An Imperfect Family

Day 9

I wake up early again in Idyllwild, California. I wish back home I would wake up this early … out of bed before anyone else, just me and the dogs and a quiet kitchen, time to put away a few things left out the night before, time to let the light in slowly, time to enjoy… silence. 

Today I adjust to the light quickly, because our kitchen is half outdoors. The dogs eat by the picnic table and I drink my daily green powder concoction while waiting for the coffee to brew. I wander around our campsite. In the daylight I’m actually seeing it for the first time. I’m excited for the family to see this mountain top, woodland playground I’ve picked out for us. In expectation for their waking, my nesting instincts override any desire to relax. I head to the large storage compartment at the back of the RV and take out a black rectangular bag containing an outdoor rug. This was one of the 3 items I’d purchased back in July after a google search for “rv camping must haves” Every other photo shows an array of chairs at the doorstep of the RV, confined to the borders of one of these plastic woven rugs. I’ve done a lot of camping in my life. None of it ever involved an outdoor rug. But we are RVers now… so we got ourselves a rug. Actually, out of the 5 items left in the RV by our rental family, (including brown paper bags for fire starter, 2x4s for leveling at uneven campsites & folding chairs) were two of these fold-up outdoor rugs. While packing that first night I’d swapped out the larger of their rugs for my own brand new one (I couldn’t bare to be upstaged in camping preparedness). And now it’s day 9 of this trip and I’ve yet to even unfold my rug.

It’s 9′ x 12′ and covers enough of the dusty ground to immediately transform the outdoors into a sock footed dwelling. It’s now easy to go in and out of the camper with my coffee mug in hand to grab the things I need, without bringing in the California dirt. I use the second rug to extend our sock walkable area to the nearby picnic table and tie up the dogs there. Ian is the first to wake and we make ourselves a pre-breakfast bowl of cereal (something we’d added to our pantry stores during our fancy Walmart stop a few days before). We sit at the picnic table eating our cereal and silently look around. We’re nestled in the mountain, nearly 6000 feet above the desert below. Tall trees surround us, and the ground is nothing but piles of dust and some large boulders where rattlesnakes, lizards or ferrets could possibly be hiding. We don’t see any of those, just a few campers walking their dogs, dusty filtered light, and winding paths in all directions.

When Miriam wakes up I suggest we explore and take the dogs on a hike, check out the pool, and start a load of laundry. We discover 2 pools and an array of resort style deck chairs behind locked gates. The laundry building is right next to it. Farther up there’s a small dog park, and horseshoe, shuffleboard, basketball and volleyball courts. Back towards the entrance we find a cafe and a camping store (both closed until late morning in this land of vacationers). Each steep interconnecting path we take reveals hundreds upon hundreds of silent (sleeping) RVs. We follow this mountainous net of roads to the topmost point, and there we find the horses.

They are named Jack and Frank and the notes attached to the pen tell us that one is friendly and one is not… and that we shouldn’t feed, touch or go near. Just beyond the horse area is the entrance to San Jacinto State Park. “Watch for Rattlesnakes” is posted on the information board. We give up adventuring and head back to the RV for (second for some) breakfast.

Michael has prepared pan toasted bagels with jam and butter, scrambled eggs, and a plate full of bacon. The air is warm but breezy. It’s still early and we only have two hours of driving to accomplish today so we take our time cleaning up. Michael and Max finally figure out how to extend the RV’s awning (a task we’d begun in Albuquerque and never completed). Now we have a clean (thanks to the rugs), shady, private place to lounge and feel accomplished. Compared to the ten by ten foot decks, caged in dog runs, pop-up gazebos, numerous decorative flags and welcome signs that we see at most of the other RV sites, our modest rug and awning set-up doesn’t look like we’re trying very hard… but this is the most effort we’d put in yet to setting up a camp area for our personal enjoyment. By now we are keeping track of how many times we can set up the portable projector and screen and then take it down before ever watching a movie on it. 

We haven’t had a relaxing morning at our campsite since Texas.

