Alone in the Woods … Or Not

We went on an impromptu camping trip this past weekend. Now anyone who’s known me for any length of time probably already expects disaster.  I don’t do ‘impromptu’ all that well and was never a big fan of camping.  That’s ’cause until recently I wasn’t really a big fan of the outdoors in general — things like A/C are made to be used and bugs … well, bug me — which is probably why many of those same people expecting disaster also laughed when we started the farm.  Really, though, I love the farm.  It was mostly my idea.  I’m not sure we would have gone so gung-ho about it had I not pushed for it … I mean, it’s mostly (okay completely) my fault that we had chickens before the coop had doors or that we got goats before we knew what to do with them.  I love spending time outside with the animals; it’s made me much more appreciative of and interested in nature.

Even though the kids are out for Spring Break this week, we didn’t plan any family trips, mainly because Bryan didn’t take any time off work.  But Saturday morning before dawn, he got the bright idea that we’d go camp overnight at Petit Jean State Park.  And I said “ok,” because, well, it sounded fun.  Petit Jean is really only about an hour’s drive from here but by the time we all got up, packed for 3 kids, 2 dogs and us, stopped at Wal-mart for some additional supplies and steaks to grill for dinner, and through McDonald’s for a sack of burgers for lunch, it was shortly after noon when we arrived at the campsite.

We spent the afternoon and early evening enjoying the park scenery.  We made it about half-way on one of the “moderate” trails (yea, right, moderate; I’m still hurting 2 days later), though there were several times that Bandit (the Basset puppy) practically refused to go further; his short legs on the big rocks were comic relief amidst the screaming muscles.  We checked out the views (Petit Jean offers the prettiest views in Arkansas, in my opinion) and we hung out at the playground (’cause to 3 kids it makes perfect sense to drive an hour to swing).  As evening turned to night, we grilled the steaks, then roasted marshmallows and made s’mores for dessert.  You know, typical campfire activities.  Then it was time for bed, and, you know what they say, all good things must come to an end.

I’d remarked earlier in the day that I felt more isolated and in touch with nature in our own backyard.  I said next time he wanted to go camping, we should just pitch a tent in the backyard.  Of course, Boy Genius worried that coyotes might get us … in our backyard, but not here in the middle of a camping metropolis.  For quite some time now, I’ve been telling Bryan that I’d like to spend a week alone in the woods. You know, like Thoreau.  I’d like to go somewhere, be completely unplugged from the world, with no kids, no deadlines, no worries … just for a week … just me and my notebook.  So as we were sitting there listening to the sounds of neighboring campers instead of crickets, I felt the need to tell him that this wasn’t what I meant by being alone in the woods.  Of course, he agreed.  I mean, clearly we weren’t alone.

As pretty as Petit Jean is, it’s camping has been severely commercialized.  When you reserve a campsite, you’re given a letter and number identifying your tiny stretch of land.  The spots are sized for a tent or two, with a picnic table, small grill, fire pit, cold water spigot and parking spot.

Within minutes of our arrival, the neighbor kids were over asking “can we pet your dogs?” and “where are you from?” and a million more questions. Then one of the kids brought his puppy over on a flexi-lead to play with Bandit.  The dog kept getting his leash tangled on the tie out cord that Brix and Bandit were on.  Turns out Brix must like Bandit more than he lets on too, because he didn’t like Bandit playing with the other puppy.  The kid kept telling me to hold Brix back so Brix wouldn’t be mean to his dog and I was telepathically communicating with Brix to take the little sucker out.

As for the neighbors on the other side, they didn’t greet us with baked goods or anything but their presence was well known.  They appeared to be one group stretched across multiple campsites with one main tailgating tent in the middle for the food … sort of like a compound … and they all resembled each other, in a weirder than family way … or at least that’s what I saw.

I called it subdivision camping.  Not that there’s anything wrong with subdivisions.  Some of my best friends live in subdivisions.  No, really, we used to live in subdivisions and there was a time when I liked that.  I never wanted to live in one like these campsites though.  You know, the ones where the houses are practically on top of each other, where you can pass sugar from your side window to your neighbor’s without fully extending your arm, or where you can hear how mad the neighbor wife is at her husband (or how much she loves him ;)) on an otherwise quiet afternoon.  Yea, it was like that.

