Ah! My first writing retreat since becoming a mother five years prior. Alone in a cabin in the woods for four days with nothing but my notebook and pens, laptop, and books. Creaking trees outside. No television, no internet, no cell phone service, no mail delivery. No neighbors in sight. I would use this quiet time to cogitate, meditate, create—no interruptions, no chaos, no needs other than those of my own stomach and an occasional wash under my arms. Just my own unfettered thoughts and ideas to run amok without time restrictions or crises.
I wasn’t going to blow it this time, as I had the year before when a friend had lent me her house for two nights near an out-of-town teaching gig, and I’d been so guilt-wracked that I gave myself the shingles. I’d learned my lesson. Why did I not think I deserved this and that the boys wouldn’t burn the house down without me around? Scratch that. If the house burned down, it wouldn’t help if I were there, although they’d probably forget about the safety ladders.Read More »
Further Ruminations on Car Camping (and Ruminants)
The other day I saw a man napping on his motorcycle. Or making a show of it, at any rate. Buddy, I thought, this is the suburbs, and in case you hadn’t noticed, that’s a nice strip of grass in front of you. Green grass (since there’s been no summer here in the Pacific Northwest), upon which napping has worked admirably for millennia.
You think you are posing languidly atop a slender, unstable assembly of pipes, but in reality you look uncomfortable, which, admit it, is what you are. Why not a fence top? Or an upside-down canoe? Impress us further with your sense of balance if not your common sense.
Maybe if you’re Lorenzo Lamas you could get away with stretching out upon your hog when it’s not strictly necessary, like when you’re parked on an electric force field and the only things keeping you from getting shocked are your rubber tires. But otherwise, dude, you need a personal stylist, a personal trainer, and more stature, or else a mattress behind closed doors—not for your own privacy but so that we won’t have to witness this posturing (which leads to the question: can one posture while horizontal?).
That’s an old library you’re parked in front of, where one could read about Hunter S. Thompson, not pretend to be one of his characters. This is Ballard, not the arid Badlands, where a seriously ripped actor—who can pull off playing a character named Cumson—must snooze upon his Harley (after first artfully spraying his steamy, shirtless self from a jug of water, which he’ll regret later when he’s thirsty), rather than upon the sizzling sands of a Hollywood stage set.
However, I am forced to admit here that sleeping on a bike is possible. Our friend’s ex-girlfriend used to fall asleep behind him traveling at high speeds on a sports bike. He would belt her to him so that she didn’t accidentally fall off. Their breakup messed with my literary sensibilities, because if that’s not a metaphor for a couple that can stick together through thick and thin, I don’t know what is.
Then there’s me. I can hardly sleep in my own bed. Forget sleeping on airplanes, pool chairs, or operating tables. I’m wide awake for all of it. As I said to the last anesthesiologist who tried to put me under, “You’ll seriously have to come close to killing me to knock me out.” Consider that “relaxation” is made up of words like “axe” and “shun.” These thoughts keep me awake and watchful.
I can barely sleep in the Heavenly Bed, the one that required the Man I Married to take the door frame apart in order to install. MIM is a big fidgeter and kicker while sleeping, so we got clever and snugged two Twin Longs next to each other to make one King. Now he can execute gymnastic feats while he slumbers without jiggling my mattress one whit. But then there’s the breathing. Yes, MIM has the gall to breathe at night. Talk about self-absorbed. How can he expect me to sleep while he breathes?
My life is a vicious cycle. I swill coffee to stay awake in the afternoons because I got no sleep the night before. Then I take Benadryll at night in order to sleep despite the late caffeine. Then I drink cup after cup of ink-black tea in the morning to zap me out of my medicated-zombie torpor.
So can you really expect me to sleep in a tent?
Truthfully, I’ve rather enjoyed tent camping over the years. There’s lots of ambient sound, like RV generators, to drown out the breathing noises. Since we’re on the ground, MIM can rock and roll all he wants and not shake me up. But modern sleeping bags with their space-age fabric swish louder than me walking down a silent hallway in polyester pants (SWISH SWISH SWISH SWISH), so his fidgets become audible rather than tactile, and MIM unfortunately has been battling a bad cough. A tent can feel pretty small when you’re sharing it with Camille.
