State Street Scribe
by Jeff Wing
Day 1 – The Ascent
As we head north to Big Sur from Santa Barbara along Historic Highway One, the famously serpentine route winds through sun-dappled mountain idylls and fabulously elevated Pacific Ocean views of such stunning panoramic beauty it makes the soul ache. Or so I’d been told. In the event, I can’t actually look. As our elephantine station wagon makes its way higher and higher into the Santa Lucia Mountains and the crummy little ribbon of tarmac they deceptively call a “highway” grows narrower and narrower and the road’s soft shoulder falls away to a vertiginous thousand foot drop to the sparkling Pacific and the automobile-strewn rocks below – I do make a useful discovery. Namely, that by aiming my rigid, saucer-eyed expression straight ahead and fiercely pursing my mouth against the inner lady-scream only I can hear, I’m just able to manage. Do I have an issue with heights? No, I do not. Unless you consider full body tremors and explosive urination on the third rung of a ladder an issue.
Here we go. It’s a fact that all my feelings about camping are wrapped up in the movies; principally Deliverance and The Blair Witch Project. O the prayerful communing with nature. O the droning gnat that lavishes all its aerodynamic genius on a holding pattern in the hollow of my right ear, no matter how many magazines I destroy batting at my head with both hands and dancing a maddened Lindy Hop around the campground. O the neighboring campers’ inebriated cackling laughter and guitar-desecration just as I’m finding the perfect position on the sighing, sinking air mattress in the evening. O the inexplicable scraping noises just outside the tent in the smothering stillness of the wee hours wilderness, –
“Whoa, look at that view!”
I snap out of my reverie. My well-meaning wife and daughter exclaim periodically on the magnificence of our surroundings, to which my clamped acrophobic yap can offer no reply but a sort of amphibian murmur. There are very few people who are unmoved by the unspeakable beauty of our natural world, but fewer still who wish to plummet 1000 feet in a stamped metal box where weightless camping gear and liberated daliesque ropes of bargain coffee are the last things one will ever see of this life. In my mind’s eye the station wagon lurches across the lanes to gamely leap the gravel shoulder (a final elegiac glimpse of little flowering weeds in bright sunight) and sail gracelessly into the deep blue freefall beyond. Suddenly, sleeping on the ground, gagging on burnt marshmallows and flailing at imaginary bears in the dark on the way to the campground latrine at 3am seems joyous and quaint.
We’ve arrived! I’ve never been so excited and relieved! Our campsite along the Big Sur River is a lovely thing to behold. Late afternoon haze gives spectral form to bolts of sunlight slanting in through the redwood canopy. Somewhere out there in the darkening forest the werewolves are donning their tattered little vests and preparing for the night’s hunt. It took some time to get here. Distance versus Time to Destination is deceptive on historic Highway 1, and the drive has been arduous. Apparently If you pull onto every available turnout and idle there for about 8 minutes – just to gather your wits – 20 miles takes about 4 hours, and exhausts the goodwill of your teenage daughter. “DAD-UH!!” she cries out in the syllabic two-step teens use to signal displeasure. “Stop pulling over LIKE AN OLD MAN EVERY TIME-UH!! There is NO CAR BEHIND US-UH!!”
“But there WILL be!” I yell with cracking voice and raised forefinger, and look to my Life Partner for support. She is staring straight ahead but her eloquent body language signals we will not be sharing an air mattress this evening.
Evening 1 – The Campfire
Oh, this delightful little community of tents and laundry lines and smiling children, a little ad hoc village arrayed in a rough circle around a central playground where the little ones can climb and shout and drink in the sweet nectar of Actual Life up here in the woods. The sun is going down in earnest! It’s time to light our own campfire and warm ourselves in primitive paleo splendor.
Evening 1a – The Campfire
Isn’t wood supposed to BURN?! WHAT IS THIS CRAP? IT’S LIKE TRYING TO BURN CONCRETE! GIVE ME MORE KINDLING – THROW IT IN THERE. WHAT? THROW IT IN THE FIRE, YOU MORON!! WHERE’S THE FIRE PIT? HOW THE HELL SHOULD I KNOW? WHAT AM I, WALDEN OR WHOEVER? TURN ON THE LANTERN AND LOOK FOR OUR FIRE!!
