This will come as no surprise to the older, more experienced members of my readership (you mighty horde of three), but when you are in a relationship, “firsts” - by which I mean the first time you and your beloved do something together - adopt a strange, possibly unearned significance. These moments just feel important. The first time you kiss. The first time you cook together. The first time you go look at pets. These firsts carry weight. They seem in their own small way to foretell how your whole relationship will go in the long run. Whether they actually do or not is, of course, not for me to say. I am neither prophet, wizard, nor weatherman. Telling the future is not my job.
I simply mention this peculiar truth about firsts by way of introduction. This is the story of my fiancėe Chelsea and I’s first shared camping trip. We went to Joshua Tree on Thanksgiving weekend of this past year. Because this was our first camping trip together, it was always going to carry that odd aura of The First Time. So, when I went and actually proposed marriage on Thanksgiving Day, it did very little to calm the thing down in terms of our expectations. This was now our first shared camping trip as a newly engaged couple. Gasoline had met open flame. The whole trip was suddenly catapulted into the STRATOSPHERE OF VERY HIGH EXPECTATIONS, which I believe is the very highest level of our Earth’s atmosphere, the one right before the whole thing just melts away into the vacuum of space. Naturally, when your expectations are up that high, there is no way to go but down.
This is a tale that could easily run long in the telling, so let’s stick to the highlights and primary plot points. There is no need to concern ourselves with specific details of private emotions and personal squabbles. I don’t care to write about that, and you don’t care to read about it. As we discussed last week, my fiancėe and I see the world differently. Chelsea is an optimist, and she loves camping. I am a pessimist, and I am indifferent to camping. Armed with those two character nuggets, I am sure you can paint in all the dialogue yourself.
Let us begin.
I proposed on a Thursday, and we left for Joshua Tree bright and early that Friday, our hopes and our heads held high. We left early so as to claim a camping spot in the park, not knowing at this point that the whole park had been full to the brim for the past two weeks. This was what we found out hours later, after driving around the park for several of those hours, peering at each and every site in the park only to find that each spot was, indeed, well and truly taken.
With our hearts bruised but not yet broken, we left the pristine wilderness of the park and purchased a spot at a campground five miles or so away. Joshua Tree is beautiful. This campground was not. It featured a dusty little man-made lake, a village of camper vans, and a rusty metal sculpture garden. Joshua Tree features fascinating topographical features -- hills, cliffs, and boulders abound. The Joshua trees for which the park is named dot the landscape in memorable fashion. This campground was out in the flat, barren desert. Chelsea, being an optimist, was disheartened. I, having assumed the worst from the first sign of trouble, was disheartened that she was disheartened. Amidst this mood plunge, we proceeded to pitch our tent.
Naturally, this took a whole lot longer than you would want. Pitching a tent always takes longer than you would want. But two things made it particularly frustrating this time. Firstly, the tent we had borrowed from friends was designed to hold 6-8 adults. In turns out that the larger the tent, the more severe the headache it causes. Also, just to warn you, pitching a tent in the desert is inherently worse than pitching it elsewhere. Tent pegs are designed to be driven into dirt that will hold tent pegs.
Sand is not dirt.
I do not recommend pitching a tent in the desert.
But, we did get the stupid thing up in the end.
Fresh from the struggle, we abandoned our campsite for dinner at Pappy & Harriet’s, a delightful joint in Pioneer Town, which is a fabricated Old Western town where they used to shoot Old Hollywood Westerns. It has since been turned into a tourist trap. The wait for a table was lengthy, but we finally got a spot, and the evening passed pleasantly enough. We returned to our camp site with thoughts of building a cheery fire.
Surprise! We couldn’t get the fire started in the dark. I am a pessimist, but this was a blow to my pride specifically. I was a cub scout once, many moons ago, and for some reason this fact made my own inability to get the wood to light somehow personal. Disheartened yet again, we turned in for the night.
Morning brought new frustrations. I’ll spare you details. Let it suffice to say that one of us - I will not specify who - had forgotten to pack a frying pan, and essentially all of the food supplies we had brought with us required that frying pan. I will also clue you in on the fact that you cannot make a frying pan out of aluminum foil. IT DOES NOT WORK. And if you are going to borrow a frying pan from a group of frat boys camped nearby, know that you must wash that pan first.
Rallying from our day’s frustrating start, we headed into the park. To our vast relief, the afternoon went well. Hikes were had, snacks were consumed, and the gorgeous natural beauty of Joshua Tree did much to lift our spirits. We left the park well before sunset, making a quick detour to civilization to buy a frying pan and lighter fluid. I was determined to get a fire started before dark, and Chelsea had plans to fry some pork chops for our dinner.
Surprise! We returned to the campground to find our tent completely collapsed, its fabric whipping about in the brisk wind that was now blowing across the desert. We attempted to put the tent back up, but it rapidly became clear that with the wind picking up the way that it was, our large tent (built for 6-8 people, remember) was essentially a huge sail. The force of the wind in this huge sail just kept pulling the tent pegs out of the sand.
Again, my friends, I must remind you, SAND IS NOT DIRT. Sand and tent pegs do not get along.
Some kind retirees from a camper van nearby attempted to help us, but it soon became crystal clear that this tent was just not going to stay up. With hearts now utterly dashed, we looked around us and realized that the weekend was pretty much a complete bust. There was not enough room in our vehicle to sleep comfortably, and it was decided, after discussion, that we should pack up, fry our pork chops, and at least enjoy dinner before we headed back to civilization.
We had finally gotten the stupid tent folded up (which also takes longer than you’d want), when we turned and saw the storm rolling in over the desert.
There it was, a veritable wall of wind and rain, racing directly our way. It looked like something out of a film.
This understandably hurried our packing. The rain began to pound down around us just as we got the last of our things into the car. The wind was so strong by this point that the tents of other campers, who were still out for the day, were quite literally blowing away across the sand.
In the car on the way home, we reflected that our trip, though on paper a complete failure, and actually been the best case scenario for the set of circumstances we had faced. Our tent was not built for a desert. And, if it was going to collapse, at least it had the decency to do so during the day, when we were not inside it. The whole thing would have been much worse at night. And, if I had been able to get the campfire lit the night before, we never would have come back to camp so soon, in time to break everything down before the rainstorm arrived. Breaking down a campsite in the dark in the middle of a rainstorm would have been so much worse than the frustrations we had had to face.
So, there you have it. Sometimes bad things really do lead to good.
Of course, sometimes they don’t, but then life will insist on being mysterious.
Just promise me you’ll never pitch a tent in sand. We’ll leave it at that.