We took Opal camping for the first time last weekend and, as Jesse so aptly put it, we lived to tell the tale.
All-told, it was approximately a 24 hour escapade, with multiple hours on each end for preparation and take-town. But it certainly seemed like a lengthy trip, condensed as it was.
We hardly roughed it. I purchased a "family-sized" tent from Costco that had been set-up and suspended from the rafters in the store, enticing me with my oversized bags of blueberries from below. It was large enough to accommodate a queen-sized foam mattress alongside Opal's Pack-N-Play, providing an extraordinary area to lounge, play and eventually sleep in. We packed camping chairs, an overstuffed cooler stocked with a variety of food and beverage options, the Coleman stove, citronella candles. We packed Opal's Twilight Turtle (that projected stars onto the interior of the tent) and her Giraffe that created battery-powered white-noise. We brought her 3 changes of clothes—she went through every one of them!—while Jesse and I stayed in our same clothes through the length of the journey.
With all this gear, we considered ourselves immune from calamity.
The campground that was selected for our maiden voyage was Lone Duck Campground in Manitou Springs, Colorado.
Jesse and I had been there many years prior to Opal's birth, during the era when we subscribed to Sunset magazine. We'd tear out the "Weekend-Trips" pages and follow their instructions on how to have a good time in the particular city they'd featured. I don't recall Lone Duck making it on to their recommendations list, but we did learn where else to visit in Manitou Springs. The town is completely adorable, from the accoutrements gift shop that sells all things bacon to the old-school arcade furnished with a row of Skeeball. We were guided on where to eat, go for scenery and for adventure. We even used Sunset's suggestion to find a place to rent bikes.
But, as I said, Lone Duck was discovered independently. I'll never forget pulling into the campsite the evening of that first visit just as the sky opened up to storm. Jesse and I spent the first few hours sitting in the front seat of his Subaru waiting for the rain to pass, listening to mood music and using his dash as an impromptu bar for a bottle of Sake and two sake cups. (We finished the bottle before the rain finally let up enough to put the tent together.)
Lone Duck is one of those just-add-water, already-assembled type places. The amenities included (but were not limited to) a swimming pool, a playground, an arcade accompanied by an endless supply of fresh-popped popcorn and a fishing pond stocked with one single, solitary Lone Duck. There was a souvenir/convenience store open to offer a variety of impulse buys—ranging from snub-nosed pliers to teddy bears dressed in leather moccasins—to vulnerable campers until 10pm. The sum of the aforementioned details created a place that vacillated between comforting and blatantly silly.
It was mid-afternoon when we pulled into our campsite with a sleeping kiddo in the backseat of the car. At that time, we thought we found some prime real estate located in the far-off corner of an empty gravel culdesac next to a lush thicket of grasses, completely surrounded by trees. But by 8pm that night, there were 5 other vehicles, tents and sets of campers crammed into that same culdesac, stripping the space of any real rustic appeal and replacing it with more of a tone of "Block Party."
But it remained lovely. None of our fellow campers were obnoxious in any way.
(The author must take a moment to reflect on a camping trip taken with Jesse and Olive-the-dog long before Opal came along. Those who were camping close-by grew in volume and rudeness in direct proportion to their increasing beer consumption—blasting classic rock, revving car engines, hooting and grunting like animals—to the point where Jesse and I actually put in earplugs while we sat by the fire before deciding to pack up our entire camp and leave.)
In fact, the fellow camping just down the way from us, who sported a dozen or so 666 tattoos in an array of fonts and sizes, happened to be camping with his two pet ferrets. He brought them over to greet Opal, offering his own delightfully bright eyes that immediately brought his appearance back to the level of neutral. They sniffed Opal's arms in a tickly weasel fashion that had her in stitches. Later in the night when a random firework was set off in the distance, it was our dear 666 friend, Jake, who yelled Knock it off!
He's turned out to be our protector. Jesse said.
There was nothing for a toddler not to love about our tent. A down comforter on the foam-mattress where she could walk and read and play with her Tommy Trains and finger puppets. It was limitless access to mommy and daddy's bed, on the ground, enveloped in orange walls. She enjoyed the playground as it brimmed with friendly kiddos of all ages, hi kiddos!, (it was too rainy and cold for the pool) but I consider it to be a safe assumption that she'd have preferred to stay in the tent with mommy and daddy for the entire stretch of the afternoon.
