This essay was not one of the ones chosen to be read aloud at a recent literary event. The theme was “The Great Outdoors.” Feh!
This is what I learned growing up in a Jewish family: Santa Claus will not visit; there will be no eggs hidden anywhere on Easter; and people sleep indoors in beds. No one in my family ever owned a sleeping bag, and we never slept in a tent, never mind outside under the stars. So, no camping for me as I was growing up.
During our first year in college, my boyfriend—a seasoned Boy Scout—took me camping. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was 19 years old and had never peed outdoors, had never cooked over a campfire, and had never slept on the ground. (Well, there was that one time in high school when a bunch of us lied to our parents and slept overnight at Stinson Beach, but I’m not counting that because we had bathrooms and cars nearby. It wasn’t camping; it was sleeping on the beach with boys, which is a completely different thing.)
My boyfriend and I melded together in his boy-sized sleeping bag, while scrunched inside his one-man tube tent. We went to sleep in an empty campground by a river, and awoke surrounded by camper vans full of fishermen. Turns out it was opening day of fishing season in angler paradise. My boyfriend tried to make the best of it. He showed off and made us breakfast in a cast iron skillet: pancakes cooked in lard. Horrible, horrible memories.
So when Don and Bob, my college housemates, proposed a camping trip to Yosemite in early fall a couple of years later, I was reluctant. This trip would be the real deal: hiking to a campground, pitching tents, and hiding food in the trees to outsmart the bears. To prepare, I borrowed my boyfriend’s sleeping bag, and trailed the two guys through REI while they filled a cart with provisions. I invited my sister to come along for moral support—and to have someone to keep a lookout when I tiptoed off to the bushes.
We managed to piss off our parents by going camping on what turned out to be Yom Kippur. Not only were we doing something that seemed completely un-Jewish, we were doing it on one of the High Holidays. Very bad ju-ju.
But off we went, loaded down with silver packages of “Just add water” beef stroganoff, bags of trail mix, chocolate bars, and other camping delicacies for the weekend. The guys were experienced hikers and campers and I believed them when they told me how much fun it was going to be.
Yosemite looks lovely in the early fall. The summer crowds have cleared out, and the trees show off their brilliant colors. The weather is usually mild. Even so, we’d brought extra layers since the nights get cold. We came prepared: first aid kit, canteens, plenty of energy snacks.
The first night, I couldn’t sleep because my heart was pounding and I was short of breath. It might have been due to the altitude, but I spent the night twisting around in my sleeping bag trying unsuccessfully to calm down and breathe. The morning couldn’t come soon enough.
After a long hike through the valley on the first day, I wasn’t worried about a second sleepless night. I’d adjusted to the altitude, and the day’s activities had tired me out. After dinner, I climbed into my cozy sleeping bag and promptly passed out.
I awoke in a nest of white feathers. Where did they come from? I looked up. No birds nearby. I looked down, and saw where I had snagged the sleeping bag’s fabric on a branch and ripped a huge hole in it. All the little feathers were mine. Or, rather they were my boyfriend’s and belonged in what had been his very special Boy Scout sleeping bag. I was pretty sure I could sew up that hole later, but the escaped feathers fluttered away in the breeze.
On our last night, we congratulated ourselves for avoiding bears, for not sustaining any major injuries, and for only knocking the dinner pot over once. We pitched the tent, since another camper had predicted rain. I went to sleep happy, a little sunburned and sore, but proud to have overcome my unease with the whole camping thing.
I heard it before I felt it: little plops of water, coming through a hole in the tent, right over me. By the time I was fully awake, my sleeping bag was a cold, soggy cocoon. I rolled over and whispered to Bob, “I’m getting soaked! What am I supposed to do? I can’t move–there’s no room.” He answered by unzipping his sleeping bag and inviting me in.
I hesitated. Would he try to put the moves on me with Don and my sister inches away? Would this technically mean we were sleeping together? My boyfriend’s feather-depleted stand-in was right there, even if it was wet and useless. But having no other choice, I wiggled in next to Bob and we spooned uneasily for the rest of the night.
In the morning, Don got up first and peeked outside. He held the flap open for the rest of us so we could see what else had transpired while I lay wide awake next to Bob: snowfall.
Fall had changed to winter, right over our heads and into our leaky tent.
We packed up in a hurry and trudged through the powdery snow, desperate to get back to the parking lot. Once we found the car, we tossed our stuff in the trunk, hopped inside, and cranked up the heat, happy to be on the road again. I have not slept in a tent since.
I had a friend who once said that she would do anything in the outdoors as long as she could do it in high heels in the shade. This turns out to be a good position for me as well. I might add to that: while drinking a frosty beverage from a glass. Perfect.