Making memories: Summer camping trips

Looking at summers past, it’s hard to say what is real and what is imagined

Does anything work up a better appetite than life in the wilderness?

Does anything work up a better appetite than life in the wilderness?

Photo By David Robert

Photos of my earliest summertime camping excursions reach back farther than memory does.

I do remember the California redwoods, with their banana slugs the size of Paul Bunyan’s pinkies. I remember Oregon and its seaweedy beaches and the horse I rode not far from our campground that farted the entire time I was on it.

Then there were the unearthly cold waters of the creek at the campground at Chilcoot, Calif., where my best friend, Amanda, and I agreed to dunk ourselves simultaneously—I went under, and she chickened out. I remember the many times I bummed it in my parents’ backyard, flattening the grass under the green, six-man, dome tent into a sad, crop-circlish patch of yellow. And in recent memory I hold the adventurous backpacking and camping trips I’ve ventured with my boyfriend.

What I don’t remember is the trip I most want to recall, the one I’ve heard stories about and have seen photos of but that has staked down no patch in the glade of my memories: 2-and- a-half-year-old Miranda’s first camping trip.

It’s funny how photos create memories. I could say I remember that I was wearing my favorite magenta T-shirt that time I went horseback riding, but I really don’t. I saw it in a photo my dad took, and I have put it into the context of what I know about myself at that time of my life—it had to be my favorite shirt because magenta was my favorite color, and I don’t remember having any other magenta shirts; at least I don’t have any photos of me in other magenta shirts.

The hodgepodge events of my first camping trip, which I have come to discover through stories and pictures, don’t make for a good narrative. The so-called facts I lay claim to come from subjective parents who doted over me, their first child, and who took photos that would reveal the kind of camping trip they liked to imagine we had. Some of the facts I might even have made up.

We camped at the Plumas-Eureka State Park near Graeagle, Calif. When we arrived at the campground, the ranger informed us that bears had recently disturbed park visitors by going through food and trash. He also said that deer had been frequenting the park. If we kept an eye out, we might be lucky enough to spot one.

Does anything work up a better appetite than life in the wilderness?

Photo By David Robert

The idea of bears and deer rested heavily on my mind, but I was distracted as my parents set up our palatial army tent. After securing our site, Mom, Dad and I went on an incredible hike. We traveled dense forest, rushing rivers and rocky ravines. I never complained, “Howww muuuuch lonnnnger?” as I would on so many future hikes.

Late in the afternoon, we reached a cabin that today I compare to the evil witch’s house in “Hansel and Gretel,” minus the gum drops, candy canes and graham cracker roof. Nobody lived there, and I wasn’t afraid to have my photo taken with it as long as Mom was next to me and we didn’t have to go inside. In the picture, Mom looks happy; my smile looks a little more forced.

That night, my terror of the forest’s creatures kept me and my parents awake until they could calm my nerves. It was dark, and there were noises outside our tent.

“Teddy bears comin', teddy bears comin',” my parents have told me that I whimpered that night. “T-deers comin', t-deers comin'.”

The next afternoon, another hike. Before leaving, Mom put my hair into pigtails; I have a picture of that. This time we found ourselves at a towering water silo that felt as foreign as the cabin had the day before. To me, the metal-ringed wooden tower couldn’t have been more intriguing if it was an alien spacecraft. Mom took a photo of Dad and me next to it; I’m smiling with pride at my discovery. Then I touched it. The metal, furnace-hot from absorbing the sun’s rays all day, burned my hand. I had the blisters to prove it.

The things I don’t remember today but have pieced together between the stories and the snapshots hold more promise for the future. I’m looking forward to lying on my death bed—on the assumption that I’ll be in a bed someday with foresight into the matter of my mortality—and recalling those memories I thought were lost. That’s what they say happens.

If I revisit the best memories, both those I know I possess and those I think I possess, many of those visits will be to the pages of my camping journals that I’m sure are shelved in my brain somewhere between My Religion: The Quest to be a Guru or at Least to be in the Presence of One and Memoirs of a Baby: Unconditionally Loved and Blissfully Unaware. Those journals will be in my recommended-reading section.

After all, camping trips are one of our closest things to earthly escape. They are vacations, they are time spent communing with family and Mother Nature, they are Thoreauvian in their simplicity and their capability of helping the mind transcend the material, the mundane and the empirical. They are a relief from the world that we are generally most familiar with and a reminder that enlightenment can’t be found until we leave the “real” world behind.

Reservations about camping

A word of advice if you’re headed to a campground that allows reservations: Make them. About 40 percent of the campgrounds in the Sierra Nevada allow reservations, and people who know this reserve spots between two and four months in advance. Generally, the most desirable campgrounds (Fallen Leaf, Meeks Bay, Donner Memorial, Emerald Bay) are the ones with reservable sites, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some other really beautiful places around. Most campgrounds open to the public in late May and early June, but there are plenty at higher elevations that don’t open until July. There are also some open year-round (Tahoe State Recreation Area, Sugar Pine Point, South Yuba). If you’re a more reclusive camper, look for a campground that has four to 15 sites (Kirkwood Lake, Lindsey Lake, Grouse Ridge, Big Bend) rather than one with 150-300 (Fallen Leaf, Wench Creek, D.L. Bliss, Tahoe Valley, Zephyr Cove).