Monday, June 3, 2013

Back to Nature

On a warm spring Saturday in April, Jason, Jack and I embarked on our first campout together. Although Jack and I slept in a tent last summer during the first night of the family retreat at Magnolia Village, this was to be his first real camping experience. We were all looking forward to spending the day at Oak Mountain State Park, building a roaring campfire, roasting marshmellows and sleeping under the stars. While Jason packed his Tahoe, I put together a few clothes in a backpack and dug out Jack's sleeping bag from beneath a mound of Legos and Nerf guns in his closet.
   Around noon Jason pronounced the Tahoe packed.
Jack's one previous camping experience was short-lived.
Last July 100+ degree heat drove us from our tent
(complete with life-sized Panda) to the comfort of
an air conditioned hut at Magnolia Village.
   I had a vision of the three of us singing old Girl Scout camp songs as we made the thirty-minute drive to the park. I had this romantic idea of pitching our tent in the solitude of the forest. We'd spend the afternoon exploring the park. After the sun went down, we would roast marshmellows and make s'mores, tell stories and play cards by the campfire. Then we'd crawl into our snug tent and fall asleep to the orchestral night sounds of cricket and cicada harmony. But even before we left the house, my fantasy campout began to unravel.
      "We'll have to take two cars," Jason added.
   Now the last time I checked the Tahoe was the size of a small bus. It's a monster by my Honda Civic standards. How was it that two average-sized adults and a small child couldn't all comfortably ride together?
   "It's full of gear," he replied.
   "Really?" I asked, dumbly. "What kind of gear?"
   "Well, there's the tent and cookstove and cooking equipment, lanterns, sleeping bags, the air mattress, my climbing gear just--just in case--and some other stuff we might need. I had to put the seat down to fit it all in, and we still need to pack the cooler and buy groceries. And if we want to take the bikes ..."
   For the record, let me clarify something. Jason is one of the most efficient packers I've ever met. In fact, his ability to neatly organize and load the trunk of a car is one of the many reasons why I fell in love in him. At the risk of making myself sound completely OCD, he even has specific containers for various gear and understands the value in folding, rewinding and otherwise properly replacing items after use. So for him to say that the Tahoe is properly packed and without room to spare could mean only one thing: We were taking too much stuff.
   I took a moment to gather my thoughts, not wanting to sound too control freakish.
   "Um, honey ..." I said in my kindest, gentlest voice. "We are only going for one night. Do you really think we need to take all that stuff and two cars?"
   "Well, if we're gonna cook out we do," he said. "There's nothing like waking up to the the smell of bacon cooking over an open fire. And I have this great coffee pot made just for camping ..."
   Apparently Jay had his own ideas of what camping meant. He had all the gadgets and gizmos needed. And cooking out was a big part of his ideal. But I wasn't so sure how we'd pull off dinner for Jack, who is challenging the Guiness record for World's Pickiest Eater. The boy doesn't eat hot dogs or hamburgers. He wouldn't appreciate a campfire dinner unless we could find a way to deep fry chicken nuggets.
   "The problem is, you have to take as much gear for one night as you do for a week if you're cooking," Jason said. "But I suppose we could just go out to eat. There are plenty of places right around the park."
 "Maybe we should simplify things," I said. "I think we're trying to do to much. It's already afternoon."
    He seemed a little disappointed, but in the end we agreed that scaling back the equipment—and the time it would take to set up—was the best thing to do. We left the cookstove and cooking gear and took only the essentials: Lanterns, air mattress, warm snuggly sleeping bags, a hatchet to cut fire wood, a small cooler for soft drinks and snacks, the tent, Jack's fishing gear, pillows and a change of clothes. It was still a lot of stuff, but Jason managed to pack all we needed in the trunk of my Honda Civic coupe. By 1 p.m. we headed out for our wilderness adventure.

