As Lori packed the last of our REI clearance swag and I stashed enough Zyrtec to keep a small village allergy-free, I psyched myself up for 3 days of wilderness fun. The “wilds” of Ohio were calling our name – by way of 1 insistent partner, “Think how close to nature you’ll be” and 3 enthusiastic kids, “S’mores every night!”
I really wanted to stay at home.
“You packed the hand sanitizer, right,” I asked Lori as I rummaged through my backpack.
“What about the bug spray? The good kind – not that foo-foo environmental stuff.”
“Yes,” she stilled my hand and gave it a squeeze. “Don’t worry. It’ll be just like camping in the backyard.”
“But I watched you guys from the window.”
Her brow furrowed. “True dat….well, it’ll be fun anyway.”
Seven hours later, we pulled into the campsite.
It was not what I expected.
The rows of RV’s, trailers and tents brought to mind every bad action/SF disaster movie I had ever seen – you know, the kind where the government declares martial law and makeshift camps spring up across the land. I peered into the trees, half expecting the hordes of infected mutant zombie aliens to come crashing through the leaves.
“This is awesome!” Nick sprang of the minivan and raced towards a gaggle of kids playing a few lots away from us. Gabe sprinted after him, stopping only at each fire pit to yell, “Everyone has S’mores!” before joining his brother in a pickup game of catch. Never one to be left behind, Olivia took off after her older brothers, then, realizing she was in fact let behind, waddled her way back to us.
“You ok?” Lori passed me a folded cot from the Sherpack.
“You counting the hours until we get back to Chicago?”
“Minutes,” I corrected. “Counting minutes.”
Our Target tents were ridiculously easy to set up. And the inflatable mattress fit perfectly inside the tent – until the kids came back and used it as bouncy house. After that, it listed to one side for the rest of the trip.
“Guys, get your scooters and entertain yourselves.” They dutifully complied, and for the next 20 minutes we were able to unpack, organize and get a fire started. When they returned, we settled into a groove, the kids munching on fire-burnt popcorn, us nibbling wasabi rice crackers.
“This isn’t bad,” I mused, shooing gnats from my face. “I can be down with this whole nature thing.”
That must have pissed off the camping gods, because in the moments that followed, Nick almost fell into the fire, Gabe randomly threw up, and Olivia started screaming, you know, just because. They were tired, no doubt, from all of the novelty and excitement of our first family camping excursion, which is why they fell asleep almost instantaneously on their sloped mattress.
Our days followed a set pattern – wake, wash, eat, explore, commune, collapse – as we hit the beach, a few trails, and of course, Cedar Point. The days were pure delight – hearing Nick scream his lungs out on his first “adult” roller coaster, watching Gabe charm all of the retirees with his preschool lisp and impish smile, lifting Olivia above the waves as she giggled nonstop. But the nights were pretty miserable – filled with incessant buzzing from mosquitoes that left love bites I would have preferred from Lori to the spotty 3G service I nevertheless needed to finish some client work.
“This is hell,” I muttered as I stepped out of the car in which I had slept at a 65-degree angle for the last 5 hours. The first bursts of morning fire blaze through the clouds, and I held my breath.
This was it.
The moment of transcendence after my dark night of the soul.
Here it comes – I’m gonna feel –
The sun was pretty, but I still felt the same – my legs still itched, my mouth was gummy and I smelled myself.
Finally heeding the call of nature, I flip-flopped my way to the bathroom.
That’s when I saw them.
A woman in her late 50’s with a young man in his 20’s.
“C’mon, Tyler. Almost there.” His feet shuffled across the grass.
“O-o-o-o-o-o.” His face contorts, muscles straining to form the vowel. “K-k-k-k-k-ay.” His elongated neck and extended speech suggest a “condition,” but I knew not what.
“That’s it. You can do it,” she coaxed, and step by step, they made it.
A mother’s patience.
A son’s perseverance.
On the way back, I passed a pair of aging hippies, their battered RV a sore sight for eyes.
“Into the great wide open”
Together they swayed, the man crooning off-key in his companion’s ear.
“Under them skies of blue
Out in the great wide open
A rebel without a clue”
Around them, the camp stirred awake; plink of tin cups and whoosh of propane tanks mingled with groggy “g’mornings.”
I lost myself in that moment, becoming “one” not with Mother Nature, but with human nature.
Where love and acceptance
Compassion and communion
Found peace in the untamed
Wilderness of the soul.
My children greeted me as I rounded the corner – still in their PJ’s, happily munching toast around the fire.
“Can we come back again,” Nick asked, eyes hopeful.
“Of course we can, kiddo.”
“Yay,” Gabe piped in. “S’mores!”