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August 28, 2009

Not a Happy Camper

Camping I am not someone you would describe as "outdoorsy."

"Donna's allergic to fresh air," is what my husband says -- and I think he believes that.

Of course, when you have lived in Los Angeles for 50 of your 53 years, you've breathed in a lot of toxic air. August in L.A. tends to be oppressively smoggy -- and hot. Who wouldn't prefer the comfort of the great air conditioned indoors?

I might have turned out differently had I grown up in another family. I remember envying the kids who went camping with their families. I remember begging my parents to give it a try. It never happened, and I made it to adulthood without ever setting foot in a campground... and by the time I met my future husband, I liked it that way.

This is one of the areas where we are a perfect example of the theory that opposites attract. While my idea of a dream vacation involves room service, spas and Frette sheets... he dreams of hiking a mountain trail and sleeping under the stars.

In 16 years of marriage, we've managed to always do things my way. And then the recession hit.

It's been a stressful couple of years. My husband has survived several waves of lay-offs, some salary reductions and constant pressure to do more with less. On top of that, our home is undergoing some necessary renovations, which means it's not a comfortable place to be.

He needs a vacation. We both do.

And there's the rub. How do you get away when (a) there is no one to cover you at work when you're gone, and (b) there's no budget to pay for it?

Apparently, you go camping. Sales of tents and other camping supplies are up in this country and in Europe. And when my brother-in-law suggested we join his family on a weekend excursion, I decided this might be just the thing our family needed... despite my own misgivings.

That's how my sister (who shares my er, love of the outdoors) and I found ourselves in a forested campground at Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California. I have to give it to our husbands: As my niece had her high school freshman orientation that Saturday morning, they set out to the park early. By the time we arrived, the tents were pitched, our camp was set up and they were enjoying their reward of some nice, cold beer.

My sister and I immediately searched out the nearest lavatory. Not only did we just finish a three hour drive to the park, but we were both dealing with uh, menstrual issues (which are a lot less predictable now that we are in our 50's). It turned out that the guys had not been able to get us into the campground with full-featured plumbing.

That this was an inconvenience is an understatement. While the husbands took the kids to explore the nearby lake, my sister and I got into the car every 90 minutes and drove to the nearest ladies room that flushed.

This got old pretty fast, and as the sun set (and the mountain air got cold), we gave up on the niceties of running water and settled for the pit toilet we could walk to.

The rest of the time, we perched as close as we could get to the wood fire.

I really did try to go with the flow and enjoy myself until my husband reprimanded me for talking too loudly. How was I to know was such a thing as campground etiquette? It turns out that the great outdoors is not much different than living in a studio apartment, where you always have to be concerned about disturbing the neighbors.

That's when I lost it. "You spend hours packing the cars and hours unpacking and setting up camp. And then you have to be quiet? I just don't get how this is supposed to be FUN," I hissed.

Then I stormed off on yet another trip to the toilet.

That was as close as I got to a meltdown. Having said my piece, I felt better and the rest of the evening actually WAS kind of fun. We enjoyed a nice dinner of grilled chicken and hot dogs (which tasted great), polished off a couple of bottles of wine, and huddled by that campfire.

We knew that the mountain air would be cool at 6,600 feet - but we hadn't counted on the mercury in August dipping into the low 40's. We'd brought sleeping bags and light jackets -- but these were not adequate. We retired into the tent wearing all of the clothes we'd brought. It was a long, cold, nearly sleepless night.

I eventually dozed off... only to awaken in the middle of the night with the upsetting realization that once again, I needed to go to the bathroom.

As I fumbled in the dark for my shoes, I discovered that my husband was also awake.

"I'll go with you," he whispered. As we had only one flashlight, we took turns using the unlit facilities, and while I waited for him to finish, I happened to glance up at the sky.

And of course, it was beautiful. The only other time I'd ever seen so many stars was in 1994, after the Northridge earthquake knocked out all the power in Los Angeles. Until that time, I had no idea the night sky was so very starry.

The temperature didn't warm up very quickly in the morning, either -- so I was grateful that my brother-in-law didn't hesitate in building a new campfire. "You've been an absolute trouper!" my husband whispered to me. It felt good to have him acknowledge that this camping trip wasn't exactly easy for me.

My husband was in a terrific mood on the drive home Sunday. He was happy, relaxed... and already planning more trips camping. Having survived this one, I guess I can go along with it.

I'm scouting around for campsites located near wineries. It wouldn't hurt.

Original post for 50-Something Moms Blog and Los Angeles Moms Blog by Donna Schwartz Mills. Her personal blog is SoCal Mom.