By the time the laundry is ready to be switched over and the second load put in, Ian has returned from another mission to see if the pool has opened (at 9am when it was supposed to open, they had still been cleaning it)… and it is. I hike up to change the laundry over with Ian already in his swimsuit while the others change into theirs. By the time I finish my chores and arrive at the pool, my two kids are fighting in the deep end. Michael is sitting on the ledge dangling his feet in and Max is sitting in a chair in the shade looking down at his phone. When I take my coverup off and slide into the pool, Max puts his phone down as well and comes to sit by his father and wet his legs. To my children’s dismay, I don’t last long in the cool-ish pool water, and after only a few minutes of bobbing around, refusing to get my hair wet, I plant myself on the edge where the hot mid-morning sun will warm me up quickly. Our poolside family tableau lasts for another few minutes until I realize my phone is also sitting out in the blazing sun, so I hop up to rescue it. While walking over to the chair with my things, Michael turns and says to me (for the second time this trip),

“Those bathing suit bottoms are too small on you.” 

I’m embarrassed, mostly, and indignant, partially. I’d already returned these bikini bottoms once for the larger size (due to his welcomed fashion advice) and I was sure that they were the right size… (and they will be the perfect size once I lose those few more pounds from not drinking alcohol or eating dinner most days on this trip). My face gets red, I turn to Michael and say, “No they’re not!” Then to prove my point, I throw my coverup back on, slip on my flip-flops and march out the pool gate. The sounds of my family member’s small protests soften my emotions as I’m leaving, but I’m too proud (and too embarrassed) to turn back. I feign checking on the laundry and head back to the RV to check on the dogs. No one’s morning has been ruined, but now it has a dose of reality, my imperfect body, my opinionated and vocal husband… and now there’s the kid’s impatience to reach the ocean… and our need to get the RV to a repair shop to check the tires and oil. 

All of these things bring our Idyllwild adventure to a close. Packing up takes no time at all, even folding up the rugs and returning them to storage is easy and quick.  Tasks that used to seem foreign and laborious are now after thoughts, no more of a bother than brushing our teeth. The laundry finally finishes and we unplug from the electricity and water, pack in the last few items lingering on the picnic table and pull out of the campsite at 11 am, a full hour before the official check-out time. The dump station for our black and greywater is back towards the park entrance, and when we get there, it already has a line. So while the rest wait, I jump out and walk down to the ranger’s office to ask about getting our propane tank filled (something we’d been trying unsuccessfully to do since the blokes in Arkansas left us shit out of luck). I’m told we can pull the RV into a nearby lot which I can see from the main entrance and then call maintenance for the fill up. I also ask where I can find a mailbox (we’ve got postcards to mail) and he tells me my best bet is the fire station which is back on the main road. (We never actually find it). I walk back up to the dump station just as it’s our turn to hook up and release a day’s worth of human, dish, and hand washing waste down into these mountain sewer lines (modern times are truly amazing). We do so without the spillage and subsequent hosing off, squeeging and looks of dismay that the RV ahead of us in line had given quite a show of. By now I’ve completely forgotten the bathing suit bottom comment and Michael and I are a team again. We finish dumping and drive towards the exit. I guide him into place, cozied up to a cage holding two large propane tanks. Soon after, maintenance arrives to let us know they can give us propane, but they aren’t allowed to fill us up all the way…

“Because of the altitude,” my smart husband says, understanding that conditions are far from normal up here near the clouds. We all, dogs included, have to empty out of the vehicle while they hook up and *mostly* fill our tank, which is responsible for powering our cooking, our refrigerator (when we are not driving or plugged into a campsite) and the occasional use of the on board generator. We may not have all the parts of this 15 year old camper working perfectly, but it feels good to know our tank won’t run out on us between here and home. 

Now we’re ready for the final descent through winding miles of trees and rock ledges, the misty horizon peeping out at us regularly through carved out overlooks. Michael maneuvers effortlessly around hairpin turns without guardrails, stopping a few times on inclines that make me question our brake system, so that the kids can jump out and snap more pictures.

In full daylight we can see the trees change from green, to dusty brown as we head back down into the desert landscape below. The San Bernadino mountains in the distance remind us of how much more there is to see, all the reasons to come back some day.

