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Women’s Camping Trip: Banana Slugs, Tiny Tents, Deep Sleep and Deeper Secrets

Canda and Doni at patricks point

Canda and Doni at Trinidad State Beach in Trinidad, 33 years after they met as young mothers with kids at the Redding Co-op Preschool.

I don’t remember the exact date when friend Canda founded our group made up of a few dozen of her women friends. I do know it was so long ago that we all still had kids living at home. For a few of us, it was at least one (in some cases, two or three) marriages ago.

In the last few years we’ve lost two of our of friends to breast cancer. Our remaining group consists of just the six of us. Our kids have long since grown up and created their own lives.

Four of us are retired. Two are married. The rest of us are single, either because of divorce, or death of a spouse.

Through the years we’ve met in restaurants, at concerts, at the lake, or in each other’s homes.

This year I thought a camping trip together would be fun. You know how much I love camping. So I booked a campsite at Patrick’s Point State Park for three nights in early August. Sadly, only four of us could make the trip.

patricks point 072

Shelly’s selfie documented our group’s first camping trip: Debbie, Shelly, Doni and Canda.

No RV’s, no men, no children. Just tents, foam pads, blow-up mattresses, sleeping bags, food and lots of beer, wine and Peet’s French roast. Cell phones quickly died, and recharges were done in the restroom, gaining just enough bars each day to get basic back-and-forth information from home. On a related note, we realized that because for all of us, our cell phones were also our cameras, real cameras would have been a good thing to bring along. Just like the old days.

We happily left the valley’s smoke and heat to embark on our first girls’ trip in anticipation of fun, friendship and relaxation while enjoying some coastal coolness.

patricks point 065

We were so happy to leave Redding’s August heat and smoke. By Buckhorn Summit the trees were hidden behind layers of what looked like dirty fog.

Our plan was to go out to dinner the first night, because we’d still be clean and quasi-presentable. For the subsequent dinners, we’d take turns cooking. Everyone was to bring her favorite beverages, snacks and coffee cups. Since there were no guys or kids to consider, we agreed to skip the concept of lunch. No risk of starvation with this group.

I was pretty excited because I’d bought a four-person Coleman tent especially for this trip. What really appealed to me about this particular tent was its guarantee to pop-up in about 60 seconds.

Tip No. 1: Whatever quantity the number on the tent claims it will hold, doubt it. Instead, divide that number in half for the actual number of campers who can squeeze inside. For example, when Coleman says “four people” it really means four toddlers, who, of course, are people, too.

tent for 4 really for 2

The good news was that, true to its promise, the Coleman tent did only take about 60 seconds to pop up. The bad news was it took us far less time to realize the tent would hold just two of us. No matter, because Debbie and Shelly both had camping-friendly cars with interiors that could sleep one each. They backed their cars into our camp site and each night retired to their dry, solid, banana-slug-free shelters.

banana slug rules

That left me and Canda in the tent. We’re both beyond the age of having backs that would welcome sleeping on the ground, so Canda brought two pieces of foam that when combined and rolled up, looked like a sawed-off hot water heater. I brought a blow-up twin bed, identical to the one I got Shelly for her birthday, along with an electric pump that plugged handily into the car’s cigarette lighter. So very MacGyverish of me, if I do say so myself.

Tip No. 2: Before you congratulate yourself for being so smart to bring an electric pump that fits into a cigarette lighter, check it out before camping to ensure it includes nozzles that inflate more than pool toys.

Luckily I’d brought a back-up foot-pump, which worked fine. Mini-disaster averted.

I’d also bought a Coleman pop-up awning at a discount store (in-camp shelter in case of rain) that also boasted a 60-second assembly time. That’s my kind of camping. Who needs a guy to help put up tents? We are women. See us assemble.

Tip No. 3: Before you embark on your camping trip, take the time to try out any new equipment, especially if it includes words like “60-second pop-up”. That way you can work out the kinks and discover any problems during a little rehearsal, before camping live.

Shelly and I arrived at camp before Canda and Debbie. We wanted to surprise them by setting up the tent and awning. The tent was a snap. Pop. Up it went. No wonder I love camping.

The awning, which should have been easier, because it had a lot less to it, was not easy. We managed to wrestle three of the four legs into full extension, but the fourth leg would not extend, no matter how hard we pulled and grunted.

No telling what our racket sounded like from the next campsite.

Confession: That was the one moment on our camping trip when we imagined how nice it would be to have some strong guy arrive to muscle that fourth awning leg into submission. Moot point, because eventually, Shelly looked up and pointed out that one of the two knobby-knuckly parts was all messed up. We’re talking a major Coleman-product birth defect.  No way no how would that fourth leg ever reach its full potential. No problem. We propped up our saggy tripod awning among some small trees. It was semi-functional.

By the way, if you happen to own one of these awnings, you may notice from this photo that the fabric is all wrong, that it’s supposed to be on the inside, and the legs on the outside. We know that. Now. Thank you for not mentioning it.

broken

I like to tell the story about a time long ago and far away when I was married to the guy who made my tent-trailer dreams come true. But when his L.A. friends who joined us on our maiden camping trip announced that their idea of camping was cold cuts and dry cereal, I threatened to stay home. That’s how much cooking and camping mean to me. Yes, there was a time when I made home-made pasta while camping. Those were during my wild and crazy years.

