My wife, our two girls (two and three years old at the time) and I took the days following Labor Day weekend 1999, and journeyed to Golden Gate camping ground. It was a trip that would go down in infamy.
I had put massive amounts of time and energy in preparing this glorious trip. It was going to be heaven. I researched the campground, planned out the route there, inventoried our equipment, and dreamed up a gourmet menu. We would be feasting in paradise - we had planned the perfect trip.
As we drove up Sunday afternoon, I knew we would have dreamland to ourselves. We were headed against the busy flow of weekenders making their way back to the city to prepare for their Monday morning monotony. I smirked and reveled in the thought that they just didn’t know when to go and when to come. Why would any one want to go camping when everyone and their brother was doing the same. Didn’t they know that the idea behind camping is to get away from the terrors of society and commune with the gentleness of nature? We passed endless vehicles of various shapes and sizes, carrying lifeless campers. They looked as though they had spent such an incredible amount of time and energy trying to have a relaxing vacation that they wore themselves out. I smirked again, “They could learn a thing or two from me.”
After the journey, during which the kids were incredibly well-behaved, we arrived at Golden Gate campground. We learned that we wouldn’t be alone – there would be a group of teenagers staying there also. “That’s OK,” I thought, “This campground is big enough for both of us and they look like decent kids.”
The campground sure was big enough. It was glorious. It had pristine trees, which gave off the most tranquil aroma of pine I had ever smelled. It was flawlessly clean and tidy. The individual camp sites had their own tables, a fire pit, and smooth level plots for your tents. They made it so easy to ‘rough it’.
As I was demonstrating my manhood by setting up our shelter – a newly purchased, triple nylon, weatherproof tent – a park ranger drove up. I knew I had nothing to worry about because our fee was paid and we had read every rule and regulation as we entered the grounds. I thought, “He probably just wants to welcome us and wish us a heavenly stay.” As I walked over to his truck he blurted out, “Have you seen the bear?”
“Bear? What bear?” I asked with my best mountain-man voice.
“Oh it’s nothing,” he replied, “There’s been a bear in the campground all weekend. You’ll need to be careful”. After I had realized that he wasn’t kidding around uneasiness settled over me.
I thought, “What’s a bear doing here? Can’t the park service manage these creatures any better?” So I gave him a nod and a reluctant smile with a, “We’ll do,” to send him on his way. I was determined not to let this ominous warning ruin my trip. “I shouldn’t get mad at him. He’s just doing his job,” I thought, “Of course, if he were really doing his job there wouldn’t be a bear in the area. This was a national forest for Pete’s sake!”
And oh what a park it was. It was gorgeous. It was near perfect. Well, except for the campsites. They were a little too close together for my liking. But that was OK because we were the only ones up here . . . except for those ill-mannered teenagers, and of course that wretched bear. Other than that it was paradise.
We finished putting up our tent, which went flawlessly, and decided to take a nature walk. I grabbed the video camera, my wife and two girls and set out to commune with creation.
About thirty yards into our trek the serene thoughts in my head were encroached upon with a single menacing vexation – THE BEAR. I glanced quickly back at the camp and wondered how fast could I make it back to the safety of the tent. Did I mention it was triple nylon and weather proof? I had gotten a good deal on it too. I started feeling uneasy and noticed my wife staring at me reading my expression. Then I got defiant. “I am not going to let that nefarious bear ruin my trip! Besides I bet I could beat him to the tent. That is, if I didn’t get stuck toting one of the kids, the extra baggage would slow me down.” I let out a nervous laugh to reassure my wife and we continued on our walk.
