Wednesday, August 5, 2015

High Life

Oh, Facebook! With your rich depictions of family togetherness - perched united,  arms latched, white teeth newly emancipated from exceptional orthodonture.  From the balconies and sand beaches of eternity your familial love reaches me. I can just tell you're eating organic produce. Such is your anti-inflammatory radiance. You play instruments and speak foreign languages. I'm sure you have exceptional math skills. You jet ski and picnic and see concerts together on lawns, white wine shared with friends.

"We have to create more memories with our children!"' I holler toward the bathroom where Vild is powdering his nose. Downstairs Louis plays hour seven on the Advanced Gun Violence, 2015 edition, that we bought him for Christmas.

We decide to go camping. We have a tiny vintage trailer that is quite adorable, though a work in progress. It has served us well as a wee bunk house/club house for us grown-ups. It even worked as a sleepover house for our kids until we realized the internet reached out there unsupervised.  Of ancillary benefit,  the camper has partially scratched the paranoid-isolationist itch in Vild. He can stuff that thing full of bug-out bags and I don't have to endure a back-hoe digging up my yard to bury an empty 5000 gallon water tank for us to live in. Everybody wins.

But, we've never tried to sleep four giants in it at one time. The closest we've gotten was when Vild, Louis and  I parked on the rear half-acre of our backyard. In other words, we could still shit inside our own house.  That, and the 5'11" teenager wasn't there to mock and belittle us, while consuming additional oxygen in the small space.

I have a subscription to Tin Can Tourist, a magazine devoted to vintage trailers. I have a Pinterest board to hoard all things small house and camper. I have another board committed to delicious camping meals. The whole thing appeals to my need to have control over a small bit of something. I can't manage our actual house or the people in it, but 75 square feet I can handle. At least theoretically.

I hit the internet with all the vigor that my two bars of connection can give me. I pick out campsites from the hundreds of state parks, drilling down into the zillions of campsites at each park. I look at single images for the right hint at shade and privacy. I look for parks that have a feature to delight my whole family. I find ones with deep, clear swimming holes, fed by waterfalls where you can jump from any number of smooth rock ledges at differing heights to accommodate every level of daring-doo, beginner to drunken frat boy. I pick places with amazing hikes that culminate in crazy views. All the better to pose moss-toothed with my family.

We leave on a Friday, later than we had planned because of Vild's work, it can't be helped, so we don't arrive at the campsite until 9:30 PM, in the pitch dark, with our adorably small but now, in this setting, monstrous rig. Everyone at the neighboring campsites are already peacefully toasting marshmallows and sipping their last hot beverage as I attempt to back the trailer in, threading it's jackknife between a fixed fire ring and a tree. It's the very tree I selected from the site photos as desirable to camp beneath. My kids are tired and hungry from what turned into a nine hour drive. They've burned through the last of the empty carbs they consumed in the late afternoon. Vild is trying to tell me how to back it up, nevermind I'm the only person in the relationship that has ever actually backed the thing up, successfully or otherwise. Of the two people in the relationship only one has been through bus driver training. That person is not the one giving helpful advise through my window.

Backing up a trailer in the dark uses parts of my brain that may be just the tiniest bit flabby from early marijuana use. It still works, but I have to really focus, think things through - if I turn the wheel this way, it goes that way. Less is more. Mirrors and neck-craning - the quiet campsite is now having dinner and a show.

Parked, I have to get dinner on and fast. Luckily, because I had prepared perfectly, and for weeks in advance, I have kababs marinating in the cooler. I have salad. I have corn. I have a somewhat lame folding table. I have a quick-starting fire stick. I have a lighter. I have frosty beers and lemonade. I cook on the unfamiliar fire ring while Vild prepares the camper, which he feels I've overpacked.

I need to mention here that Vild did a genius job of attaching a solar panel to the roof of the camper so we could have a few off-grid lights and a fan, regardless of the amenities of the site. This is his quasi-bunker, don't forget and he's hoping we'll all have to poop in the middle of the night, forcing us to use the five-gallon cat litter box he's provided, this so he can be vindicated for a number of other worse ideas. I've made no promises.

That's when the light rain begins to fall. Right as we are tucking into our well-planned meal, the table starts sinking into the soft earth beneath and it's a bit like eating on the deck of the Titanic.

The drizzle turns to showers, which turn overnight into a spate. But we are tucked safely into our wee camper. The teenager has opted out and is sleeping stretched out in the van. The rain continues all night and lessons only slightly by morning, and not in time to prevent the closing of the swimming hole due to inclement weather and high waters. We all walk over to the natural attraction to grimly confirm that  it is everything it was promised to be. Smooth, rocky, crystalline and perfect. But now also closed to the public. Access areas are roped off with signs warning of its dangers. We dip cautious f-you ankles into the cold water, grey skies overhead. Dark clouds mounting.

I get back to the campsite and we, meaning I, gather the dishes and pots from the morning meal of eggs, hash browns, bacon, good coffee served with real cream, orange juice for the kids. I head to the bath house to do dishes. I realize as I'm standing at the utility sink that I'm doing the exact same thing I do at home, except at a less accommodating sink. I'm picking cooked egg out of the tiny drain hole as a consideration for the next mom, who will be doing her family's dishes in the shit house.

We repack everything, now wet, into the giant rubbermaid boxes and load it back into the rig. There will be no hiking in what is now a steady, pounding rain. We head for our next campsite, farther south, and hope that an early arrival and a new locale will provide better weather and the opportunity to be the people watching the late-comers arrive, smug in our one night of experience.

