By the time we pulled into the Hampton Inn in, Sioux Falls, South Dakota the Things Three and I were exhausted, and run down. We were only ten days into our around-the-country road trip, and already we’d run into problems. The first problems arose almost immediately, but seemed easy enough to overcome. It started when Thing One, just two days into the adventure, fell ill with a stomach virus, and couldn’t hold anything much down for 36 hours. We spent a few days in Montana with Friend One before heading to Yellowstone. Instead of sleeping in a campground, though, I decided to put us in a hotel in Gardiner, Montana. I didn’t want puke in the tent, and wanted to be near a bathroom in case Thing One got worse.
Days 4 through 6 were a whir of activity, and I realized soon the foolhardiness of scheduling us to move every day. Breaking camp and setting camp take a lot of time and energy, and doing both every day was hard, exhausting, and time consuming.
On Day 6, between Cody and Buffalo, Wyoming, I pulled the car over and cried. The horizon seemed endless and I could already see the money running through my fingers like water, and I felt like a rookie most of the time, trying to get from Point A to Point B and trying to do so with 3 kids. Yet it was beautiful, Wyoming the most lovely state I’ve ever seen in my entire life, and I cried, too, because of the lonesome and austere landscape.
By day 7, when we were driving from Buffalo, Wyoming, to Custer State Park in South Dakota, the car’s ABS light came on. I stopped the car, looking for a mechanic in Custer. But the light flipped off, and the manual said the car was probably fine in this scenario, so I headed to our campground. We set up camp in a beautiful forested area, near a horse trail, and then swam for a few hours in Legion Lake. But as I cooked dinner, a park ranger came around on a golf cart, stopping at each site. When he got to ours he said, “National Weather Service’s issued a warning. Bad thunderstorm coming, winds up to 60 mph. So you need to pull up or batten down the hatches.”
“What does that mean, exactly?” I asked. I hadn’t taken our equipment through a storm before, and even though it was a 3-season North Face tent, I was a little worried.
The park ranger ran his fingers over his moustache and then said, “You need to assess your equipment. If it can’t make it, you need to pull it down and head into town.” He drove off to tell the rest of the camp.
The kids and I looked at each other. “What do you guys think?”
Thing Two set his jaw and looked determined, and said, “I think we can make it. Let’s do it.” But Thing One, ever the cautious, prudent kid, said, “I want to go back to town.” Thing Three looked like she could go either way, and might have been the determining vote, except that I decided we should eat dinner first. We sat in a semi circle, and watched as a few people packed their things. “Maybe we can make it,” I said. “It doesn’t look so bad right now.” The sky was a little gray, a little cloudy, but nothing we couldn’t handle, I thought, being Oregonians. And then the sky was suddenly filled with light and, almost immediately, a huge clap of thunder shook us.
“Get the stuff!” I yelled. The rain came down then, hard, harder than I’ve ever seen it rain in Oregon. The kids and I started throwing stuff into the back of the Volvo haphazardly, but within a minute, the four of us were soaked to the bone. Rivulets ran over my glasses, and I had to squint to see around us. Thing Two’s hair plastered around his ears, and the girls pushed theirs back.
“Get everything out of the tent and into the car first!” I yelled. The kids were surprisingly quick and responsive. Usually when I issue an instruction, like “turn the Wii off” or “finish your homework,” it is met with a dull, bored look or, if I’m lucky, a sigh. But the Things Three immediately reacted, and listened. They pulled clothes and backpacks out of the tent and ran them to the car. As I loaded the camp stove, Thing Three said, “I’ve got this end of the sleeping bag. You get that end,” to her brother. And he did it without so much as a disagreement. It might have taken weather of biblical proportions, but they were cooperating. It would have been a lovely moment had we not all been soaking wet, rain pounding our bodies and gear, and lightening and thunder filling the sky.
The car was quickly filling. I was a master of packing the car and car top, but it took careful placement of the items and time, and we had the opportunity for neither. The back seat was a tangle of wet sleeping bags and clothes, and the back was piled with food and dirty dishes. Splatters of mud fanned over everything—we had run back and forth and kicked up the ground in sprays.
I pulled my glasses off so I could see. We had managed to get almost everything packed within 3 minutes. “The tent is the only thing left!” I yelled to the Things. “Everyone get a corner!”
“I hate this!” Thing One yelled, but Thing Two said, “Be tough, guys!” and pushed his sopping sleeves up to his elbows. Thing Three nodded, and growled. I felt like growling, too. In that environment, it felt oddly normal.
We ran to the tent, and each took a corner. The wind had picked up suddenly, and leaves and pinecones rained down. The tent pushed hard against my legs, and I worried that we’d be unable to take it down, the four of us. But there wasn’t anything else to do, really. “On the count of 3, we’re going to take off the rain fly!” I yelled. “Everyone will take the fly off the poles, and then we’ll fold it together, and I’ll run it to the car!” Thing Three nodded. “One!” I yelled. “Two. Three.”
We took the tent down in under five minutes, and I folded it against my wet body, stuffed it into the cargo box, and shut it. We piled into the car then, soaking and cold and shivering, a miscellany of camp equipment around us. But we’d broken camp on our own, under terrible conditions, and we’d done it together.
“We did it, guys,” I said. I started the car.
It was then that I noticed the rest of the campers around us. Most of them had RVs, and had taken refuge easily. The few with tents had hunkered down, but the wind was picking up, and their tents were starting to billow and pull at the stakes.
I put the car in drive and turned towards the campground entrance. And at that precise moment, the rain and the wind and the lightening and the thunder stopped. The sky cleared and—aside from the branches and boughs dripping rainwater, and the massive puddles—it was as though nothing had happened. Except that we were soaked through, and surrounded by our wet and muddy gear and clothing and food (the pasta! The pasta was even soaked!).
All the way back to town, I felt like a fool. Why hadn’t I just tried to wait it out? Why did I take ten minutes to decide to leave?
-to be continued*-
*Missed you guys...