It started with all the talk about Foil Stew and how it is the best meal ever invented. Add a desire to get away to a tropical destination. Mix in economic crisis. Fold in Thursday and Friday off from school. Cook with the desire (by my middle son) to use a pocket knife.
I know, this is a very complicated recipe, and was I surprised by what it produced: a camping trip with my three boys. I know. You are surprised too. I'm not known for my tendency to jump at opportunities to go on camping trips. I like my drinks brought to me with little umbrellas, and fresh towels every day when I go on a vacation. I knew that wasn't going to happen, so I had to dig around a bit in my memory to those fun camping trips with my family when I was a little girl. I had to search around for that sense of adventure. I had to reassure myself that I'd be close to home and it was only one night. I had to come to terms with a sleeping bag instead of high-thread-count sheets.
When I told the boys what we were going to do, they were so excited that I thought for a second I accidently told them we were going to a five-star hotel on the Cote d' Azure. Actually, it was almost ridiculous how excited they were.
Then the first question: "What are we going to eat?!" This was not as much a question as it was an enthusiastic statement. No lobster dinner on this trip. No, we were going to have Foil Stew, which according to my boys is the best meal ever invented. They first had it at camp during the summer when they spent the night out in the woods. They have waxed poetic about it ever since. It has grown to almost mystical proportions.
Armed with a shopping list, I hit the store. Then I packed up the propane stove (still in the box), the camping pots (still in box), the flashlights, a lighter, backpacks loaded with trail mix and flat sandwiches (see Sept 2007 post titled French Women, Teenage Boys, and a Flat Sandwich), sleeping bags, and a copy of my online reservation for a tent-cabin, and we hit the road. Our destination, Big Basin State Park, was pretty close, but it takes a while to get there as the road is very narrow and twisty. We quickly lost cell phone coverage, and therefore contact with my husband who was hoping to monitor the trip from the safety of his office.
We arrived at our cabin, which was set in a beautiful grove of redwoods so tall we couldn't see the tops. It was nicer than I expected, a cozy little cabin with two double beds, a tiny wood stove, and a table. It even had a broom! It was a little dark in the cabin, and I couldn't find the light switch until I remembered there wasn't one. We left most of our stuff in the car, put on our backpacks, consulted the trail map, and set out for a hike. Most of our discussion at first centered around our disappointment at not being able to have a campfire. When we checked in, the ranger told us that there was a red-flag warning, or high risk for forest fire, so no open fires. He did point out we could use the wood stove in our cabin, which I would later be grateful for.
On the trail in Big Basin State Park
We hiked for about four hours, which I figured would guarantee that the foil stew would taste as good to all of us as promised. As we walked, and talked, I took some pictures of the boys with my camera. The boys had a camera too, and they took hundreds of pictures. Pictures of rocks, trees, leaves, the sky, and sometimes their shoes. I love digital cameras, as I am old enough to remember wasting film to take this many pictures, then spending a fortune to develop the pictures to see how they turned out. The boys have no concept of this, happily taking as many pictures as the SD card allows.
On the way back to our campsite, I started getting worried that it was getting dark sooner than I expected. With the very tall trees and mountainous terrain, the light was fading fast. After a relaxing day I felt a sense of urgency. We had to get started on dinner! I got everything out and got everyone to work. One boy peeled carrots, one cut up potatoes, one opened the can of tomato sauce. At this point I realized we better get the fire started in the stove in the cabin while we could still see. I went to light the fire and realized I forgot any kindling or paper to get the fire going with. I also realized I had one lighter and I was not sure how much fluid was in it. Hmm . . rookie mistakes. OK, hold that thought, I've got to get the stove lit. I took it out of the box, read the directions quickly, hooked up the propane, and it worked just great. Whew. Back to the fire which of course went out. I put the directions to the stove in, and then went into the car and gathered all the paper I could find (old mail, etc) and put that in the stove. We lit it and it looked like it was going to work. We couldn't watch it though because suddenly we had visitors to our campsite. A family of raccoons came to visit; a mom, dad, and baby. "Oh how cute!" the boys exclaimed. Then the raccoons got a little too close to the food, and we had to take my youngest off of his duties and appoint him to Raccoon Patrol. He quickly took this job much too seriously, yelling, wielding a stick, growling, and lunging after the raccoons. They would disappear and we would go back to preparing our meal and trying to light the fire, only to have to raccoon family try from another angle to taste our food. Someone would yell "Raccoon patrol!" and my youngest would race off brandishing a stick, yelling and chasing them off into the almost dark woods. I had to keep yelling "Get back here!" although I was pretty sure the raccoons knew these woods better than he and they were safe from his stick. I checked the chimney and saw smoke coming out. Our fire was lit in the stove! Back to getting all the food in our pot. We had to make the foil bowls to eat them out of too. I went in to check on the fire. It was out again.
