I am a big believer that every kid should go camping, and they should go as often as a family can manage. I have two little boys, and I think it doubly important that they learn how to pitch a tent, start a campfire, make do with minimal tools, and prepare their own food. The bonus is the lessons learned about the environment and leaving no footprint when you leave.
The Ex wasn't, and isn't, a big camper. So that leaves it up to me. I like to camp, but I don't love it, and as I age, I like it less and less. However, we camped a lot as a kid so I've acquired pretty good skills that I can pass on to my boys. As a single woman, I have to be careful where I go, and I have to do most of the work because the kids are so young still, but I do it ... at least once a year.
This year we were supposed to go camping over Labor Day weekend. I picked a place not too far from home, near my in-laws, so that I would feel secure if anything went wrong. That trip got cancelled because of Sweetie's unexpected ER/hospital adventure, so we rescheduled for this past weekend. I picked a different place, further south, for fear that the nights would be too cold. I had never heard of it before, but it was near a small town I've heard of and near some caverns and state parks. What could go wrong, right? Read on.
First, on the way down on Friday night, after about an hour, I realized that the only shoes I packed were the flip flops on my feet. Not good. Then, as we were out in the middle of nowhere working our way toward the isolated small town near the campground, Sweetie had a bathroom emergency. We're talking one of those "I have to go right NOW!" emergencies. And we were literally in the middle of nowhere ... no gas stations, no small markets, no nothing. And it was number 2, so it wasn't like I could just pull over and let him pee on the side of the road. So we finally reached an intersection where two highways met, and I saw a veterinary clinic. It was a long shot, given it was 6:00 on a Friday night, but I had to try. No one there. But there was a house in the back, so I ran back and knocked. A frail old woman opened the door, and I'm sure she thought I was some kind of crazy as I stood there saying, "I'm so sorry to bother you. I know this is a strange request, but I have a 9-year-old boy who REALLY needs a toilet. Can he use yours?" She stood there a minute, feeling (understandably) nervous about all of this, so I said, "Look, you don't know me, and I'm sure it's very odd to have some strange woman knock on your door, so if you're not comfortable, we'll just be on our way." She said, "What do you have in your hand?" I looked down and I was holding my keys, covered in a closed fist. Strike one against me. I dangled them and just smiled awkwardly and said, "Old habit. I never leave my keys in the car if my kids are in there." She stood there looking at me for a few more seconds, and I could tell she was weighing her options in her head. She wanted to be nice, but damn, you just can't trust people these days. Finally she said, "where is he?" and I explained he was in the car down the driveway just out of her sight, and I would run and drive the car up so she could see him. She said, "that's okay, just let him come in." So I waved to Sweetie, who jumped out of the car and ran as fast as his legs would take him, yelling "thank you so much" as she pointed him down the hall to the bathroom. I stayed outside with Stinker, just chit-chatting, and I could see her visibly relax when she realized we really were just there to use the toilet. Finally Sweetie emerged, put his hands in the prayer position, bowed to her and said, "I can't thank you enough." After a few more profuse thank yous and sorry-to-bother-yous, we were on our way.
We finally got to the campsite and it was really eerie, especially since it was now dark. There was hardly anyone there, at least as far as we could tell. I forgot my reserved site number, and there was no ranger at the gate and no list posted. I sort of remembered the campground map in my head so we decided to drive around and see if I could figure it out, hoping maybe a number would jump out at me once I saw it in relation to other landmarks on the map. We saw a deer, and a dead rattlesnake in the road, and two young guys walking along the road, but that was it. As I drove around, I did not see a single tent, but saw motorhomes, pop-up trailers and boats. And a camp host, who frankly looked like a meth addict (at least from a distance). I was not comfortable, so I told the boys we would stay in a motel, and come back the next day to get everything sorted out.
We drove to the little town (Angels Camp, CA) and stopped at the first little motel we could see. She had a room available ... yay for us! The phone was an old-fashioned push button phone ... not even a Slimline from the 1980s! The ceilings had popcorn on them and a "country kitchen" themed wallpaper border around the whole room. The carpet was so stained I told the boys to keep their socks on and to walk as little as possible. They were happy to comply so long as they could jump on the beds (an indulgence I only allow when we are on vacation and on the ground floor). Unfortunately, the guy in the room next door looked like an unsub character on Criminal Minds. So we brought in our suitcase and an ice chest, had some food, watched a little TV, and went to bed.
The next morning we went first to the local Rite Aid to find me some closed-toe shoes. $4 faux keds. Not the most impressive shoe, but better than a flip flop for protection. Then we went to the campground and spoke with the ranger. He had my reservation and sent me to my site, warning me about "all of the rattlesnakes and tarantulas" around because the water level of the reservoir had been so high they had sought refuge at higher ground. WHAT?? Then I saw another deer ... and a hawk floating over the reservoir ...
