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The East Bay Express

Mosquitoes be Damned


To camp, or not to camp? To uphold a family tradition, or to hurl its carcass into the oblivion of the past? To hammer a ritual solidly in place, or to knock it down like a house of cards?


I ask you. Is it such a terrible thing to allow a tradition to die? I mean, if going out into nature for three days with an unsociable husband, three young kids, and twenty-something relatives and friends doesn’t appeal, is it a crime to just not do it?


In my family, tradition is a powerful force. And one of its traditions is the family summer camp out. And every year I ponder this camp out with lip-biting deliberation, my head in my hands, my eyes zipped shut with indecision while I consider the painful consequences of attending but the even more painful consequences of declining the invitation.


My mom and my ten siblings look forward to the event all year like children anticipating Christmas (Dad giddily looks forward to the peace and quiet of our four-day absence). Sometime around February someone will say the “camping” word, and set off a conflagration of debates. Soon after, the phone starts ringing. Where should we go this summer? To the mountains or sea? How many campsites should we book? Should we organize a menu? Who’ll bring the canoe? The fishing rods? The camp stove? I try to catch the bug of excitement, but for some reason all I can think about are the negative aspects: How will I keep track of my toddler twins? Will our tent accommodate a crib? How will I wash the cloth diapers? What about snakes? Bugs? First aid? My four year old’s asthma?


My mom and siblings are adamant. Don't worry about the kids! they say. We all have kids. Everyone will pitch in. Come on! It’s camping. You’ll have a great time no matter what.


Their message is clear: To fail to continue a family tradition is to be guilty of a breach of contract—or child abuse.


In theory, I love camping. In my late teens we went to Bodega Dunes or Big Basin. Mom made eggs, home fries, and bacon in the morning on the camp stove while I made toast and coffee on the grill over an open flame, and we all sat around on our beach chairs and watched the activity of the birds and chipmunks and listened to the sounds of the sea rustling through the trees from the distant shore. Later, when John and I got married, we made a point of camping together often. One summer it was the Sierra foothills beside an icy cold lake. Another it was Mendocino County under a cloak of wet fog surrounded by fields of spiky porcupine grasses that stung our bare legs as we marched through them. We’ve camped in the thermal gloom of the Sequoia Redwoods, in the rippling yellow dunes of Death Valley, and in the craggy volcanic wonderland of Mount Lassen. I’ve always loved the close-to-nature feeling I get from camping, and I don't mind the little inconveniences. When necessary, I seem to be able to whittle my body's requirements down to a few occasional animal proceedings, and the rest is just hiking, fishing, and stabbing the campfire into the late hours of darkness.


But camping with kids is an entirely different experience from camping without them. Camping with kids, I’m here to tell you, is not camping.


Last summer was no exception. My sister Mary, official task master, organizer, and cheerleader, chose the campground. “You’ll love it,” she chirped through the phone. “It’s only a four hour drive for you, and it’s super family-friendly. Perfect for kids.” If I hadn’t erased the name of the place from my memory bank I’d mention it right here, but I can’t for the life of me recall the family-friendly place only four hours away. I do remember the reservoir being too small to justify its appearance on my California map, and that as we followed the signposts Daniel, my four year old, kept asking, “When are we going to get to Broccoli Lamp?” (Brockley Camp? Brocklay Ramp?) But except for those meaningless little tidbits I come up blank. 


It’s symptomatic. From the first moment of our arrival at the campground, John and I seemed lost in a kind of stupor. Maybe it was because the place was hotter than the sunny side of Mercury. Maybe it was because the four hour drive had somehow stretched out to five and a half. Maybe it was the trauma of organizing all the stuff and packing it—playpen, high chairs, bottles, formula, baby backpacks, a borrowed porta-crib, ice, food, warm clothing, beach towels, Advil—and then worrying that we’d forgotten something.


By the time we pulled into Broccoli Lamp (or whatever the place was called) our Vanagon stunk from burning asbestos, our one year old twins Cameron and Kyle were both covered in banana slime and pink faced from crying, Daniel was asleep with vomit on his shirt, and John was in a bad mood because I'd misread a possible shortcut on the map causing the extra hour plus. Sensing fresh meat, gluttonous mosquitoes fat from campers in nearby lots hummed in through the van windows by the dozens. Before I could roll up the windows, three mosquitoes were at work on Cameron's forehead and two had driven their suckers into Kyle's neck.