So, on this last trip, I quit that damn tent and its yodeling zipper before we hit Montana, and I slept by my lonesome in the wagon every night. The car-camping trip was for me, quite literally, a car-camping trip. MIM had his own tent, the Little Monster had his own tent, and I had my own wagon. Ah, family togetherness.
Did I by any chance mention that my motorcycling days might be over? I sing the song of lovely tinted car windows keeping the rising sun (and son) at bay! I extol the virtues of stepping down to go to the john at midnight, rather than trying to convince my legs that they do indeed have quadriceps that can theoretically hoist me up and out of a tent several times a night. I applaud the relative silence of a civilized car door, with one small click at the close of my business rather than four full zipper-pulls per whiz (open, close, pee, open, close). Car doors sealed sound out; I could have slept through a bear mauling next door. I even mastered technology and eventually figured out how to turn off the dome light so that I didn’t illuminate my business like a spot for the diva’s solo.
And it’s a good thing I abandoned the tent, because the zipper on MIM’s tent gave out on the last night of the trip. If it had endured the added burden of my many nightly excursions, it would have lost its teeth back in Idaho with the rest of the meth-heads (we saw lots and lots of anti-meth billboards in Idaho’s small towns).
As for Mr. Lamas, he apparently likes his women as custom-built as his bikes.
Despite the fact that I would prefer a spitting llama’s company to his, he’s awfully easy on the eyes. I wouldn’t take umbrage if he decided to nap on his hog in Ballard.
He’s also a dead ringer for the Man I Married. So when my book is optioned by Hollywood, I just might consider his being cast as MIM.
We know he likes choppers, but can he improve his acting chops enough to portray a man who appreciates women for their brains, wit, opinions, and laughter?
Methinks not. That would be a bit much of a stretch (more of a stretch than her sweater).
As for who might portray me if my character is cast with a man who favors mammaries that might better fit a llama:
The worst thing about camping is not the bugs, but the midnight potty trips. You don’t realize it, but the teeth in your tent zippers are equipped with tiny amplification devices meant to scare away nocturnal, slithering or scurrying things. Unfortunately, it also broadcasts like a foghorn that mom has got to go again. There she goes, flitting through the trees and trailing her wisps of ghostly toilet paper like something out of a Wilkie Collins novel.
On our entire two-week trip, my two boys never once left their tents after they had zipped themselves in, not until the sun was high in the sky.
I, however, had opportunities at least several times a night to check the campground for snakes, bears, and other wakeful campers who might get a glimpse of my moon.
It wasn’t until the return trip home, in southeast Idaho, that it occurred to me that I was so busy looking down and around every night that I had not looked up yet to check out the night sky. I squatted, and looked up. What a lovely blur.
Damn, I had to find my eyeglasses. This was more involved than it sounds, since it also meant finding my pants, since it was cold and buggy. I nearly gave up. Seriously, star-gazing seemed overrated when the tradeoff was not sleeping. But I finally located my spectacles in the front seat of the car.
I snapped off my flashlight, stepped out from under a tree, and looked up, just as a bright streak flashed across the sky. A shooting star! Wow! Lots of stars! Magnificent! And that smudgy white thing must be the Milky Way! Wow! Now I can go back to sleep!
The next day I told the Little Monster that I had a seen a shooting star.
“Wow!” he said, truly excited. “Did you make a wish?”
Damn. I had forgotten all about that Jiminy Cricket b.s.
“No, honey,” I answered. “I already got my biggest wish, so I don’t need to make any others.”
“What was your wish?” He ate right out of the palm of my hand.
On our recent road trip, we packed just about everything but bug spray.
We also forgot that, traveling eastwards, we would lose an hour, which we did, blam!, near the end of the day, crossing from Idaho into Montana. The sign that we’d just entered Central Mountain Time hit us like the bugs that splattered our windshield. We thought we had another hour or two to find a campground, but now we needed to find one immediately. Which we did, a gorgeous lake-side state campground, in the middle of nowhere, that cost us a mere ten bucks. We’d be eating Fig Newtons for dinner, but LM didn’t complain.
The sparsely-occupied campground nonetheless teemed with unpaid and unwelcome guests: mosquitoes.
MIM suggested that he drive back to an RV park he’d seen a ways back that might stock repellant in its tiny store, but one thing I’d learned from our travels by bike was that the kindness and generosity of total strangers never, ever failed. Despite being an introvert, my protective mama-instincts kicked in, since bugs like LM much better than they like me (I am too bitter), and I said I’d go ask some fellow campers to borrow theirs.
