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Camping...

Often I am taken back to the one and only backpacking trip I organized.

My friend May and I had this idea, and, naturally, as soon as we had it, we decided that we must realize it. The idea was simple: take a few of our closest friends for a three-day backpacking trip to King’s Canyon National Park. So, we started calling and talking, and it soon became clear that some of our closest friends were dubious of our plans, having never done anything like this before. We revised our call list and started reaching out further, to old friends from high school, to people who were only loosely called acquaintances. Eventually, we pieced together our team: an old buddy from high school whom we hadn’t seen or talked to in several years, a city-dwelling SoCal friend from LA whose idea of being out in nature was grilling burgers in the back yard, an outdoorsy, socially-awkward gothic pyromaniac in a complicated friendship with my sister Liza, the said sister, May’s good friend Lei, athletic and energetic and willing to give us the benefit of the doubt for a couple of days, May and I.

In our group, there was not a single person who knew all of the other people.

May and I tried to think of everything that we might need on the trip. Before our departure, I helicoptered around each participant, making sure they had their sleeping bags, tooth brushes, warm socks, water canteens, and floss. We also had to avoid any aromatic soap or lotion, because there were bears in those parts of the Sierra Nevadas, and bears like smelly things. By the time we packed in the cars and headed towards the mountains, it seemed we were set.

The first night, after throwing all of our sleeping gear into the one large tent and sitting around the fire, soaking in the last bit of warmth before the deep and cold high-elevation night descended upon us, we discovered what was missing. In all of the hustle, I had forgotten my own sleeping bag. Following the groans and all inevitable remarks, we had to come up with a solution. The only thing we came up with, besides abandoning the trip altogether, was for me to sleep together with Liza in her bag. We could only fit into the bag if we both lay sideways, so Liza climbed in first, I squeezed myself next to her and then we had to zip the bag up. For this, we had to take in a deep breath and not exhale until it was zipped. On the count of three, we would inhale sharply, Liza would command, “Zip!” and I would try to pull up on the zipper. We figured out that actually, we take up less space with our lungs empty, so then we would exhale and Zip! It was very funny, shouting Zip! in the dark. We also had a few other commands worked out, like “Flip!” and “Rotate!”

The fact that eventually our whole group was giggling and snorting didn’t help our dire situation. Surprisingly, eventually we managed to encapsulate ourselves and actually fall asleep.

The first full day of backpacking was mostly uneventful. We stopped by the Visitors Center and picked up several large, brown barrels where we were to store all of our food items to protect them from the bears. This was mandatory for everyone entering the park for back-country camping. Despite the minor anxiety over the scratches and teeth marks on the barrels, morale was overall high and the adventurers were mostly normal. Towards night, we broke camp on a gorgeous outcropping overlooking the rugged valley of the park, with steeps peaks snow-capped in the distance, and a gurgling creek terminating in a spectacular waterfall 20 feet from our tent. We joked around about not sleep walking on this cliff, and attempted to settle for the night.

Well, more Zipit! silliness ensued, followed by complaints that we set the tent up on quite a steep incline, as a result of which, at every movement, the people uphill slid towards the people downhill. The tent wasn’t that big in the first place, and with seven of us already packed in like sardines, people started slipping on top of each other. At one point in the night Liza and I woke up after another failed iteration of “flip!”, and found the other five campers piled on top of us, all bunched up together in the lowest part of the tent, snoring and sighing in their sleep. Shoving sleeping people in the dark up the hill of our tent floor was another adventure altogether.

Later that night, when everyone was back to wheezing peacefully, a piercing “Die, vermin, die!!!!!” jolted us awake. The pyromaniac goth, with his uncharacteristic expression of emotion, jumped out of his sleeping bag and rushed outside. The sleepy sister, who crawled out a bit later to inquire, found him sitting on the edge of the cliff, a lighter in one hand and a tick in the other. Apparently, the tick had nuzzled into his back during the night, and now it was time for sweet revenge.

The following morning, as we packed up and headed further along the trail hugging the cliffs, I could sense a sort of unraveling happening. May and Lei were perfectly happy and oblivious, while our friend from high school and our friend from LA were showing the first symptoms of civilization withdrawal. They were anxious about toilet paper and surprised that the only thing on our agenda for the day was to walk some more and enjoy mother nature. After his explosion during the night, the goth friend was back to his sullen self, but more withdrawn than usual, Liza was suffering from deep mis-communications and drama that was mostly in her head, and I was concerned about the bears.

