I Went Camping Alone With My 4-Year-Old

2 Girls, no running water, a tent, and some lighter fluid … at the end of the day being brave is just about making a big fat mess.

It was 11 o’clock at night and pitch black. I was driving, at approximately 5 miles an hour, down a mysterious gravel road somewhere up in the Ozark Mountain wilderness. Just me, my 4-year-old and every flammable thing I could imagine, in our Subaru Forester. I was 4 hours behind (thus the pitch black) and with no cell phone signal to speak of, in search of a campground that I’d never been to nor heard of before (as of six hours prior). “This could really go one of two ways,” I thought to myself.

“Woah, I could never do that,” our cafe waitress said to me three days later when I’d told her what we did. “I’m scared of the dark.”

“Are you sure you don’t just want to go camping out here in the back?” said my father-in-law the night before we left, waving his hands over his Nebraska acreage. “Nope,” I replied. “I’m stubborn.”

WHY ON EARTH?

I might be stubborn. Or fearless, or foolish. I am a human being after all. So guess what? I too am afraid of the dark. Luckily we were camping under a full moon which shone its little heart out like a camp lantern in the sky. And to be perfectly honest, I am a little foolish. A scoop of foolish, a scoop of fearless.

Going camping by yourself with only your 4-year-old as company may not seem like a natural thing to want to do. For one, she is quite short, and therefore highly unlikely to scare off an Ozark bear (though rarely seen, they do exist.) It all seems highly likely to spin out of control. But you know what sisters (and brothers)?

Camping is like living. We desperately plan for every possible scenario, make sure to pack the right equipment for every need, and tell ourselves that WE ARE IN CONTROL. At the end of the day though, you’re cooking with a stick while your child poops next to a tree. Suddenly you realize you have no choice — if you’re going to make it through without having a total breakdown 1) you’re gonna have to decide be brave, and 2) you’re just gonna have to make a mess.

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Your mama is a badass

See the photo above? My phone says I took it at 12:59am. I took it after I pitched the tent myself, in the dark, and I didn’t break down crying once. I’ve pitched this same tent several times before, but never in the dark, when feeling quite so discouraged, and never completely by myself. It may have taken me an hour and a half, but I pitched it, correctly, with every freakin’ peg in the proper hole. At the time this photo was taking, I was saying out loud, “Hey Tucy? Guess what? YOUR MAMA IS A BADASS.”

LIFE LESSON #1 THAT CAMPING TAUGHT ME — IF YOU REALLY ARE A BADASS, THEN SHOUT IT FROM THE ROOFTOP (or From Under a Giant Tree)

(Give yourself credit where credit is due. Trust me, this simple act of being proud of yourself when you deserve it will carry you down the river of life’s trouble like an inflatable raft that no dinky little stick can puncture. Don’t wait for someone else to be proud of you. JUST BE FREAKIN’ PROUD OF YOURSELF.)

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I lied to myself and told myself I’d be prepared for this because of my experience. Because I’ve been camping before — backpacked into the high sierras, taught teenagers how to canoe on a lake in Maine, corralled 40 girl scouts at a rural camp in Michigan.

But once we were IN IT I realized once again that for me, being brave enough to do it meant being completely unprepared and unqualified. It meant falling down on my ass, again and again, and getting back up.

LIFE LESSON #2: DON’T WORRY ABOUT WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT.

One of my favorite teachers in nursing school used to say “F is for Flexible.” Yep. Let’s riff on that.

The first morning when we woke up, I tried to light my trusty little propane stove. YES I was a good little girl scout and tried it out in advance before we left — with all the same tools we would be using: same stove. Same propane tank. Same lighter. STILL. The first morning when we woke up at camp I tried to light the stupid thing so I could cook our freakin’ eggs and bacon, and it WOULD NOT LIGHT. Wait a second, how the f*&^ am I going to make coffee? I WILL NOT SURVIVE WITHOUT COFFEE.

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Ahhhh!! So close and yet so far!!

