Thursday, March 21, 2013

Campfire Stories

For years, I have loudly proclaimed my extreme dislike of camping. When I was a kid, my family used to camp a lot. Mostly, we went to Sequoia and Cachuma, places where there are a lot of trees, a lot of dirt, strange wild animal noises in the middle of the night. My dad loved fishing and I think my mom kind of loved it, too, maybe because he enjoyed it so much. What I remember is the smell of canvas, a constant layer of dirt on the floor of the tent, and boredom. 

I'm sure there were things to do. I have a brother and a sister, for god's sake. We probably fought and made up, played card games and wandered around. My dad loves fishing, so we must have done that, too. But I never liked it, even when we'd meet up with other family members (those times were worse, in a way; I remember drunken relatives, freezing-cold swimming holes, no showers, peeing the woods... none of those rank high on my favorites list).

I may have also considered it a "poor man's vacation." I longed to stay in a comfy hotel room, with soft sheets and turn-down service and cheeseburgers that you could order at the pool bar and sign to your room. That sounded like a real vacation to me.

Fortunately, I married another non-camper and we've lived blissfully camp-free for 15 years. (In fact, the last time we went camping was while we were dating and we left the campsite in the morning swearing we'd never camp again.)

And then...we had kids.

For a few years now, my girls have been asking to camp. They saw it on "Parent Trap" and it looked pretty fun - outsmarting bears, hiking trails, swimming in lakes. Emme was in girl scouts, so she's camped once or twice, but anyone who's been a scout knows that a fair share of a scout camping trip is devoted to earning those dreaded badges and listening to boring stories and obeying someone's mom (who wishes she hadn't volunteered to go). But that's just not the same.

Last weekend, though, we went camping. It was the perfect set-up: just me and my girls with another mom and her three girls. Susan (my friend, the girls' mom) had all the gear and did the shopping; all I had to do was pack up my kids and then drive all 6 kids to meet her at Leo Carrillo (only 20 minutes away). How could I say "no"?

While the kids scattered about the campground in pairs (my three are the same ages as her three), exploring without the usual parental supervision and paranoia, Susan and I effortlessly set up camp. (We were next to a girl scout troop, naturally; but I suppose the 8 of us looked like our own "troop"...) I drank coffee from the stove while she busied herself with organizing and unpacking. In fact, it took me a while to just chill out and stop offering to help do stuff. 

"This is what I like to do when we camp," she said, "putter."

After a few hours, I understood what she meant. The kids roamed freely and I felt unfettered by the usual Saturday activities. I'd sit a spell, make a little snack, clean a dish, and pack up a few things. I watched a blue jay for a while, listened to birds singing, stared into the fire. I'd brought magazines and my Kindle and I had my phone, but I didn't really feel like doing anything. I just wanted to putter.

Later, after we went to the beach and walked in the sand for a while, we settled ourselves around the campfire, eating burnt marshmallows and talking about our favorite books and hearing scary noises in the trees and watching the squirrel vandals traipse through the campsites, searching for dropped morsels. One of the littles fell asleep and then the other one fluttered her eyes and an older girl yawned and we decided to go to bed. The last things I heard were the crackling embers of our fire and tent zippers and the older girls giggling in their tent and other conversations around the camp. And then I was blissfully asleep in the nurture of nature.

I'm not saying I was sad to go home and take a long, hot shower the next day. But it was a sweeter experience than I could have expected. That night, Raf and I threw some logs in the firepit and sat outside for a while watching the stars, then went inside to fall asleep on our own bed. It wasn't quite camping, but it seemed the best of both worlds.

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