Monday, July 9, 2012

Gut Instinct

Without a spouse or partner, the single mother by choice is alone in safeguarding herself and her children in times of possible danger. This fact was made clear to me once again last week during a six-day camping trip in the Berkshires.

We are presently enjoying our fifth summer of camping as a family. The first year I pitched my sunflower yellow, four-person North Face expedition tent in the backyard. ("The kind they took to Everest!" I like to say about my twenty-plus-year-old outdoor accommodation.) Christopher was four and a half; Charlie, two. The next summer we ventured to Pawtuckaway State Park in New Hampshire for our first overnight, and we have stepped it up each year since -- spreading our wings to Cape Cod, Vermont, and Maine for multiple nights in a row. The boys love it, and I couldn't be happier. Chris asked me at the end of the season two years ago if we could do five consecutive nights. I said yes. Unfortunately, it didn't happen last year because I was too busy finishing my memoir, attending a writers' conference on the West Coast, and submitting my manuscript to agents I had met at said conference. Yet it did last week.

Friends from our town were going to attend the James Taylor (with surprise guest Taylor Swift) concert at Tanglewood on Monday. They were camping at a state forest nearby, but it was full of fellow concert-goers. We could have dinner with our friends at their site. However, I would need to find another place to pitch our tent. After a little searching, I succeeded.

Instead of driving across Massachusetts via monotonous I-90, I elected to take scenic Route 2. A roughly three-hour trip took much longer on the slower road, and it was made longer still by a forty-five-minute ice cream stop, a couple of bathroom breaks, and lunch at an Asian restaurant owned by an acquaintance. By the time we arrived at our campsite, five and a quarter hours had passed.

Immediately, I did not like the looks of our neighbors and their setup -- a large, odd, and rough-looking bunch with a popup tent and at least two other huge tents. (I could not see beyond the popup tent to determine if there were others.) One man kept staring at me and, lest I forget, two large mutts wouldn't stop barking. Wonderful, and all just feet away from us. This was BEAR COUNTRY -- my first camping experience as a mother with this particular challenge -- and a woman on the site told me a black bear had come nosing around their popup tent the previous time she went camping. Great! Maybe sloppy with their food as well.

As the evening unfolded, I watched a white van pull up and let out a couple more men. Next a rusted pickup truck backed up the road next to the two campsites, and a garbage bag full of something (drugs, guns?) was loaded into the back. There was little old me, meanwhile, struggling to get our fire lit. Up till then, I had only cooked with charcoal briquettes -- first using lighter fluid and later the kind already doused with it. But this year the boys began insisting on real wood, so this was my first attempt at making a campfire the authentic way . . . and it wasn't going too well.

Years ago I cooked via camp stove when I took a month-long National Outdoor Leadership School mountaineering course in Wyoming's Wind River Range. Ditto my backpacking days with friends, though I almost always was not the one firing up the WhisperLite. Needless to say, I didn't want my seedy campground neighbors noticing that I was having trouble with our fire or, God forbid, coming over to offer help! I felt vulnerable enough with my little boys in tow and no other adult by my side. Of course, I couldn't share any of these fears with my sons.

Eventually, I got the fire started and made our dinner of Mountain House freeze-dried chicken and rice (tastier than it sounds!) and s'mores. Always s'mores. We got ready for bed, and I brought extra supplies inside the tent: a small pot with lid to bang together if a bear showed up and threatened us (upon the advice of the forest ranger in the office), my iPhone to call the office (or 911) if I felt threatened, and the piece of paper on which I'd written the office phone number. I also had with me the pair of blue-handled scissors I regularly bring into the tent just in case I need to spring into action to defend my family against a human threat.

I have chosen scissors over a knife because it raises fewer questions from my sons. "You never know when you might need to cut something," I explain rather vaguely. They think about it then nod in agreement. After all, who does more cutting than young boys?

Why didn't we just up and leave the site that night? Good question. In fact, several people asked me that over the course of the next few days. The answer: I was too exhausted from the long drive to dismantle the tent I had just erected, move in the dark to a new site, and set up all over again -- this time by flashlight. That was an annoyance I was just not willing to bear (pun intended). I was focused on the fire and getting my hungry, stir-crazy boys fed. I thought long and hard about moving within the campground but resolved to wait until morning when I would have more energy and the decision would cause less drama with my kids.

I proceeded to suffer through an uneasy night, keeping one eye open to my hostile environment. During breakfast the next day, a woman and later her husband staying nearby stopped at my campsite to check on me. They had observed my ridiculously close proximity to the unsavory bunch and were concerned about our well being. How sweet is that?! I shared with them what I'd seen -- the loading up of the pickup truck -- and they suggested that something illicit might be going on. I agreed.

We packed up our things and headed to the state-forest office to check out and see about getting my money back. Perhaps we could simply change sites, the ranger wondered. After looking over the map of the place, we got back in the car to see one site. It was very visible, and we were very visible -- with our bright-colored tent and red SUV. A second available site was also too visible to our menacing neighbors, and a third was situated ATOP A MOUNTAIN two and a half miles away! Too remote. So we left.

Trying to recoup our vacation, we stayed instead at a lakeside campground some forty minutes away. All the state forests and parks between our original campground and our friends' campground appeared to be full because it was the Fourth of July weekend. Duh! So this was our first private campground. It was cushier and more expensive, but it was fabulous. We nabbed an amazingly quiet site next to the water and didn't budge for four whole nights. We climbed a mountain, hiked a trail in our friends' state forest, swam in the lake, canoed the lake, played bingo, and watched the July 4th fireworks at Tanglewood with the Taylor-squared crowd. Awesome.

When my gut told me something was off at the first campground, I listened. We got out of there before something bad happened and the whole trip was ruined. As a single mother by choice, I MUST listen to my gut and act on my instincts -- even if that brings added inconvenience or other hardship for me -- because I am the sole protector of Christopher and Charlie at that moment and at every other moment.
The truth is: I have never felt as uncomfortable and unsafe at a campsite in my life, even more so than a few years ago when we took our first weekend-long trip.

A leering man approached me slapping his axe in the palm of his hand while delivering the creepy line: "Wanna borrow an axe?" I thanked him but declined. "I'm good," I said, trying to act cool. Being a newbie at that state park, I had earlier asked him directions to our site, which turned out to be located just two away from his. Just my luck. Already on edge from being far away from home -- this was Maine -- and taking on a whole weekend as opposed to just one night, I did not need a strange man CARRYING AN AXE trying to pick me up! Misery and The Blair Witch Project flashed through my mind. Thankfully, he took the hint and avoided me the rest of the weekend like a spurned seventh-grade boy.

I am not about to give up camping, nor have my boys been deterred in any way. Sleeping in a tent makes me exceedingly happy, as do the myriad of outdoor activities we engage in while we are away. But the privilege comes with a healthy dose of caution . . . and a pair of trusty blue-handled scissors . . . when an issue of safety arises.

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