Camping with the Matriarchy
Every summer we went camping, without my dad. My mom deemed him un-campable after a trip to the Grand Canyon ended in Vegas at the Luxor Hotel. Another summer, the car just happened to drift towards CalNeva Casino. I loved both hotels, and perhaps this is what scared my mom. So we went camping without my dad. The “we” in this equation refers to my mom, either of her two divorced sisters and their female progeny. We refused to acknowledge the gendered nature of our trips, but there was always an undercurrent of “We can do it.” This made our camping failures far more dramatic than they should have been. It felt like we were disproving feminism.
One summer there was an apocalyptic storm, and we spent the night in the car and left miserable in the morning. Actually I enjoyed that camping trip because it was mostly spent inside the car. Venturing forth into the actual great outdoors meant hours of sunscreen and mosquito application. Then we would invariably get lost or realize we had no water.
Then there was the time my cousin popped a squat on some poison oak. Her vagina broke out in a horrible, humiliating rash. It’s hard to find a poison oak cream that’s safe for vaginal use; I imagine there were many conversations with a shocked pharmacist, while my cousin hid in the vitamin aisle. Ergo, it is probably best if we stay indoors. Still my mother and aunts were determined to relive the golden days of their youth–when their parents forced them to experience the “wilderness.” Luckily, something usually flared up, keeping us from the wilderness. Well, we did experience a wilderness of sorts, just not the one our parents intended: things could turn savage around the camp fire.
Camping could become competitive. Who made the best s’mores? Who knew the names of the most flowers? Who remembered how to tie a special knot? What was the name of that knot? Worse, our three mothers were ready to point out less than perfect camp-manship. Once all of our food was canned, and my aunt forgot the can opener. Panic took over as I tried to pry open a can of refried beans with a rock. Eventually we turned on my aunt, and the Can Battle of 1993 began, our voices echoing off the mountains. We were so disgusted with each other that we packed and drove the five hours home.
Still, there was always a next summer. We stayed in a campsite littered with “Missing” posters, advertising the disappearance of a handful of campers from our very own campsite. I didn’t need to whine that year. There didn’t even have to be an argument. Danger, I guess, forced us to make peace. We packed up and spent the night at Best Western.
I loved a good Best Western: everything was so clean and organized. My mom’s house (you couldn’t really call it dad’s because all his possessions were relegated to the den) was covered in Mexican art, Etruscan replicas, fertility goddesses and piles of catalogs and magazines. Therefore I craved beige, uncluttered surfaces. I still love the smell of new cars.
This penchant for all things sanitized naturallty pissed my mother off. One Sunday when I was about seven, my mom announced that we were going to go on an adventure. We each wrote ideas of places to go on little pieces of paper, which we crumpled up and put in a hat. She picked one of my papers. “The Sizzler!” She shrieked. No daughter of hers would consider an all-you-can-eat buffet an adventure! She was horrified and this probably renewed her enthusiasm for camping.
So that summer we went camping at a high altitude. It was like being wasted with my family for four days. Everything was hilarious. We have videotape footage of me holding a marshmallow and cackling for a good five minutes. Maybe it was the altitude that caused our tent-assembly problems. That’s what we’d like to believe.
My aunt had an octagonal-shaped tent, and the instructions went missing. We tried every arrangement of poles, and finally we declared it was a sexist tent. Only men could assemble it. We were joking, but also we weren’t. Eventually we successfully “pitched a tent.” This euphemism seemed like further proof of the tent’s sexism.
I think it was the octagonal tent that actually put an end to our annual camping trips. Perhaps we were afraid Susan B. Anthony would revoke our Feminist Memberships. Whenever I watch Man vs. The Wild, I wonder what Woman vs. The Wild would look like. Would she bring hair products?
We also don’t go camping together anymore because we’re scared of spending time together in an isolated location. Camping with my family is an extreme sport, emotionally and physically dangerous. We are, after all, the type of family that accuses tents of being sexist. Paranoia is always just down the trail, especially at high altitudes. “You didn’t bring any bug spray on purpose!” It’s too bad we don’t camp anymore, because nothing brings family together more than laughing at past fiascos.