“Can you call me every night and let me know how she is?” my wife said as I packed four tents, a portable crib, and our daughter into the car.
“I don’t know if we’ll have service,” I explained. “It’s a campground.”
“It’s a campground in New Jersey,” she said.
I shrugged and told her that I’d do my best.
“I’m letting you take our toddler into the woods. Find a way to call.”
When we arrived at the campground, we waited for my friend Darius and his daughter–also a toddler–to arrive. When our party was complete, the park’s ranger welcomed us, telling us about all the important items. I missed points two and three, as I was still dumbfounded over item number one: “There’s a large black bear in the area. He’s a bit nosy, so give us a call if he enters your site. Keep your food in the car.”
I looked over at the girls. They were little nuggets. My palms grew sweaty.
Points two and three had probably pertained to some of the other dangers lurking nearby, one of which was noted on multiple signs nailed to myriad trees: the park had a tic infestation. The third hazard was plain as day, as it was really the only other thing laid out before us, besides the tic- and bear-filled woods. The lake was settled before us like a beautiful hazard.
On the other hand, the cellular connection was wonderful, but there was no way I was going to call my wife as I feared that I might mention the lake or tics or bear.
Our first call to action was to unload the cars, but the vehicles were parked about one hundred feet up a trail and out of distance. We placed the girls in a Pack ‘N Play, and took turns running for the cars. The girls alternated between screaming their heads off when their respective father disappeared for a minute, and sitting bemused, seemingly baffled by their playmate’s commotion.
When we were done transporting the campsite out of the cars, the girls looked as though they expected to be relieved from the temporary cage. But to set up the tents, we needed four hands and all my attention. (Darius was not very astute to the intricacies of temporary architecture; his attention was useless. He was basically good for his hands.) So we left them in the portable crib, perfect for preventing them from wandering into the woods or the lake.
As noted in paragraph one, I had packed four tents. This was because I wasn’t sure if they had all of their parts. The first tent we unfurled was without poles; the second tent, had been designed for one of the two wars in Asia. Without a proper army, the tent proved impossible to raise. (The mutiny in the Pack ‘N Play didn’t help things either.) After the better part of a frustrating hour went wasted, we scrapped tent two.
“I think I can get these two tents up,” I told Darius, pointing to a four-person tent and a one man piece of junk. Darius was in charge of removing the girls from the Pack ‘N Play and keeping them safe and entertained.
My friend did his best, but, naturally, paid more attention to his daughter. Though I had to abort construction a few times to stop my daughter from trying to swimming or pressing her nose to a tic-infested flower or climbing the wooden platform that would keep our tents lofted off the ground, eventually we got the site set up and set off on a hike.
We strapped the girls to our bodies and went straight up a precipice. “Look at the beautiful scenery, girls,” I said.
“Banana. Banana. Banana.”
When we reached the place where our trail merged with the Appalachian Trail, we turned around for our bear-, tic-, lake-infested campsite.
Camping with a Toddler
We got lost and arrived near dark. We fed the girls, locked up the food and food-covered clothing in the car, and spent ten minutes checking and rechecking our daughters for tics.
Then we tackled the failure of putting two babes to bed in the forest. At first, things seemed to be going well. My daughter flapped her hands with excitement and charged her way for the tent. But when she discovered that she would not be sharing the Pack ‘N Play with my friend’s daughter, and that Daddy would be staying up to watch for bears with beers, she lost her composure. So, too, did my friend’s daughter. He and I sat outside the tent with no plan, shrugging every time another minute ticked past without a reduction in screaming.
And then, like a tree falling in woods with no one there to witness its collapse, we heard thwack. And then a few minutes later another thwack. Both girls were out.
We cracked open a pair of beers and watched the moon play out across the lake.
“Man, I don’t know how we’re going to do this tomorrow night,” said Darius, already fearing the next evening, though we were hardly through the first.
I was about to tell him how we had overcome the hardest part; how we had learned from our pitfalls and wouldn’t make the same mistakes tomorrow; how a beer had never tasted so earned.
“Hold on. I gotta take this,” he said, his face aglow from his phone. It was his wife. He explained a few things. “No, not a bear, a beer… Right… Yes, we checked them for tics…”
I had full service. But I didn’t know how I was going to have that conversation.