Our family camps. Not the motor home version. Not the cabin rendition. We don't bring a generator, boom box or electric bug zapper. We camp in tents with sleeping bags, folding chairs, and kerosine lanterns. We love it. We didn't realize how much we loved it until our last trip in September.
We choose off-season dates that still give us warm weather without the price tag. However, at the time of this past trip we still picked dates that included a weekend to give us better use of Christopher's paid leave. You'll be happy to know that we jettisoned that foolishness. Apparently the other people who utilize the tail-end but officially off-season weekends for camping are from a special demographic that include the inconsiderate, loud and altogether obnoxious. Our most recent trip did not teach us this gem, but merely seared the truth of it in our brains.
Another unprecedented lesson is that you can't always rely on the weather. Our local forecast tends toward the mild, with not a lot of variance between the depth of winter and the height of summer. This particular summer season did not show us even a week straight of bright sunny days and we were shriveling from lack of heat. Let me be clear, I am perfectly content to live in a marine layer that causes fog in July and keeps my air conditioning bill non-existent. But a few days of 80s is not too much to ask, and by the time we left for the Central Valley we were ready for some sun.
So, off we went on a Friday afternoon to reach the blazing inferno of Modesto, and spend an entire weekend laughing in a cool river. Or so we thought.
Arrival was easy enough, and we quickly scouted the best site in the entire campground. The place was deserted. We set up two tents, a canopy, camping kitchen area, nine folding chairs around the fire ring, sleeping bags, cots, individual bintos and firewood. Christopher and I were about overheated by the time we sat down with our completed outdoor living world. This was life. The sun was hiding behind high cloud coverage but it was still plenty warm and a quick dip in the glacial river proved rejuvenating.
Our perfect plan was unfolding perfectly through that perfect evening. Granted there were no-see-ums and gnats galore during twilight but few bit and with some ingenuity we safely ate our meal. The kids were excited to be "roughing" it, and all the special little traditions came out in spades. Were we doing s'mores? Would they have to take baths before they went to bed? Could they swim in the morning? We answered all their questions with the same answers from every other camping trip - yes, no, yes - and sent them off to bed just as the first of the particularly obnoxious campsites was gearing up for the night. I think the relative low occupation of the campground caused our neighbors to believe their sound could not bother anyone. They were wrong. Christopher and I waited until nearly 2am for their high-pitched squeals and drunken folly to wear itself down before finally collapsing in sleep ourselves.
We awoke to rain.
Rain. In the middle of September in Modesto. We not only awoke to its pitter-pattering against our tent but feeling it splash upon our face since we didn't bother putting the rain fly on our tent. Thankfully the shower didn't last long, and as we lazily stretched in our sleeping bags we easily brushed it off as a fluke. The cloud coverage would pass and leave us with a dazzlingly bright, hot summer day. The only downfall to the start of our morning was how little sleep we had gotten the previous night.
Breakfast went by and we waited for the clouds to lift but while it certainly wasn't cold it certainly wasn't clearing up either. The weather was just warm enough to warrant shorts but not remotely hot enough to create a driving need to brave the frigid river. Our children tried again and again to swim, so excited to do what they had been looking forward to doing for weeks. One of them would wade all the way across only to come back and want to get out of the water, out of their suit, into dry clothes and a sweatshirt. It was not conducive to the leisurely day we had planned sitting by the water's edge watching our poor, swim-deprived children play gleefully in the eddies all day.
Our newest neighbors in the obnoxious category had brought a boom box that they set up for our edification. Thankfully the gale force winds we were experiencing by dinner drove them into their tents. We tried to eat our meal without noticing the fact that everything was being blown to kingdom come. Roasting marshmallows was quite humorous as we walked in circles trying to avoid the gusts of smoke. We eagerly turned in for the night, happy that our boom box neighbors retired early, too.
The wind created a deadening effect on our various neighbor's nocturnal soirées, and Christopher and I gratefully fell asleep. The sound that woke us didn't at first register and we both tried to ignore the intermittent flapping and rasping happening just over our heads. It was evident the wind had no desire letting up and was battering our tent. The rain fly, put on that day in case of any more unseasonal cloud bursts was not guyed down since we weren't expecting a hurricane. How silly of us, really. The sound was the free tethers slapping wildly against the tent as each gust sent it flying. At 2am we were driven from the warmth of our bags and safety of our tent to fish out the stakes and guy down the rain fly. We sank back into our beds, hoping for a later morning than we'd gotten the previous day.
It was not to be.
Remember our neighbors that retired so early, leaving us with the impression that we were going to get a good night's sleep? Yes, those ones. Apparently they live by the motto: Early to bed; early to rise. 6:30 am is a perfectly respectable time in their world to have their five screaming tweenage girls play "swing dare" on the hammock set up a mere 10 feet from our tent.
Christopher gave them several minutes, assuming their parents would finally recognize there were no signs of movement from our campsite and tell the girls to be quiet. We waited for several more minutes. He finally gave up and asked them to settle down until a slightly more reasonable hour. We got another 20 minutes.
We emerged from the tent curiously expecting the wind to have driven the weather's doldrums away but it was even cloudier and cooler than the previous day. Disappointed with the lack of swim-acceptable heat our children ate their breakfast and stared at us for answers. The thought briefly crossed our minds to simply pack it up and go home. But we are campers and we were camping. We pulled on our only set of long pants, and used the day for meandering the wooded areas of the campgrounds. The kids whined. They fretted. They were petty and irritable. They were sad that the days weren't running together in a whirlwind of sun, water and campfires. So were we.
The wind finally died down and even though we had intermittent showers through the late afternoon we were able to eat comfortably outdoors... except for the mosquitos and biting flies that suddenly showed up in our campsite. The buzzing dive-bombers attacked us all and within only a few moments of beginning our meal we were all miserable with real and perceived bites. We weakly crawled into our beds, afraid of what could possibly happen this night.
The wind died down by 1am, and the stillness that descended on our campsite was luxurious. At last we could sleep soundly... until the sound of a dog baying at the newfound moon came drifting across that now still night air. Just far enough away to keep any hope of intervention with its owner out of the question, yet near enough to allow us the joy of every vocal utterance, we lay in our beds staring at the ceiling of our tent. This. Was. Ridiculous.
We dragged ourselves out of our tent for that final morning. Our children tried, one last time, to swim the river, but once again found they simply could not genuinely enjoy more than a short dip in its frigid waters. We began breaking camp, discussing possibilities for creating something of a fond memory in the final moments before our return to civilization. The weather continued to play tricks on us. It was far too cold to allow our children the delight of swimming (and therefore whining was substituted), but hot enough that the real effort Christopher and I were putting into breaking camp was causing us to sweat profusely. We nearly had it when a stake refused to budge from the earth we hammered it into on the night of the hurricane. I think we dug to China before the thing released.
We packed up our gear, packed up our children, and headed for home.
But the nagging desire to hold something dear from this blessed disaster of a camping trip kept hovering in our minds. We decided to stop at the lake just a short drive away from the campsite. On a Monday the swimmer's beach was entirely left to us. Parking was a breeze, and even though we still fought winds, cloud coverage and cooler temps than ideal the kids were able to swim (still snowmelt). We spent hours enjoying the day, and knew we had hit our mark with the magic memory we needed to justify the trip!
Our entire ride home was all about the next camping trip.
Just yesterday one of my children asked when we are going back to that campsite - since it was the, "best trip ever!"
I might have previously believed we were campers... now I know we are.