Large rocks culled from the woods encircled the fire pit. A neat stack of wood stood between two aspens. My sister washed dinner dishes—enamel spatterware plates with matching mugs—in a tub of sudsy water. Her husband tended the fire and listened to the Indians game playing on the portable radio. A wheeled cooler held milk, eggs, cheese and sausage for their morning breakfast. Thick sleeping bags were spread invitingly on the floor of a three-room tent, extra blankets at the ready. My daughters and their cousins sat around the campfire, tiny fingers grasping sticks heavy with marshmallows. I took the proffered chair—a log from an oak tree that had recently fallen—and accepted a mug of cold cider from my sister.
“Look at this,” Leslie said, showing Mom her grilled cheese maker. “You just put the sandwich in there and toast it over the fire.”
“You guys sure know how to camp,” Mom said admiringly.
“Yeah, I’m so glad you use the property,” Dad added.
In the three years since my husband and I had built on my parents’ forty-acre farm, the idea of camping out in the woods had never crossed my mind. Now, it suddenly did.
It was that most ancient of calls: the call of sibling rivalry and envy. The call to prove that I, too, knew how to camp. The call to show that I, too, could have neat-o plates and napkins and paper towels and bug repellent all organized in Rubbermaid bins. That call to make it clear to all that I, too, could toast grilled cheese and fry eggs over an open fire and then clean up my dishes in a tub of soapy water. Ultimately it was the call to reassure myself that my parents approved of—perhaps even admired?—me, too. Yes, it was the old, ‘me, too,’ and I responded to it instinctively.
“But we’re just not campout people,” my husband said that night after I’d broached the subject. “You don’t camp out with a baby. And we can’t afford a tent.” He rolled over and muttered into the pillow. “Why do you have to do everything your sisters do?”
Because I did. That was why.
We broke camp early the following Saturday, adopting my sister’s site as our own. But somehow the scene lacked the charm of my sister’s camp: The tent sagged in the middle. The fire was slow to catch. I burned the Italian sausages. Forgot the buns. Undercooked the potatoes. Our flimsy paper plates grew sodden and folded up on our laps, sending hard shriveled sausages and potato bombs crashing to the earth. The baby fussed. One of the girls got a splinter. I had no first aid kit. No paper towels. No eggs. No bacon. Not even coffee for the morrow. And despite the toilet paper I had thought to bring, everyone balked at the idea of peeing in the woods.
Dad drove down on his ATV, his dog riding shotgun. I pulled on a tent pole to work out the sag in the middle; kicked a burned sausage into the bushes. He surveyed our camp, accepted a s’more from one of my daughters and promised to bring us coffee in the morning.
We tucked the baby into his playpen. The girls crawled into flimsy sleeping bags. Mike and I settled into our makeshift bed—old blankets doubled over. “Maybe,” I whispered smugly to his back, “maybe we are campout people after all.”
The tent was silent, peaceful. I lay there, listening to the night song of the woods. The wind in the trees. The frogs singing. The crickets. The owls. The…
There was a thump from outside the tent. One of the girls sat up and screamed. “There’s something out there, Dad!”
Mike rolled over and upset our “nightlight”—a pickle jar full of lightning bugs. The tent was awash in miniature lights flashing on and off, on and off, endlessly flashing on and off, like some kind of weird psychedelic dream. “It’s just the cat,” my husband said. “Go back to sleep.”
But no one returned to sleep that night: The girls complained the tent was too hot. The baby woke and began to scream. Outside, the dog started to growl; growls that quickly escalated to urgent howlings. We could hear him straining against the leash that tied him to a tree. The hair on the back of my neck prickled. I could feel my eyes widening.
The dog was responding to that ancient call: The cry of his brethren. The cry of the coyote. I felt them closing in, surrounding us, scavenging the ground for fallen sausages.
“There must be a hundred out there,” I whispered to my husband.
“What do we do?”
I imagined us, shivering in terror the entire night, Dad’s horror at discovering only bones when he delivered the coffee in the morning.
“Let’s get out of here.”
The house was comfortably cool. There was food in the fridge—unburned food. A gas stove that responded to the merest of touches. A bed, soft and fluffy and cozy. Just before settling into bed, I set the alarm for six, fully intending to shuffle my family back down to the campsite before my father arrived with coffee. Because we did know how to camp, darn it. We were campout people.
But at seven o’clock the doorbell rang. My father stood there, two cups of coffee in hand, a gigantic grin spread across his face.
We still have that stupid tent. And every year, we haul it out and dust it off. And every year I burn the sausage and undercook the potatoes. And to this day, no one pees in the woods.
Labels: Camping Out, Country life, Raising Children, Sibling Rivalry