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Not a Happy Camper!

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August 2008
Not a Happy Camper!

By Lakshmi Palecanda

“No way, no how, am I going camping again! I like to go on a vacation to get a new lease on life, not to entertain thoughts about ending it!”

We were already on with our annual Palecanda family “Where shall we go on vacation” tussle. My older daughter had started the bout with an excited “Let’s go camping again” proposition which was readily seconded by her little sister. I shot a nasty look at those smiling expectant little faces and delivered the above proclamation.

“The advent of summer gives us all a chance to take vacations and fun trips with our families. These journeys give us a chance to learn more about ourselves and our family in a setting outside of the home,” was the sagely advice of an article in a magazine published by our “oh, so caring” health care provider. Meanwhile, in the real world, I am wondering, “What if I don’t like what I learn about myself?” The cynical thought arose from memories of our family camping vacation from last year.

We had set out light-heartedly for a pleasant camping trip near Yellowstone National Park in Southwest Montana. My husband and I had done some camping in the years before the kids, and had thoroughly enjoyed those outings. We were hoping to repeat it, this time with our kids in tow.

When we got to the campgrounds, we were glad that our campsite was at the end of the road, affording us more privacy. It was a lovely picture-perfect scene: tall trees all around with a backdrop of pristine blue skies. The brilliant sunshine worked beautifully to counter the slight coolness on the ground. “Life is good,” we thought, not unlike the frog basking in lukewarm water in a crock-pot on a slow burning fire, who has no clue that matters would soon come to a boil. Only, in our case, it was a bone chill instead of a boil.

We had expected overnight temperatures to be in the upper sixties, but as night fell, it seemed as if the normal early summer climate had decided to walk off into the horizon along with the waning light of dusk. With temperatures dropping into the forties, we bundled up in a week’s worth of clothing and attempted to eat dinner while swatting at mosquitoes and black flies. The location of our campsite at the end of the road, which we earlier thought was great for privacy, turned out looking like the entrance to Hades, owing to the fact that it was far beyond the meager lights of the campsite. And to top it all, we didn’t have a fire pit either. The situation did have an advantage, however: it was the perfect opportunity to play “Guess what we are eating?!”

Since we hadn’t known that the weather was going to pull a fast one on us, we had brought a summer tent, some light blankets and an air bed instead of thick sleeping bags. Our girls, aged eight and five then, excitedly crawled under the covers, fully dressed in order to try and beat the cold. Anyway, they were already wearing their entire holiday lineup, and there was nothing else to change into.

My husband and I decided to sleep at the ends with the children in the middle, just in case a bear stuck his head into our tent. Hubby dear was making sure that the flashlight was still working, while I proceeded to stretch out on my end of the air bed ? and promptly tumbled into Death Valley. I lay there wedged into the edge of the tent, making pitiful noises, while the man on the other side looked thoughtful as he murmured, “I did wonder if the air-bed was inflated fully.” Several bitter responses rose to the tip of my tongue, but I swallowed them when I realized that my situation could improve when his heavier weight would counterbalance mine. It did, but not by much.

In any case, we soon had a bigger problem: the air bed began to leak! That is when I realized that without the ‘air’ part, an air bed is no longer a bed; it is just a terribly insipid piece of material that is downright uncomfortable to lie on.

Fate, it seems, wasn’t done with me yet. Our campsite must have been part of a gravel pit in the past. Every which way I tossed and turned, I had a close encounter of the gritty kind. If there was a patch of sand or grass in that whole GPS grid area, it surely wasn’t under me. With my cheek pillowed on a jagged piece of rock, I wondered why the pit had been abandoned when there was so much potential still left in it.

There were more surprises in store for us. As if the frigid weather in the middle of summer wasn’t enough, a playful wind sprang up, and began buffeting our lightweight tent, lowering temperatures further still. I lay there listening as it built in strength until it was a full-fledged gale roaring through the firs and cottonwood trees and flapping our tent violently. Now I was betting left hand against right as to when the tent pegs were going to give away, sending us flying into the neighboring states of Idaho and Oregon. At one point, I shouted above the din across to my husband. “Do you think the tent will hold?” His response was simple. “We’ll find out, won’t we?” I was so hopping mad that, frankly, if a hapless bear had wandered by and stuck his head into our tent just then, there was no way he could have escaped the taxidermist.

With teeth chattering, and torn between helplessness and fear of the unknown, I realized that I was no die-hard camper. Here was the setting for a perfect “Been there, done that” water-cooler story of my own, but I truly couldn’t have cared less. As far as I was concerned, elements of nature were all well and good for watching through the window from inside a climate controlled home, or on a big screen TV, but strictly taboo as far as roughing it out in them.

It was our one trip away from home, and I had given up my Sealy Posturepedic for this? Meanwhile, the children slept peacefully, hogging the blankets and enjoying the cushioning of the pocket of air sealed in by the two heavyweights at both ends of an otherwise deflated “bed.”

After having hardly slept through the night, when I “woke up” the next morning, I was hoping and praying for rain! After all, only that could be my ticket out this mistake of a vacation. I would comment that there wasn’t any point camping in the rain, the mister would agree, and we would go to a motel for the night.

But no, that wasn’t a flashlight shining down on me, it was the sun. That horrid gale had swept every last wisp of cloud away from the sky, leaving it a wonderful deep blue in color. Birds that must surely have spent the night in a comfortable hotel, with room service and free continental bird seeds were chirping loudly and callously, uncaring of the headache that pounded in my head.

My husband was busy pulling off layers of clothing—in effect dressing up for the day by undressing. “Rise and shine,” he sang cheerfully. I cast my mind over our joint bank accounts, and wondered if his life insurance was all paid up. I must have made some noise, because he turned around and looked at me. “Don’t worry. We’ll find a motel tonight,” he said, and I fell in love with him all over again.

But there was still the day to be got through. The girls woke up, all refreshed and full of beans. “Mom, you have lines on your face!” Lines, hah! I was ravaged like a spoon that had got rescued from the garbage disposal.

Mindful that only a good cup of strong coffee would soothe this savage beast, the man of the household shushed the children and moved purposefully. We took down the tent, packed up, and checked out in record time, and sped to the nearest espresso hut.

Half an hour later, as caffeine molecules began building up in my blood stream and releasing “happy atoms,” I looked at my husband. I had made my decision, and it was time to let him know that I was through with camping? for life. The children could camp with friends and other family if they wanted, but I was done. And in the spirit of good communication that magazine articles love to tout as the secret of a good marriage, I enunciated unequivocally:

“Any more camping trips, and you get sole custody of the kids.”


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