Back To Nature

Carol Kloskowski
 

© Copyright 2008 by Carol Kloskowski

 It is a true story (I couldn’t make this up) of my first camping trip which included me and my six children along with three neighborhood women friends and their nineteen children. No husbands made the trip. No husband wanted to.

 The first time I went camping was with four neighborhood women friends and our collective twenty-five children, six of whom where mine. Our husbands were quite happy to have to stay home and go to work.

 “Devil’s Lake has everything,” Mary Lou, the friend who’d come up with the idea for the trip promised as she sat in my kitchen drinking coffee one spring day trying to convince me to become part of her “back to nature” group.. Her first camping trip had been to Devils’ Lake, Wisconsin the previous year with her husband and their five boys. They’d had a wonderful time. She was sure that her friends and all our kids would love it too. “There’s a beautiful beach and the bigger kids can fish off the rocks. You’d have to rent a tent, but even so the trip won’t cost you much money.” The “not much money” part did get my attention.

And just wait until you take one of the guided nature hikes,” she continued. “The naturalist explains such interesting things about the terrain and animals.” I couldn’t imagine what I could learn about the terrain or animals that would make my eyes shine the way hers were. I wondered what the naturalist looked like. After an hour long sales pitch she convinced me to go. I was a city girl and had no idea what I was getting into.

 With Mary Lou’s help, I made plans. My husband would drive us to the campground in our station wagon. Cathy, my two-year old, and I would sleep in it, since the tent I was renting only slept five. My husband would be there to put up the tent; then he’d drive home in one of my friend’s smaller cars.

I was bringing as much food as possible from home, and making lists of all the other things I’d need. Mary Lou told me about a neighbor’s son who would be ending his camping stay at Devil’s Lake the day we were arriving. He had a camping stove his mother was sure he would let me use. All I would have to do was go to his site (I had the number) to find him and the stove.

According to Mary Lou, bathrooms weren’t always as close as you’d like them. So one of the most important things I needed to bring was Cathy’s potty chair. She also insisted I wouldn’t need air mattresses—newspaper could serve as an insulator under the sleeping bags I had borrowed. I wouldn’t even need a lantern, since we’d be camped next to one another, I could borrow theirs. I was amazed at how little you needed to go camping.

 Sight unseen, our rented tent was packed in the station way along with boxes, bags and suitcases, my six excited children and me, their confident mother, as we began our adventure.

 It is heavenly here I decided, at my first glimpse of Devil’s Lake. This feeling only lasted until I discovered that my friends, who arrived before me had chosen camp sites for all of us—sites next to each other but far from the bathroom for them and a site about a block from them but much closer to the bathroom for me. What could I say? They were only thinking of me.

 As we unpacked, I realized I had forgotten the potty chair. Then I discovered that the bathroom was definitely not as close to our campsite as it looked on the map. My husband, swearing, finally got the tent up. It was moldy, very dirty, and had a small rip in the roof.

While the bigger children and I unrolled the sleeping bags and tried to get settled, my husband went to find the boy with the stove. He returned with the boy’s Weber grill. I was in trouble; the meal I’d planned for our first night was spaghetti. How long does it take to cook pasta on a Weber grill, I wondered? Two hours later it was done. Unfortunately, I’d forgotten to bring a strainer. “What in the hell did you have on all those lists, anyway?” my husband asked, glaring at me. I used a pot cover and drained the spaghetti, but it was clear by this time that things were not going according to plan.

When my husband kissed me good-bye I felt like I was being deserted. I was. By the time I got the pots and silverware washed and had taken Cathy, to the bathroom twice it was getting dark. I sent Frank, my nine-year-old to get some hot water so that I could clean up the little ones without having to make another trip to the bathroom. Our campsite was in a wooded area without grass but with plenty of dirt for my children to play in which is naturally just what they did.

 Once the kids were in their pajamas, my friends and their children came over and the older boys started a campfire. Once the fire was going good, it was dark and my two-year-old was asleep in the station wagon. Things seemed to be looking up, until I discovered, because of a familiar fragrance when my four and five year old sons got close to me, that they bad both filled their pants. Their excuse was that they were afraid to walk to the bathroom in the dark. When I finally got back from the bathroom with them the women were ready to call it a night. I borrowed the lantern to tuck in my five children who were going to sleep in the tent. Then we women walked back to the bathroom to get ourselves ready for the night. As I climbed into the back of the station wagon, I tried to count the number of times I had walked to the bathroom that day, but I couldn’t.

 Sleeping in the back of a station wagon is just fine if you’re four feet tall. I’m five feet six inches. Also, unless you have air mattresses or several thick blankets to lie on it isn’t comfortable. I didn’t. Finally, it’s cramped, especially if you’re sleeping with a two year old who tosses and turns a lot, and you have to keep out of her way unless you enjoy singing “Fuzzy Wuzzy Was a Bear” at two o’clock in the morning.

At 5:30 in the morning, the children in the tent woke up and shouted imploringly out to the station wagon for me to take them to the bathroom.