Evening 1b – The Campfire
I’ve apologized to my wife and daughter for calling them a collective moron, and for screaming through the playground with my Eddie Bauer apron ablaze and burning down the redwood jungle gym there, the one the adored and legendary campground founder built with his own two hands in 1948. Hoo boy. What a lot of screaming. We did get a good fire going, though. That we did.
Day 2 – The Swimming Hole
My daughter has joined the other youngsters in climbing to the top of a huge boulder that fronts the crystal clear and swiftly moving Big Sur River, and jumping off into a deep, dark hole in the water there, some 25 feet below the precipitous cliff, or “top of the rock” as the kids keep calling it. The surroundings are gorgeous, towering redwoods and the scent of wildflowers. The stones on the river bottom look like polished jewels viewed behind shimmering glass. We adults are lined up in lawn chairs on the pebbly shore. “Daddy, come jump!” my daughter yells exultantly. How can I say no? Oh yeah, now I remember: “No!” “Please, Daddy?” *sigh* This is for my little girl.
I rise from my Costco sling chair and wade across the shallow stream, stick-like dad arms held aloft for no reason. Halfway up the boulder I freeze, but I can’t climb back down! I can’t climb back down! I peek below me and the river recedes in a Hitchcock dolly zoom that has me gasping and hugging the moss-covered rock like a lover. “Daddy, you’re still standing in the water,” my princess calls down. Behind me a throat clears. 10 desperate minutes later, in a spasm of crazy courage, I hurl my badly-scraped self into empty space and down down down into the cold water. When I ascend I break the surface with a victory whoop and pump my fist. “Woo Hooooo!! YEAH!!” Two eight year old girls stare at me disinterestedly from the shallows while behind them a man bites his sandwich. I make it back to Eddie Bauer, slipping and gyrating on river rocks, arms waving like those of an idiot trying to fly, and my daughter grabs my wrist and looks straight at me with her squinty smile, the one my own dad wore with such aplomb. “Thank you, Daddy!” I melt. I would do it again in an instant, probably.
A light in the Forest
The guy in the next space snores like a sumbitch and I haven’t slept a wink in two nights. He’s maybe thirty feet away and our two tent walls are not enough to dampen the mucusoid flapping of whatever damnable dangling structure the Maker installed at the beginning of time to torment me this night. And now I have to go the bathroom. Alone. In the dark. In-the-middle-of-the-freaking-woods! “Jittery Pee-Husband Reduced to Blood-Daubed Ribcage. Details at 11”. I don’t think so. I gently jab my Life Partner. I can barely reach her way over there on the other mattress. Her reliably flimsy bladder will see me through this. “Sweetie! Sweetie! Do you have to pee?” “yeeeehhhmmhhbbb,” she murmurs predictably. I love this gal!
We laboriously exit our tent, crouching and unzipping and gingerly stepping and rezipping, our arms linked, our hands mutually clutching. The woods are lovely, dark and deep, and give my wife and me the creeps, so we shuffle along with haste, rejoining by the yellow light of the bathroom’s gnat-swaddled bug bulb after making wee-wee. We head back out into the dark, walking confidently, giddy with late-night camp freedom. But…uh, where are we? We have become disoriented. The woods are dead silent, the stars a pulsing H.P. Lovecraft veil of sinister light bearing mute witness to our growing horror. Where…which way? We laugh nervously and clutch and shuffle forward in panic. Sh*t. Are we actually lost? Where are ANY of the tents? Just! Keep! Moving! Where the hell –?! Then we hear it, faintly at first. We crush our hands even more tightly together, lean into each other and, without speaking, turn as one in the direction of this sweet music, this lighthouse, this marvelously snoring slob out there in the black. Smiling like dimwits and snuggling along the way, we follow the beacon all the way home.