After racking up about a thousand miles driving around Colorado this weekend, we arrived home late this afternoon. We’re filthy, the camper still needs to be cleaned out and put back together, and we had to order in pizza because the fridge was empty, but we’re home. Funny how walking into your home after time away feels heavenly. Nothing has changed. It’s the same place you left not that long ago. But somehow it’s renewed. Maybe it’s just because I spent the past four days living in a tin can on wheels, but our home felt like a palace when I walked in. It seems huge. I’m feeling pretty spoiled.
The walls might start to close in on me a little tomorrow when I have to catch up on laundry, go grocery shopping, and fall back into my normal housekeeping job, but for tonight this house is the Four Seasons with a luxurious king bed and top-of-the-line bath products. Now all I need is a decent night’s rest and a long, hot shower that turns me into a Disney princess.
They say home is where you hang your hat. Tonight I am grateful that my hat rack is no longer on wheels.
I am writing this from a campground in the San Juan National Forest north of Durango, Colorado. We have been here since Thursday afternoon with our sons and our friends. Steve and I have been camping together since 1994. We bought our first pop-up camper in 2004 when our sons were 3 and 1. Our inaugural camper trip was to Maroon Bells near Aspen. I’ll never forget it because Luke, then about 14 months, got cranky around midnight and started wailing in our tiny, silent-but-completely-filled campground. We spent the next hour driving up and down the moonlit road to Maroon Lake until he fell asleep and we could return to our camper. Now the boys sleep in their own tent. Steve and I have upgraded to a small, hard-sided camper. Along with our adventure gear, we have grown and changed, but camping is the same.
I have a love/hate relationship with camping. On the one hand, there is the adventure of traveling somewhere new and exploring our stunning state. On the other hand, I prefer not to be cold and/or wet, ever. On the one hand, there is nature, the scent of pine trees, the joy of seeing a clear, starry sky not lost to light pollution. On the other hand, hotel beds are so much nicer than a three-inch camper mattress. On the one hand, it’s kind of fun sitting around a fire with a drink while the kids burn marshmallows and wolf down S’mores. On the other hand, I hate it when my hair smells like campfire smoke and I have to live for days without a proper shower while my leg hair grows and I begin to resemble Sasquatch. On the one hand, camping is the best way to unplug. On the other hand, some of my favorite things have plugs. It’s a conundrum.
Still, I have so many stories because of camping. I slept in a car at the foot of Long’s Peak in February once, freezing all night, just to get away with a then boyfriend. Before we were married, Steve and I drove sixteen miles up a 4-wheel-drive-only dirt road near Crown King, Arizona, only to arrive at our campsite, put up our tent, and discover we had one flat tire and one almost flat tire and needed to pack back up and leave. Once my family and I had to abandon our camper and drive to a hotel after a bear showed up in our campground and spooked some fellow campers. They began hollering and banging pots and honking horns trying to scare the poor, furry thing off. We decided we had enough as soon as someone began shooting a gun into the air to spook it. I have a lifetime of memories tied to this crazy notion that you should leave your comfortable home, pack up your clothes, put your food on ice, and change your perspective for a few days by being slightly uncomfortable, dirty, and inconvenienced.
So, in a follow up to yesterday’s post, I must finish telling the whole bear story. After I wrote my blog yesterday, I asked hubby if he would fill the camp shower so I could wash my hair. Being the extremely dutiful and kind gentleman he is, he walked himself down to the tree where we’d left the shower hanging overnight.
“Oh no,” he said.
“What is it?” I asked.
“What? Why?” I questioned, knowing we’d only used the dang thing once before and that it had been fine last evening when I’d relocated it to a tree nearer to our camper.
“It’s got teeth marks in it,” he told me.
Then it hit me. With all the bear commotion, perhaps the teeth marks belonged to a bear. I went to investigate. Sure enough. The bag, hanging at least five feet off the ground, had puncture holes in the shape of a large animal mouth, the deepest wound had been caused by large incisors. Crap.
