I have often found that some of the worst experiences in my life turn out to be some of the best experiences of my life. Had I not dropped out of college to care for my ill mother, I would not have met my husband. Had I not undergone three years of painful treatments, I would not have had my three beautiful children. If I hadn't lost my job, I would not be having all this fun writing to my imaginary readers. But the one bad experience that comes to mind, the one that forever changed who I hope to be, is my first time camping.
I grew up in the city. At night I was lulled to sleep by the sounds of cars hitting the loose manhole cover in the street just outside my window, people shouting, loud music playing. The BOOM BOOM of bass speakers matched my heartbeat and calmed me. My days held a cadence of skateboard wheels rhythmically hitting the cracks in the sidewalk, children laughing, tires squealing, and radios playing disco hits from the 70's. I never knew what silence sounded like, but I always wondered. I didn't mind so much living in the city, but somewhere deep inside, even as a young child, I dreamed of wide open spaces and quiet.
It wasn't until after my first two children were born that I first experienced that dream. A college friend, Donna, talked me into going camping with her and her then boyfriend, Dennis. (They are married now). Donna had been telling me about a trip they had planned, where they would camp in a tent near Mackinaw City and participate in a 100 mile bike ride down the shoreline of Lake Michigan to Harbor Springs and back. It sounded so exciting and fun, I wistfully wished to her that I could do something like that. Donna asked,
"Why can't you?"
I told her I had never camped before, I had a 3 year old son and 6 month old baby girl at home whom I had never left, I didn't have any equipment, my husband would never let me go, and so on. She said,
"Don't make it so hard! Borrow some equipment and come with us. All you need is a tent, a sleeping bag, and a can of beans."
Hmm, that sounded easy. I asked my husband if I could go, he rolled his eyes and said "whatever". I called a friend whose husband was a camper and asked to borrow his tent and sleeping bag, and I went to the store and bought a can of green beans (not being sure how they would play into my meal plan) and various other food that could be eaten out of a package, and a bag of apples.
Wilderness State Park is on the uppermost western side of the lower peninsula of Michigan, boasting 8 miles of pristine shoreline along Lake Michigan. I loaded up my car and set off for an adventure! I was so excited to go camping, I was feeling pretty rustic. It would be good to have a weekend away from home, live outside, breathe in the fresh air and sleep under the stars. The 5 hour drive there was full of daydreams about pitching a tent on the beach with no one around for miles and hearing the waves lap the shore as I drifted off to sleep.
These daydreams apparently held no basis in reality, because when I arrived at the campground, I was dismayed to see hundreds of campsites packed close together with thousands of people running around. I checked in at the rangers' station, deciding that the bored woman behind the counter simply could not be classified as a ranger, and drove to campsite #32 in Wilderness State Park.
For the rest of my life, I will remember site #32 fondly, and always try to camp on that site every time I go there.
As I drove down the single lane through the campground, traveling at 2mph in order to avoid all the kids on bikes and scooters and dogs being walked along the lane, I heard bike tires crunching on gravel and people shouting and music playing from radios, though now it was 90's music, and I thought it didn't sound any different than the city. It wasn't until some years later that it occurred to me that the same sounds heard here did, indeed, sound different than when heard in the city.
I eased my car into my campsite and was relieved to see Donna and Dennis in the site next to mine. I jumped out of the car and Donna greeted me, saying "You made it!" Well, of course I made it. I had driven on trips before. It was about 5:00 pm, and I saw Dennis hunched over a campfire with a grate across it, cooking some chicken, and a couple of blackened tin cans in the fire. Ah, hence the green beans. I said to Donna, "Oh good, you're cooking dinner. I'm starving!" Donna replied,
"That's our dinner. You have to cook your own". Oh. "But first," she said, you should set your tent up. You don't want to do it in the dark". I asked if she would help me, and she smiled and said no.
"Wait, I thought you were going to show me the ropes" I exclaimed. She informed me that she never said she would teach me how to camp, just that I should learn to camp. She was my best friend, she talked me into this, and now she wasn't going to help me? Fine. I can set the tent up, how hard can it be?
Two hours later, as they sat by their cozy campfire with their stomachs full, a cold one in their hands, Dennis took pity on me and pointed out that the bag the tent came in had directions printed on the side. Oh. I took a deep breath and said "I need a beer".
Donna laughed and said, "Yeah, like that's going to help. Did you bring any beer?" I put on my most pathetic sad face and said no. They didn't offer to share. "How about coffee?" I didn't bring that either. I was in big trouble now.