Hmm. I am resourceful, I can figure this out. Ah ha! We brought a whole roll of paper towels! The foil stew was bubbling away on the stove, so I put all the rest of the food in the car, locked it (raccoons are smart and might be able to open the door I thought), and had everyone making balls out of the paper towels. We had a lot of discussion about how to place the wood, where to put the paper towels, if the door to the stove should be open or closed. We also had to have a flashlight-holder since we could no longer see what we were doing in the cabin. This time, the wood really caught and the fire was going. The cabin started to heat up nicely, but didn't seem necessary because we were all running around so much that no one was cold. Since we had a fire going, I went ahead with the appetizer. We were all starving. I went back to the car to get the food and had a my heart stopped. The car was locked! Where was the key?? We are miles from the ranger station, my cell phone doesn't work here, its getting dark, we are going to starve and freeze! Oh here is the key in my pocket.
The cheese s'mores on crackers were really really good. We put chunks of fresh mozzarella on skewers, cooked over the fire until melty, then put it on a cracker. Then we made our foil bowls for the stew. My middle son made a bowl the size of a mixing bowl. We were ready to eat, but discovered the only way we had to get the bubbling stew from the pot was a teaspoon. No problem, my middle son who loves to build things out of foil made a ladle. It worked perfectly. We sat down to foil stew that truly was delicious.
After we finished our dinner, I pondered how to clean the dishes. We could throw the foil bowls away but the silverware and pot were dirty. Flashlight in hand, we hiked to the water spigot and attempted to clean the dishes. We got wet from the spray, the flashlight-holder didn't stay focused, and I would discover in the morning that the cold water and soap did nothing for the grease on the dishes.
The real reason to go camping
Back in our cozy little tent cabin, we added more wood to the fire, and I started getting the marshmallows, chocolate, and graham crackers ready. No camping trip would be complete without s'mores. We ate our fill. I decided that hiking back to the bathrooms to brush our teeth was too much trouble at this point, so we got ready for bed. Once in our sleeping bags, we all got our books out to read. My youngest, not a big reader, was really tired anyway. He asked if he could just go to sleep. I sneaked a peek at my watch and was shocked to see that it was only 7:55 pm. I thought it was much later. I told him he could go to sleep and he promptly did so, along with my middle son. My oldest son and I read for about a half hour until we could no longer keep our eyes open, so we went to sleep too. I expected we would all wake up at 5:00 am anyway.
But no. At 7:00 am I could no longer stand it, I had to get out of my sleeping bag and pee in the woods. It was so quite that I think the sound of running water woke everyone up. It was cold and we had used up all our wood, so we put on all our clothes and went about making hot chocolate and breakfast. No raccoon visitors for breakfast. They hadn't broken into the car either. I think they had enough of being chased by a maniac with a stick. After breakfast we cleaned up and the boys all worked on the bow and arrow they started the night before. I was surprised to see how beautiful it turned out, and even more surprised to see them shoot an arrow, fashioned from a sharpened stick, right over the campsite and the car. I felt that maybe we really could survive in the wild if we had to, I think I have a few hunters on my hands here. When my middle son started to aim for a bird, I told him if he killed it he would have to eat it raw. I figured that was more effective than telling him we were in a State Park and he could not touch any wildlife. Later when we got home, this bow would be used to shoot one of the homemade arrows in the direction of the garage, where the sharp arrow would lodge into the wood siding. Ooops.
The bow was whittled carefully by pocketknife and precisely notched for the string. It is dark in this photo because the sun did not reach us very early in the tall redwoods.
We made our lunch, packed up and drove over the ranger station. From there we set out to explore and hike for another four hours, two and a half of which was a series of switchbacks up a mountain to a spectacular view toward the ocean. We did not see another person until we were almost back to the ranger station. This did seem a little eerie to me when I realized I had no cell phone coverage and if someone got hurt it would be interesting to get back for help. I stopped the boys and explained that I would not tolerate any horseplay on the trail, and why, and it worked quite well. Then I relaxed and enjoyed being unplugged, in nature, with my boys all to myslef. They absolutely loved it too.
The top of Buzzard's Roost
It was a great trip. It was not a tropical vacation, and I was utterly exhausted by the time we returned home at 5:00 pm on Friday, but we had an adventure that I'm sure none of us will forget.