   Oak Mountain Park is a 50 mile state-managed nature preserve that offers camping, boating, horseback riding, golf, cycling paths and hiking. On the weekends it's a very popular spot. We arrived at the campgrounds to find that there were many other families who were also taking advantage of one of the first nice weekends of spring. Jay picked campsite #49 for us on the campground map and bought two bundles of firewood.
   There were huge, fancy recreational vehicles parked just off the road, wedged under trees that could not camoflage their shiny cabins and sleek amenities. Tents of all shapes and sizes were pitched beneath the soft, green canape of carefully maintained forest. The campsites were level and covered in pea gravel. A fire pit offered a grate on which you might place a grill or griddle, if you were of the ilk to forgo the local Applebees and Waffle House.
   With Jason and I working together the tent went up in record time, but we ran into a hitch with the air mattress. Neither one of us remembered to bring the pump. After a brief consideration of our options which included driving back home to get the pump or buying a new pump at the nearby Walmart, we decided to first ask a fellow camper if he had one we could borrow.
   The next campsite was about 30 yards away. I as neared the large tent and gear-laden tables, I saw three young children running in and out of the tent. The oldest urchin couldn't have been more than five. A young man sat in a folding chair whittling on a walking stick while a young woman sat at a picnic table that held a large box of Pampers.
   "Hi there," I called. "We just got here and we forgot the pump for our air mattress. Any chance you have one we could borrow?"
   To my relief, the woman immediately agreed to let us borrow theirs, which was powered off a car's cigarette lighter. As she rose to retrieve the pump for me, I got a good look at her rounded belly. She looked as though she might go into labor at any moment.
   "When are you due?" I asked.
   "Well, I'm not that far along, only 26 weeks, but I'm having twins," she said.
    I followed her to her truck to retrieve the pump while trying to imagine myself camping with three young children while being very pregnant. Definitely not my style. But here she was, seeming to take it all in stride. Amazing.
   The pump made short work of inflating our comfy air mattress and Jason wrangled it inside the tent. Jack added the stuffed animals that he had squirreled away in his backpack, and he immediately flopped down and began playing Minecraft on his iTouch.
   "That's not why we're here," I reminded him.
   Without complaint, he abandoned his game and we set out for a hike at the Wildlife Rescue Center, which is also located within the park. The center takes in baby birds, injured o'possums and any wild critter in need of TLC. They have numerous cages holding owls and hawks and even a vulture or two. We hiked for a while, then tried our hand at fishing. After Jack hopelessly snagged his favorite lure in a shrub, we decided it was time for dinner. But tonight there would be no roasting of weenies under the stars. Practically ruled the day and we made for the nearest Ruby Tuesdays, which served (among other things) Jack's favorite, chicken fingers. No, this was exactly roughing it in the wilderness.
  After a brief foray at the nearby Walmart for graham crackers, marshmellows and Hershey bars, we headed back to our little campsite. Jason brandished his trusty hatchet and made quick work of the wood that we purchased from the park's gift shop. Soon he had a roaring fire going, which was nice since the evening had turned chilly once the sun went down.
  It was only then that I realized how not-alone we were. There were at least a dozen camp sites within sight. Looking out across the camping area, each site was illuminated with its own campfire and/or state-of-the-art LED lanterns. On the road just above us, a group of teenagers laughed and chatted as they sat by their RV under strands of white Christmas lights. I could hear strains of a baby wailing coming from the direction of the little family who had loaned us their air pump.  We could have saved ourselves a lot of trouble by just pitching a tent in the front yard of my house for all the solitude we were enjoying here in this little, tented subdivision. This wasn't exactly the back-to-nature experience I thought it would be.
   As if reading my mind, Jack blurted out, "This looks like a refugee camp!"
  I'm not sure when or where my 11-year-old has seen photos of refugee camps, but his analogy made me laugh out loud. What does it say about our culture that we go out of our way—not to mention the expense—to deprive ourselves of running water, electricity, heat and shelter for the sake of recreation? I hummed strains of Tom Petty's anthem the rest of the night.
   No, this was not my idea of communing with nature, and I admit I was a little disappointed that when I looked up at the sky that night, I couldn't see stars for the glow of the nearby street lamps. Campfire roasted or not, this was not my cup of tea. But as we climbed into our sleeping bags and said our good-nights, Jack reminded me of something I'd completely forgotten.
   "This has been the best campout ever!" he said, snuggling close to me on the air mattress.
   For Jason and me, the campout might have fallen short of our expectations, but for Jack—who had no expectations because he had nothing to compare this experience to—it had been a perfect day. Turns out all he wanted to do was to eat melted marshmellows and chocolate bars and sleep on an air mattress in a tent. He didn't care where we were. All that matter was that we were together.
  The next morning, after a breakfast of leftover graham crackers and camp fire coffee ala Jason's portable French press, we packed up our tent and supplies and drove our smokey-smelling bodies back to my urban home where hot water flowed aplenty. Now that it was all said and done, we had a great time. It was, after all, Jack's first "real" camping trip and it was one none of us would ever forget.

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