I got the tent set up. It would have been nice if Donna had told me to bring a ground mat, or pointed out the hill that ran right down to the edge of my tent. I then drove 12 miles to town, bought firewood, coffee, and $100 worth of camping supplies that I did not know how to use, stopped at McDonald's for a fish sandwich, and drove back. Donna and Dennis were sleeping, so I built a fire, boiled water on a shiny new campfire grate in a shiny new cast iron pot, and made coffee. It was late, and as I sat back in my brand new squeaky camp chair, gripped my coffee for the lifeline that it was, and looked around, I realized everyone was quiet. I could hear the waves lapping the shore. It was a beautiful sound, and it was in that moment that my love of camping was born.
I crawled into my little tent, curled up in my sleeping bag, and drifted into a deep sleep, content with myself for figuring it out on my own.
It rained that night, of course. I woke up before dawn in a wet sleeping bag floating in 2 inches of water. Seriously? I really wished Donna would have told me about the ground mat and placing my tent away from the hill. I rolled my eyes and said out loud, "Whatever".
This was the day that Donna and Dennis were going on their bike trip, but I wasn't in good enough shape for that. What was I supposed to do all day? Donna suggested I take the ferry to Mackinac Island, rent a bike, and ride around the nice flat road that circles the Island. That sounded pleasant. She reminded me not to forget my backpack. My backpack? To carry water and fruit, she said. Oh.
So I drove into Mackinaw City with an apple on the seat next to me, bought a $50 backpack and some bottled water, and boarded the ferry to the Island on foot, proudly wearing my backpack like an experienced outdoor woman. Renting a bicycle, I set out to circumnavigate the island, but before I left the merchant area, I saw a huge tent set up on the lawn of a hotel with a banner reading "Rare Lilac Auction". What a wonderful day this was turning out to be! I love lilacs and decided to stop in and see what the fuss was all about.
Different rare varieties of lilac tree saplings were being auctioned off to the highest bidder. There were some very serious bidders there, and I did not understand many of the terms the auctioneer was using, but when he announced a tree from China, his description sounded so pretty, I began to bid. I guess this lilac wasn't as rare as the others because few people were bidding, and I bought a 12" sapling for $35.00. I was so excited! I wrapped it in my sweatshirt and placed it in my backpack, then continued on my bike ride.
As I rode around the Island, people who passed me in the other direction, or passed me from behind because I was so slow, would laugh. I was in such a cheery mood, I waved at everyone and laughed with them. But after a bit, I started wondering why everyone was laughing at me. Was my good mood really that visible and contagious? By the time I was halfway around the Island, my butt was numb and I couldn't feel my feet anymore, and my hands had blisters the size of a volcano. This wasn't so much fun anymore as work, and the people laughing at me were starting to piss me off. I was hot, sweaty, achy and tired, and I just wanted the stupid road to end so I could buy some fudge and drink my water.
The ferry ride back to the mainland rejuvenated me somewhat, so I stopped in town and bought more firewood, steaks, potatoes, and beer. With 2lbs. of fudge in my backpack nestled among the trunk of my rare Chinese Lilac Tree, I was good to go.
By the time I saw Donna and Dennis riding their bikes toward our sites, I had a fire going, steaks grilling, potatoes boiling, and a beer in hand. I jumped up and waved to them, then kinda cowboy-walked out to greet them. Donna said, "Hey! How was your day? Why are you walking funny?" I told her my day was great and I was walking funny because I had ridden 12 miles on a bike with a very hard seat. Then I got all excited to show her my backpack, so I ran to the car, got it out and put it on, and turned around, shouting,
"See? I look like a camper now!" Donna and Dennis both burst out laughing, and that was the final straw.
"WHY does everyone keep laughing at me?" I demanded to know. Donna said,
"There's a tree growing out of your head." What? I went over to the car and looked at my reflection in the window. Sure enough, my rare Chinese Lilac Tree, placed so carefully in my backpack with the leafy branches left out so as not to break them, appeared to be growing out of my head.
I served Donna and Dennis the dinner that I made them, and we spent a remarkable evening around the campfire telling stories about our day. It would have been nice if Donna had told me that raccoons will eat anything, even fudge, but apparently that's not her way, so I went home the next day 2lbs. lighter without the fudge.
For much of that first camping trip, I was miserable. I was hungry, wet, hot, cold, sore, and laughed at. I was caffeine-deprived, sleep-deprived, and compassion-deprived. It was the best trip ever. It was the beginning of an awakening for me, that sleeping in a tent in the woods is better than a Five-Star hotel, that campers are hardy and fun people, and that the little voice inside me all those years that tried to convince me I'm not really a City Girl was right. I camp often now, and have taught my kids how to camp. I've had some wonderful trips with family, friends, and sometimes all by myself. But still, to this day, my fondest memory is of that first trip. I am forever grateful to Donna for not teaching me how to camp.