Well, it wasn’t actually a suggestion.
“Are you packed and ready to go? We’re leaving tomorrow.”
“Yeah, we’re going camping at Letts Lake this weekend. Didn’t I tell you?”
And so it was. The soccer jersey was folded neatly away among the tie-dye and “Normal Is Boring” tee-shirts, the shin guards left to stink up the laundry room. The suitcases bulged like the leftover stuffed bell peppers my mother insisted I eat before leaving the dining room. My parents brought sweatpants, jackets, gloves, and hats. I brought my favorite Biobottoms leggings with sprig-like patterns and an old sweatshirt. My brother Josh brought homework from ninth grade history and some pajamas. My dog brought herself and the foot-shaped pillow that my seven-year-old cousin Jeff had made for her in his sewing class.
My family was accustomed to long driving trips and sharing one big tent. We knew how to divvy up the backseats. We had a small cooking stove and lots of Tupperware. We were veterans of the whole camping business. We were prepared.
The first indication that maybe this trip was not meant to be occurred within the first two hours of our journey. We had a 1995 white Dodge Ram van with eight seats—that is, a driver’s seat, a passenger’s seat, and two rows of three seats in the back. Traditionally in our road trips I had the first row, and Josh had the back. This trip was the first time he insisted that we switch places so he could stretch his legs, which were sprouting out from his fourteen-year-old body at an alarming rate. I silently cursed his growth spurt while retreating to the far back while he gloated and patted our dog Tam. Just as I was glowering into the latest issue of American Girl, Tam’s mouth began to quiver. Her panting increased dangerously, drool forming, eyes watering, and finally she erupted.
“OOOHH!! TAM!! Damnit!!!” Josh grimaced.
“What? Is she all right?” My mom wanted to know.
“She’s all right. I don’t know if I could say the same for my shoes.”
Fate was trying to tell us something. We pulled over and wiped out the floor of the van.
As soon as the floor was more or less the right color again, we were on our way again. We passed ancient shacks in ghost towns, propping each other up like elderly couples. The sky looked like the blue-gray linoleum on our kitchen floor, crop fires licking up to the clouds.
The further we drove, the more I couldn’t get that sickly feeling out of my stomach. The oak trees seemed to be staring us down, every old log grimacing at our van. It reminded me of the Berenstain Bears’ Don’t Talk to Strangers book when Sister Bear gets scared and thinks that every frog, bird, and fellow bear is her worst nightmare.
My fears weren’t unreasonable. We were driving west off Interstate 5 on our way to the Snow Mountain Wilderness Ranger Station in the Mendocino National Forest. We were headed for Letts Lake up a narrow road near Goat Mountain. The windier the roads became, the darker the sky grew, the more the landscape became unfriendly. We were driving through the rural town of Stonyford when we stumbled upon a small house amid the dying grasses and withered trees. Driving out here from the friendly community of Davis, we were unprepared for the twisted humor presented so publicly.
“Are those lawn figures doing what I think they’re doing?” Mom inquired, stifling back laughter.
“Oh, Ma, it’s not that bad,” Josh protested. “They’re just mooning us.” Sure enough, the painted cardboard figures had pulled down their polka-dotted pants and had crudely vicious smiles painted across their cartoon heads. There was no lawn for the lawn figures—gravel and dirt made up the front yard.
“Check it out!” I said. “A smiley face!” Printed in bold letters underneath the face were the words “Have a nice day, YOU ASSHOLE.”
Completing the scene was an old toilet that sat at the opening of the gate. A small sign reading “Rest Stop” was propped up against the porcelain base.
Mom’s first instinct was to grab the camera. She ran over to the hostile backyard and took picture after picture, as if the signs were a tourist attraction. I refused to step more than a few feet away from the van. I was sure that we would get shot.
A few miles and rolls of film later, we drove past a small cozy ranch. The knotted pine that twisted around the gate looked welcoming. The horses teasing each other in the pastures seemed harmless enough. Then we read the sign that was spelled out in rocks on the ground.
“The 4-Q Ranch,” Dad read slowly.
“I wonder what the q’s stand for.” We had just learned alliteration in Mr. Steubing’s sixth grade class. I was just running through the mental list of q words—quick, quilt, quiet—
“Fork you!!” Mom exploded into giggles, so highly pitched that all we could hear was the gentle clicking of her tongue as it hit the sides of her teeth.