In the evening, we took a short drive to evade a series of monstrous, bloated clouds and wound up in Green River Falls. A precious dollhouse of a town with a tiny lake that brimmed with ducks and geese and a foot-bridge that lead to a gazebo right in the center. It had an expansive kelly-green lawn with picnic tables nestled under shade trees, an impressive park with half a dozen slides and swings and a sandbox as big as our bedroom at home. There was a row of little shops ending with the quaintest of diners called, aptly, The Pantry. Jesse and I had ridden our (rented) bikes down here during the aforementioned Lone Duck adventure, and dined at The Pantry, were served by a waitress who wore her hair in a classic Beehive. (However, I would not have remembered how to get to this place had it not been for Jesse, so the Beehive portion could easily be a figment of my imagination.)
The Pantry had opened a garden patio with an open-air bar and full menu, nestled beneath enough shade trees and umbrellas that the impending storm no longer concerned us. A portly feline that dangled from a branch near the entrance sold Opal instantly on our spontaneous dinner choice. A live musician—an irresistible John Wayne-type cowboy—serenaded Opal with Hush Little Baby and the crowd of diners cheered and waved and grinned in her direction. Opal was so lit up that the notion of hunger didn't even occur to her until we returned to camp.
She didn't get too close to the campfire—HOT!— but it was heaven to sit her on my lap in our respective fleeces as the sun tucked away for the evening, and read her a book while she sipped milk that was warmed on the Coleman stove. There is something wildly liberating about taking her bedtime routine on the road and having it continue to be successful.
Encased in stars and the hushhhh of her noise machine, worn from her long and thrilling day, Opal fell asleep without a single peep. Jesse and I were able to sit by the camp fire—just the two of us!—where we waxed about what life would be like when Opal has a sibling as we sipped on beer and ate peanut butter cups. This peaceful and kid-free moment was not a moment I had expected.
Somewhere between the quiet time and preparing the area for bed, another car of campers pulled in right next to us. It was as if people were checking into the adjacent hotel room in a hotel without walls. When we climbed into the tent with Opal, I remember distinctly noticing how the conversations of our neighborhood of campers seemed to be getting louder—perhaps the drinking was loosening the vocal chords, perhaps we couldn't hear so well when we were sitting by the pops and crackles of the fire. Jesse asked if I wanted ear plugs but I declined, not wanting to miss anything if Opal needed me. (Silly, I know, she was less than an arm's length from my chin.) And if she woke, I also did not want to miss the reason why.
Then the rain came. The tink-tink-tink of individual raindrops shifted to the blaring wash of downpour in no time and the outside conversations were no longer an issue. (I must admit I felt a certain devious sense of satisfaction in visualizing the chatty campers being forced to scurry into their tents.) A storm ensued that lasted for what seemed like hours, though I couldn't see my watch in the dark and am not at all sure of the timing. Cycles of lightening followed by ground-shaking thunder accompanied the deafening, seamless downpour. Opal didn't even stir. Jesse and I lay there in the darkness (the Turtle-stars had shut off from the timer) and listened, smiling in spite of ourselves at our little toddler who was to wind up being the best-rested of the three of us.
I'd been so concerned with Opal not being warm enough at night. It gets frigid in the mountains at night, even in the dead of summer. I packed her snowsuit to sleep in, if push came to shove. But the night wound up being cool, not frigid, and she stayed put beneath her weighty comforter so she was perfectly comfortable . She woke twice during the night, independent of thunder crashes, and I held her and rocked her back to sleep with very little effort.
Again, I took great pleasure in transferring these familiar acts from home to a tiny vinyl hut in the middle of the night in the middle of a gravel lot in the middle of a campground in Manitou Springs. As I said before, there is a feeling of such satisfaction in being able to move the whole experience of day-to-day family life to new environs. Gives you a sense of being adaptable, capable.
In conclusion, our dress rehearsal of the Grimes family, unplugged, indeed went off without a hitch, barring lack of sleep and a minor cooler catastrophe.
Next stop: Colorado wilderness. Where we have a plot of space all to ourselves (and the previously inhabiting wildlife) just off a dusty old pull-off road where the Subaru can sleep close-by.