We were down one camp shower. Oh well. I would make it without a shampoo. We went out for the afternoon for a nice hike to Spud Lake (technically it’s Potato Lake, but locals have nicknamed it). When we returned, there was more bear commotion while Joe fished. The bear was sighted again in a campsite and subsequently shooed away with banging pots. We thought it might be best not to cook dinner at our site and opted instead to cruise down to Durango for some barbeque. Again when we returned, we ran into the campground host who told us that a bear and a cub had been lurking around all day. We talked it over and figured that if the bear had visited our campsite the previous night and not disturbed a thing but our camp shower, despite the fact that we had cooked and eaten inside our pop-up due to the rain, we were probably safe. After all, we had eaten out, we were tired, and we had bear spray. No worries. We fell asleep in our camper, exhausted and dirty, before 9 p.m.
At 11 p.m., Steve and I were rudely awakened by the shouts of a fellow camper. This time the voice was female.
“GET OUT! GO! GET AWAY!”
This was followed by the echoing sound of pots and pans being banged together. A few more shouts bounced through the campground and then it got quiet. Steve and I sat waiting, listening for bears, presumably. We wondered where the marauders would hit next. About ten minutes passed while we discussed our plans in case of a bear visit. Then, three quick popping sounds rang through the campground. Gunshots. Apparently someone had decided to try another tactic to scare away the bears. Steve and I sat looking at each other, weighing our options. These bears were not going away. I imagined a night filled with intermittent yells, barking dogs, and banging pots. I contemplated the drama that would ensue within our own campsite with our boys if the bear came knocking on the door of our pop-up. Certainly, any incident in which we actually had to deploy the bear spray would result in hesitancy from our boys the next time we suggested a camping trip. While I sat trying to decide what to do, the occupants of two other campsites made up their minds and drove out of the campground for the night. I started wondering if they had the right idea.
Knowing that we had a 7 hour drive home today and fearing that we would decimate our kids’ love of camping forever if we had to pepper spray a nosy bear while they watched, we woke the boys, grabbed a few essentials, and vacated camp. We drove into Durango where a lovely clerk at a Quality Inn gave us a discounted “bear” rate, two care packages consisting of bottled water and cookies, and keys to a room with two queen beds and a welcome policy for our canine. By midnight we were bear free, and the boys were back asleep. I won’t lie. We slept well in those soft, comfy beds without banging pots and pans and gunshots and panicked shouts at an ursine visitor. Sure. We’d spent some extra money, but the peace of mind and decent night’s sleep were going to be worth their weight in gold.
Sometimes you need to know when to cut your losses. It’s early fall weather in the high country. Some aspens are changing already. Food is scarce, and those bears are looking to fatten up for hibernation. We’re in their territory with our easy meals. You can’t really blame them for wanting to capitalize on our intrusion. When it’s all said and done, when you’re out in nature you’re part of someone else’s home. In this case, the someone else consisted of some hungry bears with pointy incisors and cravings for sweets. I think it was right to respect their space and vacate for a while. Besides, staying at the Quality Inn fueled the local, Durango economy and gave me my first hot shower in four days. Bears were happy. I was happy. It’s all good. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself tonight as I look back on our four-night camp trip that became a three-night camp trip with an optional hotel stay.
There are black bears in Colorado. Lots of them. In many mountain towns, Aspen and Crested Butte come to mind, bear-proof trash containers are mandatory. Campgrounds post signs with proper bear etiquette and food storage information. Bear stories populate the news, and nearly anyone you meet can relate a bear tale or two. Even in our suburban neighborhood, we have watched a bear cross the divided main thoroughfare. They are ubiquitous.
Still, they scare the crap out of people. Every time I tell someone we’re heading out for a camping trip, someone will ask: “Aren’t you afraid of the bears?” I am not afraid of black bears. A mountain lion might cause me near undergarment spoilage, but a bear? Not so much. You see, I know something that most bears don’t. I have a can of bear spray.
Truth is though, even without the bear spray, I don’t have to be afraid of bears because the camping world is chock full of people who are either unable or unwilling to read posted signs. So, my camping philosophy has largely centered around this one thought: “I don’t have to outwit the bears. I just have to outwit the dummy in the camping site next to mine.” It’s the universal law of the lowest common denominator. As long as I am a more careful camper than the guy next to me, as long as my food is more securely stored, the bear will skip right past me and go visit the ignorant dude in the next site. Guaranteed.