We had set up two tents, the smaller for the kids behind ours, but with so many strangers around I didn’t like the idea of not being able to see the kids (which we couldn’t if we had the cover over our tent).  The temperature began to drop so there was no way we could go without the cover or have it open slightly.  So all 5 of us, well 7 counting the dogs, piled into the larger tent.  We divied up the blankets and pillows Bryan packed, which were scarce, and tried to settle in.  That proved a little more difficult than we’d expected because despite everyone being tired from our trail blazing, close quarters like that caused some intermittent giggling or arguing amongst the kids.  We finally got them settled and quiet but the compound neighbors didn’t share our bedtime.  Fortunately, we’re a family of good sleepers, that is, everyone but me.  It’s a fact that if you get any one of them still for more than a minute, they’ll go to sleep; the boys especially, including Bryan, regularly doze in the car just on a quick trip to the grocery store.  I, on the other hand, am not so lucky.  I have regular bouts of insomnia, sometimes going a full week without more than an hour or two of sleep a night.

So, despite the sounds of the compound — the laughter of adults, the few threats to children to “go to bed already” and the one presumed toddler who screamed “DADDY! DADDY! DADDY!” at the top of his lungs for a good solid 5 minutes — there developed a slow steady rhythm of breathing in our tent.  They’d all dozed off, the kids, Bryan, even the dogs, all sound asleep.  I lay there, switching from my eyes tight shut while on my side to lying on my back staring at the ceiling of the tent, listening to the sounds next door and getting colder and colder.  We didn’t have good blankets and when the wind blew it was cold.  Bryan packed three pillows (for five people), small “throw” blankets (not a single quilt), and one sleeping bag (which he admitted he’d planned for him before I made him spread it out for the kids).

Finally, after about an hour, the neighbors party died down and the voices began to fade away.  I had several moments of quiet, lying there thinking if I could just ball my body up enough for the small blanket I had to cover me completely, I might make it through the night.  That’s when I heard it. The snoring.  The snoring that wasn’t coming from inside our tent.  Yeah, Bryan snores sometimes, but no I watched him for several minutes.  It wasn’t him.  I then watched each of the kids in turn, then the dogs.  No this was a neighbor’s snore.  It proved too much for me.  The fact that I was cold and that camping is supposed to be time “alone in the woods” and that I could hear some strange man snoring from a tent maybe 10 feet away from me was just too much.

I got up and went to the car, thinking that would remedy the coldness situation for me, who seemed to be the only one suffering from it.  When I was getting out of the tent, I noticed that the kids were balled up in fetal positions under their blankets. I went ahead and crawled in the car, but that didn’t last long.  Every time I closed my eyes, I saw them balled up and just couldn’t get over thinking that they must be freezing too. So I already couldn’t sleep and was cold, and now I was worried about the kids also being cold and was developing a headache as a result.  Knowing that I would not get a lick of sleep that night unless I took drastic measures (and after a little encouragement that I wasn’t just being a big baby from a few tweeps), I made a decision.

I woke everyone up and told them we were going home.  It was after midnight.  I packed up the empty tent and the few remaining items we’d left outside then we got the kids and dogs in the van (with the heat running) while we dismantled the larger tent. Bryan told me later that while I was packing up the smaller tent, he had asked the Girl if she was cold.  She said “yes” but that she could’ve waited until morning to leave. “You know, like a normal family would do,” she said, “but we’re not normal are we, Daddy?” To which he replied, “No, honey, we’re not.”

I shone the flashlight around the campsite once more trying to ensure we hadn’t left anything behind and we left.  As we were driving away, Bryan said “wow, we must be expert campers if we can break down camp in the dark like that.” I replied, “as long as we have all three kids and both dogs, anything else can be replaced.” Then I put on the brake and looked in the back seat to confirm for myself we’d done just that.

We arrived home a little after 2 a.m. The kids all went straight in to their beds.  I’m not even sure Wonder Boy knew what happened, since the next morning he was asking where the tent was. I went to the bathroom, brushed my teeth with warm water, laid down and for the first time in my life I think I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

Morals of the story, all of which I so should have known already: impromptu never works for me, don’t camp in crowded parks, and for Pete’s sake, I must do all the packing.

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