I buy a new tent, on sale, at REI’s flagship store in Seattle. I am going camping for the first time since I was 12, when my parents were in charge of setting up the tent. No, wait, I think I’ve been camping once since. My husband set up that tent.
I’m no dummy. My mother taught me, and told me often, that practice makes perfect. I read the instructions and set up and take down the tent in the store before I purchase it. Next, I set up the tent up in our living room. My two Miniature Dachshunds, Cooper and Isis, watch, captivated, from the couch, where they are perched on their Calvin Klein pillows. It takes me 20 minutes. Later that same morning, I set up the tent in the front yard. This time it only takes 10 minutes, including the process of putting stakes in the ground. I cut my time in half! Victory dance.
When I’m done, I put bits of freeze-dried chicken in the corners of the tent. I call my dogs by their nicknames, Pumpkin and Sweet Pea, and duck out of sight. Before long, I hear crunching sounds. Coop ‘n’ Isis now believe that magical things happen in this food-producing structure.
I’m not satisfied yet. In the afternoon, I set the tent up in our back yard. Seven minutes from bag to full glory. Yesssss! I put it away even faster when it starts to drizzle. I don’t want my waterproof tent to get wet and develop that musty eau-de-camp scent so soon.
A month and a half later, it’s time for the real deal. With plenty of daylight left, I get to the first campground in Port Townsend. It’s full for the night. All 88 sites are booked—in mid-March? Turns out there’s a Victorian Festival this weekend at the state park. Oka-ay.
By the time I get to Sequim, the next closest campsite, it is dark. That special kind of pitch-black dark that occurs only in the dense tree cover of the Olympic National Forest. Not to worry! I brought a powerful standing light that plugs into the cigarette lighter of the car.
Before I set up the tent, I put a chain stake in the ground and attach the dogs’ leashes to it, the kind of leashes that extend up to 16 feet. As I start to set up, Isis immediately decides she has to be in the tent. Throughout the process, she goes in and out.
In. It’s cold outside.
Out. What’s Mom doing?
In. It’s really cold.
Out. But this is fascinating!
In. Any chicken bits in here?
Out. Hey, Mom, where are the chicken bits?
In. That’s it. I zip the flap so she can’t get back out.
Up to this point, Cooper has amused himself by inspecting every fallen pine cone within leash radius for edibility. Now, he panics. His sister is in the tent and he is not. Surely he is missing out on chicken bits. He circles the tent, wrapping his leash around it, searching for a way in.
Meanwhile, I’ve gone to the trunk of the car to get the stakes. On my way, I trip over the cord to the light, plunging us into darkness. Cooper yelps. I open the car door. The roof light! Cooper lunges for the light, pulling the leash taut, collapsing the tent with Isis still inside. Isis yelps.
My precious darlings, once Pumpkin and Sweet Pea, are now Pestilence and Plague. I unclip Plague and toss him in the car. Plug in the light. Unearth Pestilence from the folds of the tent and toss her in after him. I look at the dash clock. Thirty-six minutes have passed.
I resurrect the tent and stake it down. Back to the trunk to get the waterproof shell. On the return trip, I trip. Over the light cord again. Darkness. Cursing. Open the car door. Tell the dogs to STAY. Plug in the light again.
The light is extinguished in this manner one more time, on my way from the car to the tent with my king size pillow; three wool blankets; one 400-thread count, cotton cover, Laura Ashley down blanket; and a sleeping bag, the kind they call a mummy bag, which is narrow at the foot and wider at the top. I layer the blankets, with the mummy bag underneath. Finally. Ready to bed down for the night.
Slowly and insidiously, my two burrowing hounds make their way to the bottom of the bag, tangling themselves in my feet. I lie on my back, but can’t sleep in that position. I turn to lie on my side, and one dog moves to the curve behind my legs, another to the curve in front of my stomach. They curl into donut-dog position. The arm I’m lying on hurts. I roll over on my stomach. The dogs adjust, flattening out into dog-logs on either side of me.
Because I don’t have a sleeping pad, the cold, hard ground seeps first into my flesh, then my bones. The only way I’ll be warm and comfortable is to have the mummy bag on top. I ruthlessly dump the dogs out of the depression at the bottom of the bag, re-layer the blankets, adjust the pillow and—at last, at last—lie down for the final time.
I look at the lighted screen of my cell phone, which displays the time. One hour and 49 minutes have passed since we pulled into the park. The dogs burrow in again, turn a few times, scratch, lick their paws, lie down and heave those profoundly contented dog sighs. My muscles unclench, my breathing slows. I am warm, comfortable, exhausted. I should sleep like a baby.
I have to pee.
POSTSCRIPT: A few months later, we stayed at a free national forest campground near Hebo, Ore., and set up camp in a field, near a black Lab sitting with an old-timer working a flintlock. We talked to the man—who turned out to be a retired forest service employee—the next morning. He said to me, “Well, I was watching you, and I thought to myself, ‘Now, there’s a gal who knows how to set up camp!’” What was that saying about not being able to teach an old dog new tricks?