Another eventful night and the next day brought an end to our exotic adventure. I think we were all more than a little relieved. Looking back, though, memories tint the trip many different colors. I took away the breathtaking grandeur of Kings Canyon and the wonder of how people we seemingly know can be transformed in unfamiliar settings. May remembers the silliness. Liza remembers the turmoil and brands the experience as the worst backpacking trip of her life. Jason remembers the interesting guy from my high school and how his legs hurt after hiking for five hours straight with a backpack. I don’t know what the guy from high school remembers, because we never saw him again. The pyromaniac we saw many times, and Liza kept in touch with him over the many years that elapsed. But what he thought about the trip will go down to the grave with him, because he isn’t much of a talker.

The first time we went there the air conditioning in our car didn’t work, and the driver’s window was broken. It wouldn’t hold in place, and so we had it propped shut with a piece of a wooden railroad which fit perfectly into the seam between the glass and the door-frame. But every now and then, at a speed of roughly 68 mph, the glass would start to sneakily slide down into the door and the trick was to catch it in time, before it slipped fully into oblivion. I didn’t have a GPS that first time either, so I had to make do with quickly scribbled directions on a shred of paper. It was already dark when we took off, just me and my two children, heading into the great unknown which is the Texan rural landscape.

It was okay on the highways, but eventually the wide thoroughfare was whittled down to a narrow, two-way road winding through the dark forest which extended in all directions. The kids had fallen asleep and as I drove, I lectured myself silently on my irresponsible adventure-seeking ways. The window slowly slumped into the door without my noticing it, the moist, hot October air filled the car with cicada cries and fermenting foliage smells, and at the speed of 68 miles per hour I’d peak now and then at the torn sheet, trying to decipher what Park Road I was to take next. Ten, twenty minutes passed, the darkness continued. At this rate, I thought, I can easily miss my turn and not even know it. And if I turn around and go back looking for it, I won’t know whether I’ve missed it for sure or whether I just didn’t drive far enough. And I have no reception on my phone and even if I did and I called someone they’d ask me where I was and then yell at me for being so and so…And so, I just drove on, hoping I hadn’t missed my turn yet.

Miraculously, I didn’t, and we got there. “There” being the Alabama-Couchatta Tribal lands where the Russian KSP South bards camp-out was taking place that weekend. I almost teared up in relief as I pulled up at the entrance to get my map and entry passes. A dark-haired, shaggy-bearded soulful looking middle-aged man came up and in the typical ennui-fatigued way mused in Russian, “How many?”

“Three.” I replied. He looked at the empty passenger seat and raised an eyebrow. “Me and my two kids, they’re sleep in the back..” I explained.

“What grounp are you with?”

“We’re just by ourselves…”

“Who are you staying with?” he repeated.

“Nobody – I thought maybe you could just stick us somewhere…” His ever-widening eyes were incredulous.

“How are you gonna put up your tent?” He blurted, sort of amazed and sort of pitying me.

“I can put up a tent. It’s not hard. My daughter will help…”

“These women. They don’t freeze in the cold, and they don’t burn in the fire…” He chanted in singsong a bit of a poem. When I stared at him blankly he broke into a smile, handed me the map, passes and campsite number, and added, “You need to read more Nikrasov, lady. He’s a classic…”
I grinned back and, with a “Working on it…” pulled off towards camp.

*                          *                         *                         *

Yesterday we returned from our fifth KSP South camp-out. Heading out, the car was in better shape and I had a GPS, but I hardly needed it anymore. The main players were the same: Mama, daughter and son. The latter two fell promptly asleep in the car, I drove peacefully through the impenetrable forest, and once on location, Vierra and I painlessly set up camp. I have set up the tent so many times in the dark now that I joke that if there was light, I wouldn’t know what to do with it…But with a full day at work/school, plus packing, soccer practice, and a two hour drive, there was no way we could have gotten there before nightfall.

In Russia there is a long tradition of singing songs accompanied by guitars while sitting around campfires in the wilderness. The melodies are typically not complex, but the lyrics are true poetry reflecting the lives and experiences of people of a certain generation. People of this generation (folks in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s now) love and play these songs. The tradition has been preserved, and people today, immigrants from Russia living in the States, continue writing and playing. These people are called “bards”. The places where they meet to share, sing around campfires and perform their latest work are called camp-outs, such as the KSP South one we went on last weekend. (KSP is the name of the bards organization, while “South” refers to its chapter in the South of the country.)

The camp-out takes place in a pine forest by a lovely lake about 100 miles north of Houston. Everyone camps, speakers and recorded music is forbidden (only live music, please), and children under 16 come free. A small stage is improvised among the conifers, and right at 6pm (usually more like 6:20) the singing begins. The magic happens then.

