by Maria Ruiz
Maria often shares stories with us about Santa Barbara history, her travel all over the world, her dogs, and life.
“Let’s go camping.” my husband, Bob, said.
Visions of families around campfires flashed through my mind. Stories of camping families were everywhere. Why should we be different? It is almost un-American to deprive ourselves of the fun of camping. “Sure, I’d love to,” I replied. I would learn to regret those words.
We had a seven-year-old, Dan, and a month-old baby, John. We owned a 1970 VW Bug and an 80-pound dog. We were the perfect family. Except we had never been camping. How hard could it be?
The next day I visited the local Sears store, pushed the stroller to the camping section and stood in amazement. What were all those things? One did look like a stove and I recognized the Coleman lamp from magazine pictures. I knew what a cooler was, but there were so many other items hanging on the racks. Funny metal pokie things, cans of gas, ropes of different colors with funny metal attached, knives, axes, shovels, ice cube trays, even what looked like a toilet seat with legs.
I picked out a lamp and took a couple of cans of gas the sales person recommended, a large cooler and a folded-up stove. What more could a small family need?
My folks had bought a tent from a neighborhood garage sale, and they gave it to us. I asked, “Are there any instructions for putting it up?” Dad shook his head. Bob was an engineer. He’d figure it out.
I made sandwiches and packed the cooler. A neighbor told me how to pack ice inside to keep it cool. I put in mayonnaise, mustard, lunch meat and a loaf of bread. A quart of milk for the kids and I thought we had it all. A paper bag held the silverware and potato chips.
The big morning came. The tent bag was about six feet long, and a good 36 inches around. It wouldn’t fit in the trunk so Bob tied it on top of the VW, running the rope through the windows. I put some blankets, pillows, the paper bag, and the cooler in the back seat, leaving just enough room for my son. A neighbor came over to take the dog for the weekend. I climbed in with the baby on my lap and Bob tied the ropes. Everything else he shoved into the small trunk space. He had to climb in through the window, and we were ready.
Our first camping trip.
With high hopes we drove through Los Angeles freeways, finally turning off to head toward the Sierras. Bob had gotten the name and directions of a campground from someone at work. We had never driven through the California Valley before, and were delighted by the sights. But we were going to have to stop soon. Dan was complaining of needing a bathroom. I voted with him and the car needed gas. Soon we were pulling into the gas station, still held captive by the ropes holding the tent on top. Bob climbed out first accompanied by “Hurry Dad. I need to pee,” from the back seat. I was feeling the same need for speed.
All the driving had pulled the tent back and the knots on the rope were melded into a knot that would hold a car dangling from a pole. Finally, the attendant helped Bob and he loosened the knots. My son took off running and unzippering as he ran. I handed the baby to Bob and raced to the women’s side of the garage.
A few minutes later, the car filled and both Dan and I emptied, we got back in with the help of the attendant, who tied the tent with knots he showed Bob how to tie and loosen.
We drove up and up into the sierras. The scenery was wonderful and I was expecting cool weather. Why? Because I thought all forests were cool. The reality was full sun and hot. We found the campsite and a place to park. Bob untied the ropes and we all piled out to see our first campsite. It was packed with people everywhere. We walked around looking for a place to put our tent. All the flat places looked full but Bob found us one that was on a slight slope.
“We’ll just sleep with our heads up and feet pointing down to the creek.” I didn’t know what else we could do.
Dan held the baby while I helped Bob wrestle with the tent. Getting it to the ground and pulling it out of the carry bag (which we discovered, could not be repacked ever again) was a two-person job. The tent was a giant, heavy piece of canvas with zippers everywhere. Next to it lay a pile of pipes with absolutely no instructions. Bob started putting pipes together and got what looked like an arc. When he let go, it fell over. He assembled another arc while I held up the first. That still left a pile of rods but we had, what we thought, was the beginning of a frame. Of course, we couldn’t both stand there holding the arcs all day. Somehow we had to get the arcs into the tent. Bob declared, “You just sit back and I’ll do this.” He pulled the canvas open, unzipped a long zipper and pulled all the rods under the canvas to start assembling.
Dan and I watched as the canvas would rise up; then topple as he moved to another side. For over an hour, the canvas would rise and fall. Finally, by some miracle, the rods were going up and holding. Eventually, the zipper opened and Bob stepped out. He was completely soaked with sweat and almost collapsed, but the tent stood.
By then, some of the other campers who had been watching the show came over and showed Bob how to tie the ropes on the outside to the stakes, and stabilize the whole thing. Our tent was secure, if on a slant.
John, the baby, was fussing by then, so I entered the tent to nurse him and get him down for a nap. Bob and Dan brought in the blankets and other things we had. John fell asleep and I laid him down, wrapped firmly in his little blanket.
Inside the tent it must have been one hundred fifteen degrees. Outside wasn’t much cooler but there was a breeze. I left and was opening the cooler when Dan yelled, “Oh! There goes the baby.”
Bob and I looked up just in time to see our baby rolling down the hill toward the river. He must have slipped out under the tent wall. I didn’t know Bob could run that fast but he did grabbing John before he could fall into the fast moving creek. Back up at the tent, I clutched him while Bob tried to find some water. I hadn’t packed any, thinking we could always find water somewhere. Chewing on ice, and holding a soggy bag of mushy sandwiches, Bob said “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.”
I didn’t want to give up too easily. I pulled out the loaf of bread, which by now, had become half a loaf due to being crushed in the paper bag. I discovered that I had forgotten to pack the little cans of gas that would make the stove and lamp work. With no water, no gas, and no light—plus no food, we realized our first camping trip was over.
Funny how fast Bob could dismantle the tent. We rolled it up just like we had seen when we unrolled it, but no matter what we tried, it would not go back into the bag. In frustration, he tied the rods together and stuffed them into the car. Next the canvas, topped with the cooler, and he shoved everything else into the trunk. We got in, waved goodbye and drove home. Camping isn’t for everyone.