Isn’t funny how you can spend so much time thinking about, or worrying about something and whatever it is, when it is finally in front of you, it’s totally different from all that you imagined it to be? Is this a human condition, or is it just limited to me?
As my Auntie Diana once told me years ago, (as we were zooming to the airport, late for me to catch a plane back to Nelson I think) “You’re either worrying about it twice, or you’re worrying about it unnecessarily”. In other words, nothing ever goes the way you think it will and if it does start to go bad, deal with it then.
So it was with this recent camping trip to Donner Lake, which you may remember from my last post, I had middle-of-the-night-anxiety about. A group of us had planned a three-night camping trip for the occasion of Our Dear Friends’ Wedding, which was to be to be held the day before the Summer Solstice, June 20. The bride and groom were among the campers, so you can imagine the vibe for this event was, casual.
But nevertheless, I spent a lot of time beforehand stressing on how it might be and what might happen. I made lists and lists while I packed for this trip (it took just about a whole week). I was trying to anticipate the needs of 5 people, for 3 nights and 4 days of camping including a wedding, the eating, the sleeping and blah blah blah– you get the idea. And while I did all this packing I also did all this imagining – weird, wonderful, and terrible scenarios – where something HUGE happens to my family and it’s chaos, and then I put myself to this mental test – like, ‘and then what would I do?’ I do not know why I am compelled to play this crazy game with myself, to go through mental gymnastics of false crises. Is it so that I can pretend to feel prepared, and most importantly I suppose, “in control”? Of course I am reminded time and time again that this idea of mine is a fallacy. The illusion of control. I learned it again over the course of our trip.
Just so you know, none of the things I concocted in my mind came to pass. My children did not get sick and the baby slept through the night – no wailing in the campground. But other things did happen. A minor plague did sweep the camp. Well okay, two of our friends came down with fever and vomiting, but we all worked together to deal with it, care for their children, and take care of business. And so of course, in the end everything was fine. And, not one bit of my planning and obsessing made an ounce of difference, would you believe? I guess that would fall under Auntie Diana’s category B: worried about unnecessarily.
And – the trip had rewards too, which I had also failed to properly imagine. I found upon return, well-showered and tucked safely into the comfort of an actual bed with mattresses and sheets and pillows (ahhhhh), that I was able to stand back with a wider lens and find the beauty in the weekend that I somehow failed at the time. So home again, relaxed and awash in creature comfort as I lay in our big old bed, I compiled a mental list of our adventure that went something like this:
Things I love about camping
1) A forest full of birdsong early in the morning.
Around 5:30 in the morning, at the first suggestion of dawn, the birds just went nuts and there were so many of them that as I dozed and listened, I imagined myself to be in great cathedral surrounded by the songs of a thousand teeny souls. I tried to picture how it must have sounded out here in this same forest two hundred years ago, when only the fewest of humans tread on this part of the world, and the birds had the place to themselves.
2) Quiet aloneness in a meadow full of sunshine.
Once or twice during our stay, I managed to go off on a little nature walk and explore the area around the campsite . (Actually, the truth of the matter is I was out illegally poaching branches and moss to add to the wedding table centerpieces – which made for a bit of a paranoid walk, glancing around for rangers, clippers and hefty bag in hand. Shhh, don’t tell! See how great the floral arrangements with pines and moss turned out, below.)
Because of the late rains and unseasonable cold of this time of year, the wildflowers on the forest floor were still in bloom. I don’t know the names of much of what I saw but there were some flowers so unimaginably small, that they perched on the ends of the groundcover they belonged to like a carpet of stars. And then there was the unexpected wildflower that I misidentified as a Columbine from the shape of the leaf. Sprinkled all over the meadow, these delicate plants hid their shy gold and crimson flowers in a downward bow, so that I had to stoop and lift their ‘chins’ in order to get a better look. I took them back for the bride, a fellow plant-nerd, to check out. She called me a week or so later from her sweet-spot soaking in the natural hot springs at Sierraville, with the correct identification of a Brown’s mountain peony (pictured below. if you are a plant nerd too and are curious to know more, click here)
It was on one of these walks that I was able to position myself between the road and campsite in such a way that I could see neither and therefore had the illusion of being very alone in the meadow. I sat with my back against a fallen sun-bleached tree and closed my eyes, letting the blessed sunshine warm my bones which had been so cold all night long. Once again, I imagined what it would be like to be alone in the forest, before all the people, and cars and gas stations and burger joints. In reality that would probably be a disconcerting experience, but it that moment I felt… relieved, and so free.
