I’m not your average experienced camper. I’m not even sure I qualify – yet – as a camper. Between girl scouts and the disastrous New Year’s Eve at Limantour camping trip I camped not once. Unless you consider falling asleep on my roof deck in the middle of a city camping. Which I’m certain you don’t. No matter how kind you want to be to me. But as a soon to be divorced Mom of two boys, I need to fulfill both roles: Nurture-er and Nature-er.
My parents weren’t big campers. Outdoorsy, yes. Hence my love of fishing and my generally sporty nature. My parents’ issue with camping seemed to boil down to toilets, or the lack of them at most campsites. I have to admit, it’s pretty sweet to have flushable toilets and hot showers nestled amidst tents and plumes of campfire smoke. Perhaps having eight children might have factored in to the hesitancy to cuddle up to Smokey the Bear. Could you image the gear pack needed for five boys and three girls? The bickering?
The comforts of home and the lightened load, compared to our absurd haul for the misery of Limantour, were appreciated by the dudes and me as we made campsite #57 our home for the weekend in Plumas Eureka State Park. Also comforting was the fact that we could drive right to our campsite, sort of. Purely by accident, or naiveté (or because it shouldn’t be any other way), I booked a site that had a climb involved. By the end of our time there we were so grateful to have been tucked away, up on a hill amidst scrub and pines, and hidden from view that we vowed to book the same sight again for next year.
A kitten had suggested Plumas-Eureka when I expressed a desire to take the dudes camping for the first time as a single Mom. I wanted to be in the Sierras, away from bright lights to better view the Perseids meteor shower, and remote enough to not feel like I was camping in someone’s backyard.
I was ready to do this!
He described the little town at the foot of Eureka Peak, a towering granite wedge, as a journey back in time, complete with miniature golf, a general store and a swimming hole. As we approached Graeagle, which I mispronounced for the first two days as ‘Greegle’ when it’s actually ‘Gray Eagle’, I slowed the car down to a crawl. I didn’t notice any speed limit signs, but this is the kind of town you do 20 through so you don’t miss it. Or cause people to gasp and assume you’re from New York.
A handful of store fronts lined both sides of a narrow lane. People strolled along, ice cream cones in hand. They all seemed to come from places with a slow pace, slowing down even more to stretch out the enjoyment of a one block town determined to ignore the speed of modern day life.
The swimming hole was a small lake off the main road. Paddle boats and kayaks dotted the water and dogs fetched balls, their foreheads and ears the only visible parts of their bodies as they showed off their amphibious skills. Graeagle turned out to be exactly as described by our ‘travel agent’/kitten, who nailed the perfect camping trip from start to finish for the dudes and me.
Checking in to our camp took 5 minutes. But gaping at the mountain lion forever frozen behind glass took 20. The small museum/gift shop/state park check-in/gold mine operation did not disappoint. I’d go back there just to stare into the eyes of the lion and up at the massive body of the golden eagle found intact but dead after being hit by a car.
While the dudes were telling me about all the stuff they were going to buy (not), I was mystified by my total lack of apprehension. I was about to unpack a car, set up a tent, build a campfire and make it all seem like I had done it at least once before. Preferably a dozen times or so. And not get frustrated or sad or lament my solo status.
(Apollo offered to help me do a dry run with the tent before we departed. Would have been a smart thing to uptake had I not been so intent on making chili and packing the car so we could leave before sunrise. Chances are he also would have been shirtless…sometimes I need to reevaluate my priorities.)
It could have all felt forced. Like I was making certain I had the very best time ever because I wasn’t going to let HIM affect me anymore, and I wanted the dudes to be SO impressed by their Super Mom. I could have smiled that fake smile that says, I’m six seconds from a melt down as I wrangled poles that unsnapped without warning, leading the dudes to wonder exactly when I would snap.
I could have buried the angst under that smile, summoned a brave warrior to take over while I went into hiding, and looked for the first person who had a sniff of ‘seasoned camper’ about them to come to our rescue.
I could have given in. Or up.
I didn’t need to do any of that. I recalled the fiasco of a trip to Limantour – we spread out the tent first. And those little metal things fit into the bottom of the bendy things that hold up the tent. I remember staking down through these circle things. It’s a miracle I can remember any of this because that was the night that I knew my marriage was beyond over. Dead and buried. And that I had been totally screwed. Impressive. I have no idea where this bendy thing goes so it’s going back in the bag. Doesn’t need to look perfect. It just needs to stand up. Thank GOODNESS it isn’t windy or this puppy would cave. This isn’t a time to educate the dudes on tent construction. I need to concentrate. And pee.
Go explore, guys! I’ll have this up soon and then we can make fire!
I cannot wait to get to the part where we get to build the campfire. I absolutely know how to do that. I might even have a s’more, without the graham cracker, of course.
The footprint for the tent was level and smooth but surrounded by rocks. Staking it was a challenge. As I lifted up rocks to bury the stakes I laughed at my lack of concern that hiding under the rocks would be Sierra sized spiders pointing their legs at me, except the one each used to cover their mouths as they laughed their furry butts off at my lack of camping graces.
