Tuesday, April 8, 2014


We decided to do a weekend camping trip with Theo, a first attempt at something we've been talking about forever.

I used to go camping with my family once a year up in Sequoia, and when we got old enough my brother and I got friends together to go on our own. We were never backpackers or anything, just drive up, designated sites, running water on tap kind of camping. It might not be hardcore but it's still sleeping in a tent with cooking around a fire and the possibility of wild animal visits.

Theo isn't ready for that long a trip, but living in Southern California we have lots of choices for easy weekend camping. I admit that my bias against the beach or other places that don't have trees has limited my enthusiasm in the past, but now we knew we'd have to keep it close to home and low key to make it easy on everyone.

Greg found a place in San Juan Capistrano called Caspers Wilderness Park. It's tent camping, with designated sites, running water and full restrooms, including showers. There's hiking and trees and ok, they have a playground, too. The best part is that it's only about 45 minutes away from our house. Sounded like a perfect mix of the real deal with some soft edges.

We teamed up with our friends that have two kids. Their son K is Theo's age and H is nearly 2. Theo and K are very good friends and get along wonderfully most of the time. Our friends are very experienced campers who were looking to get out their with their kids same as we were.

Theo was very excited on the lead-up. We read books about camping and pulled out his sleeping bag. He didn't have any reservations about any of it. It seems we had waited until the right moment to give this a try.

We drove out on Friday evening after Greg's workday, had a quick dinner when we got there and set up the tents. The campsites were generally what I'm used to, though they were very close together. There was no buffer between you and your neighbors, and the place was nearly sold out. Still, the place was very pretty, lots of lovely trees, plenty far from the nearest city.

There was a very large group of frat boys on a site across a road from us and we definitely worried about late night noise. They got a talking to from the rangers when they started getting loud early on, but after dark they really didn't bother us too much.

Even with Theo's enthusiasm, we really weren't sure how things would go. A couple weeks prior he had been afraid to get near birthday candles at a party - how would he cope with a campfire? We were sharing food duty - would he get picky on us when options were limited? Would he get bored with hiking, would he sleep in the tent? Would he just whine the whole time, beg to go home?

I admit, by the time we got to the campsite, we were already blown out by his unstoppable talking. Some days he just doesn't cease asking questions, pondering things aloud and repeating them until he gets responses, or just narrating everything that is happening. After a solid day with him packing for the trip, I was about to lose my mind.

But the magical thing is that when his friend K showed up, they just talked to each other, and we could get a break. There is no overstating how the age of 4 is so much better in this respect. The kids keep each other company so completely that the break it gives us adults is nearly overwhelming. As we worked on camp chores, or even just relaxed for a minute, we couldn't help but point out to each other how awesome it was, having them together and content without any work from us.

Our boys did some playing with the older kids that were next door to us. Thankfully our friends brought some little monster trucks and the kids never ceased being interested in driving them everywhere and narrating to each other about what the trucks were doing. While we were dealing with cooking and cleaning and fire maintenance and everything else, they were climbing the logs next to our site, driving trucks on a bent-over tree, or just running around the campsite. The neutral territory in such a new environment made these kids much more amenable to everything. Best of all worlds.

The endlessly entertaining tree.

We had brought some beach chairs to put around the fire, and he had no issue sitting in them. He showed interest in maintaining the fire, at one point handing me logs to add. He drew the line at holding skewers with marshmallows on them but he got close. He ate just fine with no complaint, including oatmeal different from our usual. Pleasant surprises all around.

We tried and tried but there was no teaching him how to hold a flashlight without pointing it in someone's eyes. At least he didn't have a freak out when we finally took it away from him.

The first night, he asked for bedtime early. Let me say that again - he wanted to go to bed early. It was pretty cold, but in his warm pajamas and sleeping bag he seemed perfectly comfortable. Read him a few books, lingered in the tent, told him it was time to stop talking and go to sleep, and down he went. He was solid all night long, even as the temperature dropped, even as owls hooted loudly directly above us, even as baby H got up early. I woke a few times, he did not.

In the morning Theo crawled into my sleeping bag and we did our usual lazing around. Even so we were up and out of camp fairly quickly to get a nice hike in. Turned out the campground was having a 40th anniversary festival that day as well. The hike we wanted was in the same direction so we sauntered through the festival first.

On our way to the festival.

