Thursday, July 7, 2011

A Beginner's Report on (Curiously Hazy) Desert Camping: The Morning After



To be honest, I didn't sleep much at all on my first camping trip. Then again, I didn't expect to sleep at all.

Even when I was sleeping, I was dreaming about various goings-on in the tent, dreaming of faces peering into the tent, animals scratching their way into it, moths crashing about against the interior wall by my feet.

Then again, maybe all those things really did happen while I was sleeping.

I knew I would wake around 6 a.m., as I usually do when I sleep (indoors) in the desert, and like clockwork, I began to stir around that time. But it wasn't the glare of the sun that pried my eyes open, as it usually does. In fact, I wasn't sure if the sun was even up, the light outside of our tent was so dim. Had I actually woken up before the sun?

The lack of bright light made it easy for me to close my eyes again, but I kept hearing buzzing outside of our tent - the beat of wings against air, and flying body against tent. The flying beasts - which I at first thought were flies - seemed to be trying to storm their way into our tent, crash through its nylon walls by brute force.

I sat straight up, my wet back not cooled at all by the air inside of our tent, which felt like hot breath against my skin. The buzzing persisted. My tentmates awoke.

"Hot," I said, unable to utter anything more coherent.

"Hear those bees?" Katie said sleepily.

"Oh is that what they are?" I looked up and watched them through the skylight of the tent, the same transparent canopy that had allowed me to stargaze through the windstorm that had hit in the overnight.

I felt stiff, filthy, and stalked by bees, so I grabbed a towel, scrambled up to the opening and said, "I gotta get out of here. I'll try not to let any of them in."

I emerged from our tent into a thick marine layer of haze over Anza-Borrego, a desert that by definition is usually dry, with no bodies of water closer than the Salton Sea, still about an hour away.

I went to the latrine, barely eliminating anything, and shyly aware of how not private it was in the light of day.

I stumbled to the wash station, eager to slide the slick mixture of dirt, oil, and sweat off of my skin, where I faced even more bees - this time in a proper swarm, completely covering the wooden platform under the water spout.

I went around the truck and said good morning to Joe and Alan, who were cooking the breakfast we'd retrieved from the office the night before. "The shower's been commandeered by bees..." I said, to which they replied, "We know." I then saw that they themselves had been commandeered by bees as well, the swarm encircling the brewing coffee and cooking bacon and sizzling peppers and onions.

Expiring from thirst, I headed to the cooler set on the picnic table, where I faced the biggest bee swarm yet. "Oh my God!" I said. Where would I not find bees that morning?

I returned to the tent, which had been evacuated by my bunkmates, probably because I'd let a bee in though I promised to try not to. I retrieved my overnight bag and a clean pair of underwear, and I returned to the latrine to change. The small amount of moisture I'd managed to eke out must've distracted the bees or attracted more, because I faced another swarm there, as I danced around trying to place a flip flopped foot through a leg hole, my PJ shorties slung over a sagging creosote bush branch, and my foot leaving a trail of spiny spiky desert debris in the inside of my underwear, promptly sticking to me when pulled over my bare backside.

I grabbed a book and a chair, positioning myself midway between the chuck wagon and the latrine, hoping to grab some peaceful moments of solitude in the quiet morning, though it was impossible to see where the sun was rising. The pools of sweat forming behind my knees between my crossed legs became the bees' next target. Suddenly, I was swarmed.

I brought my bag to the truck and threw it into the back, through another swarm.

I tried to return to the tent, but I'd broken the zippered seal earlier, and now bees had evicted us and taken up residence in our former safehouse shelter.

I tried returning to the chuck wagon, but breakfast was a long way off, and the bees were still looking for water.

I changed my shorts behind a tree.

I walked up the dirt road towards Clark Dry Lake, but a single tenacious bee followed me.

And so I spent the next three hours pacing back and forth, getting up and down from chairs, swatting when necessary, shaking my legs up in the air, and doing the heebie-jeebie dance whenever I discovered a bee trying to suckle the sweat off my legs.

At one point, the moisture in the air was so unusually thick - especially for the desert - that it began to sprinkle. At first, we thought it would help dissipate the bees, giving them the water they so desperately desired, until I realized that every raindrop left on my shirt attracted them even more to that wet spot on my shirt.

There was no escaping the bees. There was nowhere to go where they wouldn't find me. There was no way to send them away. There was no sitting still and letting them swarm me. Never having been stung by a bee, it has become one of my greatest fears. I'll jump out of a plane, but do not leave me in a room alone with a bee. Please.

"OK, I'm ready to go home now," I declared. It was only 7:30 a.m., less than an hour and a half since I first left the tent.

Sometime after 8 a.m., the constant chase and my compulsion to flee became maddening. "OK, now I'm really ready to go home," I said, hands upon hips, hoping someone would agree with me.

In the 90 minutes that followed, three fellow campers got stung, though admittedly they weren't dancing around as much as I was to avoid the bees. By 9:30 when we were ready to leave - earlier than scheduled and about as late as I could possibly stand - we chucked our luggage into the back of the bee-swarmed truck and asked Joe to drive up the road a bit so we could chuck ourselves into the back through a somewhat dissipated swarm. A good idea in theory, the bees seemed to fly fast enough to follow the truck, and the inside of it was just as infested up the road as it had been by the chuck wagon. "Oh Jesus oh Jesus oh Jesus," I said, sticking to my seat, holding my head down and rocking myself back and forth. Joe was loading the last of our load, including the ladder we'd climbed to get into the truck, but it was taking him too long for my taste. I began to chant, "Come on Joe, let's get a move on!" as a mantra until Joe hopped back into the front seat and sped away, finally scattering the swarm and giving us the morning's first moments of peace (though rumbling over rugged terrain through the roar of a diesel engine).

"It's always the camping trips where things go wrong that you remember most fondly," I heard one of my fellow campers say in the row in front of me. "When everything goes perfect, you never remember it. But when you get flooded or you set something on fire, you look back on it and say, 'Well, that was a pretty amazing trip.'"

Of course, being a camping newbie, I have no other reference point. On my first trip, I faced the worst perils I could imagine: heat exhaustion, dehydration, and bee infestation (not to mention the shocking absence of s'mores). And yet I can honestly say, when reporting on my first-ever camping trip, which I somehow foolishly scheduled on the hottest day of the year in one of the hottest spots in Southern California - because, for some reason, this is my idea of fun - it was really great, except for the bees.

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