"You've never been camping?!" People always seem to ask me this, as I rattle off the list of various things I never got to do as a kid (among which flying a kite can also be counted).
"No, when would I have?" I asked, explaining my agoraphobic mother and overworked father. "Who would I have gone with?" Camping is not the sort of thing I'm inclined to do alone.
So when I saw the opportunity to join a group camping excursion in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, coupled with some dark sky stargazing, I sheepishly called California Overland, the tour company, to inquire.
When they confirmed that there was an opening on the trip, I said, "Now, I don't have any gear. I mean, I don't have anything. I can bring a camera and some water but that's just about it."
"You don't even need to bring water, we've got that covered," Joe, the tour director, said. "Maybe you want to bring your own pillow, and a washcloth for our wash station. Otherwise we've got everything else taken care of."
I then eeked out my next question: "I'm a solo traveler. Is that OK?"
"Oh yeah," Joe said. "We've got a couple other solo women travelers, that's no problem at all."
I didn't give it another thought until I actually arrived at the meeting point, and faced the usual array of traveling companions: older couples, much older couples, a pair of female friends (still older), a surprisingly chic and outgoing Borrego Springs local, and a quirky, slightly neurotic outdoorswoman who seemed to take a lot of these trips on her own.
And me - the youngest of the bunch by far, suddenly shy and retreating into my own solo social circle of one.
I'd had quite a rapport with Joe on the phone the two times we'd spoken, so I loosened up when he arrived to greet us. His face was kind and weathered, restful in its smile. His eyes twinkled as he tried - pretty successfully - to memorize the names of all 13 of us. We were in good hands.
We'd pushed our meeting time 90 minutes later than originally planned because of the extreme heat in the desert that day - at 117 degrees, a good 10 degrees hotter than a normal July day, hotter than the hottest day in Anza-Borrego most times - so the sun was already starting to dip behind the mountain by the time we arrived to our campsite, the old Clark Homestead, just past Clark Dry Lake.
We were way out in the wild, but right by a former military site for fighter pilot target practice, where plane crashes and old junk car wreck targets have left the desert littered with ammunition shells (though perhaps those are of more recent ne'er do wells), bits and pieces of rubber, plastic, and metal, and booby-trapped patches of sand that give way to reveal buried relics.
But we could stare up at a mile high's worth of mountains and the alluvial fan at its base, which looked close enough to touch past the creosote bushes...
and the sprouts of little spiny bits in the sand that stuck to shoes and socks and sneakers and flip flops.
Past our military-grade tire tracks, we discovered the tracks of those that had come before us, be they bird or rabbit or other, our neighbors for the night.
When you are camping, even way out in the middle of nowhere in the desert, you are never alone.
Soon the sun was disappearing altogether, as we all sat in our folding chairs drinking a bottle of Corona Light - finally! - despite our dehydration and desperate need for water. In a few moments, the tiki torches would be lit, attracting the flies and the moths to our camp, and adding to the heat of an evening which never seemed to cool off.
Little did we know, our adventure was only beginning...
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