When we reach ground level and head west, the urban outpouring from LA is almost immediate. A quick search finds us dozens of camping stores where we can look for supplies and hopefully get an oil change. Michael has been buying transmission and motor oil regularly at truck stops and keeping the engine running smoothly even with the heat and thousands of miles. But we’d rather take a little extra time and be assured of smooth travels without any more breakdowns.

We take a small detour to a strip mall area in San Bernadino and pull into RV parking at an urban Camping World. There we fill up on water bottles, tire gauge extenders, microwavable bowls and free non-alcoholic beer, which we kindly decline after they’ve stuck it in our basket at checkout. But they can’t get us an appointment for an oil change until the following Monday (it’s Wednesday). Turns out there are no “quick-change” options in #rvlife. Luckily the grease stick Michael checked this morning is still mostly clean. We decide against a strip mall lunch because there is nothing within walking distance and all the drive throughs max out at 9 feet. Now our two hour drive has been meaninglessly turned into three, but we head back to I-10 and follow signs for I-215, south towards Orange County. 

Palm trees are everywhere when we pull up to the first of roughly thirty stop lights. We’re stopped behind three cars, the first is a Lexus, the second a BMW and the third a Tesla. “That’s something I’m not used to,” I remark to Micheal. I’m navigating him down Jamboree Rd, Irvine, CA; a family friendly sprawling suburb that looks like someone took Newark, NJ and crossed it with the Barbie Mansion. 

The stoplights get closer together, the vistas of high-rises are exchanged for golf courses and tiny bridges over hidden ocean inlets. We leave Irvine behind for the relative decadence of Newport Beach and our next home for a day, the Newport Dunes Waterfront Resort & Marina. When our trip had unexpectedly been moved around and given us an extra day to camp on the coast (an idea we’d originally rejected because everything cost double near the beach…) this was the only campsite I could find.  All the affordable state parks were booked out until January 2022, so our stay here is costing us five times more than we’re used to. It’s a splurge that feels worth every nickel to our tired, road torn, dirty bodies. A little luxury makes us feel like we are royalty after these many days of driving and sweating and consecutive nights in beds made out of the same cushions we live on during the day.

When we pull into the marina, our California beach vacation attitude starts immediately. We’re parked next to a towering RV with white leather seats, several flat screen tv’s and mahogany accents. The inhabitants are having a party out front. Once I’d decided to swallow hard and book this place, I figured why not pay for the beach front site… turns out it is worth it. We have a corner lot and a huge ficus tree that both shades and blocks us from our neighbors. While Michael and Ian take care of the dogs, Max and I pull our picnic table down towards the tree. Miriam changes into her swimsuit, bursts through the gate door at the edge of our campsite… and lands on the beach. 

The resort stretches out along Back Bay, an inlet about a mile (and a several islands and peninsulas) away from the open ocean.  At the far end is the marina. Ian spies the inflatable water park immediately, but when he investigates, he sadly discovers it’s about to close. I tell him that if he cleans up dinner by himself, he can get out of work in the morning and bounce for an hour when it reopens at 10 am. He settles for digging in the sand while I try to set up the beach canopy, another one of my pre-trip purchases. Working alone against the wind, I fail a few times and give up. I like the sun anyway, and don’t really understand why people come to the beach to sit in the shade… There aren’t any waves in the bay, although we can still see a high tide line in the sand (not sure how that works). Miriam plays at the edge of the water for hours, only running up to join us long enough for a picture and a tease from Michael. The Ramones are playing from our boom box and my feet are buried as far in the sand as I can dig them. Ian is running along the beach until he is only a small bobbing speck. Max, Michael and I sit reading and staring out across the water. The sense of arrival slows time, we are at a still point, there is no need for words.

As the beach clears out from visitors, we take the ten steps back to our campsite and prepare for dinner. Michael cooks while Max takes a shower. I walk with Miriam and Ian to explore the resort pool. The pool guard (this place has a pool guard) asks our name and checks his list to confirm we are guests. I’ve coached the kids to lie about their ages (they had nodded in understanding) so that I can leave them at the pool and help with dinner prep. When the guard asks Miriam her age, she panics and says 13 (she was supposed to say 16… and Ian 15) naively thinking he cares about the truth. When he tells us they need an adult with them we shrug and leave the fancy gated pool behind. I take a detour to the main office to mail the postcards we’d been carrying with us stamped and ready to send ever since the drive from Albuquerque to Sedona. Miriam heads back to our campsite while Ian spends the next half an hour wandering the resort’s grid of streets after a bathroom. 