Oh well. At least we’re here, I thought. But where was here? As we sat numbly in our seats, the engine clicking as its fever cooled, we surveyed our lodgings in a hypnotic trance.


Our site, Lot 80, was (as a realtor might say) all potential: a dirt driveway pock marked with bottle caps, old cigarette lighters, an imbedded condom, and a barbecue pit topped by a rusty grate and heaped with cinders, chicken bones, and broken bottles. To the side, chained to the ground, weathered by sun, stabbed with forks, carved by knives, and spray-painted with the names of a million departed campers, a picnic bench cringed with hurt pride, and behind that a few embarrassed trees wished they were elsewhere.


Lots 81, 82, 83, and 84, which were reserved for the rest of my family, were still empty. At any moment, the four dirt driveways with their enchained park benches would be crawling with twenty-seven relatives and friends with nothing but fun on their minds. (There were three birthdays to celebrate, John’s and my sixth wedding anniversary, my niece’s high school graduation, and my brother Danny’s return from a trip to India.) In the meantime, there was no lack of company. As far as the eye could see were people. Big people, small people, fat people, skinny people, old people, young people, disabled people, teenagers, babies. The people were busy. Extraordinarily busy. They talked, laughed, sang, smoked, cooked, ate, danced, threw footballs, set up tents, rolled out awnings, unfolded lawn chairs, built gazebos, assembled camping stoves, and blew up every manner of flotation device imaginable. Where did all these people come from? Did somebody turn a city upside down and shake it over the campground? I hadn’t seen so many people in one place since I’d attended a Rolling Stones concert at what used to be Candlestick Park back in the eighties.


“Wow,” John said simply. “Popular place.”


Okay, I thought. It's not exactly camping the old-fashioned way, in peace and quiet and solitude. Fair enough. No point in sniveling about it. Enjoy it for what it is. And with that categorically positive thought I took a few deep breaths, acquired a Zen-like acceptance of the inevitable, and forthwith helped my dispirited and laconic husband to unpack our gear. What else could I do?


An hour later, our five-man tent was erect (a fluorescent yellow dome that so effectively absorbed the heat that our sleeping bag zippers threatened to melt), the porta-crib was assembled inside, and the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were hardening to toast on the table. In addition, our twins were swollen with mosquito bites, sun burnt, and completely and utterly clothed in fine red dirt, and Daniel was over in Lot 85 playing with his new friend, a barefooted, mosquito-bitten ten year old who was shouting, "I'm going to kill you, Ninja boy!"


When Zen-like acceptance of the inevitable fails, I usually start laughing uncontrollably, and did so then. Not so amused, John looked pained, as if a hardboiled egg were lodged in his throat, and I could hear the first stages of his asthma creating a whistle when he exhaled.


I stifled my giggles. "Why don’t we eat first, and then go down to the reservoir and cool off?" I said.


John agreed that a cool dip would be welcome, and went to rescue Daniel from his Ninja executioner. Then, after eating our dehydrated sandwiches, we each loaded a twin on our backs and hiked down to the reservoir, a walk of about 10 minutes along a wide, sun drenched dirt road fringed with fine bits of trash and those ubiquitous bottle caps. I still had high hopes and they rested on the success of the reservoir. . . a sandy beach, a shallow shore, partial shade, clean water, and all would be well.


But as we rounded the crest of a dirt hill, sweating like field hands from the heat, I lapsed into hysterical laughter again at the sight of the waterfront. John turned to me, smiling. "By George, it's Club Med," he said.


         The shore did have sand, but it was hard to locate it beneath the riotous spectrum of turquoise, quince, hibiscus and tangerine swim suits teeming under the white glare of the incandescent sky. It was like the whole of humanity had gathered on the head of a pin and we’d arrived too late to claim a piece of it.


“You stay here,” I said. “I’ll check it out.”


Okay, just a three-foot strip of water for the kids to splash in. That’s all I need, I thought, as I high-stepped with my twenty-eight pound passenger over the multitude of oiled limbs to the softly undulating surf. There, the truth laughed at me with serrated teeth. Ha! Ha! Ha! I dare you to let your babies swim in here! Where the water's edge met the sand, a ridge of mossy rocks descended sharply into murky darkness. The only swimming to be done was 40 feet out, where twenty or so people dove from a floating platform.


"What do you think?" John yelled at me over the bodies. He was grimacing and gritting his teeth because Cameron was pulling out handfuls of his hair as he tried to extract himself from the backpack to get at the water. When John read the look of doubt on my face, he turned back, and without even an explanation to poor Daniel, we hiked the dusty road back to our dirt driveway and functional art picnic bench.


