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Thursday, September 6, 2012

California, part one: Camping is In-Tents.

To begin with, we really had no plans for a vacation this year. Not from a lack of wanting--the pining for the mountains that comes on in the spring had come on like clockwork this year just like every other. But between pregnancy and lack of funds we figured that maybe, maybe, we'd be able to have one next year. It would, after all, be irresponsible to put a vacation on a credit card when we were so blissfully debt-free--so we resigned ourselves to hoping for some time away next summer.

And then I had a miscarriage, and the desire to just...get away...was overwhelming. I can't even begin to describe the feeling inside my chest--pain and sadness and an inexplicable need to flee, all mixed up so confusingly that I couldn't seem to make sense of what was going on my head at any given moment. I tried to convey the feeling to Art, and within hours we were calling my mom asking if it would be okay if we had a last minute vacation with her for almost a month. We shifted schedules and searched for cheap flights, and within a few days we were set to fly out with kids, carseats, and camp gear in tow. My friend Jenn told me flat out, "I'm taking your chickens while you're gone," and thus the only impediment to our leaving was removed.

The flying out was unremarkable--the usual unpleasantness of trying to get eight million bags pushed through lines, checked in, getting shoes off, getting scanned, getting shoes on, waddling awkwardly between rows of narrow seats, and finally plopping down next to a guy who coughs wetly into his elbow-pit for the next four hours. The youngest has to pee or poop at least fifty times during the flight, and since we're still working on being accident-free I try to accommodate him. Trying to fit two people (however small the second might be) into an airplane bathroom is quite of feat of contortion, let me tell you.

We got in at 11pm local time, and the heat and the dryness we felt upon leaving the airport was like a physical attack. I could literally feel my face mummifying as we walked from the baggage claim to the car. My mom told us that they'd been having a bad heat wave, and considering it was nearly midnight and 103 degrees out I didn't doubt it. We got bags loaded and the carseat installed and we were on our way. The drive back to her house was a blur of tired babbling and traffic, followed by hurriedly stuffing kids into pajamas and onto air mattresses before passing out ourselves.

The first phase of the vacation was going to be camping, so the next day consisted mostly of packing food and supplies into the truck and tent trailer and getting things ready to go. My stepdad wasn't going to be able to go with us but he helped get us ready to go. The kids all wanted to ride with Grandma and my stepbrother Stephen in the truck (oh darn) so Art and I were alone driving the Prius the next day as we made the long trek north to the Sierras. Through the uninteresting mountains, up into the Mojave desert, and alongside the Eastern bank of the Sierras we drove, making our usual pitstops at the REALLY GOOD FRESH JERKY hut and Schatt's Bakkery in Bishop.

The traditional family photo at the jerky place. Doesn't everyone look thrilled??

 We ate our jerky and dried mango slices and kept an eye open for the left turn that would take us back into the mountains and out of the desert. Finally we found the turn, and within seconds noticed the temperature dropping. The thermostat went from 100 to 80 in about a minute, and I rolled the windows down and smelled the familiar scent of river water and sage in the rapidly cooling air. By the time Rock Creek Lake rolled into view it was a lovely 70-something degrees with the promise of a chilly night hanging in the fog at the edges of the surrounding mountains.

We met the campground hosts, a friendly, funny old couple from Florida (go figure), paid our fees, set up camp, ate something simple that my mom had prepared ahead of time, explored a little, and called it a night.

 The next morning dawned clear and bright, and after breakfast we checked out our surroundings more thoroughly. There was a steep, boulder-strewn slope behind our campsite that was just perfect for climbing, and Malcolm especially discovered a love for rock-climbing.

 The lake was surrounded by pines, aspens, and steep peaks, and handfuls of fisherman in camp chairs or waders scattered themselves across the sandy beach. A small bridge led over the creek to other campsites, and dozens of tiny pathways branching out from the main road cut through trees and scrub and tall grass, leading to better fishing spots, picturesque views, and sometimes leading to nowhere.

 The days we spent there consisted mostly of fishing, hiking, walking aimlessly, reading in the shade of the pop-up shelter, cooking, and--in the late afternoon at least--trying to stay dry. Nearly every day around 2pm the puffy clouds hovering at the edge of the mountain tops would suddenly make up their minds to come calling, and icy cold rain would fall. Apparently this is the norm for this area in the month of August. But although we had some muddy shoes and damp tents it wasn't too bad. At least nothing leaked this time, and the benefit of the tent trailer is that you've got somewhere dry to sit at a table to eat and play games.

