When I was in college I did an internship in Manhattan. One night as I was eating dinner with my New Yorker colleagues, the conversation turned to a Utah man who had made national news for cutting off his arm in order to save his life. He had been climbing mountains in a remote area of the southwestern United States when a rock fell on his arm, pinning him down. He lay there for days unable to extricate himself and without any hope of being rescued. Finally he pulled out his knife and cut off his arm, then hiked back to civilization.
Several of my associates said they couldn’t understand why anyone would climb mountains in the first place, but one countered that he had climbed a mountain and found it quite enjoyable. Then he named the mountain, which happened to be in my home state, and so I knew that in fact his quote unquote mountain was a two-mile walk up a mole hill. Another colleague said she liked to climb into cabs. East-coasters don’t know what it means to hike and camp. They think they’ve tried it before, but in actuality they haven’t, so of course they haven’t discovered the thrill of the outdoors. You have to try hardcore climbing and camping before you can understand the joy of self-deprivation. When you get out in the middle of no man’s land and experience the lonely, unforgiving beauty of mountains, forests and water, your heart will sing. Take the Utah man—I bet he never felt more alive in all his life than when he walked home with his stubby arm.
My parents taught me the joy of wilderness at a young age. We hiked, camped and even climbed mountains from time to time—real mountains with glaciers as deep as a Manhattan parking garage. Now that I’m a mom, I don’t hike or camp as often as before, but I’m still an outdoorsy girl at heart. Now and then I break out my tent and head into the wilderness to battle the forces of nature. Last week I took a trip into the forests near our home with my husband and three children. Our camp site had a pit outhouse that was pitch black inside, even at noon day. The site’s running water was the river that rushed by, about 15 yards from our tent. This was real camping, and I was prepared to conquer nature with my soap, water, wet wipes, extra clothing for my oldest and youngest children, and extra extra clothing for my middle child, who is particularly good at getting dirty. My goal was to prove that I could keep myself and my children reasonably clean, and keep the smiles on my hubby’s and my face. I was going to do much better than one of my cousins whose children made an indelible memory for me at a family reunion a few years back. I wasn’t a mother then, so I watched her children with unsympathetic disgust as they wore sleepers without shoes and walked around the campfire carrying a huge bowl of old popcorn. It was something like caramel popcorn, only pink and blue, and had been stirred, moistened, pressed down and picked over by many a child’s sticky, dusty hands. The low point of the evening was watching her little girl lie down in the dust and roll around in her pajamas. Yes, roll is the correct word.
So I was confident I could do better than that, and the first night did go pretty well. After setting up the tent, etc., we weren’t up to fixing tinfoil dinners, so we cooked our hot dogs instead. We ate heartily then put the children to bed. My oldest two fell asleep fairly quickly, and my baby eventually fell asleep in my husband’s arms before being transferred to the porta-crib inside our tent. I had forgotten my husband’s sleeping bag and pillow, so I’d spread out all the bedding to make one giant bed for the whole family. It wasn’t the most comfortable situation, but I am a talented sleeper, so I gave my pillow to my husband and went to bed worry-free. Half way through the night, my nine-month-old woke up and refused to be comforted. He cried and cried while I carried him around in the darkness, his tiny body in his tight pajamas, his large voice in my ear. Nothing I did helped, which was frustrating, but it did make me smile when he burped the wonderful smell of hot dogs. After about an hour of this, I strapped him into his car seat and sat with him in the car while he cried himself to sleep. My husband never fell asleep that night, but I did, so at least we had one sane parent.
The next day we got in the car and set out for some hiking. While my children are adept at peeing in the bushes, my middle child was too tired to ask us to stop the car so she could use a bush. Fortunately, I had thought ahead and brought extra undies and pants for her. We found our trail head and began hiking. Then Middle Child started having too much fun to even think about dropping her shorts. She wet again, which I hoped would help her stay cool in the hot weather. But it didn’t. She complained that she was hot and tired. My husband refused to carry her on his shoulders in her wet state, and I already had a baby on my back. So I took her wrists and he took her ankles, and we carried her that way, which she told us was really comfortable. That made me smile again.
When we got back to our camp site, I changed Middle Child’s clothes again and warned her that this was her last pair of clean shorts. We discussed how to notify an adult when she needed to use a bush, after which she promptly wet her pants. Fortunately, the weather was still warm, which helped her dry out a little. When the sun was starting to set, we pulled out the marshmallows. The air was cooling, so Middle Child donned her pink, fleece hat and set to making s’mores. She had no socks in her shoes, a dusty, damp behind, dirt on her cheeks and forehead, marshmallow smeared around her mouth and nose, and chocolate in her ear. The chocolate in her ear made my husband smile. And I smiled when my husband said her beanie and dirty braid curled around her cheek made her look like a hippy.
My husband smiled again when I told him that I didn’t mind if he drove home at bed time and came back in the morning to pick us up.
The next morning Middle Child asked to have her night-time diaper removed. After it was removed, she asked to go potty. At this point I figured out that the phrase “I need to go potty” is special camping lingo for “I needed to go potty a couple minutes ago, so I did.” Luckily, it was going to be another hot day and polar fleece jammies dry out quickly. After breakfast, I packed up our things while the children played. They jumped off logs and crawled in the dust until daddy came back in the mini van.
For you East-coasters who think this sounds about as fun as cutting off your arm, like I said earlier, you simply cannot comprehend the joy until you try it. And as for the personal goals I set upon starting out, I think I passed with flying colors: There was only crawling in the dust—no rolling, and because of the warm weather, my middle child was able to stay reasonably dry without ever using a bush or outhouse. My husband and I smiled several times. Nobody had to cut off any of their appendages. And I bet you’ve never had your heart sing, or felt so alive, as I did when I drove home.