Randi is on a brief leave. This column was originally published Aug. 29-Sept. 4, 2013.
There are probably some experiences people shouldn’t try for the first time when they’re over 65, but I really wanted to go camping out West. I don’t much like the notion of a “bucket list,” with its attendant connotation of impending bucket-kicking, but I knew I wanted to try camping while I’m still fit.
My daughter, an experienced outdoorswoman, organized the adventure, and came along with her two kids, ages 6 and 4. My son and daughter-in-law immediately signed on with their two kids, 10 and 8. We picked a week in August when my husband would be immersed in the most anti-camping experience imaginable, a trade show in Las Vegas.
He didn’t go outside for six days straight, working, eating, sleeping in the hotel. We didn’t go inside for a week, except to sleep (briefly).
Long story short: I’m thrilled that I went. I did it all, and now I’m done.
We drove from San Francisco to the Big Sur Campground, about three hours south. First observation: To camp you must be willing to do an enormous amount of work that you wouldn’t need to do if you just stayed home in your house.
We had tents and sleeping bags, a medical kit, a cooler filled with food, bags of dry groceries, water, wool hats and gloves, layers of silk and wool and spare shoes, eyeglasses and medications. We brought wine and cheeses and salamis and bread and peanut butter and jelly.
We arrived at the campground in the late afternoon. Look at it through my eyes: a stunning expanse of land set among giant redwoods; a picture-perfect creek burbling around the perimeter of the campground; kids in rubber tubes floating by. But I expected wilderness, and we pitched our tents right next to cars and giant RVs. It was like sleeping in a parking lot, with a serious possibility of getting run over in the middle of the night.
We got the tents set up and put wood beside the fire pit and went off on a small hike. The smell of fresh pine trees was intoxicating, and I was really beginning to relax when I saw the posted sign warning about mountain lion attacks. It said that if a mountain lion leaps at you, try to look big. I wonder how one does that.
We hiked on. It was a walk that ended at a beach, a stunning landscape of rocks and crashing waves. Of course, no one can swim in the northern Pacific without a wetsuit, and the great whites are kind of a buzz kill, but the kids had fun on the beach.
Back at the campsite, we made a dinner plan. This being Northern California camping, we had a reservation at Nepenthe, a trendy restaurant a few miles away. Think $25 entrees. Set on a cliff over the sea, the place attracted elegant women driving expensive sports cars and men with just the right amount of shabby chic to disguise their immense wealth. It was as if the entire Silicon Valley was in Big Sur for the weekend. These people weren’t camping out unless it was at Clint Eastwood’s Carmel estate.
Back at the campsite, day was done. People were in their tents and RVs. I noticed it was dark. Not just dark but a total blackout, with just a sliver of moon in the sky over the trees. Where had I put my toothbrush? How would I brush my teeth? What if, heaven forbid, I had to go to the bathroom during the night? Turns out there were communal bathrooms and showers.
We slept, we ate well, we played in the creek and we toasted s’mores over our campfire. Still, I don’t get it. A campground does have some amenities, but it also has other people who cook smelly food and play music at night and bring their annoying dogs. The idea seems to be that you drag as much equipment — food and lights and tents and blow-up mattresses and portable stoves — as you can to make yourself comfortable when you could just stay home and not have to walk a quarter-mile in the dark to pee.
That’s the unromantic take on camping.
This is what I choose to remember: my four grandkids, sitting around the campfire at night, stuffing their faces with marshmallows and chocolate. They ask for a “Grandma Randi story” and I tell them one:
“Sabrina, Jacob, Elijah and Emi, when I tell you stories, they always begin the same way, with you four cousins, who love each other so much, going on an adventure. Well, kids, you’re living the story. Here you are together sleeping in a tent by a river. Put your arms around each other. This is a moment to remember.”
The next night, when we were gathered by the fire, they asked for another story, a “real” campfire story. “See that star up there next to the moon?” I said. “It’s actually a spaceship, and tonight, when you’re sleeping, it will land here next to our tents. Tiny aliens with enormous heads will lift the flap of your tent and carry you off to their planet, which happens to be made of ice cream.”
The grandkids looked giddy with excitement and fear. My work was done.
Copyright 2023 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at email@example.com.