Last summer my son’s pre-school class did a two week long module on camping. They read books about it, pretended to cook over a campfire, and ended with a “camp out” durning nap time where they told stories around imaginary fires and slept in sleeping bags. It was adorable. Until my son started asking me to take him camping… again, and again, and again and again.
While I grew up camping (and by camping I mean luxury car camping with a pop-up trailer, electricity and cable for the TV we brought), my husband is not really the outdoors type. I haven’t camped in several years but when my friend R suggested a group car camping trip at Pinnacles National Park in March, I thought it was time to make good on my son’s request.
Pinnacles National Park is a short 2 hour drive south of the Bay Area. My husband couldn’t join us, but my good friend, E, needed a ride, so she came in our car and helped me with the kids. I filled up our car with a giant tent that claims to sleep 4, two huge sleeping bags, a large rubbermaid full of food, a queen size air mattress, duffle bags, pillows, and snacks for the kids. I then picked up the kids from school, picked up E from the train station, tried to fit all her items in the space left in my car, thanked God that I had a rear view camera to back up the car, and we were on our way to Pinnacles..
Leaving the Bay Area at 3pm instead of our desired 2pm meant that our 2 hour drive turned into a 3.5 hour drive as we ran into Friday evening traffic. (It didn’t help that E and I were so caught up in our conversation, we missed one of our exits). Unfortunately the hour delay leaving and extra hour of travel meant we arrived to the campsite after dark. However, we were still the first to arrive. I knew the next group was less than an hour behind us, so we started to set up camp.
Using headlamps and flashlights, E and I opened up my tent, laid it out on the ground, attempting to put it together having nothing but the picture on the bag to go by. In the end, when we had left over parts and poles sticking out, we knew we had made a bad mistake somewhere. We decided the best way was to leave it as it was and wait for the real campers to show up and fix it. R’s husband A soon arrived with some friends and my goddaughter. They took one look at our tent, laughed hysterically, then took it apart and put it together again.
They also arrived with the firewood, hamburger and hot dogs; essential items for dinner. While they set up the fire, my kids ran around with clip on flashlights giddy that they were finally camping, excited to see their god-sister, and generally excited to be out in the great outdoors. They had a blast going in and out of the tent, so excited at the idea of sleeping in it. A and friends, the real campers, set up a fire, and started roasting dinner. At this point it was late and everyone was hungry, so the food disappeared almost as fast as it came off the grill. The last car full of campers arrived with R, and by then we were all in full swing, laughing and eating by the fire.
Now that the sun set, the temperature dropped quickly. I had read that the temperatures were going to be in the forties at night, so I came prepared with long johns and fleece for the kids, as well as a 35 degree double sleeping bag. My son and daughter were falling asleep by the camp fire, so i took them to the tent and got them dressed in layers and tucked them into bed, and promised I’d be along soon. Then I joined the group drinking by the campfire, enjoying fun adult time while my kids slept peacefully in our tent.
Soon I was tired as well, so I turned in, adding more layers on and crawling in with my little munchkins. I fell asleep almost immediately. Somewhere in the middle of the night, I woke up having to use the rest room. I climbed out of bed and my teeth were instantly chattering. I went out to take care the call of nature, and came back in as quick as possible. Even thought I had socks on, my feet felt like ice. I moved the kids each to one side so I could get in the middle and use them for warmth. I put the sleeping bag over all our heads so we could be warm. I was shivering and had trouble falling back asleep. I could not believe how cold I was.
In the morning, we heard my god daughter playing, and some people starting to move around camp. My son woke up, looked and me and said “Mommy, you slept in our tent too?”. Seriously, this kid must have been out. Now that they were up and realized the sun was up, both kids were excited to get out. We got out of bed but it was still chilly, so I added a jacket layer to what they were already wearing. Then we opened the door to the tent and my son said “Mommy, what’s that on my shoes?” Me: “Umm, frost…”. On the table were our water bottles we left out last night, they were frozen. I looked at R. “I think it went below 40 last night”. “No kidding.”
As we got settled into camp, making a fire, and getting breakfast, all anyone could talk about was how cold the night had been. The only ones who seemed oblivious to it were the kids. Once they had their milk and cereal, they went about exploring the campsite, gathering rocks and sticks, and making sure to get the only sleeping clothing I brought for them as filthy as possible.
In the daylight I could get a better view of the beautiful location we were spending our weekend. Surrounded by mountains, we were in a valley, in a group campsite that was set slightly below the road. The entrance to the site had a rough staircase, but the kids found it was much more fun to sit down and slide down the hill in the dirt instead. My son figured out this trick and promptly taught his sister and god-sister. Going up to come down became the best entertainment ever.
While we were finishing up breakfast and preparing bag lunches, the last family arrived. A couple with their 3 year old son came just to spend the day and the second evening. Their son, C and my son got along immediately, and he too was soon sliding down the hill on his bottom as well.
With everyone here, we finalized our plan for the day. The boys would go climbing, for which Pinnacles is famous for. Meanwhile, the four women and four kids would go for an easy hike. We split up and took off of our activities for the day. Our hike was…interesting.. and a story for another post. Let’s just say we all survived, and got back to the campsite in one piece with all the kids alive and throughly worn out.
While C’s mom and I set up her tent and got into the wine, more real campers arrived, so we started a fire to grill dinner for the evening. My son, who was now thoroughly fascinated with the campfire, settled himself into one of the camp chairs and was soon falling asleep. I had promised the poor kid a smore, so even though the dinner was not yet cooked, I put marshmallows on sticks and taught the kids how to roast the perfect marshmallow. Well, not really in that we managed to catch both marshmallows on fire accidentally, so they had charred marshmallows. But they were still melty and good between graham crackers and chocolate. Once the kids had a heathy dinner of smores, I took them into the tent, this time with even more layers, as well as a hat and gloves.
I was now free to join the others once more for more adult conversation. We all stood around the fire, talking, drinking, and enjoying each others company in this wilderness. As it got late, and everyone was tired or drunk, one by one we all tore ourselves away from the warm fire and headed to our cold tents. This time I put on two pairs of socks, more layers, and again adjusted the kids so I was in the middle of my two little heating pods
The night was warmer than the previous night (thought still quite cold), so we were all able to wake up moving all our fingers and toes. The kids went out and immediately found C and their god-sister to go make trouble with. Meanwhile, our host R, set about making the most luxurious breakfast you can make car camping, sourdough pancakes. Yes, this was a real treat. And she made them on the grill over the campfire like a boss. She rocks.
After breakfast came the inevitable packing up of the campsite. My son spent a good 30 minutes pitching a fit about not wanting to leave and trying to negotiate one more night. I guess the sign of a good trip is when they don’t want to leave. But all good things must come to an end and I needed to get my kids back to the house were I could scrub them from head to toe. Once everything was packed up, we said our good-byes to the group, our thank you’s to R and A who planned everything, and strapped my monsters into the car seats for the ride home. While the exhaustion of the weekend (and missed nap from the previous day) immediately caught up with my daughter, my son let me know most of the ride home how horrible a mother I was to make him come home so early. Ahh, I guess I’ll actually have to figure out how to do this again…