass, even darkness was an enemy. Seth sees danger as something that increases his enjoyment of life—a roller coaster, surviving using a toothbrush that fell on the ground or finding your way back to the campsite after getting lost on a hike are the things that fuel him.
So when we started talking about out honeymoon, we both knew we had to go camping. That after the chaos of wedding planning and the overwhelming out pour from each other and loved ones on our wedding day, we’d need a few days of nothingness. A few days of experiencing the lovely sound of wind through the trees, how good a two-minute shower can feel when your ‘living room’ is a patch of dirt, that a beer tastes so much better after losing your way in the woods and how meat cooked on almond wood in a fire pit tastes amazing. A few days of being with no one else, just the two of us and a patch of land and an rv (yes, we’ve upgraded from tent camping). A few days of Just the two of us Sitting around our campsite fire pit trying to make out the constellations and talking about the future–Our future. Careers. Places to live. And, of course the possibility of children. For a moment, I see the two of us, as we are in that very moment…childless and middle-aged, yet happy, looking nothing like the photo on the box of my first tent. For a moment, I see the two of us alone–but together, already our own tiny beacon of family togetherness.
*below are some images from the first leg of our honeymoon, camping in bodega dunes. stay tuned for the next part of our trip…montreal!
p.s.-those awesome beach cruisers were stolen the last night of our trip. i hope the bandits that took them from our campsite in the middle of the night are having as much fun as we did riding them. jerks.