Dave Barry once wrote that “Camping is nature’s way of promoting motels.” Some might agree with this statement, but I was never the sort. I always prided myself on being a nature girl, a tree hugger, a hardcore hiker, and a survivalist. I could rough it with the best of them. I never was the girly girl who couldn’t scavenge for wood because the fear of breaking a nail or touching a bug rendered me helpless. I craved bathing in the lake, sleeping without a tent, and cooking on an open wood flame.
So at the first whiff of warmer weather I am always organizing a camping trip. Some would think a woodsy girl such as myself would hang out with a more environmental friendly crowd. I didn’t get that luxury. I have three best friends with whom I do everything. We are a mixed group that happens to mesh well in every type of circumstance. I indulge them in some of their odd interests (glow-in-the-dark golf?) and they indulge me in my monthly camping trips. Perhaps I should explain a bit.
First there is Tabatha. I have known her since I was only four years old, and since that day we’ve been best friends, with a few dry spells. She is your ultimate picture of femininity. A nice pasty white from spending so little time outside, flowing, shiny hair from hours of attention and sinkfulls of product, and enough high-heeled shoes to fill the Grand Canyon. She sings like an angel and has a lot of soul that has made my life a lot more bearable than it probably would have been without her.
Enter Christian, loving husband of Tabatha. They were married quite young (only 19) and have done the very best they could. Christian prides himself on attempting to be masculine, but typically fails miserably. He works construction, but shines his shoes almost daily. He likes to talk about cars with the boys but I change his oil for him on a monthly basis. Expecting him to kill a spider would require a massive amount of hallucinogenic drugs and a shotgun because with a clear head he wouldn’t knowingly get within a hundred feet of an arachnid. He has a brilliant mind though, is honest and blunt to a fault, and gives the best hugs anyone can imagine.
And the final player in this saga is Michael, cousin of Christian. (This sounds like some kind of twisted love triangle, doesn’t it?). Michael grew up on a farm, works on cars for a living, and plays a guitar like the devil. But Michael has a very stern live and let live policy. If something isn’t bothering you, you leave it alone. This is a great trait most of the time, but he lets it get a bit far on occasion. It’s hard to tell if he has strong feelings about anything; since he has such a passive personality I never know if he’s scared, livid, or drunk. But he’s strong, male, and very funny when you least expect it.
This brings us to the story you’ve all been biting your fingernails for. The first glimpse of warm weather and I was on the phone booking a campsite. I live in a tourist town centered around a giant man-made lake which surprisingly provides some amazing natural beauty. We have one of the largest state park areas in the Midwest and I do my best to never take it for granted. I booked a rarely used site, one not well known to out-of-towners and definitely a good place to “rough it” for a few days. It’s about 10 miles down a gravel road, no electricity or plumbing (eek!) and right on the water.
I spent the morning before packing and getting all of the necessary supplies: jugs of water, tent (the others wouldn’t sleep out in the open), plenty of blankets, a few spirits and beer for the boys, matches, skillet, tinfoil, utensils, plastic plates, and lots and lots of food. I brought all kinds of things to cook for dinner and breakfast. For that evening we had steaks, fried potatoes and onions, and all the makings for smores. The breakfast menu would consist of bacon, pancakes (yes, I had pre-made the mix), and a variety of fruit juices. It was going to be a wonderful trip!
About noon on Saturday morning, Michael swung by to pick me up and grunting, loaded all of my goodies into the mustang.
“So you’re really excited, right?” I begged.
“Sure,” commented the ever passive Michael.
“Could you seem a tiny bit more excited? Indulge me with some emotion just a little?” was my sarcastic reply.
“Lucy, I just loaded an entire year’s worth of food and supplies into the back of a sports car which was never meant for this kind of trip anyway. And now that I’ve done that, you’re going to make me drive down a gravel road when I just washed it yesterday. Am I supposed to jump for joy?”
“Yes… since you brought it up, that’s exactly what I’d like to see.” I crossed my arms, stuck my foot out, tapping, and gave him the look that said I’m not leaving until you do it. After a battle-of-the-stares he finally gave up and started doing jumping jacks with a huge fake smile on his face excitedly enough to even make Richard Simmons proud. We both ended up in a fit of giggles and I was satisfied I had broke the mood and we were on for a great weekend.