This morning at precisely 6:38 a.m., I heard the tell-tale sound of a bear in the campground. Some numb nuts was yelling at the top of his lungs in his Papa Bear voice.
Twenty second pause.
Then, I heard a diesel truck engine start, followed by a prolonged horn honk. In quick succession, I heard a second blast of the horn. I shook my head. Definitely a bear sighting. Was I worried? No. Our food was properly stored in our locked car and not left outside in its cooler. Our table had been wiped clean. We don’t have to be the most immaculate campers. We just have to be more clever than the next guy.
We did see the bear. It was a young and small, perhaps 200 pounds. It crossed the camp loop road about forty feet ahead of us, nose up in the air sniffing, as it was being chased off by a man knocking some large wooden blocks together. I felt sorry for the bear, thwarted from its easy meal by the same dope who had provided it. How frustrating! Nope. I am definitely not afraid of black bears. Ignorant humans, on the other hand, scare the bejesus out of me.
Over this long, holiday weekend, we decided to take our boys to see a part of Colorado they’ve not visited before. We picked them up from school, pop-up camper in tow, and headed southwest. Our destination: Durango. We arrived at Haviland Lake at 10:30 p.m. and as quietly as possible set up camp. I’d say it was a testament to the strength of our relationship that no one was maimed or murdered during camp assembly in the dark. But honestly, my husband is a saint, and that is the only reason I am still alive today.
Early this morning when the sun was just beginning its process of lighting the silent campground, Joe jumped up and begged to go “exploring.” In that moment, on six hours of fitful sleep (fitful because the dog was restless last night and her restlessness was bothering Steve and Steve’s incessant chiding of the dog was bothering me), I questioned why the hell we do this. Exactly why do we insist on loading the car with all the things we already have at home so we can sleep in a cold camper in the forest?
In desperate need of a serious attitude adjustment, at 8 a.m. we fired up the FJ and drove the 18 miles back into Durango in search of a local coffee establishment. We found Durango Joe’s small hut. Steve got a Mexican Mocha and I got the heavenly Avalanche…a white chocolate and macadamia nut flavored latte. We drove into old town Durango and were just in time to watch the narrow gauge train start its daily trek to Silverton.
By the time we got back to camp, my attitude was improving. Recently fed and freshly caffeinated, I finished setting up camp. I perched the hammock between two trees and settled in. From my spot, I watched Luke fall into the lake trying to catch minnows in a plastic cup. Joe, a child who isn’t patient enough to untie a double knot in his shoelaces, stood on shore repeatedly casting his fishing rod while in some kind of trance. A few feet away, Steve took macro shots of wildflowers. Ruby, apparently exhausted after her sleepless night, napped beside me. In the serenity of the forest, I watched an osprey circle the lake searching for a meal while my hammock swayed in the breeze and the light scent of the pine trees reminded me to be in the moment.
Then it hit me. THIS is why we do this, why we load up our belongings, drive for hours, and set up house in the woods. Camping is the one activity where we can all be together and yet enjoy different things. Out of our element, distractions gone, there is peace. There is uninterrupted family time. There is relaxation. There is only now. This is where I find my zen.
Of course, we still have latte runs and my iPhone, so that helps too.
We made our camping plans knowing full well that the weather forecast was calling for 90 degree days and 65 degree nights. We brought rafts, tubes, water toys, and swimsuits to cool off in the Crystal River, which runs through camp. We packed lightweight pajamas along with shorts and t-shirts. It was going to be hot, but even 90 degrees would be a relief from the city heat and we were excited to have it cool off at night.
Instead of suffering through a hot camp, though, each and every afternoon we’ve had heavy thundershowers. We’ve cooked each dinner in the rain and eaten them in the camper. The nights have been far cooler than we had planned for. Even the dog has been hunkered down for warmth. It’s mostly been a nice change. Mostly.
When we planned our trip, we expected it to be hot. We knew we would not be able to have campfires, so we cooked meals to be reheated with our propane stoves. We expected to be sleeping with tent camper windows open. We did not plan for this rainy weather that would confine us to a small, hardly vented space. We made chili, tacos, and refried beans. We just didn’t know what a mistake that would be.