I troubleshooted with the stove for something like 45 minutes. I undid the propane connection and reconnected it. I disassembled the whole thing and reassembled it. Nope.

(Right here I am thinking: “WHY AM I DOING THIS ALONE? WHERE IS THE PERSON THAT CAN COME SWOOP IN AND HELP ME?” I even remember considering begging the only other campers in the campground, an annoying redneck and his girlfriend, for help. Darnitdarnitdarnit)

When I realized that every time I wanted to eat hot food (or make coffay!)  I would have to build a fire from scratch, let the flames die down, then cook the food, I really did want to cry. I wanted to but I didn’t. (Note: there’s nothing wrong with crying. But for me, crying is my status-quo. It’s something I do whenever I’m frustrated, which is constantly. So taking a deep breath, cussing a little, and not crying is a big deal for me.)

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So I built a fire. Around this time I also realized I didn’t have any pan in which to cook the bacon. (DOH!) First I tried frying it directly on the grill. Everything caught fire, burned to s%^& and I had to start over.

Then I put the bacon in this casserole dish (see above). I was congratulating myself at the time I snapped the picture. Five minutes later the whole thing exploded and shattered into a couple pieces.

YES the bacon burned, YES my child for the first time in her life refused to eat the bacon. Who cares? I ate the bacon, that’s all that matters.

Nope, didn’t taste great either.

Yep all that experience sure came in handy when I forgot the spoons. Any spoons of any kind. We can build a fire, light it, let it die down and then cook our food. But if we wanted to stir the food, we’d have to use a stick. Oh yeah, and I also forgot the bug spray.

LIFE LESSON #3 THAT CAMPING TAUGHT ME:

WELCOME TO THE ROCK BOTTOM.

Night #2 … I hit my first rock-bottom. I lost my only pair of shoes that weren’t ballet flats.

Tucy and I were wandering through the campground looking for access to the river. We climbed through a bamboo forest, slid down a muddy slope and found ourselves on a rocky river bank. We were so enthralled with our secret paradise that I took off my sandals. Then I lost them. The light was dimming, the sandals were brown and all the rocks were brown.

We got back to our campsite, shoe-less, and I must have been yelling a lot because T said to me, “I don’t like it when you’re mean to me.” This is the moment when I wanted to kick myself for not bringing wine.

Night #3 at 12:40 am = Our second rock-bottom.

Our redneck neighbors were playing dance music for the sixth straight hour that can only be described as “gay rave music circa 2001”. I wonder if they were aware. Meanwhile this zen hum was pierced every seven minutes or so by my daughter shrieking, “Maaaaaaammmmmaaaaa! My ‘gina hurts!” Since we had no bug spray, back on Night #1 she’d been the unfortunate victim of a crotch attack by a swarm of bitchy mosquitos.

Yep, those moments sure tipped the scale away from the “fearless” side and deep into the “foolish” side.

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LESSON #4: THE MORNING ALWAYS COMES.

In beauty I walk
With beauty before me I walk
With beauty behind me I walk
With beauty above me I walk
With beauty around me I walk
It has become beauty again

~ Navajo Prayer

Then the sun rose, and I remembered why I brought my 4-year-old camping.

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Because I want her to get lost in something beautiful, that was created by the same master that created her.

I want her to stand in quiet awe of the complete connectedness of our natural world, and love herself more for her place in it.

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I want her to marvel at her own strength as she feels her two little legs carry her all the way to the top of mountains.

One day when she’s a little bit older, there will be voices around her in her everyday life that tell her she’s not good enough. They will tell her she would be happier if her legs were longer or her hair was more wavy. The voices that will tell her people only love her because she’s pretty, that she can only feel good about herself after they’ve given her permission.

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I want to plant the seeds in her 4-year-old mind that will one day grow as tall as trees. Seeds of truth that will teach her to tell those voices to SHUT UP!

I want her to remember that there’s only one true voice — the one singing inside of her chest when she gets to the very top. When she yells out over the whole world, “I DID IT!!!!!”

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We did it together, little girl.

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