i like to say i never went to summer camp. and the statement is actually mostly true.
what i mean is, i never really went to summer camp. as in, the parent trap, mess hall, sing a longs, craft projects, log cabins, canoe rides and any of the cavorting and hijinx and bonding that one assumes goes on in those situations.
my family, however, went camping plenty of times, or at least, a few.
for one partial outdoor, rustic experience, my parents took us camping in colorado the summer that man landed on the moon, but that involved actually sleeping in log cabins. it was a novelty to vacation with my best friends family, although the presence of the second set of adults did keep the gimlets flowing more than usual. the journey in this trip was memorable in our mode of keeping two really long station wagons in sync with a pair of walkie talkies to communicate during the trek across the states. ancient times.
real tent camping happened during the summer before i plunged into the dizzying social scape of high school. my parents (ingenious space planners to squeeze all sorts of luggage, a coleman cooler of soggy sandwiches, hard boiled eggs, radishes, lukewarm cans of root beer, my mothers carton of kents, and five adolescent & beyond children into a 1972 mercedes sedan) drove us out to wyoming. barely surviving the drive due to above issues, nearly running out of gas in a deserted western town, forced to stay overnight at a former (and no doubt current) bordello, plus a brief stop in the badlands of one of the dakota states which looked so dreary, so ‘bad’, we hormonal, crabby brood of children refused to get out of the car, we finally reached our destination.
wyoming. mountains. horses. fresh water running through pine-scented bluffs and valleys. room to stretch and touch the sky. stargazing like never before. sure, the brochure came to life once we were back on dry land.
they say that the journey is worth the destination, which in this case, no doubt was true. too intoxicated with the great west to consider the eventual drive home in that german sardine can, we embraced our new surroundings by donning checkered flannel shirts, bandanas (inexplicable, but that’s what we gals did, and not in a dale evans sort of way, but rather, aunt jemima-mode), thick dungarees, and laced-up waffle stompers. my brother johnny even topped off his outfit with a gen-u-ine bonanza-type cowboy hat, a spiffy accent for a bespectacled, freckled, often heckled, 8 year old. (he was the baby).
the week was laid out for us: a horse per person, a cook, and a guide. tents to pitch up in the mountains, amidst the green pines, sparkling blue lakes and umbre-scented forest clearings. the end.
after a night of excited attempts to sleep at the ‘base camp’ (the vocabulary was otherworldly!), we saddled up in the morning and set off on the trail.
now, the only pickle beyond the fact that our cook, inexplicably, was from our same home town and a year older than me, kept me nearly mute for the first few days in pubescent alarm and shyness, was my horse.
flashback to a few years earlier, when my mom decided to hire a trainer to get her five children proficient, at a minimum, on a saddle. we had a few horses back then on our five acres a-joining a forest preserve, so this horse riding was intended to be a big part of our lives. you know, they say…the best laid plans…?
everyone had a turn on lucy, who was, really, a pretty fine horse, deep blue black in color, friendly, constant, she was ours for years. by the time my turn came, i think it must have been the magic hour for horse lunch, because no sooner did i mount the mare, settle my little feet into the stirrups and wrap, with great concentration, the reins around my fingers in the mode akin a fine english lady, she took off.
i mean, she took off!
galloping, not cantering, trotting, walking, or standing still, this horse bounded at full, maniacal speed straight to the barn. i remember the blur of the trainer perhaps waving their arms (who knew, they had no powers over this mighty beast), as the horse bucked in some fashion and i went flying into the air. not to be left out of the fun, by good luck, my little foot (no doubt in lace up keds, so dorky and impractical while riding), got stuck in the stirrup, and i was dragged, not unlike a bouncy ball on the end of a string, unceremoniously, upside-down, the length of the pasture until the monster made a sudden and full stop at the barn.
i was somehow removed from this unladylike position, and remember a line of my four siblings, speechless, looking at me with really big wide open eyes. the crowd was stunned. and so was i.
i shuffled off to a shady spot beneath a pine tree in our back yard, and sat down in the grass. my mom, the mediator in this suddenly dire life-altering moment, sauntered over in her capris and best faux cheerful mode. i remember the conversation clearly. it was brief. the gist: she offered me money to get back on that horse. i refused.
i don’t know how the rest of the lesson were for my sisters and brothers, as i turned and walked up the hill to our house, made myself a sandwich, and watched television.
never got on that damn horse again. ever.
so, back to wyoming.
the anticipation of such an exotic trip kept me so loopy with excitement, i never once considered the reality of having to spend 7 solid days riding a horse. time had helped erase the terror of that terrible moment in the pasture, and i had watched my older sister and mom ride for years, so i’m sure my own horse issues had been buried under layers of calm and denial. but sure enough, when mr. mines, our hitch-ety, grizzly old guide (first tobacco chewer i ever met), lead us to a corral and started doling out the horses, that old familiar dread crept up my spine something awful.
a quick aside: every time i hear a gordon lightfoot song, i think of this bearded, crusty guide of ours, as he took, to our collective surprise, to singing, during our trail rides with daily dedication, the top ten hit of that summer, “sundown, ya better take care, if i find you a sneakin’ down a my back stairs…”.
the pretty brown horses were assigned, one, two, three, four…a grey horse assigned, five…an appaloosa, assigned, six.
stone-struck shocked, literally, even to this day, as i remember watching in horror this slow-motion hell played out. my parents, my sisters, my brothers, bedecked in their western-best, all climbed aboard their new steeds: gentle, soft colors, soulful, sweet eyes all of them. horses and people! when finally, the last horse stood waiting to be mounted, my heart beating out of my ears and toes simultaneously, and the crowd, my family, my should-be-protectors, too delirious in their self-centered joy, clueless as to my predicament.
the grizzly guide pulled the largest, blackest, moody-eyed horse that ever walked the earth up to me.
literally, the only black horse in wyoming.
“this here horse is yours, her name is midnight.”
lady or the tiger, behind which door lies hells fury. do i walk home? do i stay in base camp with a bunch of strangers for a week? do i cry and howl like the baby i feel like i suddenly am until someone trades horses with me? the politics established, the middle child always, and the risk for a weeks (and life’s) worth of sibling teasing propelled me to step forward. nobody puts this baby in a corner. (trust me: my brothers and sisters and i weren’t unlike the cast of ‘lord of the flies’ back in the 60s & 70s…you had to weigh the outcry and fallout from bad or unpopular decisions constantly)
i stretched my eyes up to look at the saddle, slipping my left foot into the stirrup, pulling myself up, swinging my leg over, landing squarely in the middle of that mighty beast, i did my best sign of the cross, thanked god that we were riding western, and grabbed the hell out of that saddle horn for the next week.