The kidlets and I just came back from a camping trip. A whole-family camping trip. And it was amazing.
Challenging. And amazing.
I’ve posted here before about camping and about camping survival. But not yet about camping as a family who live in two houses yet share a tent for a few days in the summer because they’re trying their best to be a good family regardless of logistics. And I’ll post later about the good, the bad, and the midnight vomit I covered with campfire ash so bears wouldn’t come attack my poor food-poisoned child.
But those stories come later. This week I am feeling a bit weak and small, so I’m writing my story of strength.
We camp in the same place each year, beneath the pine trees and clear skies of Lake Tahoe. And on the second or third day of our trip, we do our favorite hike: 7.5 miles with significant elevation change (I think it’s 1,300+ feet total) from our campsite along the remarkable blue of the lake.
We bring snacks and sandwiches, games and water shoes; and we climb the well-worn dirt path around granite boulders and past an amazing old lighthouse.
We wind up, after long breaks where we play in the water and build fallen-branch structures, pausing at an old residence that makes me nostalgic for the time when I had millions of dollars and could own part of a lake, an island, and build my own castle.
No? Oh well.
Anyway, after the castle-y thing we walk up a steep road and catch a trolley back to a road about 1.5 miles from our tent. The day we do the hike is usually the crowning glory of our eldest’s year, and both his grownups quite enjoy it, too. I genuinely have no idea if it makes any impression on the four-year-old, but he rides on my back and his dad’s shoulders for much of it, so I can’t see how this hike is any different for him than any other. But who knows. He’s an enigma.
This year, once we got to the trolley stop, the boys’ dad wanted to run back along the lake, the long way, while the boys and I took the motorized shortcut back. Sure. No problem. We have no cell service, but we do have tons of food and water and we know the trolley is coming soon so we’ll likely beat him back to camp. The boys begin plotting how they’ll surprise their dad when he gets back.
So the boys and I sit on rocky half-wall in the 80-degree-sun and wait. And wait. And wait. Thankfully, there was a local family with two young boys waiting, too, who reassured us that the trolley was indeed running and that it would eventually be there.
We all watched carefully every vehicle that came into view along the winding highway, cursing each red car for not being a red and gold trolley. The selfies with my boys grew more and more deflated looking.
An hour later, after my sweet, tired little monkeys had sunk into the “you have to be kidding posture” when I offered snacks, water, and a cuddle for the nine-hundredth time, the trolley came. And oh, we did rejoice. The selfies grew adorably cheerful, and Butterbean, my chirpy four-year-old, sang us a trolley song.
And about 3/4 of a mile later, the trolley turned around.
“Whoa, whoa, what’s going on?” I asked, genuinely wide-eyed.
“We’re making a U-turn to go back to town,” an otherwise delightful woman told me.
I’m guessing I lookd around at the other passengers in a terrified manner befitting either my situation or a worldwide chocolate shortage, because the driver asked where we were going.
“To the state park a few miles up the road,” I said.
“This trolley doesn’t go there,” he said.
“Um… yuh-huh, it does,” I thought. It has for the past three years.
The processing took me 1/1,000,000,000th of a second. Okay: we’ll ride the trolley back to the stop and wait for one that does go to our stop. If he’ll let us off at Vikingsholm, the pretentious rich people castle place. I mean lovely piece of history. I mean…
Actually, no, the next trolley won’t go back to camp, either. The driver got out a brochure and showed me the new map of the trolley’s range. None of the trolleys were headed to our stop. They all turned around 3/4 of a mile from Vikingsholm.
My math slowed down a bit. I have two tired kids. We’ve hiked 6 miles already, and Peanut, who is now 8 and quite proud that he hikes 8 miles in Tahoe every year, is complaining about a sore foot. We have no cell service. Their dad has his phone off for obvious reasons. The town toward which the trolley is heading is 14 miles away and we have no way, once we get there, of getting back. It’s two hours until dark. I have a backpack full of water and snacks to wear in front and an ergo full of 40 pounds of preschooler on my back. It’s 6,800 feet above sealevel and we got here 24 hours ago, so I’m not acclimated. I am also keenly aware that I ran 5 miles in the morning, before we started this lovely, invigorating, breathtaking, family favorite hike.
Please, please no comments about the stupidity of a 5 mile run on a hiking day.
And I have no idea how far it is back to the camp. It’s certainly farther than 3 miles total if we walk on the side of the highway, but likely shorter than going back down to the gorgeous trail and adding another 6 miles. Or driving into town. Or…nope. That’s the end of the options. Walk or…I guess sit down and cry. Those are your choices, lady.
Tired 8-year-old, heavy pacsk, altitude, and at least 3 more miles, some of which on a busy-ish highway. My job is to protect my children. My job is to get them back to camp before dark. My job is to…
“We’ll walk,” I tell the entire trolley, sounding quite reassuring on purpose. I need, desperately, for my eldest to go along with this plan.
And he does.
About 20 feet in, he looks panicked. “Mom, do we have water?”
Smart boy. “Yup. I just refilled all three bottles. I have, no joke, 96 ounces of water, buddy.”
He is pleased with this answer. I am, too, except that 96 ounces of water is really freaking heavy. Six pounds? More than the dried fruit and GORP and crackers, but less than his brother, thank goodness.
So we walk. And I try hard not to think about how far it might be. I make myself remember that we have food and water. That nobody is hurt. That if the shoulder gets too narrow (which it did, several times), we can bide our time and run across the highway when it’s safe.
That totally fits the whole “keep your children safe” requirement, right? Have them avoid walking along a narrow shoulder by running across a highway?
To quiet the railing inner critics who disdained my decision (but didn’t offer any helpful suggestions, I noted both then and now), we talked as we walked about how their Dad was likely making dinner. And that he’d notice how late we were (now 90 minutes past our ETA) and come get us, probably. (Both were true. But he tried to find us by walking, not driving, so by the time he used the car we were 1/2 mile from camp. It was a very nice 1/2 mile ride, though.)
About a mile into the unplanned walk, Peanut faltered a bit and started to cry. “I just want to go home,” he said, revealing the vulnerable, tender heart he rarely lets us see, except at storytime just before bed.
I nodded as I motioned to him to keep going. “Yep. Me, too, buddy. And that’s what we’re doing. I don’t want to walk and you don’t want to walk, but we have food and water and we’re safe and we’re healthy and we’re going home.”
I’m going to be honest: I wanted to cry, too. And if he had whimpered even a little after my motivational speech, I would have sat down and bawled a good, old-fashioned Holly-Hunter-in-Broadcast-News cry.
But he threw his shoulders back and kept walking.
Peanut is 8 years old, and he walked 10 miles that day. With his backpack and completely unassisted. I am 41, and I traveled 14 miles: five miles running, six miles hiking with a full backpack, and four miles with two packs, one of which contained my sweet little baboon four-year-old. At altitude.
We did it. We both did it. We enjoyed the beauty, we loved the highlights, and we freaking motored through the unexpected bumps.
I told my amazing son, as we devoured warm tortellini and lentils a bit later, that I’d learned something that day.
“Yeah,” he said. “Never do that hike again.”
I laughed. “Well, maybe, but I learned that we’re really strong. You remember I told you that brave is when you’re scared but you do something anyway, because it’s important?”
“Well, we are strong. And we are brave. We were scared and we did it anyway.”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “And also, never do that hike again.”
I laughed. No way. We’re doing that hike every year now. Because we can do it as an 11 mile loop now, without trolley and without steep road. And without even seeing that freaking highway.
Because we’re strong. And we’re brave.