Onto campsite number two, three hours away. Another beautiful spot with the promise of gorges and radical views. But now it's pouring. Not cute, cinematic rain, but drenching, epic, origin-story waters. The beautiful, handmade awning I made for the camper, polka dotted, with scalloped edges, was now providing the only ten square feet of dryish space outside the camper. But it's quaint 12 oz. duck cloth is no match for the monsoon and soon enough is filled and swelled and so weighted down with water that it looks like an old man's scrotum, pendulous, with a gout of water at it's sagging center.

We were doomed to stay inside the trailer. I made hot chocolate on the propane stovetop. The fan ran and the gas burners served to keep the inside relatively dry and comfortable. We decided to take naps with books. Make the best of it. Let it pass.

I haul my overweight carcass onto the shelf which is the top bunk. The kids are below. Vild opts for the teenager's post in the van. It's then, with my face inches from the aluminum roof, closed like a coffin lid, that I realize that Vild's solar panel, though thoughtful, has severely compromised the thin aluminum skin of the '67 Fleetwing. The roof seams, deeply saturated by the twenty-seven hours of constant rain are beginning to maw under the weight of the giant solar panel. Water drips in a steady flow directly onto my face and neck which is only inches from the roof.

I shimmy my cold meat over the ledge and swing down, careful not to kick my daughter's teeth out in the enclosed space. I dash to the van, unlinked, a few feet away. I inform Vild that we are taking on water. After a quick internal inspection he confirms that my bedding is indeed wet and sponging toward soaked. He plans to go topside to investigate the source. That's when the rain really kicked it into deluge territory.  I can't find the ponchos that I bought and know I packed in the trailer. It's too late for them anyway. We pull the swamped awning down.  I offer Vild my cupped hands, he stirrups his muddy boot into them and swings himself up on the roof. The rain is hammering the roof and splashing up into his face. I can't hear him well over the din of the downpour.

"What?!" I yell up to him.
"The hammer. Get the hammer!" I get the hammer out of the bottom drawer. He proceeds to rip the solar panel from the struts mounted to the roof. Then the struts come flying from his direction. He's cussing up his own weather front. I'm so wet my cleavage is actually behaving like a gutter system, channelling the water from the top of my head directly into the top of my pants. I decide to think of it as land-swimming. In my brilliant packing I remembered athletes foot cream, but not a tarp.

Always take a tarp camping. Always. Always take a tarp camping. Whether used for shade or dry seating, a raincoat, dry bag, or in this case, roofing - always take a tarp camping. We had no tarp. I have maybe four of them in my garage of varying sizes. None in the caravan. After all, I figured, we had a camper, with an awning. Why would we need a tarp?

We do a quick, angry inventory, Vild and I competing to see who can be more pissed and inconvenienced by this series of events. What we have available to us instead of duct tape and a tarp, is a can of Fix-a-flat, and two red, dollar-store plastic tablecloths, each about 1 mil. in thickness. Plastic tissue paper, in essence. Meant only to cover over the bird shit at the public picnic table, not intended to become a water barrier in a survival situation.

I toss up the Fix-a-flat and Vild starts hosing down the seams with the cloudy foam that immediately turns to liquid, a toxic milk that rains down on me along with sheets of water that continue to pour off the roof. Vild spreads the tablecloths over the roof, on top of the noxious water-soluble tire mending agent which has no effect other than to turn the interior of the camper into a four man mobile huffing chamber. He is yelling at me to hand him things that he needs, none of which we have, so I am handing him a ridiculous number of poor substitutes in the form of spatulas and clothesline.

At the zenith, I scream up at him, "WELL, WHAT THE HELL DO YOU WANT ME TO DO?!!"

Meanwhile the kids are on the lower bunk, reading. I half expect them to ask us to keep it down.
They are waiting patiently for the whole thing to be over so I can get dinner started.

There was another bath house nearby. Things of beauty, these bath houses. Hot water and hand dryers.

I parked my corpse under the nozzle of that shower and pressed the timer button about eighteen times. Then I went and sat under the motion-sensitive hand dryer, flapping my arms at it to keep the thing blowing the hot air of hope onto my flattened hair.

We never left the campsite. Never hiked. Never swam. I'd brought a light-up frisbee and little badminton racquets. I had envisioned fireflies and talking around warm, blanket-y campfires. I'd planned for waterfall swims and bottles of beer, our skin smelling of sunscreen and bug spray. Instead we drove nine hours from our home to once again be illuminated by iPhone screens. I got to do harder cooking and cleaning with fewer amenities.

On the ride home, my phone rang. It was my friend who was minding the house. The power had been shut off. She was in a panic that she'd done something to cause it. Nope, we'd not paid the bill. It being the Thursday before the fourth of July, the Illuminating Company was happy to take my payment, but could provide no one to turn the power back on until Monday.

We pull up to the house at dark. By now I am an expert at backing the rig up without lights. The house is dry and Vild turns on the solar lights that he's also rigged at home. The cooler is still packed so we refresh the ice from the ice-maker before it melts. We drag our bedding back up to our king-sized bed. We gather outside and cook leftovers on our grill and sit around our backyard fire pit, toasting marshmallows. We have fireflies. Our friend rolls in from out of town, and stays in our perfectly outfitted camper, solo, as God intended. I put up the awning and we all drink beer beneath its delicate shade. We eat great leftovers. We are dry. We are home. We survive the power outage in high style. We are perfectly prepared.

I've got vacation pictures, too, Facebook. They look like this: