I love camping – despite the fact it almost always involves some measure of discomfort, misery and danger, either real or imagined. And if you survive, those are all good things because camping pushes you out of your comfort zone, shows what you’re capable of and, hear me out…provided you keep your sense of humor and an eye on the BIG picture, it’s one of life’s greatest opportunities for Entertaining Yourself –and others too –with the stories you bring back.
When things do go wrong, (as they inevitably do when nature’s in charge), sometimes the situations get so ridiculous you begin to wonder if you actually lived through them, saw them on TV or just remembered them from a dream.
I discovered this for myself at the ripe old age of 18 when my girlfriend, Bijani—a name with Persian origins meaning hero— suggested we have one final romantic getaway before leaving for college. Hey, it was the summer before freshman year – a time full of promise and new experiences – so without hesitating (or truly thinking about what we were getting ourselves into) I said “Absolutely!”
Our destination: The remote Hawk Camp, which overlooks Gerbode Valley in the Golden Gate National Recreation area. Bijani knew enough about the Parks to call ahead for a reservation, and I knew that camping would give me the opportunity to impress her with my handiness at directions – especially since the Park is just a short distance from my house.
Full of enthusiasm, we planned a dawn start, hoping to arrive at the campsite with plenty of time to scope out the area. In fact, it was 10:00 a.m. when two sleepy teens backed out of my girlfriend’s driveway, which probably explains why, somewhere between her house and the park, we got lost. Not badly exactly, we just couldn’t for the life of us find the trailhead.
“What were you telling me about a natural sense of direction?” Bijani chuckled.
Oops…this was not going quite the way I planned…but I thought it best to be a good sport. “Ok”, I smiled, “we can ask for directions.”
Three parking lots, a couple of off ramps and onramps, and one visit to a ranger station later and we had a map, (as well as a clue) about where to go. It was 90 degrees, Bijani’s car had no air conditioning, but hey…we were young and our readiness to laugh at anything, plus a sing along session to “Tainted Love” and other 80s classics, saw us up to the point where we unpacked the car in high spirits.
Yes, it was already 1 p.m., still, we had the whole bright afternoon before us and the prospect of a leisurely, satisfying hike. What did a dusty, steep fire road matter? We had glorious sunshine and coastal shrubbery surrounding us, as we passed the time doing what a pair of kinda nerdy high-schoolers like to do: discussing our friend’s lives and Star Wars trivia, and arguing about whether Hobbe’s description of man’s condition as “nasty, brutish, and short” was right (at the time I argued it wasn’t, but after our trip was over, I wasn’t so certain anymore).
We continued climbing, but the higher we ascended the foggier it became and the less helpful our map seemed; it dawned on us that we hadn’t seen a sign for Hawk Camp since we first started. Now a cascade of fog greeted us as we crested a hill, only able to see the fuzzy outlines of nearby brush and what looked like lunar landing equipment.
“Where are we?” Bijani said.
“A weather station?”
From the haze a shape approached us rapidly, and a biker gradually materialized before us. “Thank heaven,” we thought, “someone who can help us!”
“Excuse me.” Bijani said after he stopped for a drink of water, “do you know where Hawk Camp is?”
He wasn’t from the area, he told us, remounting his bike and slowly riding off. “Sometimes what you seek is right before you,” he said over his shoulder.
“Thanks… I think,” Bijani said, and we laughed. A real life brush with a Philosopher…or a jerk…I wasn’t entirely sure, but at least we knew there was human life out there so we couldn’t be too far off the mark… could we?
We decided not to “look ahead” but to follow our own inclination to turn around, descending back into the sunshine where we found a sign for Hawk Camp, hidden behind some chaparral (which for those of you who haven’t spent much time in the woods of the Southwest, are thorny bushes not really fun to be close to.) Back on track, and with only a few burrs in our clothing, it was now 4:00 p.m. and, starving, we stopped at a small rock outcrop for a well deserved snack.
I got out our olive bread and cheese (real campers have to think healthy, so we didn’t bust out the Twinkies, even though you always see those wrappers in parts of the park you wouldn’t expect). Mmmmm…I could all but taste the delicious combo, warm from being in our back packs…but just as I ripped off a piece, ready to take that big first bite, a sharp, slobbery something chomped my hand. I heard a yelp in the distance: “No Bobo, No Bobo!”
I found myself wrestling with Bobo, a generously proportioned yellow lab, who was alternately tearing bread from my hand and biting it. Victorious, the dog scampered off with the entire loaf still partially inside it’s now ragged bag. A jogger in full spandex ran past. “Sorry—he doesn’t usually do that. Come back Bobo, Come back.”
Bijani and I looked at each other in stunned silence for a second. “Who is this person???” we thought.
“Don’t come back,” I yelled, and we sat down laughing again. We only had one loaf of bread left for tonight and tomorrow morning, but we had some other provisions and good company goes a long way.
An hour later, we spotted the last sign for Hawk Camp, following the arrow along a narrow trail to a somewhat dejected gathering of cedars. Not quite the setting we were expecting, but hey…we were on our own and so far, our adventure had been <mostly> fun. It was nearly 6:00 when we finally unloaded on a bench near our allotted campsite. It’d been a long day and both of us just wanted to set up and eat an unobstructed meal.
Already the coastal fog was rolling in and the sun grew weaker and weaker. This was the real test of the positivity we’d maintained all day. As we struggled to erect the tent, a strong wind picked up, snapping one of the supports and threatening to blow the whole shelter away. After a pitched battle lasting nearly two hours, we stepped back to admire our handiwork, which would have passed for the Hunchback of Notre Dame’s less attractive cousin. It was almost completely dark.
We gave up on exploring, settling into our sleeping bags to realize that not only was the ground slanted, but moisture was condensing on the campsite’s trees, falling in large drops exclusively on our slouched tent, and filling it with water to kiddy pool levels.
“We could move,” I whispered.
“Too tired,” Bijani replied, turning away.
I’ve heard adversity brings people together, and at that moment, I felt like I could read Bijani’s thoughts. She was thinking: I hate you for bringing me here. And then I thought…hey, this was your big idea…and then I thought…well, actually, I was too exhausted to think anymore and I fell into a deep sleep, the kind that is easiest when you are young and you are trying to escape life’s pressures!)
We woke up wet, exhausted and hungry, and silently, we drained our tent. I figured we’d return home, Bijani would break up with me and I’d probably catch pneumonia. But then something amazing began to happen, even as we were hauling our waterlogged clothes and supplies, our spirits rose with the sun, and increased the further we got away from Hawk Camp.
“Well,” Bijani said as we retraced our steps on the fire road, “at least we have a good story.” I realized she was right! I already couldn’t wait to call up our friends and tell them about everything that had happened; we’d be the life of the next party. Or not… it didn’t really matter because at least Bijani and I were laughing about it. And in the end, I guess, that’s the best thing you can hope for from a camping or any other experience. Of course, one good tale per adventure is more than enough and for this excursion, we were both happy to have an uneventful trip back to the car and home. But the next time a friend called to ask me to go camping…you know what I said… “Absolutely!” Hey..sometimes you’ve just got to go ahead and jump-in!