[This is the end of the first chapter, the rest of the "teaser". Originally, I was going to post the whole thing, but it was pointed out to me by many friends that this will making publishing problematic. So, if you want to read more you gotta wait for the book! You can read the first part of this chapter here.]
One of the biggest problems I had committed was not considering the relationship between the number of things I purchased and the space inside my car. This meant that Day 1, the day we were to leave, started late because I had to pack, and repack, the car. The back of my-just- purchased-two-weeks-earlier Volvo station wagon was packed full with cooking supplies and backpacks and a cooler and food. I had to squish our extra shoes between the back windows and the cook stove, and I had double bagged the stove fuel and managed to squeeze it in near the cutlery. That left a small space—about two feet by three feet—for me to look see out the back window. The roof cargo box held our tent, sleeping bags, pillows, and air mattress. I had barely been able to shut it, and it took more than two hours to pack everything because it all had to be fitted together, like the pieces of a complicated Lego set.
By the time we got on the road, it was nearly 11:00 am, and we had to make it to Hat Rock State Park, Oregon by nightfall, some 300 miles away. I had planned for us to leave much earlier, say 8:00 or, at the latest, 9:00. In that scenario, we would have stopped for lunch at a rest stop along the way, maybe near Multnomah Falls. I’d make sandwiches out of the cooler, and we’d eat in a park.
Instead, we got lunch from a Taco Bell drive-thru in Brooks, just off I-5. Only part of the reason was our tardiness. The other was that I realized I couldn’t get to the cooler without unearthing half of the stuff we’d brought along, and this meant that lunch would turn into an hour stop as I would have to unpack, and then re-pack, the car. Driving along I-5 I tried to think of a way to re-engineer the packing so that I could easily get to the cooler.
And then I wondered why the hell I had to “engineer” packing the car in the first place. This does not bode well, I thought.
But we managed to still stop for a bit at Multnomah Falls and walk around. The kids posed for photos in front of the cascading water, and we walked around the gift shop. We’d been there before, but it felt good, sticking to the plan even in some small way.
We pulled into the Hat Rock Campgrounds just before nightfall. The campground was the kind of place we would find throughout the trip: a park-like setting with numerous gravel driveways, filled with RVs of various sizes and escalating luxury. And in one corner, would be a small area devoted to tenters, like us. At Hat Rock Campgrounds, there were 72 RV spaces. And 4 tent spaces. We had one of the latter, campsite #3.
The kids ran to the campsite first, excited about sleeping outside. I followed them in the car. I drove down a gravel drive behind Chloe, the slowest runner of the family, who was yelling at the other two to wait. I could hear the excitement in her voice, the way it lifted in happiness.
And then I saw our camp site. It was surrounded by trees, which was what I always envisioned when I thought of camping. However, they weren’t pine, or even something that looked remotely wild. Instead, they were the kind of tall, shrub-like trees people in suburbs use to line their fences. Each site was defined by these shrubs, like miniature suburban plots of land. In one corner was a water spigot, a fire pit and a wooden picnic table. I looked at the other sites. They were identical. I glanced across the street and saw the restrooms, the showers, and the coin-operated laundry. At that moment, the light in the Pepsi vending machine outside the laundry room ticked on.
I felt a little crestfallen. On one hand, the idea of having to rough it at a real campground—one with wild animals and latrine-style bathrooms—didn’t appeal to me in any immediate sense. I didn’t like the idea of having to wash my hair in the camping sink, for example. On the other hand, what was the use of buying and bringing all of that “roughing it” gear if we were going to be spending our nights at places that advertised pools and complete RV hook ups? And how hard could it be, really? No one will respect me if we keep staying at places like this, I thought. There’s nothing really hard about it.
But then we had to set up the tent. We had done it once before, in our front yard. That time, it took a few tries to get it right, but I hadn’t put on the rain fly, or actually gone inside the tent.
I opened the cargo box, pulled the tent out, and set it on the picnic table. The tent came with a giant bag, and one of the selling points was that the tent and all of its paraphernalia, actually fit. I set everything out, carefully accounting for the tent stakes, the tent, the rain fly. I called the kids over, and said, “We’re going to set the tent up over there, in that clear area.”
“Why?” Ivan said.
“Because it’s flatter there,” I said.
“But what if we put it by the camp fire? Then we’d be warm.”
Chloe rolled her eyes. She was 11 with a sharp mind and, increasingly, a sharp tongue. “Because the tent will catch on fire. Duh.”
“But it would be cozy to be close to the fire,” said Ivan.
“Guys…” I said.
“Maybe we can find out the maximum temperature the tent can take and then measure the right amount of feet, and then we can move the tent just right,” Ivan said. Ivan was autistic, and mildly so. He was much worse as a toddler, didn’t talk until he was 4, didn’t point, and banged his head against every hard object in the house. But now he seemed more like an Asperger’s kid, or like an alien sent to earth with the sole mission of trying to blend in with humans to study them. In Ivan’s mind, the ideal solution to where to place the tent was really about calculating potential temperatures. Which Chloe found insane. And, at least this time, so did I.