We met the others at the site and the unpacking resumed with gusto. It was clear that everyone was in the mood for an excellent little trip, and they were all comfortable in the fact I had planned it flawlessly.
“Christian, dude, did you shine your shoes?” Michael asked staring in bewilderment at the shiny black kicks he was sporting.
“Uh, I just needed to do it anyway. I mean, I didn’t do it specifically for the camping trip. I mean, I was already doing it then I remembered we were going camping.” The stammering gave me a chance to catch Tabatha’s glance so we could do a simultaneous eye-roll knowing full well that he had not only shined his shoes with full awareness that we were going camping, but probably did it on purpose.
Michael ignored the response, “Christian, no one in the wilderness cares if they can see your reflection in your shoes. Not even the spiders.”
“Where!?” he shrieked and flinched as soon as the word was mentioned. This was met with a chorus of “get a grip” and “geeze louise” from the rest of us. Feeling a bit silly, he backed down and tried to shake off the childish reaction, and went to forage for firewood picking up branches that were more likely entire trees, in hopes to reclaim his masculinity. After a few hours of set-up time, things were finally in order. The guys had found enough firewood to sustain an S.O.S. mission, but were still not convinced it was enough and therefore searching for more. Tabatha helped me set up the tent long enough to get her high-heeled flip-flop stuck in the mud, after which she complained that she couldn’t step on “icky grass and mud” without shoes on, so had to do a thirty minute washing session with the bottled water I brought, despite the fact that the lake was about 10 feet away. By the time she had properly cleaned and dried her stiletto-flop I had the tent up and ready to go. Then as the designated hens of this excursion it was our job to get all of the food put in its appropriate place, set up the chairs, and collect rocks for the outside of the campfire. Tabatha and I went our separate ways rummaging for small boulders. I was humming lightly to myself and enjoying the day, finally removing my sweatshirt succumbing to the sun’s warmth, and listening to the water lap the shoreline. Suddenly the peace was broken by the most blood-curdling shrill scream I have ever heard in my life. It wasn’t just one scream, it was one continuous scream that I would have sworn lasted about 43 minutes. Of course I immediately bolted toward the sound, horrible thoughts running through my head. God, is that Tabatha? What happened? Did she get bit by a snake, because I don’t know if I can do that whole sucking out the poison thing? Did she fall into a bear trap and we’ll have to amputate her leg using only the steak knives I bought for tonight’s dinner? If we use those knives what will we do to cut the steak? Has she been captured by a tribe if indigenous people the entire area has been unaware of for hundreds of years? Are they in the process of making her their virgin queen? Wait… Tabatha isn’t a virgin.
By the time I hit the spot where I could see her horrified face covered slightly with over-sized sunglasses, I had run through brambles and had my legs covered in the scrapes, I had caught my forearm and the back of my hand on a locust tree and had twelve very large and rather deep puncture wounds from those massive thorns, and I had fallen twice which succeeded to bruise my left cheek and get mud into my mouth. Breathless and terrified, I came upon her sitting up in the low fork of a tree with her knees huddled to her face.
“Oh my God, Tabatha. What happened? Are you okay? Did you break something? Do I need to call 9-1-1?” I searched her body for any sign of trauma hoping that whatever it was we could fix with a maximum of eight years of physical therapy.
Crying and sniffling she held out her shaking hand for me to help her down, “I... stepped… on… a…. little… rat… thing…. and I… felt it… squish… under my foot. It made a noise!” Finally breaking down into uninhibited sobs she tumbled from the tree limb and into my arms, and my jaw hit the ground.
“Are you f*%#ing kidding me?!” I shouted before I could control myself. “I thought you were dying, I thought a wolf was gnawing on your right ear, I thought your leg would be separated from your body, I thought you would have a bobcat attached to your face! What the hell?! You scared me to death! I have never heard anyone scream like that in my life? And for a ‘little rat thing’. That’s what I risked my own life for on the way over here?” Gasping for air and bent half over, I thought my head would explode. Suddenly the adrenaline began to die down and I could feel the blood dripping down my legs from the scratches, and the puncture wounds in my hand and forearm began to have thump with their own heartbeat. A slow burn entered my chest and I had to fight the urge to reach out and shake her to death. In seeing my rage she slowly gathered herself from my arms, straightened her shirt, smoothed her hair into place, and began to tromp off toward the campsite with each step of her stiletto-flops sinking into the mud.