As I was writing my blog yesterday, I forgot one important component of the planning, packing, and loading aspect of camping. I am not the only adult in our house participating in these activities the day we leave. This morning as we were preparing to head out, I quickly remembered how having a second set of hands is both a blessing and a curse.
As the clock ticked ever closer to our prospective departure time, it seemed we (and by “we” I mean Steve) kept finding more stuff we needed to bring with us. Now, don’t get me wrong. I adore my husband. He is probably the most honest and genuine person I have ever known. But, he is cautious and protective. He loves gear and gadgets meant to make life easier and more enjoyable, but when it comes time to leave he can’t necessarily recall what he has or where it is. Consequently we have approximately 5,000 bottles of sunscreen and insect repellant…all of which I’m sure are in either the car or the camper right now.
In the chaos of trying to get out of the house, with two people trying to collect necessities, we’ve in the past forgotten important items. I’m currently wondering if this will be the case today because as we’re in the car and driving now, we just had this conversation.
“Do we have enough propane canisters?” Hubby inquires.
“I believe we have about six canisters in various stages of emptiness. That should be plenty,” I reply. Then a thought occurs to me. “Did you pack the camp stove?”
His vacant stare is my answer.
“Isn’t it in the camper?” he asks, his tone dripping with desperation.
“I don’t know. Since we didn’t open it, I am not sure. It wasn’t in the garage?”
“I didn’t look for it,” came the answer.
In trying to keep with my “what’s the worst that can happen” mindset, I made the conscious decision not to fret about it. We may or may not have the camp stove, which we will need to heat the foods I prepared in advance because of the fire ban and the fact that the propane canister on our camper has been empty for years. (Do not get me started on that topic.) Either way, I am sure that our weekend will be fine. We will merely be eating a lot of cold sandwiches rather than hot food. We’re not going to starve. It’s just a small hiccup in what will otherwise be a great weekend. At least, that’s what I am telling myself as I recall the large bottle of sweet tea vodka I do remember packing before we left.
We’re leaving tomorrow for three days and three nights of camping in the mountains west of Aspen. You could not tell this by looking at our camper right now, buried in the garage under unsold garage sale rejects and boys’ toys. In theory, we will leave in the morning. In theory, after we dig out the camper, hook it to the car, put all the superfluous stuff back into the garage, and load the camper, we will be on our way. In the meantime, we’re having friends over tonight for game night because I don’t like to be bored. Well…I got my wish.
I have learned to slow down a bit. It’s hard to tell on days like these when I am being pulled in a million different directions by things I willingly took on before analyzing their potential impact on my mental health. But, I do a lot less these days than I used to. It’s true. It’s simply hard to tell.
I’m trying to make memories for my boys. Memories of happy summers playing with friends, exploring, camping, traveling, and trying new things. To accomplish that, there is a lot of planning, coordinating, preparing, and cleaning up to get out of the way. Things get a little hairy for me as the at-home parent. But, I know I am making progress toward becoming more zen…if not in the way of scaling back then definitely in the way of not stressing out as much as I used to.
I’ve learned that things have a way of working themselves out. I play this little game with myself to remind myself why life is not worth stressing over too much. For whatever it is that is standing in front of me like an impenetrable road block, I ask myself what is the worst that could happen. For example, what is the worst that will happen if we don’t get the camper cleaned off tonight? Answer: We’ll do it tomorrow and get to the campground a bit later. No big deal. What is the worst that will happen if I forget the boys’ swimsuits for playing in the river? Answer: They’ll swim in their shorts. No big deal. What is the worst that will happen if we don’t get our stuff together to go camping? Answer: We won’t go camping and we’ll lose the $70 in camp fees. The world won’t stop revolving. The kids won’t die. We’ll truly be not much worse for the wear. No. Big. Deal.
We’re still busy. I still overload our schedule with “fun” things to do that will cause me oodles of extra work I didn’t need to take on. But, I’ve taken my harried, stress-over-every-little-detail behavior down about fourteen notches. Oh. I still stress. My husband can verify how snippy I can become when he forgets the camp chairs and that was the only thing I asked him to remember. But, I am less uptight than I used to be. Sad, but true.
Unwinding is a process. And, for some people like me, it’s a lifetime’s worth of work. And, for some people who have to live with me on a daily basis, my unwinding process isn’t moving nearly fast enough.