MIM looked at me skeptically. “Well, okay.” What, doubt? From the man who, while driving past miles of occupied porch swings in West Virginia decided that he must meet a bonafide occupant of a West Virginia porch swing. So, he pulled up next to one and asked, sounding pitifully parched and lonely, “Do ya know where I could get a sodapop around here?” knowing full well that they would offer him one. As if there weren’t convenience stores in West Virginia. My eyes nearly rolled right out of my helmet. But that’s how we were introduced to Noble and Madge, who told us stories about riding (and crashing) a Harley in the 1930s. We had likewise extended our hospitality to traveling strangers, like the friendly Texas “bail bondsman” (can you say bounty hunter?) on a Harley who spent the night and accidentally left behind his loaded gun in a purple velvet Crown Royal whisky bag.
So why MIM’s skepticism in a campground peppered with like-minded souls? Off I marched towards the campsite across the cul-de-sac that is so prevalent in nature (witness all campgrounds having to be laid out around this naturally-occurring shape). I approached an elderly couple lounging outside near their smallish-RV.
“Hullo!” I said, in that hale and hearty campers’ version of “if we’re all un-showered together then nobody stinks” greeting. “I’m from site 17, just across the way, and my son is being eaten alive by mosquitoes. We forgot our repellant, gosh darn it, and I’m wondering if you had any that we could borrow? We’re right over there, and I would bring it right back.”
“You mean like this?” The woman held out the green spray can that had sat near her feet.
“Oh, yes, thank you!” I said, stepping forward.
“No,” the man said, as the woman set the can down beneath her lawn chair. “You can’t.”
“Rrrrreally,” I stated. “Really? Really. Wow. That’s…wow. Oooo-kay.” If they had thrown the can at my head and knocked me down with it, I wouldn’t have been more surprised. Gee, maybe we had scared people into submission all those years on the motorcycle? But, no, I sincerely believed in the charitable hearts of the people we had encountered on our travels, like the woman in a very similar RV who brought coffee over to our tent-site one morning, bringing to life a scene that I had written into a short story years beforehand.
“You can go buy some,” the man said.
“Oh, is there a store nearby?”
No, in fact, it turned out by the directions he gave me, there was not.
“I’ll just go ask someone else,” I said, and the woman scratched under her wig as I left.
I refused to give up my faith in humanity and approached a small cluster of people setting up an awning. I explained my situation. “Sure!” the man said. “Just go ask my wife Susan, over there, and tell her that Scott sent you over.”
To get to the door of Susan’s RV, I had to get past a snarling Great Dane. I didn’t think Great Danes frothed and growled. I thought they were all harmless bumblers, like in Disney movies. Two women emerged from the RV, and one collared the Great Dane and wrestled him backwards. The other woman, who turned out to be Susan, had multiple facial piercings, dyed black hair, and lots of tattoos.
I considered whether to tell her that Scott sent me over, because Susan didn’t look like the sort of woman who’d want her husband to tell her to do anything, but I figured I needed an ally on my side, so I repeated my tale of woe. I gushed promises to return the can of poison pronto, wondering how I might casually mention my husband’s tattoo and nipple ring in an “I’m okay, you’re okay, we’re all okay” friendship gesture.
“Oh, sure,” Susan said, picking up can after can of insect repellant, shaking each as she went, disappearing into the RV to find more. She finally handed over three cans to me. “I can’t tell which ones are almost empty. Don’t worry if they run out. Just keep them all if you want.”
I thanked her profusely and headed back to my site. Yes, I considered crossing back through Couple Number One’s site, proclaiming that there were still Good Samaritans left in the world.
In telling my tale to my family later, my aunt said, “I hope you juggled those cans while you walked past them.” My dad gave his enthusiastic both-thumbs-down gesture and said, “I hope you [neener-neener sounds] those tightwads while you tromped through their site.”
Although it’s in my DNA to slap the other cheek, gentle reader, I did not. I simply walked back to our tents. And, boy, I regret not juggling those cans. If only I’d thought of it in time! It’s highly unsatisfying to take the high road and not make dipwads aware that they are dipwads.