 Once we got back, I started to think about coffee. I looked at the Weber Grill. It was no use I decided, and walked down the road to where my friends were camped. They would have coffee. They were asleep.

 Back at my campsite my two-year-old was now awake. Guess where we went. On our return, I discovered the other children where playing in the dirt in their pajamas, the only pajamas I’d packed.

Mommy, we’re hungry,” they demanded once they were dressed. According to my lists, my first breakfast was to be pancakes. I looked again at the dreaded grill. That reminded me of coffee and my friends, still blissfully sleeping. “You kids will just have to be patient,” I told them in a strained, quivering voice. “I can’t cook until someone with a stove wakes up. You’re all going to have to help me or we’ll never make it to the end of the week. You’re going to have to get water and wash dishes. And you’ve got to fold your clothes neatly, and hang up towels so everything stays clean and doesn’t end up in the dirt. I’m going to need help with Cathy too.”

 The two pants-fillers from the night before were not paying attention. Turning to them with my sternest look, I told them harshly, “and you two, if you ever do what you did last night again you won’t sit down for a month.” The other children giggled and this infuriated me. I screamed and shouted at them all for about twenty minutes. My anger spent, I found them cereal and milk for breakfast. They were lucky, they didn’t need coffee.

 By the time I was ready for some hot water to wash the dishes everyone old enough to get it for me had disappeared. As Cathy and I made our way to get water, I noticed the small tent directly behind our campsite. It hadn’t been there before we went to bed last night. On the tent’s zippered entry was a paper fold-out wedding bell. After what these poor honeymooners had listened to this morning I was pretty sure they’d never have kids. At that moment, without coffee or any help on this horrible camping routine, I wished I didn’t have any.

 Luckily for my children, Mary Lou came by with a cup of coffee for me. I drank it in two gulps. “We’ve talked it over, Carol,” she informed me, with a concerned smile. “You’ll just have to be moved closer to us. The people who have the site next to mine are leaving tomorrow, so I’m going down and sign you up for their site. Later on we’ll go into town and rent you a stove. You certainly can’t cook on that all week.” Thank God for Mary Lou.

 After returning from town with the stove, some groceries, and five clean pair of pajamas (we stopped at the laundromat too) my friends made their plans for the rest of the day. I smiled bravely, and assured them I didn’t mind in the least that they and my older children would be having fun climbing bluffs, swimming and fishing, while I would be taking all the sleeping bags out of the tent and putting them on a clothesline to dry along with most of the older children’s clean clothes’ which had been scattered on the tent floor in the dark the night before. Newspaper, I learned the hard way, does not prevent moisture from getting through the floor of the tent and into everything.

 By 4:30 I had finished these tasks, taken several nature hikes with Cathy to the bathroom, my friends had returned, and it was time to cook supper. I went to the ice chest and opened it. The sliced canned ham which was to be our supper the next two nights floated lazily along with some onions, a stick of margarine, and a loaf of bread in the now warm water. The ham, along with about $15 worth of groceries had to be thrown into the garbage. I bought ice and realized as I counted the bills in my wallet I would probably run out of money in a day and a half.

That night I actually got to enjoy the campfire. When I saw an animal out of the corner of my eye, I didn’t even mention it. It was just a dog, I was sure. Later, walking to the bathroom alone without a flashlight (I knew my way blindfolded by then) I saw a pair of luminous eyes glaring at me and realized what I had seen earlier had not been a dog. Terrified, I broke into a run.

 Back at the campsite, Mary Lou was reassuring. “It was only a possom, Carol,” she explained casually. I didn’t know anything about coons.

 “Do they bite?” I asked, still trying to catch my breath.

 “No,” she laughed. “They’re just nocturnal scavengers who eat garbage and sleep in trees in the daytime hanging by their tails.” For the rest of the week I looked for possoms in the trees. I also kept our food in the car.

 The next day I was moved to my new campsite. Since none of us was quite sure how we could get my umbrella tent back together if we took it apart for the move, we simply picked it up by the poles and marched it down the road. Later, I was instructed on the fine art of lighting my stove and their lantern, both of which where traumatic experiences for me. I made a mental note never to have to light either one of them unless Mary Lou was around. The only exception to this was to be in the early morning. My need for coffee overcame my fear of lighting the stove.

 By the third day I had it down pat. Get up and take Cathy to the bathroom. Come back and convince her and the other children that it was too early to get up. Make coffee and communicate with nature alone for about an hour or so. I began to enjoy listening to the birds and watching the squirrels scamper about on their early morning journey. Then I would make breakfast, clean up afterwards and begin the airing out of damp sleeping bags ritual. This was followed all too quickly by making lunch and waving good-bye as friends and bigger children left me to put Cathy down for a nap. By the time they returned, Cathy would be awake and it would be time to make supper. This probably doesn’t sound like too much fun, but I was getting a lot of time to commune with nature and the campfires were getting better and better.