I sat down, still shaking but battling with myself to calm down and concentrate on the fact that everyone was okay. We didn’t have to go to the hospital and no one was seriously injured save for the small animal, probably a snoozing chipmunk. I eventually collected myself and marched, well half-limped really, back to the tent mustering up a little sympathy to apologize to the sulking girl I was sure I would find there.
Sure enough, she was sitting alone on the cooler, cleaning her shoes again with the drinking water. “Tab, I’m really sorry I yelled at you. I was so worried you were hurt I just exploded. I apologize, I definitely lost my temper and you didn’t deserve that. I’m sorry you got so freaked out about stepping on the [grinding teeth] ‘little rat thing’.”
Again, smoothing her hair and doing the girly ruffle of her feathers, she looked at me pointedly saying, “You’re bleeding everywhere, I guess you should clean that up.” She handed me the drinking water and walked up to the cars to put on some music. I sat down to nurse my wounds and noticed that the sun was beginning to set and we should probably begin dinner soon.
The boys’ rustle of footsteps could be heard coming back from the woods again, with more trees in tow. By that time I had half bandaged my body with festive flowered napkins and electrical tape, looking like something out of a B-rated psycho flick.
Christian was the first to notice my weakened state, “What on earth happened to you? Were you mauled by a pack of chipmunks?”
“Don’t even say that word,” I pleaded.
Michael chimed in, “What word? Chipmu…”
“Ah! Shhhhh.” I interrupted.
“Lucy, sometimes I wonder about you,” Michael shook his head and dropped the subject. They had carried plenty of wood back and had also brought rocks for the outer edge, and I was blessed with work to busy myself. While I was getting dinner ready, the other three pulled their chairs over to the edge of the lake and tormented themselves by sticking their bare legs into the icy water. Yelps and double dares to jump in were plentiful and I found my self once again humming a lively tune and working on the meal.
Finished and cooked perfectly we settled around the fire under an almost completely dark sky and began our outdoor feast. Tabatha was over her earlier scorching from me and in quite a good mood, and the boys reveled in my abilities to cook a good steak. Full and happy, I commissioned Tab to wash the dishes off in the lake and before she could protest and steal more drinking water, I sent her off. Michael I sent to get his guitar so we could sing a few songs (very summer camp, I know), and Christian I commissioned to get rid of the dinner scraps. I went to change in the tent. Back to humming a song, I heard a few light taps of something hitting the door side of the tent, which was facing away from the fire so that the smoke wouldn’t get into it. I listened for a moment, but hearing nothing else just assumed it was something unimportant, and went on changing.
The remainder of our time outside was wonderful. Michael played wonderful music, and Tabatha sang well enough to rival even the Sirens of the sea. Christian doled out the spirits in a very plentiful, if not Santa Claus-esque manner, laughing jovially every time someone needed another refill. The night was moving quickly, and before I had realized it, I leaned back in my chair to star-gaze only to find that there were no stars… at all. In fact the blackened sky looked a bit threatening. I suggested we move a few things inside the tent just in case it began to rain, and no sooner than I did that did the first few drops began.
We rushed to snuff out the lantern, and blindly throw the perishables in the tent. In a moment of last-minute haste, before the sky ripped open, we reminded Christian to grab the wine and beer, so we could continue our little party under the thinly-veiled protection of the tent. The rain poured and poured for almost an hour and we each quietly began to drift off to sleep, huddled in a small mass in the middle of the tent, in efforts not to touch the sides of the temporary dwelling and trigger a torrential rain inside the canvas.