"It's too hot! Why can't I swim?" Daniel pleaded in his especially plaintive voice. “Stop! I want to go back! It’s not fair! Why can’t I play in the water?”


Arriving at lot 80, Cameron, being the sort of child who can't tolerate a missed nap, reached his limit and began screaming and thrashing wildly in his backpack. On the ground, he rolled in the dirt like an animal giving himself a dust bath, and ended up in some blackberry vines, his tender, sunburned thighs finely scratched by thorns. Meanwhile, Kyle got a lip-bleed from chewing on a bottle cap, and Daniel raced from campsite to campsite in search of his Ninja buddy yelling, “Hey kid! Where are you?”


Sitting at the picnic bench with the twins kicking and squirming on our laps, John and I stared at each other, depressed and confused over what to do next. "What if we. . ."  I'd say, then sink back into thought. "Suppose we. . .” "Maybe if . . . "


His buddy nowhere to be found, Daniel began whacking a stick against a tree saying, “Kill! Kill! Kill!” A Rottweiler galloped over to him, hoping to get a shot at the stick, an arm, anything. Images of Daniel’s limp body in a pool of blood, his jugular torn out, filled my head.


“Daniel!” I shouted! “Give the nice doggy the stick and come back here!”


John sighed. “What do you want to do?”


I smiled weakly. “Drink something strong.”


Just then, my mother's overloaded Chrysler rolled grittily up the path, steam spitting through the apertures of its hood as she waved ecstatically out the window. "Hi! I got lost and drove an hour out of my way, but thank God I'm here!" Behind her a trail of autos, trucks and RVs loaded with my siblings and their friends and packed to the gills with food and outdoor gear, created a dust storm that seemed to lift the entire floor of the campground into the air and lay it carefully over our heads, shoulders, plates, utensils, cups, clothes, food, and shoes like an enormous reddish-brown blanket.


There is no insult quite as unpardonable as that of a guest leaving a party too soon. The look on my mother's face told me that I was not behaving the way she'd raised me to behave. But that didn't stop John and me from strapping the boys into their car seats and throwing our stuff into the van with both hands as fast as we could grab it. We didn't even bother to make a good excuse.


 "Sorry! Got to go!" we blustered. “The babies. . . Water. . . Daniel. . . Ninja boy. . . Scary dog. . . Blood. . .”


My family tried to make sense of what we were saying and nearly chased us down the road (we would have laid rubber if we could). But within minutes we were on the freeway, the windows open for the wind we knew would drive the mosquitoes out and for the fresh air that we felt we'd been deprived of for a year. I knew we had just desecrated the Most Holy Traditional Family Campout and at the same time earned a reputation of first class snobs, but for the three hour drive home (going twice the speed downhill, and following the Bay Area road signs) I didn't care.


"I'll make up for it next year," I promised myself, and I meant it.


But now it's that time of year again. The sites at a Calaveras Country campground were reserved and paid for in March, the list of essential campers is at a fixed twenty-six (subject to expansion), and, God help us, John and I and the kids are a critical organ of the camping body. If we fail again, camping morale will drop, a pox will descend on the tradition, the camping body will fall ill, grow anemic, and finally wither away for lack of a full body commitment.


Someone once said, “A precedent embalms a principle.”


I have just pounded my fist on the table. By God, I will camp! Filth and mosquitoes be damned, I will not be responsible for depriving my kids of a tradition! Nothing will come between me and my duty as a parent!


There. I've done it. I've made the decision to camp. Sure, I’ll probably dread it for months. Then, when the time comes, I’ll over-pack, and we’ll get lost and John will blame me, and the kids will get covered in dirt and bug bites, and I won’t sleep well, and I’ll wish I hadn’t come, and I’ll tell myself I’m not enjoying myself one bit. . . Except that I’ll be enjoying some of it. Like maybe those moments around the campfire when the kids are staring wide-eyed at the flames as their marshmallows ripen to brown. I might enjoy that. And maybe when my brother Nick hides in the bushes and lets out one of his convincing wolf howls and sends all the kids screaming to their tents. I might enjoy that, too. And maybe when John wakes the kids at dawn and takes them down to the lake to fish for trout and they come back beaming and full of stories of the-one-that-got-away. I might get a real kick out of that. And then there will come the time when the kids are all grown up and have such fond memories of our family campouts that they will start a camping tradition of their own with their families and invite me along. And trust me, I will draw the line there.