Over the last few present-worthy occasions - birthdays, Father's Days, Christmases and so on - my wife has been helping me build a collection of camping and outdoors equipment. The latest item was a pretty incredible three-seater inflatable kayak. The thing about camping, or really anything outdoors in South Florida, is the heat. I really enjoy camping and kayaking and the outdoors, but I can't stand the heat. I tell my wife all the time that my people come from the land of snow, not the land of sun. So there's really only a small window of opportunity in the late fall and the winter when sleeping under the stars is actually comfortable, and not just a sweaty insomniac test of will and character. When the weather gets cool enough I try to take any opportunity I can to use my gear and get out in the wild.
Sometimes my son will come with me, and that's some good male bonding time. Other than that, I'm on my own, out there like Grizzly Adams, just me and the bears. This weekend, however, I decided to try to take the littlest, just overnight, to see if she would like enough to make a habit out of it. It went exactly the way I remember all of those family and church camping trips when I was a kid, which is to say that about half of everything went wrong.
When I was growing up, there was a real concerted effort on the part of the men in my church, my own father included, to get all of us hood kids off the streets and into the wilderness, to learn about nature and master some survival skills. Or at least, survival skills other than urban. I really did learn a lot about being outdoors, setting up tents and tying knots and cooking over fire. But we kids were always very aware that things were rarely going according to plan. For example, there was this one time when our camp leaders forgot to stake one of the tents down properly, and a strong Florida wind picked it up and carried it - intact and still erect, like Dorothy's house in the tornado - up into a tree about fifty feet high. It stuck to the side of the tree, looking like a nylon tree house for a few minutes, and then deflated and flopped over one of the highest branches. It was still there, in increasingly rotten condition, every year for the next few summers, whenever we would go to that campsite. I remember one chaperone trying to show us how to cook foil wrapped dinners of chicken and vegetables on the fire, and constantly burning himself every time he tried to snatch one out of the flames, because he left the tongs at home. We got more excited every time he did it, because he was one of the deacons, and kept getting closer and closer to cursing every time he did it. Unfortunately, he gave up and went with the back up plan, hot dogs, before he went full on Def Comedy Jam.
So this time it was my turn to mess it all up. It was just one night, one single night of camping, and yet I spent two weeks covering all the angles to make sure it went smoothly. I went shopping specifically for the food, and then still ended up going back for a couple of items. I had marshmallows and hot dogs for the fire, which was a little tricky, since the park allows fire rings, but not gathering firewood. No problem. I called ahead to make sure that the rangers had firewood at the concession area, which they did, and even bought a special steel fire ring, just in case. I opened up the inflatable mattresses to check for holes or mold, and sprayed them down to disinfect them. I started pulling things out the weekend before, and even packed the car the previous night.
Knowing I had to get there before sundown, I left work as soon as the last bell rang, pushing aside some students to get to the parking lot. The plan was to run down to pick up my daughter from day care, swing by the house to collect the food and supplies that couldn't sit in the car all day, and then drive the hour and a half up to Jupiter to get to the park, racing the sun the whole way.
The sun won. Traffic was so bad that it nearly doubled our time, and I could feel the night closing in on us as the GPS ticked down the miles towards the park. It was just after six when we got there, and pitch black in that part of the country, but still, I didn't worry, because I figured I could use the car headlights to set up the tent. Building a fire would be a little tricky in the dark, but I had a lantern to help me see that as well. What I didn't realize was that the park itself closed at sundown.
My heart froze over for a moment when I pulled up to the entrance, the nose of my car a foot away from the closed electric gates. I had already hyped this trip up so much in this little girl's mind that I was having visions of trying to console her as she cried the entire two hour trip back home. Luckily, I found the number for the ranger's station and they picked up and let me in. But then they tell me the park store is closed, so the nearest firewood is down the street at the grocery store. So, in my mind, building a fire is out, and now I just have to use my Jedi mind tricks to get the baby off of the idea of hot dogs and marshmallows. Thank God she went for the idea of fast food, because I was already tired and still had to make camp.
The next day was almost perfect, the only hitch being that she remembered the campfire and the marshmallows and wanted that for breakfast. After more trickery, we were off to ride the ponies in the corral at the park. We stopped by the visitors center to get directions, and, of course, she got sidetracked by all of the kid friendly exhibits and just wanted to touch fake animals and color pictures at the art station. Since the center had chairs and air conditioning, I gave in and let her stay for a while.
Then came the horses. I thought there would be ponies for the little ones, but apparently they had all grown up into full sized horses. She got to ride around the pasture, led by a very friendly cowgirl, on a horse that would have been the right size for me. He was a brown horse named Cinder, at least four and a half to five feet to his back. She took a while to get used to balancing herself on top of that monster, but she had a huge smile on her face the whole ride. She could barely understand anything the cowgirl said to her, and could only whisper in reply, so lost she was in her haze of animal attraction.
And that's the thing that makes up for all the failures. One experience like that one, one night of successful sleep under the stars, one excited hike looking for wildlife, can make up for all the flaring tents, and driving, and planning, especially when the planning never works anyway.