3) The first grateful gulp of cowboy coffee
Being the mother of the youngest child in camp, I was inevitably the first one up in the mornings, when it was still very very cold and hardly light. When I got up on Sunday morning, I was unable to get either the campfire or the propane camp-stove lit (but that last part is mostly because I’m a scaredy-cat with the matches and gas). So instead, Royal and I found a beam of sunlight in which to stand and warm ourselves, while we waited for someone more capable to get up and start the coffee.
Luckily, on another morning the groom-to-be was already up when we climbed out of the tent. He was deep in his reading about pagan wedding rites, and more importantly, he was sitting in front of a crackling fire. It’s goofy I know, but I felt so proud that morning when I managed to get the pot of water boiling on the grate over the fire, and with that hot water to make coffee! That first cup of strong, gritty coffee tasted so earthy and good…..Starbucks and their corporate frou-frou drinks had nothin’ on it! That being said, because we were not all that far from civilization, some friends arrived later with ‘you-know-what’ for us – we the grateful masses. I had a good time giggling over the groom with his Banana Vivanno in hand, totally satiated.
Try saying that three times fast…banana vivanno, banana vivanno , banana vivanno….
Things I do NOT love about camping:
1) Being unprepared.
Says she who spent an entire week trying to be totally prepared Ah, we’ve addressed this little neurosis of mine already haven’t we? Well, as the Gods would have it, there are holes in the best laid plans and that became clear when between the 9 adults assembled on the first night we realized we had between us forgotten such essentials as: flashlights, bug-spray, tent poles (oops), and jackets. BUT, as was revealed when we all combined the contents of our ice-chests the next day, between us we had remembered to bring copious amounts of the following: coffee, chocolate, vodka, beer and half n’ half (who knew it came in a gallon size?!).
2) Being smelly and dirty.
At this particular campground there seems to be a layer of dusty grime that attacks the moment you step out of the car. After the first hour up there I looked at my children’s feet and faces and gave up on them being clean for the next three days. And then there is that ‘eau du campfire’ smokey-smell which permeates everything, and in our case necessitated an actual mountain of laundry upon return:
I will say that the CA State Parks offers a pretty good deal for a campsite shower. A dollar twenty-five gets you 12 and a half minutes of delicious hot water. When my four year old Lincoln and I shared the shower, it ran so long that it couldn’t drain fast enough and we spent the next twenty minutes trying to get dressed by balancing on the small bench, drying off one leg at a time and dropping our clean socks and undies into the inches of water that covered the floor of the stall. Good times.
3) Being cold
Oh we were so cold! It was probably around 30 degrees at night which might be slightly unseasonal for June in the mountains, but mostly it seemed that no matter how many blankets and sleeping bags we brought, we were still unprepared for how cold it felt at night. And seeing as we were camping at the Donner State Memorial Park it was hard not to draw comparisons between ourselves and the fated Donner Party, which was funny and made for good jokes at the time but weighed on my mind in the cold of the night. Watching my baby run around with blue lips and icy fingers, no matter how many layers I dressed him in brought to mind those pioneer women who waited out that long cold winter in 1846, praying in makeshift cabins while their loved ones succumbed to the cold and died.
Perhaps it’s because my 10 year old studied California history all year at school, and we read account after account of the fortitude and suffering of those early mothers who faced unimaginable choices in their over-land journey. Or maybe it was the memorial at the entrance to the park, the gigantic bronze figures representing the Donner Party, one a women with baby at breast. The statues stand atop a massive twenty-foot stone pedestal, which marks how high the snow fell that fated year. They were impossible odds for humans with rudimentary supplies and protection, and it all just brought the home the intensity of Nature.
