Everyone was super excited for our first camping trip. Especially, Pete and Sam. Every afternoon, whenever we climbed into the car, Peter would ask if were we driving to camping, as though camping were one of those activities you could just run off and do with little to no preparation, like a trip to the park, a run to the grocery or to Starbucks.
Camping is not like that, as we found out. The hard way. Because, despite all our preparations, that's pretty much exactly what we did.
Friday afternoon, right after I got off from work and Clementine got up from her nap, we climbed into our minivan with all our supplies and drove an hour outside of town to Shenandoah National Park. We were meeting friends who were kind enough to offer to bring a tent for us to borrow. The rest of our meager camping supplies (we haven't had much need for them recently, as busy as were raising children still to tiny to camp) were on their way to India. I didn't think to pack my sleeping bag, and Elise doesn't even own one yet.
I had looked at the weather forecast and knew it was going to be cold. But it was colder than even I expected. Additionally, I had forgotten just how cold forty degrees feels like. In shorts with no jacket, no sleeping, and only a beach towel covering my legs.
We arrived at our campsite and, after realizing we didn't have firewood, jumped back in the car and drove the two short miles to the park store to buy some. We felt we had come well prepared otherwise. We had enough food to feed an army, beer, and S'mores fixins. Beforehand, Elise had joked about planning a menu. She was going 'glamping' or glamour camping.
As the sun set, we hastily pitched our tent while our friends prepared dinner. After dinner, Sam roasted marhsmallows in the campfire, while Peter, having skipped nap, decided to turn in. I laid down next to him in tent until he fell asleep. The flap on the tent was open, and Peter was looking out through the mosquito netting at the moon ducking behind the clouds. He said something sleepily about the clouds rushing through the sky--They looked like they may have done the same one evening over Sleepy Hollow--and soon he was asleep.
By the time Sam had eaten almost entire bag of marshmallows, it was time for everyone to turn in. The stars had yet to come out, and stargazing would have to wait until the second night. We had forgotten to pack Sam's pajamas, but he remained nonplussed. In the spirit of things, he didn't balk at having to sleep in his clothes, and climbed into his sleeping bag in his socks, pants, and hooded sweatshirt. He, too, was soon asleep.
Elise and I climbed onto the air mattress we had brought with Clementine between, but she was not happy. Too out of sorts, she had a hard time settling down. It was late, and maybe she was overtired. It was dark, and maybe she, too, was cold. Or maybe there was just too much unfamiliar around her. She wouldn't sleep and started to cry, a sound which split the night in the near-silent middle-of-nowhere.
Elise gave her her cellphone, and after playing a game for a few minutes, eventually calmed down to go to sleep (for an hour, maybe two).
Then, the snoring started. Rumbling from the adjacent campsite, came the noise that sounded like a bear growling. It might have been preferable if the sound had been a bear, because then he would have eventually become disinterested and wandered off. No such luck. The growling was coming from inside the neighboring tent and didn't stop until the sun came up.
An hour or so later, Clementine woke up and started crying again. We couldn't calm her down. She kept pointing outside the tent. I didn't know what she wanted. To go back to the camp fire? To go home? Not knowing what else to do, I acquiesced and took her out into the night.
The stars had come out and the sky was beautiful. The one thing I had wanted to see most on this trip was the stars that I had not seen in several years. For that reason alone, perhaps the midnight interruption was welcome, but the welcome didn't last long.
I was intercepted by Elise's friend who offered to drug our baby. Kidding. She had baby tylenol in a tiny plastic dropper, but I couldn't get Clem to take it in the dark. Elise's friend told me that if I was hoping to hold out until morning I would have a long time to wait. It was only 12:30.
Clementine was still crying, despite all the stars in the heavens above us, so I decided to put her in her car seat. I knew this was a risk, but I didn't know what else to do. I figured that, at least in the car, her cries would be muffled. Fortunately, she fell asleep a few minutes later. I sat behind the steering wheel and tried to go to sleep, but the warmth I thought I had eventually felt when I got into the car, quickly vanished and cold crept in. Before the dashboard light winked out, I saw that it was fifty degrees out. By the time Clementine woke for the second time and I had to turn the car back on to calm her again, it was 3:40 and the temperature had dropped another five degrees.
I wrapped a beach towel around my legs (I still had shorts on) and pulled Clementine out of her car seat and into the front seat with me. Again fortune interceded, and she passed out in my arms and stayed like that for the next three hours.
I tried to close my eyes, but sleep would not come. By this time, my butt was asleep and my legs were cramping, but I did not envy Elise either. I knew she was having it no easier in the cold tent. Come to find out, maybe the air mattress wasn't such a good idea in the cold, because as the air insteas the mattress became colder and colder, Elise felt like she was sleeping on a layer of ice cubes.
I sat in the pitch darkness staring out the front window for six hours. I quickly came to understand how one can think they see things moving in the dark. It was the complete blackness one gets when they close their eyes and see black blobs and dots moving against a background of blackness. I couldn't believe how long it took for dawn to come, and then when it did come, I couldn't believe how long it took for the sky to lighten and morning to come. Every few minutes I would try and close my eyes and when I opened them, I couldn't tell if it had grown lighter or darker around me.
Clementine woke around 6:30 no worse for wear. She actually smiled and giggled. We extricated ourselves from the cold car and climbed into the tent. I couldn't stop shivering. I felt like a character in a Krakuer book. If the night had gone on any longer, I'm sure I would have reverted to cannibalism.
Soon, we were all awake. It was still freezing outside, and Peter---poor Petey who has the body mass index of a beanpole--was miserable, so I offered to let everyone climb into the minivan to warm up and watch cartoons. I know a camping purist would think I was copping out, but at the time I felt like it was something I needed to do. Isn't that what camping is really about? Using the paucity of resources at your disposal in new and creative ways?
Eventually, the say warmed and became beautiful. We drove an hour to a meadow where we saw deer and a lodge where we had a tailgate picnic. Elise had brought artisan meats and cheeses. I succumbed to my weakness for potato chips, and we shared a Fat Tire. It was unarguebaly the highlight of the trip. We played at a playground and went on a short hike before driving home.
Early that morning, Elise and I had decided there was no way we could survive another night like that one. It was to be even colder Saturday night than it was Friday night. So, sadly, we had to abandon our camping friends and drive back to civilization.
We learned a lot from our inaugural camping trip, and I know no one regrets having gone. Sam and Pete were perfect campers and are ready for even bigger, grander adventures.