Chloe, age 8, and Jordan, age 6, are sophisticated city kids. They appreciate the good luck in finding a parking space within a few blocks of city destinations and don't find it strange that we have to insert a quarter to unlock a shopping cart from the rack at our local grocery store.

And they understand the special hazards of city life. They have learned to navigate sidewalks without stepping in dog poop and to check for pigeon droppings before sitting down on swings or park benches. At the zoo, they know to protect their hot dogs and onion rings from marauding gulls.

But for all their city smarts, they were babes in the woods when it came to camping. The closest they'd come to a campground was driving past Golden Gate Park near Haight Street where many homeless people sleep outdoors, though not in dome tents. So they were full of questions when I proposed a camping trip for our summer vacation. They liked the idea of sharing a tent with their Mom and me, and going without showers for a few days, but couldn't imagine what it would be like to sleep in a round room made of nylon. And they wondered how well the tent would protect us against bears, which had just been featured, in grizzly detail, at the Natural Science Museum.

I'm never sure if it's camping or the idea of camping that I love, but something pulls me out of my comfortable house and into a campground at least once a year. I like the idea of living off the land and dealing with the unknown, even if "the land" is a carefully planned campground in a national forest and the unknown is just a pesky yellow jacket interrupting our dinner, or finding my way to the bathrooms at night in an unfamiliar campground. Tame as it was, I wanted to share my version of camping with Adrienne and the kids.


We decided to hone our camping skills with a dry run in my friend Rain's backyard. Rain lives halfway between the cities of San Francisco and San Jose in a low crime, bear-free suburb called Menlo Park. We chose her house because her back lawn is flat and large enough to hold the four-person tent we'd just bought on sale at Target and because she'd know what to do if we couldn't assemble the tent using the printed instructions.

Rain greeted us in the front yard and helped us carry our gear through the house, (past the guest room which would be empty for the night), and into our personal campground. Her Jack Russell terrier, Jodie, ran a few happy circles around the kids and then jumped up and down, up and down, up and down next to me trying to peek into the grocery bag containing prawns for the main course and avocados, tomatoes, and salsa for guacamole.

I'd chosen prawns and guacamole because I wanted Adrienne and the kids to have something more memorable for their first camp dinner than hot dogs and canned beans. But I forgot how long it takes to prepare prawns. By the time I had them shelled, deveined, and ready for the barbecue, Adrienne and the kids had set up the tent without me. Nothing to it, they said. They had the sleeping bags arranged in a tidy row with a stuffed animal peeking out of each kid's bag. I felt a little disappointed not to be needed, but it occurred to me that this was the first time the kids had enjoyed making a bed, so they had already made an important discovery about camping: how routine housekeeping chores lose their drudgery and take on new luster because of the ingenuity and thought required to create a home out of nothing.

The kids didn't want to leave their nest, as they called it, so I gave them bowls of chips and guacamole to eat inside the tent. A few minutes later we heard the zipper open and Chloe poked out her head to report a guacamole spill. No problem! We're camping and we're not in bear country! A few minutes later Jordan poked out his head to ask if Rain would come in and tell them about the time Jodie almost got eaten by a mountain lion. Rain obliged and soon we heard the beginning of the familiar story: "Jodie and I were hiking alone in the Trinity Alps. There were signs along the trail saying keep your dog on a leash, but Jodie loves to chase squirrels and rabbits, so I let her run along beside me on the trail. I didn't realize it was mountain lion country, and that one of them was planning to have Jodie for its dinner..."


A half hour later we sat down to our dinner of prawns, rice pilaf, and corn on the cob with wine for the grownups and juice boxes (a big treat) for the kids. Although we cooked most of the food inside on the kitchen stove it felt like camping because we ate at the picnic table and ended the meal by toasting marshmallows and making S'Mores. It was tempting to go inside to wash our sticky hands, but we roughed it by dipping napkins into our water glasses and rinsing off at the table. We didn't have a campfire, but we sat around the dying charcoal embers in the Weber grill singing Raffi songs that the kids knew and Peter, Paul, and Mary songs that we grownups dimly remembered.

At nine o'clock it started to get cold the way it does when you're camping, and we groped around in the dark for our sweatshirts. Then I carried our plates and silverware inside to be washed in the morning while Adrienne took the kids into the tent to change into their jammies. We heard them giggling as they tried to fit their heads through armholes by the light of our battery-operated lantern.

The kids were disappointed that Rain and Jodie couldn't sleep with us in the tent, but they were excited that our bedtime was the same as theirs. For a bedtime story, they repeated the mountain lion story, snarling the way Rain had when they got to the part where the mountain lion appeared suddenly on the boulder overlooking Rain's campsite. The story ends with Rain strapping a miner's light on her forehead, wrapping a sleeping bag around her neck, and jangling a pair of pots in one hand while carrying Jodie in the other as she found her way to a campsite on the other side of the lake.

When they finished the story, Jordan asked if he could switch places with Chloe so he could be next to Mom and farther from any animals that might be lurking outside our tent. I told him there weren't any mountain lions in Menlo Park and that seemed to reassure him. A few minutes later I heard his soft, rhythmic breathing and knew he was asleep.


It took me a little longer to fall asleep. For one thing, Jordan's fear of mountain lions got me thinking about other kinds of prowlers and how strange it was that I was willing for us to sleep outside in a tent when I'd never let us sleep inside the house with the doors unlocked. That got me thinking how strange it was to be tossing and turning on a thin air mattress that barely softened the ground when there was a soft mattress on box springs inside the house.

But once I remembered the sturdy lock on the back gate and found a comfortable position on the sleeping mat, I could appreciate other parts of the day: how simple things like making beds, fixing food, eating, singing, dressing, and sleeping had felt special, as if we were learning to do them for the first time today instead of doing them unconsciously as we did at home. I could tell the kids had enjoyed themselves too, and without my need to understand why.


Copyright © 1997 by Molly Tyson. All rights reserved.

Molly Tyson is a writer who lives in San Francisco.

Naturepages Favorite Local Gentle Good Good