Never, I say.
But the children lean towards me, widen their eyes, and give it their best sales pitch. They imitate the loon’s cry, paint me memories of powerful, cascading rivers and majestic woods. They long for the mysterious wild, the crystal starlight, and the campfires with marshmallows.
Mostly the marshmallows.
How can I resist? I am drawn in to their imaginations, captivated by the idea that they actually still want to sing songs around the fireside and huddle with Mom in a tent in the woods. If I had no actual camping experience, I would say “Yes, Yes, Yes! Let’s go sleep in the woods and listen to the owls together!”
But I have been around the camping block. I have experiences that make me the no-fun, realistic mom who says “Set up a tent in the living room. We’ll roast marshmallows over a candle at the kitchen table. It’ll be great!”
Who needs ghost stories around the campfire when you have real-life horror stories?
Back when I was a young mom, an eager and inexperienced mom, I was foolish enough to take small kids camping. We bought a small pop-up tent, packed up the Disney sleeping bags, the portable crib, a suitcase and a cooler, and embarked on an adventure with extended family at a state park.
The birds were singing as we pitched our tent. Baby and toddler jumped together in the pack-n-play, fascinated by the tent in the wilderness. We had chosen a secluded spot, deep under the trees. I felt so happy to be alone in this spot of heaven with my family. That is, until my brother, the former Boy Scout, walked over and showed me that I had pitched my tent in a large patch of poison ivy.
Time to move.
By then it was afternoon, and the only spot available was next to a group of biker people, all seemingly tattooed and pierced, sporting jet black hair from a box and leather jackets. We set up camp hastily, listening to their dark, heavy music instead of the loons, and I briefly wondered why on earth I thought it was a good idea to sleep outside with babies.
By this time, the kids were hungry for supper, which required cooking. Doug started a fire while I took the kids to our third trip to the latrines. There were mosquitoes in the latrine, of course. They swarmed around, biting viciously as I changed baby’s diaper and helped the toddler, who was thrilled to add his bit to the large mountain of filth down the hole. One daughter couldn’t do it. She didn’t like latrines, she said, and she would wait until we returned home to use our own toilet. I didn’t want to return in the dark of night, so I told her she had a choice; she could pee in the outhouse or use her baby sister’s diaper. What a choice.
By this time, the fire was raging, and all the little cousins were roasting hot dogs. I was terrified. Like a desperate sheepdog on adrenaline overload, I hovered around the kids, pulling them back from the fire, yelling at them to stay back, no jumping, no skipping, no dancing, no singing. Babies were crying, food was dropping into the dirt, diapers needed changing again, and all the food tasted like Deep Woods Off. “Sit down on that bench and don’t get up! I don’t care if your cousin is chopping with an axe! You are staying right there!” Sweat dripped from my brow, and I longed to zip the kids all up in their sleeping bags. Camping was more stressful than anything I had previously attempted as a parent. What the heck was I thinking? This little campground was The Wild.
When darkness began to fall, the brightness of the circle bonfires lit up the campground. That was when tragedy struck.
My kids were so restricted they were practically on lockdown. Two were confined to the pack-n-play, tightly lidded with mosquito netting, and the rest of the cousins had been banished from the fire. I guarded like a wolf, snarling at any child who dared try to roast a marshmallow near my fire. Away across the campsite, we heard screams in the night. A child’s scream, a woman’s scream, echoing in the darkness. Within minutes, we knew that someone’s child had been burned. The campsites fell silent, children pulled closer, and bonfires died down. When the sirens wailed and the emergency crews arrived, most of the campers stood at the edge of the dirt road, silently praying and still. Even our neighbors, the tattooed biker crowd, stood at the end of their campsite, hats in hand, heads down.
The sirens apparently spooked some other campers. In their haste to evade police authority, someone apparently threw a large quantity of marijuana onto a bonfire. As the ambulance roared away, squad cars circled the campground in a blue haze of drug smoke, the stench pervading every campsite. I wondered, with mounting distress, if that blue smoke would dissipate before my little children got stoned.
Just at that moment, thunder rumbled on the horizon. Lightening cracked across the sky, and campers skittered away like ants to their holes. Thank God I could finally zip up the kiddos. We cuddled close in the storm, as the wind beat upon our tent and the rain began drumming down hard.
“I’m scared.” “I hafta go to the baffroom.” “I’m getting wet!”
I dismissed them all. “This is fun! We are all together, you are safe. This is an exciting adventure, now go to sleep!” In the middle of a prayer, in which I was thanking God that we were no longer underneath any large tree branches, I felt a cold stream beginning to seep enderneath my sleeping bag. The chorus began. “I’m wet!” “I’m wetter!” “I’m cold!”
I scooped up Baby and planted her into a nest of clothes in the open suitcase. The rest of us crowded onto one, full-sized air mattress, covering up with the remaining two dry sleeping bags. The baby slept. The other five of us shivered the night away, huddled on the plastic air mat. I covered kids up with every beach towel and sweatshirt. It wasn’t enough.
The storm tapered off just about the time the birds started chirping in the morning.
Even if we could have started a fire with all that wet wood, there was no point. I had forgotten the coffee.
We packed up silently, my caffeine-withdrawal headache mounting steadily in severity. We were damp, stinky, grubby, and hungry as we loaded the car. My brother, the Boy Scout, just laughed about our wet gear. “Didn’t you fold down the ends of your tarp?”
I had packed diapers and wipes and matches and food and jackets and beachtowels and marshmallows and band-aids and flashlights and sleeping bags and a coffee pot and a water bucket and a rustic cast-iron skillet and even hot dogs and brown beans, which all my kids hated…but we had no tarp. Apparently, the tarp was important.
My muddy kids stood in the dirt path of the campground that morning, jumping and singing songs and playing the Limbo with their cousins and a birch stick, laughing with joy. Let me repeat; they were playing with a stick, oblivious to any hardship. Instead of baths, they were going to swim in the lake before breakfast. They were having the time of their lives.
“Can we do this again next weekend, Mom!?” “Camping is great!”
I am tugged out of my memorable nightmare by the chirps of my current kids. This is the year 2016, those other kids are grown, and these younger kids are sick of marshmallows with candles at the kitchen table. They want their own adventure.
“So, can we go, Mom?” “Can we go camping?” “I’ve always wanted to go on an adventure!! Please?” “How about the Yukon? Can we camp in the Yukon?”
“Maybe a nice, safe State Park, Mom?” That one knows me well.
I am weakening…
Maybe it’s time to pack those Disney sleeping bags in the car after all, and try this camping thing again.
With just a small bonfire.
And a large plastic tarp. This time, I won’t forget the coffee.