For our first girls-only camping trip, I gladly took charge of creating our little “kitchen” area, which felt a lot like playing house. I also organized our camp cupboard, which featured a helpful tip from some 2012 campers.

beware of the skunks

Although the deal was that everyone brings her own breakfast foods, I made sausage and eggs every morning, which we enjoyed with the most delicious selection of artisan goat cheese from Cypress Grove Chevre in Arcata, a gift from a friend especially for our trip. In fact, we fell so in love with these cheeses that we skipped dinner in a restaurant that first night because we made a meal of the assortment of cheese, bread, wine and fruit. Dinner out was unnecessary at that point. Besides, driving would have been a bad idea.

I cooked in cast iron pans on my little food-demo gas burner, and then let the flame in our fire pit take the pans’ seasoning to a whole other level.  I made coffee each morning in a Revere Ware percolator that reminded all of us of our mothers.

Tip No. 4: Apparently, nothing says “camping” like chips and crackers, because we all brought multiple varieties and ended up taking most of it home with us. In retrospect, one box of crackers and one bag of chips would have been plenty for four women. On the other hand, we ran out of chocolate and marshmallows by the end of our second night. Which reminds me …

Tip No. 5: Graham crackers can go rancid, even if unopened. Spring for it and buy new graham crackers, rather than bringing the ones that have been in the back of your cupboard since the last time you camped, which was when I had a different last name.

Tip No. 6: In the same way that In ‘n Out can make a bun-less hamburger, it is possible – in the event of rancid graham crackers — to use two rectangles of Hershey bar to sandwich a perfectly roasted marshmallow. Do not linger or delicately nibble. Chocolate is melting. Pop the whole sucker in your mouth. It’s dark. Nobody’s watching. Nobody cares.

Tip No. 7: Bring more wood than you need, like a bundle per person. If you have some left, you can leave it behind for the next campers, who’ll be so grateful. Honestly, although we all imagined sitting around a camp fire, not one of thought about actually bringing wood. Fortunately for us, a friend who lives on the coast heard we would be camping, and he supplied a generous firewood supply. He was our firewood angel.

When you book a camping spot, you hope for good weather, but you never know. Rain and fog are entirely possible, and this would have been a completely different story, and a a far more soggy trip if it had rained the whole time, because we lacked adequate shelter. Our group lucked out because the weather was gorgeous and camping-perfect. We pulled out sweatshirts for chilly evenings and mornings, but wore shorts during the day.

We visited Agate Beach, and Trinidad State Beach, and agreed that we favored Trinidad State Beach this time. The super scary drop-off at the end of the trail to Agate Beach was a jagged, dangerous looking mess. Huge hunks of unsecured busted logs dangled at weird angles. A ranger told the more tentative people that for those last steps, his safest suggestion was to sit down and scoot. Riiight.

I remain haunted by the sight of elderly folks who miraculously managed to get to Agate Beach, one of whom had a cane; and a young woman who held an infant, who – wisely, IMHO – stayed above those last steps, and never ventured to the beach below, which was sad, after she’d come so far.

I pray that nobody gets hurt there, but in the event the probable happens and someone takes a tumble on the wrecked, rocky part of the trail, I hope Patrick’s Point State Park has some cracker-jack lawyers on stand-by, because those final, broken steps that lead to the beach are are a lawsuit-in-waiting.

Mild rant over.

Overwhelmingly, we had a spectacular time. We visited the redwoods, and marveled at Mother Nature’s creations.

redwood wonder

We sat in the dark around a campfire, and roasted marshmallows, and went to bed earlier than we would at home, because it was so darn dark. Even so, we slept so soundly that one of us, who’s an insomniac at home, said that while camping, she had the best nights’ sleep she’d had in years.

We talked and walked and toasted those who weren’t with us in the glow of ocean sunsets, made official with red wine in plastic cups. We slept in and awoke each morning to the talents of Shelly, the keeper of the fire.

Even after decades of knowing each other, we learned so many new things about each other, because there’s nothing like spending four days with someone in the great outdoors to disclose everything you need to know about someone.

We also learned little things, like it’s a good idea to bring an ample supply of quarters for a shower, because if you’re all soaped up, and the water unexpectedly shuts off, you have two choices: Get dressed, still covered in soap, and return to the campsite for more quarters; or apologize to the other wide-eyed lady campers in the restroom as you stand there stark naked and rinse off in the sink.

I won’t say which happened.

All secrets remain at Patrick’s Point, where they are swallowed and scattered by the crashing waves, and drowned out by the barking sea lions.

Until next time, and then we’ll start all over again. We’ll apply what we’ve learned, and we’ll be more experienced campers, bringing things we put on our next-time list, like a clothesline, a dish-washing basin, and more tarps. You can never have too many tarps while camping.

But we’re open to learning from your camping knowledge, too. Bring it. I’m taking notes.

Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain holds a Bachelor's Degree in journalism from CSU, Chico. She's an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She's been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Slate. Bloomberg News and on CNN, KQED and KPFA. She lives in Redding, California.

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