“We’re putting the tent on the flatter surface, away from the fire pit,” I said.
Giselle, the youngest, nodded. She was a gregarious kid, and used to her two older siblings’ arguments. She was also a terrific opportunist, and, if the argument continued, would have chosen the side that was best for her.
We commenced setting up the tent. I laid it out carefully, and gave each kid a pole. North Face tents have poles that are made of aluminum, and that are attached by internal ropes. This means that they are easy to put together—you grab one set, and fit each segment into the next. The kids did theirs, and I did mine, and then we carefully threaded the poles through the sleeves.
The first time we tried to get the tent up, it was that we put the wrong poles into the wrong sleeves, which made the tent look like something from a Dr. Seuss book. The second time, one of the pole segments came undone and an entire side collapsed. The third was probably just our frustration manifested in a collapsing tent.
The entire time, the guy next to us, in site #2, watched us with a smirk on his face. I tried to ignore him, which would have been easier had we been able to set up the tent on the first four tries.
The fifth attempt did it. There was a trick to it, of course. We had to each have one side of a pole and then walk together, simultaneously, and then put the poles into the tent’s grommets. It never again took us this many tries to set up the tent, but it also never became exactly easy.
By now, night had fallen, and I still had to cook dinner. It was late, 9:00 already, and the kids were hungry. They wandered the campground while I started the stove, and pulled out the cooler. I dug the ground beef out of the ice, and then found the Garden Burgers for Chloe, the vegetarian. The box was soggy, and I had to throw it away. I made hamburgers, laid a bag of chips on the table, and rinsed strawberries in the spigot. I got the camp stove lit easily, but the pan took a long time to heat up, even with the flame turned high and licking the sides of the pan.
As I set the table, someone said, “Hey, you guys camping here for a few days?” I turned. It was our camp neighbor, the guy with the smirk. He was standing in a space between two shrub trees.
“No,” I said. “Just tonight.”
“That’s a lot of work for one night’s camping,” he said. It was, I realized. In the dark, I couldn’t see his face, but he didn’t sound like he was smirking. I walked over to the shrubs. “Yeah,” I said. “I didn’t really think about that first.”
“You guys headed off a long ways?” he asked.
“Yeah. We’re driving around the country.”
“How far you goin’?”
“East Coast,” I said. “And then down to Florida. And then across the South, through Texas, and then up through California and back home.”
He whistled low. “How long are you planning on taking?”
“Seven weeks.” Seven weeks seemed, at this moment, a very long time.
“How many days you’ve been on the road?”
I didn’t want to answer because I knew I seemed like a rookie, all five attempts at getting the tent up, and the long time it took to get dinner ready. “Today’s the first night,” I said.
“Tent will get easier,” he said. “I’d worry if this was your third or fourth night, but the first few times, it’s always hard.”
“Really?” I said. I felt relief run through my body, a tingling sensation through my hands and feet.
He nodded. “You’ll get used to it pretty quick. Me, I’ve been here for a month already.”
“A month?” This seemed odd, that someone would camp for a month at a place like this.
“I’m working over in Hermiston, down the road about ten, twelve miles. Construction. But the hotels are too expensive, and this is cheaper. Makes it worth it to take the job.”
“How long is the job?” I asked.
“’Nother month or so.”
I could not decide how to feel about this, or what to say. He seemed happy with the arrangement, the camping. He had a big truck, and a nice tent and it made sense, camping for a few months instead of staying in a hotel. Still, I imagined it was not easy.
“Hey, good luck on your trip,” he said.
I thanked him, and wished him good night. After dinner, the kids and I climbed into the tent, Ivan curling next to me on the air mattress and we talked, all excitement and tired happiness.
Chloe asked, “Does Idaho look like Oregon?”
“A little,” I said. I had been there before, but none of the kids had. “The western side has kind of dense forests and it’s really pretty. We’re going to drive over a lake on our way.” We were driving through eastern Washington, then through Idaho, and to Montana on Day 2.
“What are we going to do in Montana?” Ivan asked.
“See Keetje,” I said. “And hang out for a few days.” Keetje was my closest friend, a poet I had gone to graduate school with. She lived in a cute bungalow in Missoula. The kids drifted off, and I was close to, listening to the sounds of the other campers around us, when I heard the construction guy next to us talking in a low voice. “Yeah, it was a hard day,” he was saying, and I could tell he was talking into a phone. “But it was good. How about you?” Then a long pause, and I imagined him, sitting at his picnic table, listening in the night for a voice beamed across the Pacific Northwest, down through some tower, and into his phone. “I miss you,” he said, quietly. Then, “I love you, too.” I felt a pang of loneliness, quick and brutal, because I knew there was no one I could call who would tell me he missed me or that he loved me, no boyfriend or lover somewhere, wishing I was back home in bed next to him. No real reason to be home.