They had booths with all sorts of nature groups, including a bird of prey rescue that had some amazing owls, a tiny falcon and a huge red tail hawk you could get super close to. There were free popsicles and Theo actually had some of Greg's fudge pop, which is revolutionary as he won't go near ice cream of any kind. We then decided to hit the trial while the kids still had their morning energy.

The walk started simply enough with long grasses and huge gnarled oak trees. Horseback riding is a big part of the park and we came across a parade of at least 20 riders that went past us. It took us a while to realize that the trail we were on was going to take us all the way up to the top of the nearby sandstone hills. We pushed on, ready to turn back if need be, but if someone was going to quit it wasn't going to be the kids, who were always at the front, vying for position, not flinching at steep inclines and narrowing paths. After a while it became apparent that as the pregnant woman I was probably the weakest link in our chain, but I felt inspired to continue as we had plenty of food and water with us, and only called for a break once, not out of any real exhaustion, just to catch my breath.

Theo loves hiking. Though he does love pointing out wildflowers, he isn't one to linger, always wants to keep going, and getting him to stop to look at a view can sometimes be difficult. He has lots of energy and continues on through most terrain without much coaxing.

Holding hands is not only adorable, it keeps them from trying to be first in line.

Even the kids were impressed with the view when we reached top, with the sandstone cliffs, spring green hills and valleys, and a bit of ocean in the distance. The weather was near perfect, with clouds rotating around and a pretty consistent breeze keeping the sun from getting unbearable. We picnicked at the top with PB&Js, fruit and crackers, and were soon ready to continue. The walk along the top of the ridge was another good portion, and by the time we were ready to go back down the baby had awakened in his carrier and needed his own lunch. The kids busied themselves with crayons and paper during this break thanks to our friends' foresight and soon we were ready to head down.

Somewhere along the way Theo found a sandstone/dirt clod thing that he didn't want to let go, and later two large pieces of tree bark. He diligently carried all three the rest of the way. Next time I'll get him his own backpack because the inconvenience of stopping every time he dropped them or needed to adjust was enough to make me nuts.

Downhill is always easier but by the time we leveled out my endurance was down to nil. The last section of walk along a dry river bed and through more grasses was down to telling myself we were almost there, but it was a lot longer than I anticipated. Seeing a little snake was a highlight, don't think I've seen one on a trail before.

It was at this point that Theo started to lose it and I couldn't blame him, but I'm not great at carrying him all that much lately. Instead I took the (now mostly empty) backpacks and Greg carried Theo, a lot. I felt bad but what else could we do, it was a very long hike, and Theo had been a trooper for so much of it.

Finally, we made it back to the festival. There was live music which delighted baby H and gave the rest of us something to stare at as we had a well earned break. We had some food from a taco truck and eventually gathered ourselves for the last push to the campsite. Lots more carrying of kiddos, and general groaning when we discovered we probably could have taken a tractor hay ride shuttle.

When we got back to camp, it amazed me how the kids just did not stop. They got right back to playing while we lay on our air mattress and watch through the tent windows. No nap, not even sitting, just a continuous flow of energy.

Dinner included hot dogs so that about covers it. While he didn't ask for bed, we knew he would go right down after such an intense day. As the boys brushed teeth Greg set up the telescope. We had a nice look at Jupiter with two of its moons easily seen. It was only well after the boys were in bed that we caught a glimpse of the International Space Station zooming steadily past. Instead of owls, we heard a noisy pack of coyotes, seemingly right up the road from us.

The next morning we had our breakfast then slowly progressed towards packing ourselves up. Theo wasn't too happy at leaving but agreeably said bye to our campsite when we had finally gotten everything into the car. We stopped at the local nature center before we left, checking out taxidermy animals, pressing buttons to hear their sounds, reading signs set next to a bird feeder to identify the species, and climbing a small viewing tower to see all around. After another PB&J lunch we were ready to call it a weekend and head home.

Theo asked if we could go to K's house, a usual tactic when we're leaving someone he doesn't want to leave, and seemed the most sad at parting with them. We then had a nice chunk of the rest of the day to unpack the car, begin to clean things and put them away, and relax, as Greg and I really strained ourselves on that hike. Theo likes to mention how much fun he had and that the loves camping. We had such a good time we're talking about doing something similar later in the summer. May as well squeeze it in before the next baby comes and sets us back a while.

Success on all fronts! I want to time travel to when Theo was 2 and was dead set against getting his hands dirty. I'd reassure myself that we'd get around to doing all the fun things that were impossible then.

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