We went on one hike all together, and I have to say that I was completely impressed by my boys. The first leg of the trail we decided to take was a mile of steep rock staircases that would have daunted a lot of adults, and not only did the older two boys make it up without help, Malcolm did as well. Granted, a few times I had to steady him or hold his hand over the steeper areas, but in general he got through that whole mile on his own three-year-old steam. I was so surprised. Once we got to the top it was a different story--a complete meltdown ensued and we took turns the rest of the hike playing mule for Mal.

The face of a worn-out three year old. And of a Grandma who hates her braces touching her bottom lip.

At the point of no return the black clouds began rolling in, but we decided to power through and get to the end of the trail. Which was interesting. At one point we were carefully picking our way down a slippery, muddy path while the icy rain soaked our jackets and pants, trying to decide if we were indeed even following a trail anymore.

 At last we got to the bottom, which dead-ended at a big, open horse pasture. It was hard to tell which way we were supposed to go, and Mal was slumped over Art's shoulders, sound asleep. We laid him on our jackets to sleep and ate protein bars while we tried to figure out which way to go to get back to our site.

 Art found a path alongside the river and we tentatively followed that until finally we reached a little community of summer cabins where a more clearly marked trail led the way back. Altogether it was about a six or seven mile hike, and I loved that we were able to do that with the kids.

My mom also watched the boys for us close to the end of the trip so that Art and I could go on a hike alone. We drove back to the Mosquito Flats trail head and followed the Little Lakes trail. It was one of the prettiest hikes I've ever been on. The trail leads up and up and then suddenly opens up to a small, green valley with a green-brown gem of a lake right in the middle. The trail leads along the edge of the water, and then goes up again. Around a bend and you're suddenly in another, higher valley, with an even prettier lake in the middle of a field of green grass and wildflowers.

And up you go again, and this time when you emerge from between two rock walls and into the open it's like something from a dream. Tiny, noisy creeks are coming from all sides, converging on a gorgeous jade-green lake. On the trail, quaint wooden footbridges span the creeks and purple, red, and yellow flowers poke out from behind every rock lining the water. The sky is a clear blue so dark it's almost alien, and every surface of rock and tree looks like someone turned the contrast way up.

Midway up the path, we went exploring off the trail. We climbed rocks and bent down to crawl through low-hanging tree branches until we were at least a hundred feet above the beaten path, and found a tiny, hidden lake (more of a pond, really) behind an outcropping of fallen boulders. We dumped backpacks and sweatshirts and sat down in our little hidden spot to eat trail mix and swim in the freezing, turquoise water. If you ever get a chance to swim in snow melt, I highly suggest you suck it up and try: there is nothing quite so bracing and exhilarating than a dip in frigid water followed by drying out in the warm, dry mountain air, followed by hiking. 

The rest of the hike was more of the same, and although it was really just more lakes and rocks and trees and flowers, each sight was like a profound new discovery. Something about the Sierras speaks to my soul, fills me with contentment and longing and a quiet not breached by silly things like technology and fashion and the need to be cool.

Every person we encountered on that trail was breathless and focused and smiling, nobody caring if their hair was a mess, or if their clothes were cool, or if they were going to be late for something. People greeted each other and made for each other because there is a camaraderie of people who feel the same deep love for this particular brand of the outdoors. It made me want to smile and to cry and to never have to leave. I did the first two, anyway.

The camping was rounded off by s'mores, fresh, pan-fried trout, and frequent trips to Rock Creek Lake resort, a tiny hole-in-the-wall that is home of the showers, homemade pie, ice cream, and the best hamburger I've had in a long while. Milestones were reached along the way: first real hikes for the boys, first fish caught and cleaned, and for Mal, first time going number two on the toilet. All very important goals.

The last day we packed, cleaned, and tossed the football to while away those final, golden hours. We stayed up late by the fire, watching the sparks fly upwards toward the silhouettes of trees against star-strewn sky. And then despite all we could do to slow down time, the final morning arrived and were forced to finish packing up. Art and I said goodbye to my Mom and the boys and we prepared to go our separate ways for a few days.


Jennifer R said...

I totally love that I can hear your voice narrate the entire story. Beautiful descriptions and pictures! One of my favorite pictures was the one of S smiling at I and I smiling at you! You can see they really were full of joy! :) Glad you're home - but even more that you had these moments!

mrs.deane said...

This is a beautiful post, Jenn, both in words and images :O) I am so happy for you that you were able to get away for a while, and give yourself a little time away from "the everyday" to heal - if only the smallest bit. The area you chose to camp in is absolutely breathtaking. God's creation always leaves me with a feeling of positive wonderment and thankfulness.

Steve Nelson said...

GREAT pics and post! And your hair... it's RED! YAY!

mrs.deane said...

I failed to mention that I really enjoyed your play on words with this title, by the way.

Totally, in-tents.

Hee hee hee.

I hope you are doing very well.

Love, Susan