When I was younger I wouldn’t even sit at picnic tables without a thorough inspection of the underside. The idea of lifting up rocks in the forest would have been enough to cause a fainting spell.
There was no sigh of relief when I stood up by the fire pit surveying our sleeping quarters because I wasn’t concerned about erecting it. I also wasn’t confident that I would. I didn’t think about any of the tasks in advance except to ask for some guidance from the kitten and a little advanced planning on proper provisions.
One cooler and a bag of cooking and cleaning supplies and a small sack of toiletries went into the bear locker. A bug candle went on the large, solid picnic table that was separated from the fire pit by a beautiful pine tree. A deck of cards sat next to it. I packed s’more fixins, water, bagels for the morning, instant oatmeal, tea bags, cocoa and a container of the best turkey chili I have ever produced. Oh, and some tortilla chips. My first since July 4th when I ditched that bad daily habit, too.
Fishing poles were propped up against a tree.
The dudes showed up to generate sparks, because boys like to make fire and burn stuff. We built a small triangle of kindling and dried pine needles. With a click of a long lighter flames began to rise. We stood around the fire smiling at each other.
We are natural experts at this. Clearly, we were camping guides in our past lives.
Wait…did cavemen figure out how to make fire?
Our bravado was short-lived as the fire died due to overzealous stoking. The amount of smoke that poured forth marked us as newbies to the entire campsite, for sure. It’s possible that we were able to contact aliens with the rise of the plume. The dudes and I danced around the fire pit trying to avoid thick smoke that seemed to lust after our eyes and mouths. My mind conjured up a vision of a restaurant that sat at the bottom of the road. I pictured us arriving at the door, soot covering our faces. The hostess insisting we sit outside, far away from any other guests. And me, chugging a glass of wine as I watch the dudes eat a pizza cooked in a kitchen, by someone else on the first night of our camping trip.
It needs more oxygen.
We rebuilt the fire and resisted the urge to stoke the flame out of it. Soon it was ready to heat chili. By the last night it was raging clear, nearly smoke free and beautifully roasted two 14 inch trout caught by the dudes and numerous s’mores.
It was the best fish we have ever eaten. And even a bad s’more is delectable.
That first night in the tent with the dudes is a night I will remember forever. One blonde head snuggled on each shoulder, our sleeping bags scrunched together leaving gaping spaces on either side of us. The tall dude says,
Pew, Mom. You reek.
The lingering scent of campfire filled the tent.
That’s what happens in Plumas-Eureka, dude. You blow a plume-as and you reek-a, a lot.
They choked on their laughter.
As dudes will do, that little humorous exchange became a chant uttered after the many episodes of altitude induced flatulence – Plumas being the warning and Eureka! the sigh of relief.
It continues to this day.
In the early morning hours of Monday, the prime time to view the Perseids, I woke the dudes and thrust cocoa in their hands. They popped out of their sleeping bags as if I yelled, FREE CANDY! It was pitch black out. And silent. No one had the same idea as us, or if they did they slept through their alarm. We crept down to the car and quietly drove out of the camp to the main road. A turn left led us up and around the mid-section of Eureka Peak, to a parking lot that once served a now defunct ski slope. One car sat parked on the far edge. We drove straight to the back of the lot and parked up against the forest.
Two male voices spoke softly as we laid out our sleeping bags and poured cocoa. Within seconds a meteor shot across the sky. As my eyes adjusted I was equally impressed by the massive amounts of stars, the Milky Way and the meteors. At least 30 arced overhead. It wasn’t long before the dudes lost count. After about an hour the men at the other end of the lot began to pack up. Soon we would be alone.
I allowed my mind to get in gear – what if a bear comes out of the woods with a craving for cocoa? What if some lunatic strikes criminal gold by finding us all alone at the top of a mountain in the middle of the night? How am I going to talk our way out of that? Maybe we should leave too.
And then the parking lot lit up like a summer carnival with all the lights being flipped on at once.
What was that!?
We yelped, the unseen men yelped. And up in the sky a trail remained for minutes.
It turned out to not be a trail.
Directly overhead a meteor exploded for us that night, sending it’s particles out like the rings of Saturn. It didn’t arc and burnout. It literally blew up. For a nanosecond we were illuminated. And till this day I am in awe.
Nature blew up a firework for me to honor the effort required not to go camping as a single Mom but to be singularly responsible for young souls. Alone in the woods with them for those three nights I did not allow myself to create drama by thinking about how I would take care of them, fend for them, protect them, keep them safe.
I just let them go.
They had no fear and neither did I.
Not of spiders, or fallen tents, or failed campfires, or Sasquatch or bears.
Or the future.
PS: Have you seen how much fun we’re having here? There’s a video of the meteor explosion there. It’s impressive on film for different reasons. The nanosecond of blinding light is not evident.
PPS: If you need suggestions of the perfect camping trip I have just the guy. Thank you, J. You rock.