I was not invited to join my husband, his buddies and all their children on their inaugural camping trip. So, I was forced to invite myself.
Those who know me well know my idea of “roughing it” on a vacation means skipping a visit to the day spa. But after months of being cooped up inside the house, I was desperate for a change of scenery and a bit of adventure.
I’d never slept outdoors in a tent before. When I called a friend to borrow some gear, she laughed and repeated my response to her when she had told me about her own camping plans a few weeks prior: “My parents didn’t come to this country for me to sleep in the dirt.”
Rub my nose in it, why don’t you.
Camping in the time of COVID would surely be the distraction I needed. I convinced another uninvited wife to crash the party with me. It was only scheduled to be a 24-hour trip. How bad could it possibly be? Well, buckle up, baby. Things are about to get -- literally -- pretty wild.
While packing, I noticed that our pile of bedding started to resemble a display at Bed Bath and Beyond. Four large pillows, sleeping bags, two flat sheets, a fleece blanket, a comforter, towels and washcloths. I texted a picture to the other wife, who advised me to ditch the fluffy pillows and streamline the rest.
I would come to regret taking this advice.
When we drove up to our campsite in the heart of Mark Twain State Park, I immediately missed our 14-pound ball of white fluff, Frankie, who opted to stay in civilization with some friends.
“Frankie’s not about this life,” my daughter said, reminding me that our dog likes air conditioning and his cushy bed. He’s not the only one, I thought.
It only took the men and children in our crew a few tries to set up our tents. I helpfully made videos of them struggling to sort out the pieces. A camper on the site next to us had his tent up, firewood collected and a fire going by the time we decided to take a chai break.
There were relatively few visitors at the nearby lake, which allowed for social distancing in the warm water. The rest of the day revealed all the reasons I love being out in nature: beautiful, isolated trails for hiking; endless bright stars in the sky; and hot dogs, s’mores and a blueberry cobbler cooked over the fire. Plus, our campsite offered electrical outlets, clean bathrooms and showers.
The big test lay ahead: getting through the night. I fell asleep after midnight after tossing and turning on the thin sleeping bag. An hour and a half later, I heard a rustling and scampering sound near my head. Like any reasonable city person, I screamed. (Not loud enough to wake our teenagers sleeping in the next tent, but loudly enough to awaken the adults.)
“What’s that sound?” I asked my husband.
“It’s probably just some critters,” he said and turned over.
“Shouldn’t you get up and protect us?” I asked. We both peeked outside. Sure enough, a large family of raccoons had discovered the bag of chips someone left on a picnic table, the bags of trash hanging from a tree and a can of milk used for the chai.
One of our friends yelled and shined a light to try to scatter the scavengers, but they seemed to laugh at him. The largest one sat at the table eating wasabi-flavored wavy potato chips and drinking the chai milk.
The nylon barrier between me and these campground bandits felt exceptionally flimsy. I started Googling “how to get rid of raccoons while camping.”
This was a bad idea.
It sounded like the raccoons had now invited their friends to the party they were hosting outside. Meanwhile, I was reading horror stories about how some especially bold ones could unzip tents and enter looking for food. An enormous black ant crawled across the screen of my phone while I tried to research if a raccoon attack was imminent.
Our friend chased off the smaller ones, but there was no way I was going back to sleep. An hour later, I heard a loud growl and snarling.
This time, I screamed silently in my heart.
They were back, and it sounded like they were drunkenly fighting over the remaining scraps.
“How can you sleep through this?” I asked my friend. “It feels like we are hostages.”
Everyone else fell asleep, but I stayed awake to keep guard in case I heard tents unzipping.
The raccoons eventually abandoned our site, leaving a huge mess.
After we cleaned and packed up our stuff, my friend asked us about our favorite part of the trip. I thought for a moment and admitted it had been the run-in with the raccoons.
In a moment when a virus is terrorizing the world, facing down furry scavengers felt like the kind of adventure that scared me in the Before Times.
Next year, we’ll lock up the trash at night.