Hindsight isn’t 20/20, its just better in general than foresight is. Parents used to begin what were supposed to be edifying warnings in the form of fake reminiscences with the phrase: “If I’d known then what I know now…” and then blather on about dumb things like using a map, not hiking alone, bringing water, telling someone where you were going.
Here’s one that may actually be helpful going forwards: Don’t go camping alone with anyone who says aloud that they ‘live’ for camping unless you know someone else who has gone camping with them and survived. Try to stay within cell phone range. Tell your roommate where you’ll be and to come get you if you’re not back in a couple of days.
Kenny and I had been dating for several weeks when we (he) decided we should go camping for a few days up the Coast at Big Sur, or around Big Sur. I had pleasant memories of family camping when I was a girl. I remember how cool it was to stay out all day long, build forts, eat marshmallows, share a tent with cousins or friends. All the places my family camped had stuff like reservations, actual bathrooms, adults who did all the cooking, bug spray, organized activities, even organized campfire talks where local teenage guides tried to scare us into not doing anything to further the extermination of the weather-hooted tommy jaw, or lynx fungus dead snake or whatever else there was. I didn’t light a match outdoors until I was in college because I felt so respectful of Smokey-the-Bear.
Kenny hadn’t camped with his family. They were more of the Country Club set, they camped in four star hotels, away from their children who were off in sleep away camps in the mountains.
Those summers were magical for Kenny. He had survived a snake bite, seen bats, tied knots, sailed boats. When I met him, he was in his late 20s and camping was still, sex only excepted, his favorite thing to do and I was game, even willing.
My first hint that something was different in his camping style was when I asked where he had reserved and he said that he would find a place. We were already almost to Oxnard, about to hit the Coast. I grew up in California and knew how crowded the campgrounds could be but he assured me that we were going somewhere much, much better than any campground.
California sunsets are long and beautiful in summer but even this long August day was starting to end when Kenny suddenly veered off the very scenic highway onto a dirt path that looked like it was going straight up through a poison oak sanctuary but then turned left sharply onto a more primitive dirt path that led to a metal gate with a big sign that said: ABSOLUTELY NO TRESPASSING.
Kenny turned to me in the darkening mist and said that we would have to park down a ways and then hike in. Hike in where? I wondered. I didn’t even see a goat path through the brush. He’d seen a glimpse of water, he said and some darker green bushes which meant that there had to be a stream somewhere. He was confident we would find it just down the (gated) road a bit.
It was a steep descent from where we parked and we hadn’t been able to bring everything with us. Kenny told me to grab a warm sweater and sleeping bag and leave my backpack in the car, which I did. We left the tent, the stove and most of the food there, too.
It was already dark when we finally found the creek, a trickle that looked iridescent, brown and shallow and was surrounded by mosquitoes about to hang it up for the night and move on to dinner which in this case was me. We’d left the bug spray in the car, too bulky.
I was almost too hungry and tired to be resentful when Kenny suggested that we go skinny dipping in the swamp. I declined. Then he took out a glass pipe he had decided was critical, as opposed to bug spray, smoked a bowl and began to make motions towards bogeying on down with me. Bitten, starving, dehydrated, angry and exhausted as I was I shoved him with one blistered boot, zipped myself up as far as I could in my sleeping bag, drank more than my share of the water and ate an entire granola bar in one bite.
He probably went to sleep beside me but when I woke up in the middle of the night, he was nowhere to be seen. Instead I looked straight into the rank, yellow, malevolent eyes of a Mountain Lion, not seven feet away from me across the fetid rivulet. He looked as hungry as I was but much less afraid. I think you’re supposed to back away or keep quiet or something but that required more thought than I could conjure up so I unzipped my bag, stood up and tried to shoo him away by throwing my hiking boot at him, which fell into the mud, while also screaming at the top of my lungs.
The lion took a few desultory steps down the path when Kenny decided to surprise me by coming up on my back through the bushes dribbling cold water from the creek down the back of my neck. He hooted with glee when he saw the Mountain Lion who turned and faded into the bushes.
I was wearing a t-shirt and underpants, now a wet t-shirt and underpants. I socked Kenny as hard as I could. He was completely naked, pale, blue-white and rubbery wet in the full moonlight.
“It’s great, babe,” he said. “There’s an actual swimming hole down the creek about a mile, you gotta come!” I looked at him. There was that great, freckled Tom Sawyer smile I had found so appealing when I saw it at the end of my clean, air conditioned sheets in West Hollywood, the enthusiasm, the love of nature —
I was way past asking him if he was f—cking crazy. Obviously, he was. I tried to think of all my girl scout tips about how to not die violently in the woods but all I came up with was the recipe for hobo stew (not good) and something about lanyards.
“I don’t want to die here, Kenny.” I said.
“What are you talking about?” he said. “Isn’t this great?”
“I want to leave,” I said. “Look at my face, does it look like I’m having a good time?”
Kenny looked at me carefully with his globular blue eyes and shifted his head to one shoulder.
“Not sure,” he said. “You do look like you got a bunch of bug bites on one cheek. Is that the side you slept on?”
Kenny was clearly having a great time. I knew he wanted me to enjoy it as much as he did but in the long scheme of things I always prefer staying alive over novel ideas about recreation. I’m not tempted to hang glide, climb Everest, go to the moon. Often just trying to merge onto the 405 satisfies my thirst for adventure.
We had gotten along so well in the weeks we’d been together. We’d taken long walks, dined and drank, watched movies on tv, had sex. “Hold on”, I said to myself. Long walks, yes, food and drink, yes, sex, yes yes yes, movies, okay, but what did I really know about Kenny that had convinced me to trespass with him into territory that had no wi-fi, lights, roads, etc.? He was a chipper, enthusiastic walker, fucker, eater and drinker. He was sweet. He was healthy. But I sort of got why his parents left him in the woods while they played golf and drank cocktails. I began to like them more and couldn’t wait to see more humans like them, people who showered and wore dry clothes, made reservations, had bug spray.
I wrapped myself up in my sleeping bag and waited for the dawn to creep its tepid fingers over the Coastal Range and reminded myself to walk uphill.