In the daylight the campground looked a lot less ominous. It was clean, and there were more people there than we thought. Our site was definitely not suited for us ... it was too close to the water, had steep hills, and really didn't have a spot for a tent. We drove around and found some other sites, and then went back to the ranger to change our reservation. Then we went back to the motel to get the rest of our things and check out. We were finally settled with camp set up at about 1:30 on Saturday afternoon. There wasn't a ton for the kids to do (we aren't really water people, and there didn't appear to be a swimming/wading location anyway) so before I know it they were complaining about being hot. Seriously? So we hopped back in the truck, drove the 12 miles to a different small town (Murphys, CA), and played at a park - in the creek - for a couple of hours. Back at the campsite, they played, they rode their scooters, we had dinner, we roasted marshamallows, and then went to bed. It was early, so we played an animal game I created, and finally we all nodded off.
And then the wind began to blow. And blow. And blow. It woke me at 2:30 because the tent was flapping and the trees were rustling. Then Sweetie awoke with a start, and was scared. I finally got him settled, and then Stinker woke up, too. Two hours later, the boys were back to sleep, the wind had settled, and I was finally able to go back to sleep.
We woke to clouds and a breeze. The campsite was in pretty good shape, considering the fierce winds the night before. It was early, and we appeared to be the only ones up. Have you ever tried to keep little boys quiet when they are out in the wilderness with sticks to joust with, bugs to kill, trucks to push, scooters to ride, and imaginary wars to wage? Impossible. I built a fire, but it was so windy that I burned through my firewood really quickly without any real benefit from the heat. A waste of energy and wood, basically.
So by about 10:30 we were packed up and ready to go. We were near Moaning Cavern Park, which is someplace I have always wanted to go. It's a natural cave that you can descend on a guided tour, though at the time I had no idea how deep. Once we were there I found out it is 234 stairs to a depth of 165 feet. The cavern goes down to 410 feet but they don't take tours down there ... seeing as how there is no oxygen and stuff! Sweetie and Stinker are chickens, afraid of their own shadows half the time, so I bribed them: Do this tour with me, and make it all the way through without major drama, and I will buy you these ridiculously overpriced toy miner's helmets with halogen lights. Deal! Or so I thought.
The first 100 feet is down a very steep set of stairs. It's lit, and there are handrails throughout, but the stairs are narrow and they are definitely steep. We got to the bottom - to the platform - and they lost their marbles. We were supposed to descend another 65 feet down a spiral staircase but they wanted nothing to do with it. They were crying - literally - and Sweetie was adamant that he was NOT going any further and if we did, he was NOT going to wait for us. He was going back up and that was all there was to it. No amount of coaxing could convince them, and they happily gave up their potential miner's helmets if I would just take them back up. So up we went ... and I never got to hear the cavern moan. I also never got to see it in all its glory ... the chamber that we were descending is the largest natural cave on the west coast, and it is so large the Statue of Liberty could fit inside it. And I didn't get to see it from the bottom up. I. Was. So. Mad. And the boys did NOT get their stupid miner's helmets (despite their begging and pleading "but we tried." Stupid everyone-gets-a-trophy-just-for-participating world!) I did buy little miner's helmet keychains as incentive to get them to try again. (I know, I'm such a softie!)
After I sat and sulked for a little while (and they played in a water sluice for pretend gold panning), and had a cold drink, I decided that we were going to go in a cave that day if it killed me. I don't know why I got so obsessed, but I did. After speaking with some other folks who seemed to be "in the know," I decided we would go to Mercer Cavern, which is in Murphys. After we drove the narrow, beaten road to the cavern, I discovered we were given bad information ... Mercer is WORSE than Moaning. The descent is 420 stairs, nearly straight down. Um, no. We had a picnic lunch on the grounds and got back in the car. Much to the boys' chagrin, more caverns awaited us if we just took the long road home, and I was bound and determined to do just that!
We drove about an hour to California Cavern. Everyone swore this one was great ... basically flat, well lit, not scary at all. We walked into the gift store and gosh darn it if those miner's hats weren't there, tempting my children again. I spoke with the guide, who assured me that the boys would love it. They just had a third grade class through there last week, after all. With the same bribe in place, and the kind words of an old miner-looking guy, we decided we would try again.
I'm happy to report that California Cavern is a really GREAT thing to do with kids. It's a guided tour, and the trail follows the natural contours of the cave. It averages about 61 degrees inside, so we had on long pants and long sleeves, along with the mandatory hard hat. We did some ducking, and some squeezing through narrow passageways, but we never ascended or descended more than about ten steps. We learned about the discovery of the cavern (and later a secret chamber hidden for twenty years!), how the miners used it (dancing! church services! council meetings!), how they lit their way (an ingenious early version of a flashlight), how the stalgmites and stalagtites form (and I can now tell you the difference between the two), and the boys did not even realize that the tour took an hour and twenty minutes! They loved it. Sweetie has decided that he wants to go in more caverns, so long as he doesn't have to go DOWN until he's a lot older.
They now have their miner's hats. There's another "flat" cavern we intend to visit. And I am going to find some adult companion to go spelunking with me at Moaning and Mercer one of these days. And when I go back to Moaning and Mercer, I will NOT go camping first.