What draws me to these events is the singing – the bare, naked honest performance. Just a voice, a guitar, a melody, a poem. When professional performers sing on stage, you inevitably feel isolated from them. They have the stage presence, the back-up vocals; they are putting on a show. They are the star, and you are a fan, a face in a crowd of thousands of faces. Their personality, their being can hide behind so much up there on stage, and though you may be entertained, thrilled or even enchanted, there is no closeness, no interconnection. Here, the person on stage is the one whose kid you just helped climb off a tree. The woman singing next lent you her toothpaste this morning in the bathroom. With their unpolished, natural sound, you can trace out the inspiration, the idea, the creativity, the personality. You can tell that these people, with their voice pouring over the imperfect sound system and their weathered fingers strumming familiar chords, got up to tell you something; they want to share something with you. Mostly, they want to share themselves.

In our lives today it is so easy to hide behind our avatars and facebook updates. We can spend many days and weeks not telling anyone anything important about ourselves, about themselves. The easier it becomes not connecting with others, the more challenging the process of reaching out. And so, given a chance, would I come and see folks opening up? Sharing, giving, for free, of the things that are most important to them? The things that are really essential to us all? (Life, joy, struggle, despair, humor.) Heck yes. And that’s why I go. That’s why we come. That’s why you’ll probably catch me half a year from now, speeding at roughly 68 miles per hour down a dark, forested road towards the next KSP South camp-out.

While most adventurous types are gearing up for a summer full of camping trips, kayaking expeditions and long day-hikes in the park, here in Eastern Texas the adventuring season is coming to an end. And by the time Memorial Day rolls around and folks in other parts of the country pull out their dusty coolers and head to the great outdoors, we Hustonians will be bunkered down in our airconditioned homes for the long, merciless summer ahead. Because here, it’ll be just too durn hot outside.

In this part of the country, I was surprised to find that camping season starts in late February, peaks in late March – early April, and tapers off by the end of May. I learned this the hard way when, thinking I was going to outsmart everyone and take the kids camping in March, I started calling around and found out all campgrounds within a 3-hour vicinity were booked for the next few weeks.

Oops.

But we stole the one remaining camp spot left on Easter day, took a deep breath and headed into the Hill Country.

On our way to our first destination we made several stops in the dazzling, blooming flower fields that expanded into the horizon on either side of the highway, threatening to consume it. We weren’t the only ones either. Dozens of cars were stopping, pulling out their dressed-up munchkins and Cannon 5D cameras, and rushing into the fields to take pictures.  The kids were sort of over that before I was, so to express my gratitude I took a small detour.

Driving by Brenham, I recalled that there was a BlueBell ice-cream factory somewhere around. I didn’t remember where, but when we were passed by three 18-wheelers proudly sporting the BlueBell logo, the kids yelled, “Follow that truck!” And we did. Since it was Good Friday the factory itself was closed for tours, but the ice-cream parlor was open, and that was good ’nuff. We filled up on German chocolate and home-made vanilla deliciousness, clambered in the car and drove on. By the way, I loved their slogan: “We eat what we can, and sell the rest.”

Our first major destination, where we ended up almost by accident, was Pedernales Falls State Park. We arrived there, SO ready to be out of the car, at around 5pm. What a heavenly place. The fields of flowers here were studded with fresh, succulent cacti in full bloom. There were butterflies, moths, grasshoppers, and all sorts of buzzing activity above the flowers. The Earth breathed in and out, deep, warm. As we made our way down the winding road through the juniper forest and towards the river, the dark green tones gave way to rolling hills of grasses reaching above our heads. We walked through like lilliputs in a land of giants, turning our heads here and there, exclaiming “Oooh!” and “Wow!” and “Hey look over here!”. The sun shone over our heads and the cool, lazy river beckoned us.

We floated down the Pedernales River in our inner tubes and the water was just perfect – cool, clean, loving. Since usually we swim in either chlorinated pools or the salty ocean, this was an incredibly welcoming change. Tamarack and larch lined the banks, their roots picturesque in the golden hour sunlight. Oh, it was lovely. We could have stayed there for a very long time.

But it was getting dark, so after lazing in the sand, looking at clouds drifting overhead, and watching the flower shadows crawl up rocks and tree trunks, we packed up. Before leaving the park we stopped by the actual “falls” – which weren’t falls at all. Took the last few pictures of the day, and drove off in search of lodging for the night.

The next morning we headed to Wild Seed Farms . This is a huge area covered by fields of different types of wild flowers – bluebonnets, red poppies, pink and white poppies, petunias, larkspur, etc. People come here mostly to stimulate their senses, take photographs, and shop in the large central market replete with gardening knick-nacks of all caliber. We followed their lead, took pictures and gawked at pretty things.  The colors of the flowers were so intense and unusual that you could literally feel parts of your brain firing wildly – RED!!! FUCHSIA!!! AQUAMARINE!!! Ahhh!!! COLOR!!! Ding ding ding!

