The road to our usual camping destination takes you up through some pretty parts of Arizona. Past dry fields of brush and yellowed grass, then slowly climbing the mountain. We passed hills dotted in cactus, then the cactus spread long arms to the sky and suddenly it was mountains with Saguaro literally marching up and down all sides.
Eventually, you find yourself ensconced in a valley of sorts, and everything starts to get bigger. The cacti. The rocks. The trees. The excitement. The road winds, and the kids whine and before you know it BAM you're in Payson. You'll know it by the McDonald's on the corner. Up another hill, through two more small towns, a right at FR300, and next thing you know you're in a minivan like a jackass on a road not meant for minivans. It was almost three days we were out there, and not one single time did we see anything resembling a minivan go down that road. Shit, we didn't even see trucks going down there. Instead, our only visitors were those offroad vehicles used by hunters to get to the backwoods. And every time we go there I say the same thing: "This is insanity. I'm NEVER doing this again. Ever! Why can't we camp where normal people do?!?!"
But then: "Oh. Right."
Let us not romanticize the process, though. No camping trip - and I do mean no exceptions here - is complete without at least one tense-voiced spat about some irrelevant or obnoxious nonsense. "What do you mean you didn't bring chips?!?!" or "I don't fucking know which fork in the road we're supposed to take. YOU'RE the one who 'grew up on this mountain every summer' so YOU should know!" or whatever. And so it was with this trip, except that I excused our tensions being high early on because it was 104 when we left the Valley around 9 a.m. and I've been like a pressure cooker waiting to boil lately. And by the time we landed on a spot to set up camp, I found myself offering to set up the tent myself while Darrick prepped us lunch. How very modern of us.
Once we set up camp and ate lunch, as if on cue, a storm came piling over the top of the mountain, cresting in a gray fury of clouds capped with white cotton peaks. I brought the kids into the tent while Darrick decided to sit outside and stand sentinel or some such notion, afraid that the fresh bear and elk poop we'd found mere yards from our tent meant we'd have some visitors. How very nostalgic and old world traditional of us.
The storm was actually fun, other than the fact that its excitment kept Luca from napping. At one point, we three (the kids and I) were joined by Ruby, the family member by far most frightened of thunder, and we snuggled under blankets and giggled. As I sat there soaking it in, thunder tracked across the sky starting as a low rumble to the mountains on the far east and rolling slowly and with increasing volume over the top of us and out, until it dipped over the edge of the rim and disappeared. And like that, the storm was over leaving behind only cooled temperatures and lush wet soil and plants.
That night I didn't sleep well, mostly because I was afraid of all the animal noises I heard. We tried putting Ruby outside the tent to serve as guardian as she's done on trips in the past, but it turns out she's old and highly disinterested in the whole 'standing guard against potential bad guys' gig. So instead I woke at every noise, jabbing Darrick maniacally and shout-whispering "What the fuck was THAT?!?!" After the 47th jab and shout-whisper, I think he stopped even pretending to care. It was like trial by fire though, because after the restlessness of the first night I had a sort of "Eh. So there's a bear nearby and he might kill me. Not much I can do about that." attitude, and I slept soundly all night.
The next morning we ate a breakfast of eggs and fire-torched raisin bread, which really and truly is much more tasty than it sounds. Our quiet little family moment in all its pastoral bliss, however came to a screeching halt when Rohan began to cry. He wanted something...to be picked up most likely?...and we couldn't immediately oblige as I had raw-egg hands and Darrick had fire-tending duties, and the cry soon became hysterical, body-wracking sobs the likes of which echoed off every corner of the meadow and valley where we camped. And then, in response to his cries, a sound unlike any I've heard before.
Howling and yipping, delirious and taunting: wolves. A pack of them, by the sounds of it.
Have you ever heard someone say something chilled them to the bone, and thought "Well what the fuck does that even mean???" I have, and that phrase has always been one I considered to be melodrama bordering on hysterics. Until, that is, A PACK OF WOLVES HOWLED AT MY TODDLER SON AS HE CRIED IN THE MIDDLE OF GODFORSAKEN NOWHERE. Instantly I covered my eggy hands with baby wipes and swooped him up, then pulled Luca to my side, and there we stood next to Darrick, surveying every corner of the land we could see. We saw nothing of course, but that didn't make my heart start beating again anytime sooner. My hands were numb and cold and I couldn't really feel my face. I was terrified. I was protective. I was Mama Bear and no one was going to fuck with my babies.
Later that day we would recount this story in much the same nervous-laughter-filled way you retell your near-death freeway swerve at 85 miles per hour to the passenger who had been victim to your erratic driving and reflexive soccer-mom arm pinning them to their own seat. Laughing, Darrick asked me just what I'd planned to DO if those wolves came for us, and I looked him square in the eyes and said, without pretense, "Run for the van and lock us in." Apparently, this answer is funny to the man who carries 200 pound boulders in his bare arms.
In retribution, I totally made fun of him for his '1940s boxer style' with the pants pulled up to almost the nipples. So there, honey. So. There.
A few hours later, we headed back out on that same insane 'road' to Potato Lake nearby, where Darrick fished and the kids played in the shallow water. Darrick caught nothing, but Rohan ate a lot of mud so I'm calling it a success. The kids really loved playing there. It took Rohan about two minutes to get into the water, shoes and diaper and sweats and all, and Luca soon followed suit. "I am so happy," she told me earnestly, "that I wore my Zoe panties. Zoe is nice to me on TV and I think she would like to play in the water."
After the lake we ended up having to drive into the town of Strawberry for a new car battery since the car almost wouldn't turn over and the nearest campsite to where we were was two miles away. We didn't want to be stranded out there with The Pack, after all. In Strawberry we had homemade ice cream cones and met Ralph the mechanic and his female assistant Terry.
The rest of the weekend involved much sitting around on my part, cooking on Darrick's, and begging to tend to the fire on Luca's. Rohan had an awesome time on his first trip and was a trooper all the way through. As we tore down camp on Sunday morning, Luca was already talking about "Next time we go camping..." and filling in the details with her wishes. As for me, I returned to work today a bit sunkissed but refreshed and no longer on the verge of breakdown.