It was 1994 the first time my kids and I went camping at Patrick’s Point State Park in Trinidad. It was a significant year. I’d graduated from college – 20 years after high school – and I’d bought a house.
I was also recently divorced after 16 years of marriage to my high school sweetheart. I wanted to prove to my kids – and myself – that I could do something that was outside of my traditional mom role. For me, that something was camping. I’d always loved the idea of tent-camping, though I was a bit intimidated by it. But I supposed that camping would become easier with time and practice.
That summer of ’94, I had a general idea of what camping entailed. I knew we’d need shelter, an ice chest, matches, wood for the campfire, sleeping bags, clothes, Hershey bars, marshmallows, graham crackers and cooking supplies.
For this trip, I’d bought a two-room tent at Shopko that could have housed an entire scout troop. Weeks before our trip, the kids and I practiced pitching the tent in our driveway, just so we’d know what to do when the real camping day arrived. I’d never been a Girl Scout, but if I did say so myself, I was sure thinking like one.
The day we left for the coast, we had everything crammed inside our 1984 yellow Volvo station wagon. The Volvo was new to me, too. Post-divorce I’d sold my nearly new gray minivan for a down payment on the house, and set aside $1,800 to buy the adorably funky Volvo. The kids and I used rope — and, for good measure, Bungee cords — to tether a few dozen pieces of firewood to the car’s luggage rack. For extra insurance, we topped it with a blue tarp, and wrapped more rope around that.
As we drove out of our neighborhood, I assumed that folks who openly stared were marveling at how well-prepared we looked, and how much fun we’d have, when in fact, “Grapes of Wrath” was probably closer to what they were actually thinking.
This was our Volvo’s first trip to the coast, too, and we soon discovered that our car liked to take its time going up hills, sometimes for a long while before we could pull over and let zippier cars pass. This caused some drivers to wave at us with single digits extended high in the air out their open windows as they zoomed by. So friendly!
As I drove, I imagined how we’d set up camp, make dinner and get a good night’s sleep. For breakfast we’d make pancakes and bacon over the campfire, followed by a day on the beach, looking for agates. Oh, the adventures we’d have. The memories we’d create.
We arrived at Patrick’s Point with enough daylight to erect the tent and start a campfire. This was my first campfire, but luckily I’d brought enough newspaper and lighter fluid that it did the trick in no time – WHOOSH! – and we had an impressively roaring fire that July evening, perfect for cooking dinner and making S’mores for dessert.
I had never cooked over a campfire, either, but I figured it was like one big, open gas-range cook top. I was shocked how quickly food charred, and how all the food had one – make that two – flavors: smoke and Kingston lighter fluid. Even so, we cooked and ate hot dogs and vegetables, the latter to accommodate my teenage daughter’s recent conversion to veganism.
In those days, Patrick’s Point campers were given whichever sites were available when people rolled in to claim their reservations. But because we’d arrived rather late in the day, one of the only sites left was next door to the restrooms and showers, which was also about the farthest point from the ocean. Oh well. We had two more whole days to visit the ocean up close.
The kids and I were excited to sleep our first night in our new tent inside our new sleeping bags. My, how dark it was inside that tent at night. No street lights. No nasty light pollution. Pure, blessed, deep black.
A wide zipper divided the two “rooms” so Josh and Joe could share one room, and Sarah and I could have the other. Almost like a little house in the woods. So charming. So cozy. We wanted for nothing.
I was mom. See me camp.
There’s a guttural, unmistakable sound people make when they’re on the verge of vomiting. However, with kids of any age, that sound usually accompanies a call for a parent. Typically, that sound comes from a small child standing by the edge of the parent’s bed at 3 a.m., tugging at an adult arm to awaken them. Most often, by then it’s too late to do anything except duck, cover and get out of the line of fire. After that, it’s a night of Pine Sol and a churning washing machine.
As it turns out, vomiting at home and vomiting while camping are amazingly similar.
Mom? Within the charcoal blackness of our tent I heard Sarah call for me in that queasy tone that can only mean one thing.
My daughter, who’d gamely eaten all those horribly smoky vegetables, and maybe suffered a touch of car sickness over Buckhorn Summit, became a projectile fountain that would not stop. I could hear the retching. I could feel and smell the sour spray. I could not find my flashlight for what seemed an eternity.
One definition of Hell: trapped inside a dark tent, pitched on a decline, with three kids – one of whom is vomiting – while the other two are screaming in confusion and disgust.
Consequently, our first full day of camping did not start with pancakes over a campfire. Nor did we spend our first day looking for agates. Instead, we spent our first day at Patrick’s Point with my youngest child staying behind at camp with his older sister, still green around the gills. Meanwhile, my middle child and I found a laundromat in Trinidad where we washed and dried nearly every fabric item we’d brought with us.
By the next day my daughter was feeling better.We eventually did have pancakes and S’mores, and we hunted for agates.
The next year the kids and I returned to Trinidad, but without the tent. This time I rented a rustic little cabin that had a faux Tyrolean look.
But glory hallelujah the cabin had electricity, beds, a bathroom, and, best of all, a kitchen with a stove. There were no campfires to ignite. No tents to pitch. Been there. Done that. Learned some lessons.
The next time I camped at Patrick’s Point was 1998, in my beloved tent trailer, a gift from my then-husband for my 42nd birthday (it’s what I’d always wanted). We celebrated our first anniversary in that tent trailer, with its canvas sides and the little lantern we hung from a ceiling hook, a romantic touch to commemorate a special occasion.
As with the first camping trip, I learned something on this trip, too. The lesson from the camping trip of 1998 dawned upon me as my husband and I walked in the dark to the bathrooms late the second night. We glanced back to admire our adorable tent trailer, a lovely retreat beneath the redwoods. That’s when we noticed that thanks to the lantern’s glow inside the canvas enclosure, it produced the most accurate, crisp silhouettes of every single shape inside the trailer: the hanging metal basket that held bananas and apples, the bottle of Champagne, the two pillows on our bed, the coffee pot, a baseball cap on the counter, a pair of binoculars. Every. Thing. Everything!
Come morning, we did the brave thing and remained at the camp site for another day, though we avoided eye contact with the other campers.
Camping is on my mind today because I have reservations at Patrick’s Point for a three-day getaway later this summer
I am so excited about this trip, because as part of our birthday celebration, my twin and I are sharing the camp site with some women friends I’ve known for between 20 to 30 years. Credit goes to friend Canda for forming our initial, informal group those many years ago, made up of about two dozen women who met at each other’s homes or restaurants where we ate, drank and caught up with each other’s lives. We also talked about men a lot.
Over the years many of the women lost interest in the group, dropped out or moved away. We die hards became the smaller, core group. We were sounding boards and shoulders for each other during child-rearing challenges, divorces, marriages, teenagers, hot flashes, family drama, retirements, dating, and the loss of loved ones, jobs, youth and elasticity. Breast cancer took two friends, and it continues to threaten one dear member of our group.
It’s this collection of women – now just six of us – who will camp together at Patrick’s Point this summer. We will sleep in tents on inflatable mattresses.
This time, I won’t get too far ahead of myself. No big plans. No expectations beyond the proximity to the ocean, some wine, chocolate, books, great meals, a portable gas burner, friends, and lots of relaxation, long walks and conversations. We’re a group of talkers, and I already pity the campers who’ll flank our camp site.
Overall, my goals are simple: get there, set up camp, and let the good times roll.
Hopefully, on level ground.
This “Best-of” article was originally published June 23, 2015.