Saturday, November 26, 2011

Born to Be Wild

                I am an outdoorsy person. I confront the wonder of nature every time I walk out my front door, which I do on a daily basis, usually at least once. We do not have a garage connected to our house, so I am thrust into the glorious wilderness every weekday, usually around 8 am PST, to trek from our front door to our driveway. Sometimes, a bird will fly by and startle me, reminding me again of how fortunate we are to coexist with creatures who are not capable of declining Latin verbs.  More often, there will be debris from our tree on my windshield. I take a meditative stance and notice the dead leaves that will soon obscure my view; I do not act or judge the discarded tree detritus, I just leave them be.
                I often have another opportunity to enjoy the outside when I go to work.  Although I work in a cement institutionalized building, the parking lot is a good five-minute walk from my office, which gives me sacred time to commune with nature. As well as text friends, drink coffee from my plastic travel mug, and apply lipgloss.
                So when it came time to plan a family vacation, going camping in the mountains seemed like a “natural” choice. I spend the weeks leading up to the trip stocking up on all the necessities one needs to survive about  90 minutes away from Los Angeles: winter coats, cashmere socks, Starbucks instant coffee packs, chocolate, arts and crafts activities, wine opener. We woke up on the morning of our drive—Thanksgiving day—and noticed it was drizzling where we live. The good thing about vacationing in nature is you know it isn’t going anywhere, and probably won’t significantly change for several million years, so there really is no hurry to get there. That left a little more time to check Facebook, sports scores, the stock market (whoops, forgot it is closed on national  holidays), and have another cup of coffee. Vacation is a time of leisure.
                We have a favorite camping location, nestled in the lush Santa Barbara hills, just minutes from all the activities one associates with roughing it: wineries, cafes, bookstores, and toy shops.  It is a perfect site for those of us craving a shot of nature. There are rocks, dirt, trees, bugs, and things constructed out of wood. We are reminded of our limited role in the ecosystem as we check in to the camp site and are handed a brochure with a disclaimer reminding us that we may encounter not only rattle snakes and coyotes, but Poison Oak. We are shown another brochure meant to assist us in identifying Poison Oak leaves from garden variety less-poison Oak leaves. Between you and me, leaves all look alike. But I nod gravely, and mumble something about how many points the leaves have and vow to keep an eagle eye open.  The campsite staff didn’t seem impressed by my powers of Oak observation, and added that because it is late fall, most of the leaves are gone, so the real danger are twigs. And, he noted, twigs tend to look pretty alike. Like I needed him to tell me that.  Sometimes nature lovers can be condescending show-offs.
                I forgot to mention something about this particular campsite. The cabins haves bathrooms (loaded with organic shampoos and body lotion), HVAC systems, microwaves, lights with dimmer switches, and daily maid service. So the delicate sounds that wake you in the early morning hours are as likely to be the water pump or heater kicking into high gear, as they are some sort of animal or bird. There is a full staff to not only provide you with S’mores ingredients, but also to light a campfire for you and be on-call if the flames begin to waver. There is a charming on-site café/store with free-trade coffee, artisan soaps, and spinach-and-goat-cheese fritattas. This place puts the “amp” in “camping.”  
                When we trade the comfort and routine of our daily exurban life for the rough of the wild, we are drawn to activities that are congruent with the setting: catching up on work, checking stock quotes and sports scores, getting on each other’s nerves, littering, and inadvertently starting forest fires. Well, some of these are more compatible with our nature vacation than others. It doesn’t seem to matter to my daughter whether we are in the wild or the city, either way, she insists on singing the roles of Gabriella and Sharpay when we do High School Musical duets. I am always relegated to being Troy and Ryan. It just isn’t fair.
                When we drove up to our cabin and I started dragging all the newly purchased Nanook of the North clothing from the car, I was disappointed to notice that the weather was a balmy 70 degrees, with perfect blue skies. This was going to put a damper on our vacation, since the whole purpose of a fall getaway was to get photos of us wearing all the cold-weather garb we never wear at home. Fortunately, the clothing still had the tags, so I could return it as soon as the weekend was over. But in the meantime, I had a brood of uncomfortable sweaty people who kept telling me that I should have let them bring their Crocs like they kept asking. The fringed pink suede boots I got my daughter for the trip are pretty cute, though. Fashion is not about comfort.
                The first full day of our camping trip was spent back in the car driving to wineries in the Santa Ynez valley. I had spent weeks researching which wineries to visit. My Yelp and Google searches, however, were not to find the wineries with the most pristine settings, or ones that produces organic products. No, my goal was to find wineries that included free wine glasses with the tastings. Last time we went wine-tasting in the region (last Thanksgiving weekend, but we stayed in an actual hotel in the touristy area of Solvang), we “inadvertently” ended up with wine glasses that were not included in the tasting package. This was not a moral dilemma for my husband and me—in fact, we were pretty darn proud of scoring free wine goblets—but we let it slip in front of the kids that last year we “stole” some goblets, and the look of horror in their little eyes lingered even after my longwinded explanation as to how it wasn’t “stealing” really, because we did buy wine there, and not even the cheapest bottle, and the wineries buy the wine glasses in bulk and they have a big profit margin on them. So this year we tried to avoid this awkwardness again. We were successful in two of the three wineries we visited (sorry, Lincourt Vineyards L)!
                The rest of our trip also included car trips into civilization, including several bookstores, cafes, gift shops, TJ’s baseball card memorabilia store (run by an elderly man whose wares were mostly from his own bygone era), a ceramics store with kitschy items that was going out of business, an As Seen on TV store, and Nathalie’s Dolls and Toys. And a quick stop at some sort of field with a lot of butterflies. The viewing of the butterflies (pretty cool) was quick compared to the trek to the field itself. Families with kids half the age of ours were cheerfully hiking back and forth from the butterfly field, breaking nary a sweat; our kids, alleged athletes and dancers, could barely keep their wits about them after the first five minutes of the walk. My daughter was so distraught by the physical exertion, she declared not only the butterflies to be “ugly,” but also the trees, the people and the dogs who were at the site.
                I was not altogether surprised my children’s meltdown at the slightest attempt of combining exercise and nature because, let’s face it, I have known them all their lives. But I didn’t get a report from my husband that they had similarly decompensated at the previous night’s trial run up the paved trail from our cabin to a swimming pool area with a volleyball net on the camp ground. I timed the walk on Thanksgiving night, because it was on the way to the “Yurt” where our elegant holiday meal was served. Six minutes. Although we made a big show of mocking a fellow camper we overheard asking if there was a shuttle bus to the pool area, we privately agreed that a shuttle service would be an excellent addition to the camping experience.
                Toward the end of our weekend, we asked the kids how they were enjoying the vacation. They both enthusiastically asked if we could come back. The extent of their excitement took both my husband and me off-guard, since much of the time on the campsite seemed to be spent complaining about being bored, hungry and/or itchy. I was encouraged by their response, and subsequently made the fatal parental error of pushing my luck. I followed up my general query about our trip with a more specific, What was their favorite part of the vacation?  “The toy store” and “the baseball card store” my daughter blurted in unison. And a new generation of nature lovers is born….

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