I tried to feel grateful for our modern conveniences: down comforters and cell phonse and, in case of emergency, a warm car really nearby. I tried to stay humble and remember that We are small in the face of our environment, which is vast and at times harsh and unforgiving. I couldn’t help but pull my children closer around me at night, sleeping fitfully so that I could make sure they were covered and warm, forgoing some blankets myself. The cold, and the fear of being cold, seeped into my bones and stayed there until the sun rose well into the sky and we could all bask in having survived into a new day.
4) Being vulnerable
The first time I ever came up to this part of the Sierras, I must have been around 20 years old. I came with a group of girlfriends (in fact the same Ladies gathered for this solstice wedding) and we stayed in a friend’s cozy cabin (thanks Jersey John!) and hit the hot spots of Truckee, mountain bars and all. What I remember most is going out on a hike with these women and complaining, as only a clueless 20 year can, that “I don’t like being outdoors” and that the trees, the sprawling mountains – all of it- caused me a strange anxiety and I would really have rather been “somewhere else”.You can’t blame me really, I worked for The Gap at the time and spent large amounts of my life at the mall with artificial lighting and climate-controlled ‘weather’. One friend turned to me on that hike and said “What? Are you ‘fraid of Nature?” We laughed at my ridiculousness but in a way, yes, it was true.
The Vast and Unknowable, as experienced by being outside on the Earth – it scared me.
Fast forward 17 or so years, and here I am having a similar existential moment in my tent at 3 in the morning. I had woken up because of the bitter cold. I lay still, and all I could hear was the constant audio pollution of the cars rushing by on the freeway a ½ mile away, a kind of pulsing. And the muffled roar of a jet overhead. It hit me it the chest, ‘what a patient Mother!’
Nature , I mean. She never gets a moment of peace or quiet with us People crawling all over her. Our constant buzz and itching. What my friend Sandra calls the “grind of commerce”. Suddenly, I flashed on my own impatience with my children in the face of their seemingly ceaseless needs and thought about our Mother Earth. How can She stand it? How can she hear her birds? Or see her Brown’s peony? How can she feel any of it, through the oil sludge and collapsing concrete?
It’s grim I know. But this time, here in these mountains, I felt humbled by Nature. And deeply grateful for Her lessons on being a loving and patient Mother. But afraid? No no, this time around I did not feel afraid of Nature at all.
The next morning, talking to my friend over sausages cooking on that propane stove (yay Kelly!), I recounted my Moment from the night before. She looked at me amazed and said the same thing had happened to her, that she awoken in the wee hours with this epiphany about the weight of humankind upon the Earth (I’m paraphrasing you Kel). Course she did come down with fever and vomiting an hour later – but I don’t think that it was related!
* * * *
So that’s my list, the personal inventory I took from the comfort of my own yummy bed that first night back home. And it’s not lost on me, in writing all this down, that the things that appeared to be ‘negatives’, that I had worried over or tried to anticipate, either never happened at all or did happen, but then had some unexpected gift or blessing which came along and totally eclipsed the discomfort with joy.
And of course let’s not forget the wedding itself ! There were so many sweet and special moments on the wedding day, from the bride doing her own floral arrangements on the picnic table at the campsite, to the “Fairy Folk” arriving in full pagan-raver regalia to the West End beach, bringing the spirit of summer solstice with them. Sunday afternoon, standing back after all the preparations were done (wedding arch decorated, lanterns hung, Pabst Blue Ribbon on ice) I thought, Hey! We did it! We pulled this beautiful wedding together despite being tired, dirty and cold from days of camping. It looked amazing! The bride and groom were lavishly decked out and so sweetly in love. The crooning strains of The Tender Cinders wafted over us all as we ate drank and were merry, with the backdrop of gorgeous Donner Lake and the Sierra Nevadas in the background.
So courtesy of my best friend Justine Belson, professional wedding photographer and sister to the bride, here’s a couple shots of that lovely day to finish off with.
Congratulations to Sponge-Bob Steffy & Mr. Handsome!!!!
lil’ fairy mother says “don’t trip potato chip”…….