But, here’s an original thought: you just can’t judge folks by appearances. The kindly-looking blue-hairs wouldn’t give me a whisker from their chins, while the scary vampire girl (or Northwest espresso barrista—it’s hard to tell the two apart) did not bat an eye (albeit this feat might have been impossible what with all of the mascara she would have had to bench-press) at handing over some of her worldly possessions.
In relating the story to a friend, I said, “Well, who knows what the story on that elderly couple was? She had a wig. Maybe she was dying of cancer or something.”
“So, what?” my friend said. “She wanted her last act on earth to be mean and greedy so that she could go straight to Hell? Like, I’m on my way out so screw all of you? Have some West Nile Virus on me, losers?”
True, I can’t figure how the cancer connection would excuse her. But, still, that was her repellant and she had every right to say no. I think of how I sometimes lose patience (quietly and politely) when someone turtles along in a crosswalk while I wait (okay, I’m muttering obscenities at this point) for them to pass. But then I think, “Well, maybe they’re bleeding internally, and I just don’t know it.” I mean, haven’t you ever been moseying along in a parking lot, blocking all the cars as you poke along down the middle of a row, when suddenly you begin to hemorrhage? And here’s someone honking at you, not helping matters any. Don’t you just hate that? Who knows what the true story is?
Likewise, I must admit that those among us who are more organized than others can sometimes pop a gasket when we are once again expected to be the ones holding the Band-aids, or the nail clippers, or the bug repellant for the unorganized masses who did not properly prepare. This sums up my marriage, and, for the record, the bug repellant was packed, but the male person who loaded up the car somehow left it behind. However, that male person can do things like fix the antique desk I purchased but dropped because I thought capable moi could carry it upstairs without his stinking biceps, which had the gall to be off on a business trip. He can take the door-jamb apart when I buy a bed that, oops, won’t fit through the door; then he gets to sleep in that marvelous bed. It’s a constant tradeoff.
The point is, when you already have an itchy wig…okay, a wig? Seriously? In a Montana campground in the middle of nowhere? Why not a hat? Or a kerchief? Or bald and proud? Who cares? I sank so low in personal fashion and hygiene that by the end of the trip I simply took to wearing the same loose and long housedress every day, topped by an old coat. One day in Wyoming I passed a Mennonite mother and child in the grocery store, and at first glance they mistook me for one of them. Why the housedress? Precisely because it’s something that could not be worn all those years on the back of a bike.
Back to the point. When you already have an itchy wig, which means that you have not reconciled yourself to having no hair, and your personal view of the world involves hoarding your repellant for whatever logical reason you have, someone juggling bugspray is not going to inspire any epiphanies on your part.
Later in the trip, a guy on a motorcycle walked over to our campsite and offered me some ice. “I can’t use the whole bag and I hate to see it go to waste.”
I thanked him but declined, saying that I was used to traveling light from our motorcycle days (ahem) and we had no ice chest. He walked on to the next site, looking for someone else to accept his donation. How much easier it would have been to just dump it under the nearest tree. But, like he said, “It gets me out to meet my neighbors.” (He was kinda cute, too, and I suspect he’d bathed more recently than I had.)
Indeed. Love thy neighbor (when they aren’t crazy), and repel them not when they cometh seeking of your precious toxins.
After nearly two decades of touring the country almost exclusively by motorcycle, The Man I Married and I took our first road trip as parents in the family station wagon. I mourned the loss of a mode of travel that I’d originally taken to like a turtle to skydiving, but which I had come to embrace as an adventurous way to fully appreciate the landscape. Motorcycling immerses me in the environment, whereas a car seals me off. Car travel is like watching television; the windscreen isolates me from smells and temperatures, from bugs and wind and the sun’s rays. Blast the air-conditioning, crank up the radio, and my insulated bubble could be passing through wintry Maine or summertime Montana for all my senses can tell. Motorcycling also offers an entré to conversation with strangers on the road, whereas no one much cared to converse with the owners of the filthy, diesel VW Passat.