When dinner is ready Michael suggests I open a bottle of the wine stashed under our bed to celebrate our arrival. I also grab one of the dozens of Turkish towels (Amazon purchase number 3) for a tablecloth. The only drinking containers we have are mugs, but I don’t put up a fuss. The beach just beyond our picnic dining table is placid. Resort staff are driving along in little golf carts to pick up garbage and clean the sidewalks of fallen ficus leaves and stray sand. We nestle in for dinner surrounded on all sides by tour bus sized RVs that can best be described as yachts on wheels. This is only the second time we’ve been able to cook dinner for ourselves. Compared to sandwiches, the hotdogs, canned baked beans and homemade lemonade feel like a banquet.

After dinner, while Ian cleans the dishes by himself (according to our deal) I begin scouting for firewood. We’ve been in forest fire danger zones for the last 800 miles, so the large concrete fire pits spaced out along the beach infatuate my imagination. Except, we don’t have any firewood… and we didn’t think of it in time before the resort “general store” closed for the evening. Our posh neighbors have a small dog pen set up with two bags of firewood on either side keeping it from collapsing or blowing away. Once the sun had set they’d moved inside… along with their dogs, leaving the firewood unattended. My first thought is to steal it. My second thought is to knock on the door of their RV castle, where I can clearly see the Bachelorette is playing on their 90 inch TV, and ask if we can buy the firewood from them. But seeing as they hadn’t so much as said hello or waved at us since we’d arrived, I decide they aren’t worth putting time into. There has to be something we can burn around here.

I walk down to the closest fire pit with a bundle of brown paper bags under my arm and our stick lighter in hand. My determination to start a fire is making me feel wild inside. And I’m delighted when I get to the fire pit. Lying inside, in the sand, is the perfectly solid remainder of last night’s fire. I immediately get down on my knees and push the few remnants of logs to the side. I begin building my masterpiece. First I crumple up a few of the newspapers I have and place them together in the center. Then I start ripping up a paper bag into wide strips and twisting the strips of thick paper into makeshift kindling. Then I prop them in a circle around the newspaper, pitched towards the center. I make it sturdy enough to support the smallest of the leftover logs which I lean against each other above the paper construction. I know I only have one chance to get this to work. I light the newspaper and started blowing. After only a few minutes my paper bag sticks are burning all together, and not long after, one of my logs lights up and I almost scream, 

“WE HAVE A FIRE!!”

I call Miriam and Ian, who are the first to respond to my yelling, down to the beach. “Quick! Run along the beach to the other fire pits, inside the you’ll find left over logs from last night’s fires. GRAB ALL THE WOOD YOU CAN FIND!!” They run off on their mission, and I turn back to my baby fire and keep blowing. This thing is burning for real now. Miriam shows up first with three logs that fill up her skinny arms. I add them to my fire. “Great! Go find more!” I tell her. Then Ian returns with a humongous stump of a log (and a story of how he’s basically stolen it from another crew when they were distracted). When I see his great log, I know we’ve done it. We’re gonna have our beach fire for as long as we want it. I emphatically tell Ian,

“Go get Michael and Max… and bring the s’more stuff!” 

I have two loves in this world… the beach… and fire. This night ends like a scene from every California movie… the day’s drama expiring around a fire on the beach. For most of this trip, the five of us are only sitting next to each other, doing the same thing, for one of two reasons, a meal, or when we’re stuck for ten hours on the road. But this fire has drawn us all to it. Our five chairs are in a circle as we watch a marshmallow turn into THE BLOB in the heat. We are all excited. We are all laughing. The impossibility of this fire is dwarfed by the impossibility of our journey. Somehow, having never driven an RV before, we’d pulled out of our driveway just nine days before, traversed the entire east coast and made our way west. We’d survived two flat tires, three canyons, 109º heat, and 3,465.1 miles. We’ve made it all the way to the Pacific ocean, and this perfect night, and this perfect fire, a perfect family.


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Published by Annie Aaroe

Writer, marketing geek and two decades long restaurant owner.

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