It must be the last day of our camping trip because my sore fingers are punctuated with pitch black parenthesis of dirt under every nail. The sloshing coolers are a little less heavy than they were four days ago, and my hair has the consistency of a stiffened grimy dish rag. When asked to begin packing up, our offspring complain about not being allowed to stay in camp just one more day. I love that. Yet with sloth-like obedience they roll up sleeping bags and take orders and bicker before we say our heartfelt goodbyes to the forest and our temporary home among nature’s splendor. The events that led up to this serene moment were quite the opposite. There were raised voices, general confusion, and heated arguments about cooler organization. The selection of clothing for three children was a series of outright civil wars which threatened to sabotage the trip altogether. Threats were made. Doubts were had.
Preparation: It has come to my conclusion over two decades of dispersed camping if you are not well researched and confident in your destination, the camping gods will sneer in your stupid face in the form of full campsites, fire bans, or roads that simply do not exist anymore. Therefore, it is imperative that we know exactly where in the millions of acres of national forest we are to end up. In the past, when we were childless and had the luxury of time and fewer little people to drive us crazy, we would literally pull out the map, look at it for a bit and hit the road. We had the luxury of fewer fellow campers back then too. It was nothing for us to leave at noon on a Friday and mosey into the unknown just enjoying the drive. We wouldn’t set up camp until dark, skip dinner, and fall asleep with stomachs topped off with Jim Beam and Coke. (not Diet Coke either) Add complaining children and hundreds of thousands more inhabitants and demanding careers to that equation and being prepared (and leaving much earlier) is all you can do to keep a trip from going straight to hell.
The best kept secret to doing research is Google Maps. You can literally create your own map with endless layers and icons for places you have been, places to try out next, or best place to find good coffee. You can create your own map for literally anything. I’d share mine but then I’d have to kill you. Dispersed camping is a gambling man’s game so zooming into the satellite images following forest service roads squinting for what looks like a fire ring or pull-off is by far the best way to find these little jewels in the vast wilderness when you need to kill a few hours at work. I’ve even added fishing spots, what I caught, and what flies I caught fish on to my maps. Again, I cannot divulge this delicate information for reasons mentioned above. Murder and all that.
One the Road: Leaving the comforts of our urban setting to drive hours into the mountains seeking respite from normalcy and summer heat always feels like the evacuation from Chernobyl. There’s an endless flurry of haphazard organization, checking off mental lists, asking each other if we remembered to feed the cat, and hoping we have everything we need so we don’t have to buy it in some random store on the way to wherever we are going. At least five times I pace quickly out to the garage and upon getting there, totally blank on what it was I came to find. It seems this is a human quality that my oldest daughter and I share. But excitement drives us on, anticipating cool air, clear mountain streams, and long hours with a good book in a lazily swinging hammock.
Once our truck tires struggle against asphalt, tensions rise in those critical first thirty minutes while thousands of other motorists jockey for a safe spot on a squeezed highway winding up grade into the Rocky Mountains. Loaded down 18-wheelers chug loudly in the right lane over towering passes with their red flashing hazards blinking into the rising sun. Finally, a single span bridge at the top of one hill frames the towering Continental Divide in the distance, still speckled with frozen ice and snow left over from last winter’s blizzards. There is a long exhale from both us parents in the front seats and my knuckles regain their color.
Navigation: Finding a road with pull-offs and fire rings doesn’t require GPS, just basic map skills but it helps to have a dependable navigator riding shotgun, especially for me since I get lost in my own neighborhood. This also needs to be the type of person who once at a campy looking area, must have the patience to say, “Let’s keep driving and see what’s up here,” when the driver has had enough and is ready to take the first site they see, just to get the F out of the car. No, to get the kids and the dog out of the car. On nearly every occasion this balance of power has worked out to our benefit. It is worth stopping for a minute to hop out and do a two-minute walk around a site, then drive to the next to see how each one feels, because once settled and set up, it hurts pretty bad to hike up the road to find a site with everything your current site does not have. But taking down a full camp and setting up again is rarely an option. Rarely.
You may exit the ride: From the minute we begin the research to finally settling on a site and putting down tent stakes, the process takes on the feel of a rickety old wooden roller coaster. There are highs and lows, excitements and let downs, strikes and gutters, and the off chance that the wheels rattle off and everything comes crashing to the ground in a ball of flames can feel very real. But once committed, you must find that confidence and let angst and fear ride in the back seat until you feel the chill of that first camp cocktail in hand and camp setup commences, because then and only then, does that anxiety dissipate into the campfire smoke and the ride is over.