After the mentally draining hike we arrived back at the campsite. I decided to do some cooking to get my mind off worrying about that God-forsaken bear. I pulled out the meal that was planned for that first night. I had wanted to start our trip off with a bang so I put together a top-notch feast. We were going to have juicy steaks of the choicest cut of beef, baked potatoes and garlic bread. I was excited as I wrapped the potatoes in foil and prepped the meat. The steaks were at least an inch thick and still very fresh. I imagined the sizzle I would hear and the mouth-watering aroma as I cooked them over the campfire. But then an odd contemplation materialized in my mind, “How far would an aroma molecule float in the air. There was no wind so that would factor into the equation. But still, it’s got to be pretty far because I can always smell if someone in the neighborhood is grilling out. I bet you that after a minute or two over the fire that stupid bear’s going catch wind of these steaks and come running. In fact I bet you he’s out there right now spying on me just waiting for me to get these steaks all cooked up for him before he comes a raiding.” So at that I wrapped the steaks up and bitterly thrust them back in the cooler. My wife noticed me rustling around in the food and asked what was for dinner. I shot back a look that told her she shouldn’t have asked and said, “PBJ’s and baked potatoes.” Dinner was quietly pleasant.
As we sat chilled around the campfire the breeze started to pick up and I noticed clouds rolling in. It started to sprinkle as we cleaned up and the sun was setting. My mind was nervous and twitchy. I felt a little more vulnerable with the limited sight the decreasing light offered. I could only see one or two trees deep with the light from the fire. I knew Lucifer, the bear, could get even closer without being spotted. I got angry. I thought, “How could he think I’m so stupid. I know what his plan is. He’s overconfident if he thinks he can outsmart me.” So I schemed and planned for the onslaught as my wife and girls giggled inside the tent blissfully ignorant of the impending danger.
Suddenly a split of lightening and crack of thunder filled the sky. I jumped and about wet myself. I was pretty edgy. I could picture Lucifer smirking at the sight of me jumping and I hated him for it. After another couple of thunder bolts it started to pour.
The kids stayed in the tent as my wife and I scurried to gather up anything that shouldn’t get wet.
A couple of minutes into our frantic cleaning the heavens opened up and poured buckets full on us. I yelled at her to get in the tent with the girls and that I would finish up. She barely heard me over the deafening downpour. I sure wasn’t a “happy camper” by now. As I gathered our equipment, I fantasized about doing some hurt to Lucifer with my newly purchased Leatherman pocketknife. Its blade was almost 2 ½ inches long.
I was chilled to the bone but my vengeful thoughts were quite warming. They were interrupted by my wife screaming at me from the tent. I could barely hear her over the roar of the deluge and thunder. I approached and peered in with my flashlight. I saw rivers of water and mud flowing through the triple nylon weatherproof tent, for which I paid too much. Everything was a mess. The colossal raindrops were splattering mud and wet pine needles over the whole lot.
It seemed as if God had reneged on his promise not to judge the world with a flood again. All hell was breaking loose. I instinctively went into survival mode. It was time for flight. My wife screamed at me and I at her but neither of us could hear the other over the monsoon. We finally communicated a semi-coordinated plan. I must've not fully understood it though. The plan crystallized for me when she and the kids were snuggling in the car and I was left drowning out in the cold trying to load up the rest of the equipment. Suspiciously I wondered for a moment if she was in cahoots with that malevolent bear.
By this time the fire was drenched making it pitch-black save for my trusty Army surplus flashlight. I broke down the tent, which was covered with wet pine needles and mud. The musty smell of pine, wet sleeping bags, and mud-caked clothes was nauseating. I was mad, angry, and scared. I thought, “I bet Lucifer gets boat loads of pleasure from terrorizing helpless campers, the sadistic bastard!”
I hurried as fast as I could. All I wanted to do is get out of that hellhole. My thoughts darted back to all those people we passed coming in here. I wondered, “Why didn’t they warn us. Surely they knew the weather was going to turn.” It had been divinely perfect weather all week including Labor Day weekend. “The arrogance of some people,” I thought.
I finally got everything packed and sat in the Explorer shivering. As my wife annoyingly sang songs with the girls, I strained to see out the window looking for any glimpse of my adversary. I longed to look him square in the face. I wanted to defiantly shake my fist at him and claim victory. But I was denied the satisfaction – he never did show. Mostly I just saw my reflection because the dome light was on.
After just eight hours of camping we headed home to the city. My mind was whirling. I was thinking about what we would do with the time we had already planned to take off. The zoo sounded nice, but I would probably spend much of the time cleaning the camping gear. I thought, “The cleaner it is the better the price I’ll get for it at the garage sale.”