 After the kids were in bed we would bring the wine out and either get silly or have wonderful deep conversations. The ranger only had to remind us a few times to be quiet because most of the other folks camping were trying to sleep.

 The fourth day it began raining before dawn. Now all of us had the problem of wet sleeping bags. We joined the pilgrimage to the laundromat. That took care of the fourth day and my money. I was broke.

 On the fifth day, for the first time, I actually found time to take a shower. It was going to be heavenly I was sure as I entered the stall with my last clean towel and the only bar of soap between all five families that was not encrusted with sand and dirt. Eagerly I undressed and turned on the water. No amount of fiddling with the knobs made any difference—the water remained ice cold. I observed steam rising from the two other stalls. Deciding that something must be wrong with the faucet in my stall, I got dressed and waited for the woman in the second stall to finish. For the second time I undressed and for the second time all I got was ice cold water. Steam rose invitingly from the third stall. Not giving up, I got dressed again and stood impatiently outside of the third stall. A woman came in with a towel and makeup case and started into the first stall. “Don’t use either of those two stalls,” I told her. “They just ran out of hot water.” She gave me a puzzled look so I attempted an explanation. “I tried each of those stalls. The women showering before me had hot water, but when I went in it was cold. Something is wrong.”

 “You have to pay 25 cents for hot water,” she told me kindly, pointing to a small sign on the wall. It said HOT WATER-25 cents for 5 minutes. “There are coin slots in each shower stall. I don’t see how you could have missed seeing them,” she continued, a note of surprise in her voice. I was not at all surprised that I hadn’t seen the sign or the coin slots. I didn’t have my glasses on. I didn’t think I’d them to take a shower. Since I was out of money I took a very quick and very cold shower. It was stimulating to say the least.

 Late that night it began to pour. I felt safe and secure in the station wagon and more than a little guilty that I was not with my other children in the tent. Lightening flashed, crackled, and exploded all around us. Thunder reverberated in the sky. The children were crying and calling for me, I was sure. I still had no lantern and I was still concerned about possoms, but the thought of those five terrified children brought out every motherly instinct the good Lord had given me.

 Bravely, (I though) I dashed out of the station wagon and ran the fifty feet to the tent. Once inside I was surprised to find that no one was awake. It wouldn’t be long before someone woke up, I was sure. The lightening was even scaring me! As gently as I could, I moved my oldest son over so that I could have some of his covers. Then I laid down beside him so that I would be near should anyone wake up. Rain ran into my face from the rip in the tent roof. Rain dripped from the rest of the roof all over me. No matter, the mother within me whispered, I will be here when my children need me.

 After about five minutes my oldest son stirred in his sleep. “Oh, s--t,” he muttered and continued his nine-year-old dream. I thought about his words. Although I was shocked at his language, I decided that what he had said had been completely appropriate under the present circumstances. I left the tent, dashed back into the station wagon and fell instantly and guiltlessly asleep.

 It continued to rain the next day. We all gave up trying to dry out sleeping bags; they were too wet. Besides, we were going home tomorrow. That night we would all sleep in our cars. Lunch was a disaster. Rainy scrambled eggs. I couldn’t eat. Supper wasn’t any better. Cold soggy sandwiches for everyone in the largest tent. After the kids were settled in the various cars with all of our dry blankets, we women brought out the remaining wine. I began to feel dry and warm. I laughed and talked. I began having a wonderful time. Even when I climbed behind the steering wheel of the station wagon, which was to be my bed for the night, I didn’t mind. Later, however the wine in my empty stomach convinced me it was not going to stay there much longer. The rain was coming down in sheets. I still had no flash light and I was still worried about coons; I didn’t need to worry about making it to the bathroom though. I barely had enough time to roll down the window.

 The next morning you could see your breath, but it didn’t matter. It was Saturday, and my husband was coming to take us home. For the first time in a week, I attempted to put on make-up. My eyes were glassy, my head hurt and I was chilled to the bone.

 When he arrived, I hugged him so hard I’m sure he thought a week in the woods had made me crazy. It had.

 Once on the road he turned on the car heater. It was like heaven. And then as if heaven were not enough, we stopped for hamburgers. Honestly, there were happy tears in my eyes as I ate that hamburger.

 In spite of all the things that went wrong at Devil’s lake, I did get hooked on camping. It was the campfires and the wine that did it. The next year my husband and I bought a tent, a heater, a screen room, and a lot of other things I knew we would need and began the only way our family took vacations all the while our kids were growing up and we loved it. Even now that our children are married with children of their own, we’ve continue to camp as a family group occasionally.

Still, that first trip has a special place in my memory. Just the fact that I did it seems incredible to me now. And the whole thing became funny to me with the passage of time. Besides that, it’s the only time in my whole life I lost five pounds in one week except for when I had a baby.

 Thank you, Mary Lou for some great memories.

 I am now mother of seven and grandmother of fifteen who is a freelance writer and sells perennial flowers from her large garden. My family, including my husband, has enjoyed camping while our family grew up and even with our extended family, now that our children are married with children of their own.

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