Till Kingdom come
A camper's quest for happiness
The night before our first camping trip, my boyfriend waltzes in with a $400 tent called The Kingdom. We already have a dome tent that works fine, so I gripe about the purchase.
“Why sleep in a dome when you can have a Kingdom?” he says.
We are both new to the outdoors and don’t know what we’re doing. Up to this point, our interest in camping has been purely theoretical. My boyfriend is a geek and I am a nerd, so each of us has conducted extensive research on this new activity. As an engineer, his primary focus is the gear, while I am mostly focused on becoming Cheryl Strayed, finding myself in the “wild.” In other words: His fancy tent ruins my whole aesthetic.
The truth is, we’ve been together six years and have spent most of our weekend getaways in Las Vegas and Palm Springs, gambling, drinking and chain smoking before passing out in comped hotel rooms. But I’ve decided that 2017 needs to be a year of reinvention, and there’s a trove of positive psychology research that correlates time spent outdoors with wellness.
We live in Huntington Beach and decide to head down PCH to Crystal Cove for two nights. It’s a trip to test equipment, a trial run before heading out to the Grand Canyon for New Year’s weekend.
There are no fire pits at Moro Campground so it feels like a rite of passage: If we’re OK without a fire in winter, then we can go anywhere in the Southwest. This is what we tell ourselves.
Before we leave the house on Friday night I pull on a base layer of Columbia long underwear and feel like a character from the TV show “Portlandia.” Who is this 30-something white lady in performance wear and what has she done with the “cool girl” in Converse?
It had rained earlier that day, but our campsite is dry by the time we arrive. The night sky is clear but there’s a constant 15 mph wind that makes tent setup difficult. We forgo trying out The Kingdom for the tent we are more familiar with, and I feel slightly vindicated: My modest little dome tent wins.
The wind is still blasting as my boyfriend hammers down the tent stakes. I crouch down to get inside the tent to blow up our sleeping pads and roll out our bags. We cook dinner on a backpacking stove the size of a Venti Starbucks cup. My red teakettle looks gigantic balanced on top of the flimsy burner. Dinner is a dehydrated meal that tastes like SpaghettiOs and hot chocolate. I pour a celebratory mug of wine but barely touch it because the wind keeps whipping hair in my mouth.
If I’ve learned one thing about camping, it is that you have to work harder to accomplish the simplest things. It forces you to slow down. And it forces you to be present, for better or for worse.
We’d planned a romantic game of chess by the light of our headlamps but surrender and get in our bags at 9 p.m. The wind continues to batter our tent, so there’s a constant nylon whooshing. We’re sure that the outer cover is going to blow off any second. I close my eyes and eventually fall asleep to the sound of sports cars zooming down PCH and planes from John Wayne soaring overhead.
The last time I visited Crystal Cove, I was in the midst of a severe bout of depression and my boyfriend had to drag me out of the house. I didn’t even get dressed that day, just shuffled out the door in the same basketball shorts and T-shirt I’d been wearing for days.
I had heard of Crystal Cove and seen the little strip of beach while driving down PCH for years, but I was never willing to pay the $15 to park. I don’t know what it is about people from beach cities, but we are a territorial bunch; it’s not just the surfers. We take such pride in our own locales that acknowledging the beauty of another place almost feels like a betrayal. Why would I go to Crystal Cove when I have my own beach right here?
But even through that thick fog of depression, I was still struck by the serenity of the place. It was so empty and peaceful, it felt like a virtual world, like I’d been transported to somewhere else entirely. It even took me away from myself.
When I wake up on Saturday morning, our little tent is completely still. It is so quiet I can actually hear the waves crashing on the rocks along shore. Inside we sit up in our sleeping bags and actually high-five. We made it.
The campsites are tiered like a cake, so every spot has its own view of the horizon, that magnificent line of blue on blue where the ocean meets the sky. I stand at the edge of the campsite and peel off my hat and coat. The drama of the dark cold night morphing into a bright warm morning seems absurd – how a change so mundane, so regularly unnoticed, can become a spectacle if you pay attention.
I roll out my yoga mat and sit for my morning meditation. My boyfriend gets up and begins to construct The Kingdom. How did I become this person? How did we become this couple?
I remember watching the actor John Lithgow being interviewed on “The View,” He and his wife had been together for 33 years and they asked him about his marriage. He said that when you’ve been together long enough, it actually feels like you’ve had four or five marriages as you move through each chapter of life.
Maybe this new desire to be outside and try something completely foreign is our entry into another chapter – the antithesis of all those inebriated nights from our 20s. Maybe we’ll look back on this trip as the beginning of something, even though right now it’s mostly just awkward and uncomfortable.
It turns out that Moro Campground is a great starting point for beginners. The bathrooms and showers are immaculate by campground standards, and I find out that we are actually wrong about the fire thing: Clean-burning propane fires are allowed; you just can’t burn wood. Plus, if you get really cold or just need a break, there’s a Starbucks and fine dining right down the street.
We spend the rest of the day walking down the 3 miles of uninterrupted beach. It’s the same shore we’ve walked along before, but it feels different to know we have the whole day and all of tomorrow to linger. We take breaks to sit on the beach and do nothing. We read and both get sunburned. We sip wine and people-watch.
This beach day wasn’t even part of the plan. We wanted to go on a 9-mile hike through the backcountry, but all the trails are closed because of the earlier rain. We want a lot of things, my boyfriend and I; we both want to do a lot of things – bigger adventures than camping 13 miles away from our house. We want to learn how to backpack and climb Mount Whitney. We want to go everywhere in the Southwest.
As night falls we abandon the dome tent and move into The Kingdom. It is big enough to stand up in, and we bring in our bags and books and chairs and the chessboard. It is definitely not what I pictured, but it’s spacious and comfortable and totally worth it. Who would ever want to sleep in a dome?
About the writer:
Cynthia Romanowski grew up in Huntington Beach and never left, though she does not surf nor own a bathing suit. She says she stayed in HB for three reasons: the Central Library, winter bonfires and the Bolsa Chica Wetlands. She holds an MFA in fiction from UC Riverside’s Low Residency Program in Palm Desert and is a pool cleaner by day and a writer by night. As the resident book nerd at Coast, she admits to preferring musty hardbacks and her cat to human life forms. When it comes to reading, her ultimate guilty pleasure is the pseudo self-help genre and pop psychology (read: Malcolm Gladwell). Her short stories and essays have appeared on The Nervous Breakdown, The Weekly Rumpus and Lit Central O.C. You can read more on her blog. Please follow her on Twitter @cynmrom, and she would love to be friends on Goodreads.