No one else seemed disturbed by this. They were in hysterics. I was sitting in my seat, counting the number of rocks in the front yard. My superstition told me that if the number was odd, we would live to make it back home, but if the number was even, we were screwed. I crossed all my fingers and my toes too, for good measure. I muttered quickly under my breath “oh god whatever it is that is up there let us make it out of this scary place alive.” That was as close as I could get to a prayer.
Well, we lived, but we kept going, delving deeper into the countryside, digging into the hills as the darkness swam over us. Dad assured us that we were very nearly there, and sure enough, we were soon shivering in front of the Ranger’s Station. Mom and Dad went into the brown square building while Josh and I puttered around underneath the oaks. We got directions to the campground and started the climb up the hill.
As our car rumbled up the dirty road, I heard a roar like thunder. I knew it, we’re screwed, I thought silently. But it wasn’t thunder. It wasn’t even the growling of mountain lions. It was the revving of engines.
It turned out that the weekend we had chosen for a family getaway was the same weekend as a huge Motocross rally. Within minutes, we were surrounded by cars towing dirt bikes and motorcyclists decked out in black leather and boots with skulls instead of spurs.
I counted the number of motorcycles and bikes with the fervent prayer that the number would be odd. Somehow odd numbers gave me comfort, which was bizarre, seeing as I had sworn off math since long division in fourth grade.
By the time we had reached the campground, it was past dinnertime. We rushed to set up the tent and light the gas stove. The cold crept in and through my thin leggings, swirling like a ghost under the zipper of my Land’s End jacket. The pine trees leaned over our small table. Eavesdropping squirrels with darting eyes dangled low to snatch food.
The entire evening was a musical score. The melody was us rustling in our sleeping bags, the chattering of teeth and the shouts of pain when Tam stepped on someone’s bladder. The base line, which started low and nonchalant, was our neighbors in the campground, who tuned into their RV radios and played loud games of poker. The crescendo was the Motocross family that drove up at about two in the morning. They had arrived just as the frost began to dot the edges of the pines, so it was only minutes before we heard the loud whirring of their generator. The generator was so noisy that the family members yelled at each other as if they were on opposite sides of the Mississippi River.
“JIMMY! WHERE’S THE LIGHTER?”
“IT’S RIGHT WHERE YOU LEFT IT!”
“NO IT’S NOT! NOW HOW AM I GONNA GET ME MY SMOKE?”
The best part was when their rowdy mutt, Sam, escaped and ran crazily all over the campground. Tam jumped up suddenly as if she were a puppet that was jerked to stand. All four of us moved to grasp her collar, but the cold that grabbed at our fingers kept us from actually grabbing much of anything. Before we knew it, Tam was gone, out through the flimsy opening of the tent.
The next half hour was quite hysterical in retrospect, but for a preteen whose idea of a frightening movie was Ernest Scared Stupid, the episode was nothing short of terrifying. My parents, whose humor has always been admirable, laughed offhand before they really began to wonder where Tam had gone. The fact that “Tam” rhymed with “Sam” did not help the situation at all.
“TAM! COME, TAM!” collided with the drunken yells of “SAM! COME, SAM!” The words bounced off each other in the freezing air. We heard scuffles, barks, bottles being thrown carelessly. Some of the dirt bikers had decided to drive around a bit. Meanwhile the generator was still running. All this, at two-thirty in the morning.
Finally, after several more minutes of back and forth yelling and frantic whistles, Tam slipped guiltily back into the tent. I let out the breath I had been holding. The opening was zipped shut and Tam was hooked back on her leash. She panted and smiled happily as she seemed to say, “Oh, was that invigorating!” We all glared at her and went back to shivering in our sleeping bags.
Just as I was drifting off to sleep, I remembered the coals in our campfire. There had been 11 of them, burning bright. And there were three Porta-Potties, not two. My entire body sighed with relief. We weren’t screwed. Not this time.
Julia Halprin Jackson’s work has appeared in Oracle Fine Arts Review, West Branch Wired, California Northern, Fourteen Hills, Flatmancrooked, Fictionade, Fiction365, as well as selected anthologies. She received scholarships from the Tomales Bay Writer’s Workshops and the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, and has an M.A. in Creative Writing from UC Davis. In 2013, she co-founded Play On Words, a collaborative literary performance series in San Jose.