Ginger licks the sleep out of my eye, licks the insides of the rain fly for condensation, doesn’t understand tent etiquette or the idea of personal space, steals my sleeping bag each time I get up, looks like Kermit the Frog, how her cheeks fold in where the hand makes a mouth.
My kids don’t find it unusual to camp here, to just pull down a rocky road to the end where it terminates at a fire ring on a mound overlooking the river, a stand of silver firs gone gray-brown from a long ago fire, now with tufts of moss to give them a bit of green but otherwise colorless, dead inside but still standing like some people I’ve known, who can fool you by trying to blend in with the living.
We use just the tent footprint and the rain fly with the poles but no actual tent, it’s “go light” to save on weight even though we’re car camping, to test out how well it works with a gap between the ground and the fly so Ginger can come and go as she pleases, always wanting in or out, rarely staying put: there’s a hundred million things that can go wrong as a herder and she’s constantly checking back with us, a project manager at heart, responding to the tiniest of sounds and scents in the nearby meadows, the constant risk of transgression, some breach, all that needs to be confined but can’t.
It’s only ants that get into our tent but they’re the big, black ants that look military, all business, how they gather intelligence and pause to process their positions, it really looks like they’re communicating by radio, through feeds.
The kids are old enough now I can entertain an afternoon nap while they’re throwing the football outside the tent, and Ginger does enough worrying for all of us, keeping an eye on things. There’s no end to the number of rocks they can gather at the riverside and assemble on a log by the fire pit, and ask me to admire one by one — and we’ll take them home loose in the car and place them in flower beds and pots around the house, and lose track of where they came from.
Charlotte collects ants, traps them in her hands, talks to them, invents plot points and characters, steals their essence and replaces it with hers — but she’s an unkind creator, only in it for herself, just treats them like play things.
And though I’m sure it was the same spot where we’d camped two or three years ago it didn’t look the same, it felt a bit barren this time like something was missing and I had a pang of loneliness, wondered if we should stay or find somewhere else — but the kids seemed happy, their expectations a lot simpler than mine, and Lily said let’s throw that old pigskin and they got opposite one another under a tall pine tree by the fire ring, and it was just some leaning lodge poles and firs stabbing the sky, a painting that takes all day to be done.
I have pictures of myself with the kids one morning camping at this same spot, can picture myself then, the time of year, how much therapy I got from being outdoors when I was working; it was always about getting away, not being pinned down, but feeling free — my John Deere hat smiling, with a coffee: the girls on either side of me with bed head, Charlotte making a crazy face.
It had been a few years, maybe September when we came, and though the bones of it were the same, the skin had changed, and we were different too, always wanting to recreate, to relive, which is impossible to do.
The wind came on harder and soon the rain down the valley, blackening the rocks around our fire pit, me with one hand on my beer to keep the rain from diluting it, a late afternoon rain that looked like it could go either way, like it could blow by or just keep going — and along the cliff walls up the mountain ridges it looked gray like snow obscuring everything, blowing small gusts against the rocks, wisps of fog and steam — and I sat under the hatch in the back of the Pilot with my feet hanging off the edge watching it, listening to the sound it made on the roof, and later lost myself in the fire as it folded in on itself, sagged and cracked — how many times I’d either driven through mountain passes when it was raining like this, or watched how the rain fell on the mountains from afar, and just wanted to be in it for reasons I didn’t understand, and couldn’t explain — but like a wet GoreTex jacket against bare skin, the tent had a constant ambient wetness with just the rain fly, so we gathered all the wood from the nearby camps, picked it clean like the Grinch, huddled around the fire with our hot cocoas and later, the dog, and Charlotte kept asking what time it was and I said time for you to get a new watch because I don’t know — and all morning as it pitter-pattered, I just tried to hold on as long as I could.