We kept the a/c and the radio off for the most part, with the windows cracked, trying to replicate at least some of motorcycling’s appeal. But for all that I missed the glorified moments of two-wheeling, motorcycling had its definite disadvantages. On our last road trip by motorcycle, I had not had enough room to pack even a paperback book. Despite this, at a junk shop in the middle of nowhere, the Man I Married purchased a twenty-pound metal disc thingy that he thought was a cool something-or-other from an old tractor, but which turned out to be part of a washing machine. He bungee-corded the foot-in-diameter rusted junk to the bike’s rear rack, and as we hauled it around for days, I wondered why this could be managed but Heart of Darkness could not (other than the one beating resentfully behind my ribcage). The thingie is now lying flat in our front yard, used to keep the bike’s kick stand from sinking into the mud.
So let’s just say that I came to embrace car travel mighty quick on our recent, 3000-mile, five-state journey with the Little Monster. I packed the electric tea kettle, single-serving creamers, two kinds of tea, and two mugs. Oh!a hot cup of tea every morning in a campground turned out to be mighty addictive. We were tenters, so I snuck over to an unused RV site and plugged the kettle in to the RV hookup, or else I’d plug it in to the bathroom’s electric outlet and stand around trying not to look like a pervert. On the one morning I didn’t make tea, because the bathroom was too far and the nearest RV post was right next to a motorcyclist’s tent, the Man I Married said, “Where’s my tea?” I was not the only one getting spoiled by life on four wheels.
I packed a car-battery charger for my Kindle, my laptop, our cell phones, camera batteries, and the Little Monster’s Nintendo (which we didn’t tell him we’d brought, saving it in case of emergency such as a roadside breakdown, a scenario all-too familiar from our bike days that never transpired in the car—yet one more advantage to mundane travel vehicles). Neither did we bring LM’s portable DVD player. Boredom in back seats is good for kids as a kick start to the imagination, and if The Man I Married and I were going to not only drive, but suffer through watching the other one drive half the time (torture for both of us), the Little Monster had better witness the scenery instead of occupying himself with things that he could do back home on the couch. When he wasn’t looking out the window or reading, LM did math. Lots and lots of math. Our Math Mobile climbed over the Grand Tetons, the Bitterroots, the Beaverheads, and the Bighorns; it shimmered and wheezed through the Red Desert, the Snake River Plain with its fifty nuclear reactors, and the Palouse; it followed the Oregon Trail, trailed after Lewis and Clark, criss-crossed the Nez Perce’s failed escape route and the first cross-country road trip by automobile, all the while chanting this mantra:
Jane has 43 apples, and she needs to put them all in boxes. Each box holds six apples. How many boxes does Jane need? And if all of the boxes are full but one, how many apples go in the last box?
The mantra should have been:
If the mom in the car has tried explaining the math to her son 43 times, and the dad in the car has tried explaining the math 43 times, how many times does the son say he does not get it, and who will lose their temper first? Part B: How many times is the driver tempted to end everyone’s misery by driving over a cliff at the next beautiful Scenic Pullout? Who needs Thelma and Louise when you’ve got Jane and her motherfartin Apples?
Besides math books and pencils (which LM prefers to use as drumsticks, so we had to buy more in Jackson Hole, where it’s a lot easier to find antlers than pencils), I packed juice, Fig Newtons, and a s’more maker thingie bought by MIM (where I come from, all you need is a stick). I packed plates, napkins, and utensils. Moist-wipes, sunscreen, extra shoes, and real towels. I packed lots and lots of water.
I packed a comforter to put under me (you’d think with all my padding that I could sleep on lava, but no, I might as well be as bony as a greyhound for my increasing dependence on a mattress), and, most wondrous of all, I packed pillows. Pillows! In two decades, two countries, and maybe three dozen states, I’d lacked a pillow. The lure of motorcycling pales when one lays one’s weary head down upon a lace-encased puff of hypo-allergenic foam every night instead of one’s wadded up, leather jacket with buckles that rattle like something out of a Charles Dickens nightmare.
Here’s what I packed for two months on a motorcycle: two pairs of jeans, three shirts, seven pairs of underwear and socks, a granola bar, and a “camping towel” about the size of a eyepatch (my undies are bigger). MIM and I shared a jigger of toothpaste, but I drew the line at sharing a toothbrush. In the car, however, I brought three full-sized toothpaste tubes! Imagine the luxury! Oh, the orgy of over-packing for this motorcycle mama!
Of course all of this packing was completely selfless and was solely for the sake of the child, for whom we reverted to this very American form of travel and for whom we are now thinking about acquiring a trailer.