Around 2:15A.M. I woke suddenly to the pangs of nature calling. I had clearly drank more wine than ever intended, and in the rapidity of the storm forgotten to pee before I lay down. I didn’t stir for a moment, listening to see if it was still raining but was pleasantly surprised to hear that at some point it had stopped during our sleep, and now there was just merely a gentle breeze outside. Excited to get to my wilder-peeing excursion, I knee-walked to the tent door and began to unzip the first privacy layer before getting to the screened layer. As I unzipped I stopped abruptly, noticing some movement in the dark. I can’t see well to begin with, but couple with the fact that I did not have contacts in and I was riding on a pretty full night of drinking, things were a bit more blurry than usual. I squinted to try and make out the shapes I was seeing… quite a few shapes, actually… but wasn’t able get the whole picture. I figured it was probably safe to go outside, but I might want to check with someone else before I just jumped out there, pants around ankles.
Hastily I knee-walked back over to the pile-o’-friends, and grasped the first foot I stumbled upon. “Psst!” I whispered. “Wake up! I need your help!”
It seemed that Christian was the foot I grabbed, and he slowly roused from sleep. “What? Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine but I really, really, really, have to pee.”
“Um, Lucy I don’t know that I can help you with that,” he drawled.
“No you big goof, you didn’t let me finish. I don’t have my contacts in and I can’t find my glasses. There’s something moving outside the door, and I just wanted to make sure it’s safe to go out there before I pull my pants down. Will you check for me?” I pleaded.
“Sure I guess,” he crawled over the pile of limbs and headed for the door I had partially unzipped. “Uh, Lucy… you’re not going to like this.”
“What? What is it? Cannibals? Snapping turtles? What?” I said with my head over his shoulder, squinting to no avail.
“Skunks. About five of them. You’re not going pee until they leave,” he eyed the situation at hand. “Hand me something to throw, maybe I can scare them away.”
“Christian, have you lost your mind?!” I said in my meanest whisper, “Can you please recall fourth grade science class and tell me what skunks do when they get scared?”
“Well yeah, they spray….” He stopped mid sentence, “Oh, they spray. I don’t want to smell like that.”
“No kidding, dingleberry. Why are they at the front of our tent? What on earth is out there?” I wondered aloud. Slowly our voices were stirring the other two, who were waking groggy and confused.
Michael leaned up, one eye closed and one eye opened, “What are you guys doing?”
Christian was compelled to answer, “There are like five… wait… now six skunks outside the door and Lucy’s got to pee.”
“Bad…” I reminded.
“Skunks? Why are there skunks there? Did we leave anything outside that we shouldn’t have?” Michael wondered as well, while Tabatha slowly woke next to him.
“What did you say?” She asked.
“Skunks,” we three chorused in hushed tones.
“Oh my gosh, you’re kidding right? There is a skunk out there?” she whined as she curled into a ball.
“Six,” we chorused again.
“Oh no, oh no, oh no. What are we going to do?” she sat terrified.
“Tabatha, get a grip. It’s not the boogie monster, it’s just a few skunks. We’ll get through this,” I grudgingly consoled.
Michael began, “Hey, Christian. What is that little guy gnawing on? What did you do with the dinner scr…”
“Christian!” I whispered smacking his arm. “I told you to throw that stuff in the woods!”
“I just threw it away from the campfire. I thought I threw it far enough, I didn’t even think about it,” he said regretfully.
“Hey, um there are seven now,” Michael sadly reported. I began squirming at the thought of hordes of stinky little critters staying there all night until the scraps were gone. I was about to explode, and I was seriously considering the risk of smelling like roadkill for a few weeks just to ease the pressure.
I sat down in a very uncomfortable position to try and squeeze my legs together in hopes to quell the anxiety. The other three had started mumbling about possible plans of escape, one of which included cutting a door with a pocket-knife through the opposite side of the tent. After several more minutes, and a lack of plans that got us to the car unscented, I began to feel the serious pain of the situation. I huddled myself into the corner and tried with every thought I could muster to think of anything else. A quiet day in the backyard listening to the lake… NO! A nice boat ride on the water… NO! A beautiful blue sky near the ocean… NO!
“Hey!” Michael yelled back, “They’re starting to leave!” But it was too late. Just a few seconds too late. We packed up our things that night after the skunk mafia left us in peace, and I spent a week cleaning the tent and other things. Few words were said, but I could swear in the dark I heard a susurrus of supressed giggles. I don’t think I’ll ever hear the end of that night… twenty years down the road I’m quite sure this story will come up at some distant camping trip.
Oh, the embarrassment.