I did not grow up in an outdoorsy family. We never played sports, took hikes or went camping. When I was 27 I married a man who had been a camp counselor. John loves the outdoors. He can walk all day in any terrain and he has an unerring sense of direction. I can get lost in a parking lot. About a year after our wedding I succumbed to his romantic descriptions of the pastoral life and agreed to go car camping. It would be fun, he promised. We would go with a gang of friends to Yosemite. We would take turns cooking. I was not to worry because he was experienced and confident and he owned all his own equipment.
John, and two friends, JL, and Rick’s new wife, Anne went up a day early to claim a prime campsite. I followed the next night with Rick and Joanne (at the time romantically connected to JL). We drove up in my pared down Toyota Corolla purchased from Budget Rent-A-Car. It had no carpets and seats made out of the cheesiest plastic. It probably rented for $16 a day. Joanne’s sister, Mary, and her pre-teen daughter, Kelly met us there. Rick and Anne loved camping almost as much as daredevil sports like white water rafting. They once rode bicycles from San Francisco to San Diego, camping all the way. They knew exactly what to bring and how to make themselves comfortable. Joanne and JL loved backpacking and spent a lot of time out there, out where there are no restaurants. Mary had gone to the REI Co-op and rented a six-man tent with aluminum poles and a peaked roof high enough for campers to stand up when inside.
We arrived after dark on a Friday night in late October. Everybody was tired and we went to bed early. I don’t think we even lit a campfire that night. It was my first time sleeping in the outdoors and it didn’t go too well. John and I didn’t bring pillows, we didn’t have squishy insulating pads under our sleeping bags, and we didn’t have a lot of room. My husband’s “equipment” consisted of a green plastic ground cover and a royal blue pup tent just large enough for two adults to lie down in if they were on very good terms. We pitched our tent on a gentle slope under a tree, a tree with many roots and many hard little pods scattered below. I woke up repeatedly with various limbs tingling from numbness, and every time I woke up I thought about going to the bathroom. I thought about all the preparation it would take to do so. I would have to dress and I would have to locate my shoes. And then I would have to ambulate through the campsite to the dirt road and find the privy in the dark. I lay there suffering until first light.
After everyone else got up and had a round of coffee and toast we set out for a hike and a picnic. Mary was in charge of lunch. We brought our sandwich fixings and drove up to Tuolumme Meadows at about 8,800 feet. It was beautiful with giant boulders and evergreens under an enormous granite sky. We walked and laughed and Rick got out his harmonica to play that old cowboy favorite “Home on the Range” that he had learned for the occasion. He always liked to do that, to learn a thematic song and pick a quiet moment to play it for everyone. It was pretty cold so we sat in a circle by some rocks and built a nice fire. Kelly was snuggled up against Auntie Joanne looking (as JL said) like a fawn next to Mother Doe. While we were there the most magical thing happened: it started to snow! We were delighted. We were having a real outdoor experience, a taste of fickle Mother Nature.
We drove back to our campsite in the late afternoon. John and I were the assigned chefs for Saturday night dinner. We planned on salad, garlic bread, and linguini with clam sauce. We were also prepared for a team-building group project. We were going to make the pasta ourselves! Everyone would learn together, pitching in, drinking wine: having fun. We got out the flour and the eggs and set to working the dough. We had intended to attach the pasta machine to the picnic table and roll the dough through it to thinness. All that pretty snow we had enjoyed in the meadow? Well, down there in the valley it turned into rain. It turned into quite a lot of rain. It showed no sign of letting up. It seemed a better idea to move this little enterprise indoors. So we went into Mary’s overlarge REI rental. It was soon transformed into a true “mess” tent in GI green. Soon we could hear the thrumming drone of raindrops hitting the canvas over our heads. But we had to eat so we spread wax paper over the sleeping bags making a place to lay the ribbons of fresh pasta as the little machine pressed them out. It took a lot longer than it was supposed to take. It got dark and it kept on raining. There was nowhere to bolt down the pasta machine. Rick pressed his hands down on the base while I cranked and cranked and cranked. Mary caught the long pieces of dough and laid them out. Water started to seep under the tent.
Outside, Joanne and JL gathered sticks and dug a trench to divert the water away. The water kept flowing and the trench filling up with mud. They labored steadily in the pounding rain. John was outside boiling a pot of water to cook the pasta. He took the water off the single burner camp stove, made the roux, mixed in the clam juice, dumped in cans of clam, and stirred. He alternated heating the water with keeping the sauce warm. When we were finally ready to cook pasta, Rick and I hunched over and carried it under our jackets. We ran through the splattering muck, and when we got to the pot we just dumped handfuls of pasta in the boiling water. By this time it was raining so hard that it was raining right into the pot. Rick held a magazine over the boiling pasta while JL and John tried to protect the smoky fire so the garlic bread could get warm. We dispensed with the salad altogether. Fresh pasta cooks really fast, and all those tender strands like to stick together. What we actually served our friends was more like balls of pasta in clam sauce. We filled our plates and ran to our cars to eat. John remembered the garlic bread and ran from car to car knocking on each window and throwing in a foil-wrapped chunk of bread. We piled our dirty dishes on the picnic table and let the rainwater rinse them in the night.
It was a very long and very wet night. JL and Joey’s trench work, though admirable, couldn’t hold back the tide. Mary’s tent and everything in it were wet. Mary and Kelly retired early to their car and covered up with the patchwork quilt we had sat on during our idyllic meadow picnic. John and I were rained out pretty early, too. Our clothes were soaked through on the dash to the car. It was dry inside my little car but terribly uncomfortable. We pulled off our wet clothes, and in the process, the empty film canister that I had cleverly filled up with salt and stuck in my pocket came open. It spilled all over the back seat providing a gritty layer between my damp skin and the sticky plastic upholstery of a basic fleet model Toyota.
Morning dawned. It was clear and bright and sunny. We were weathered and groggy and dog tired. Our campsite looked like a MASH unit, and we looked as if we had been up all night fighting in a war. There was a great feeling of camaraderie among us as we recounted details of our particular discomforts. John and I were roundly bashed for the absurdity of our dinner menu. Mary was teased for having rented that ridiculous contraption from REI- the pole tent that couldn’t stand up to a little weather. We ribbed Rick and Anne for sleeping comfortably through it all with their fine equipment and well-selected campsite. Before we packed up to drive home on Sunday afternoon Joanne and JL provided lunch. They had been marinating chicken and vegetables in their cooler. They set up a wok on the outdoor grill and cooked up a savory stir fry. It was fabulous; and not just because everything tastes better outdoors.