Vierra picked out a gift for herself – it was a small butterfly and insect house which she proceeded to fill with catepillars. We studied and discussed their habitat and life cycle with the kids for the next two weeks and just this morning our very first moth hatched from one of the cocoons!

After the farm we drove south towards San Antonio and Natural Bridge Caverns . We had gone to see Inner Space Caverns by Austin last autumn, and the kids were thoroughly fascinated by the fact that we were under the ground. They talked about it often since then, and so I thought they would enjoy these caves, which are supposed to be bigger and longer. And they didn’t disappoint. This was evidenced by the lack of whining during the entire hour and a half tour. So yes – if you’re in that part of central Texas, definitely go there. See them.

This was the day I had managed to snag a campsite reservation, so after the caverns we packed back into our van and drove the hour or so to Guadalupe River State Park. Again I marveled at the sprawling fields of unabashed glorious colors flanking the highway. And again I was impressed by how unexpectedly and vibrantly the landscape changes as you traverse it. Guadalupe River State Park seemed to be in a drier, more arid micro-climate. The trees were lower, there were copper soil deposits and more cacti along the way. But there was also a lot of green, and the camp sites themselves were pleasantly nestled in another forest of juniper and low-growing conifers. We got there towards evening, leasurely set up our tent, had dinner, crawled into our cozy portable home and were asleep almost instantaneously. Some racoons woke me up in the middle of the night – they had found the one container with cookies that I forgot to put back in the car. After that I could not fall asleep for a while, listening to the night forest rustling, hooting and jittering all around us. The kids tossed and turned and I had to stuff them back into their sleeping bags several times because the night air was chilly.

The following morning we were in no rush to get anywhere. We took our time, had breakfast, caught caterpillars. The kids played in the trees while I managed to read half an article and have some “alone time”. After intensely communicating with the kids for the past two days, even half an hour of uninterrupted time was much welcomed. Eventually we packed up and headed to the Guadalupe River. Apparently, everyone from central Texas had gathered there, baking in the sun (it was hotter that day), grilling, frying, splashing, swimming, yelping, giggling, and doing everything else that humans do outdoors. Here the river was embellished by a dramatic bank rising a good 100 feet vertically up from the other shore. We swam, drifted down with the current on our inner tube and noodles, chillaxed beneath the fresh green firs. At some point in the afternoon I felt like we had had about as much relaxing as we could handle, and since we still had a three hour drive home ahead of us, we started getting ready to go.

We got home in the evening – the kids fully recovered after a three-hour nap in the car, me pretty exhausted after the drive and all of the excitement of the long weekend. Overall, it was an incredibly fulfilling, packed trip. I’m sure we will be back to explore some more, and I highly recommend going to all of the places that we went. Just do it before the summer kicks in.

(My photographs are shown in the order that they were taken and in the order that I described our adventure. Click on the first one to get the slideshow.)

 I sometimes think about crafting memories; about manufacturing a past. Although initially such thoughts hearken to distopia novels and science fiction, truth be told, these practices are not at all uncommon. It is not by accident that people in love and/or married say “we want to make memories together”.

It’s curious because technically, all of the events that happen in your day-to-day life get stored in the brain’s memory centers, and then can be recalled. But not all of those events would qualify as Memories Made. I think that these specially-crafted memories are recollections of events that were done with the odd intent of being remembered; sometimes, only for the sake of the memory.

Yeah, yeah, I am guilty of this too.

What I am wondering about is this: will photographs of happy, smiling people hugging and laughing together one day replace the true, at times painful memories that may be associated with a certain event? Or will the memory be so powerful that, even fifty years post factum, the person participating in the event will be able to look at the care-free, warm picture and remember how hard they were trying to “make a happy memory” at a time that was not all that happy?

And if the latter is the case, why do we still so desperately try to force memories to conform to the strained smiles and tense embraces seen on photos of honeymoons in Hawaii, graduations, birthdays, family camping trips?

…That cryptic introduction being made, last weekend we went camping to Bastrop State Park.

The weather was perfect, we got to do a bit of hiking and went canoeing twice, saw lots of turtles and ducks and birds of prey, discussed the habits of flat bark bugs and coniferous trees, ate lots of ice-cream, got the mandatory sun-burn, frolicked in the fallen leaves, found two bobs and a golf ball, and had a mostly jolly good time. Oh, and I took pictures.

Here are some of the best.

Windy

Life

Climbing


Smile


Family

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