Tag Archives: campfire with kids

Let’s meet in a spruce grove at 10,300 feet

The sun had long ago oozed into Silver Mountain by the time the assembled parents got our eight collective children zipped into sleeping bags. Drowsy siblings, who just an hour ago, were bickering over camp chair real estate, nestled close together, exhaling marshmallows into each others‘ hair.

One by one, the adults returned to the campfire, perhaps skipping just a bit at the clandestine pleasure of uninterrupted conversation with people who have full command of the English language. It wasn’t entirely unlike the elk mamas Dan and I have spied frolicking in a high mountain meadow while their wobbly-legged newborns were stashed under mountain shrubs.

Despite the high level communications required to get four families to a spruce grove at 10,300 feet, or coordinating meals for sixteen people via 160-character text messages, or simply the 2-day project of gathering and stuffing gear into our Subaru, it was totally, entirely worth it.

Bomber tarp set up by bomber husband, accommodating 4 families and 2 thunderstorms.

Adult needs were heartily provided for as coolers spilled with local beer, marinating elk, farmers market corn and other culinary delights. However, the only child-accouterments carted along were the same played out pair of buckets and shovels we always bring camping. In the woods, the kids are responsible for their own entertainment. This is not something we have to tell them; soon as they spill from car seats, the sticks and rocks leap into their hands as if magnetized.

What a lovely treat to sip coffee at a morning campfire while eight children rambled around wet wildflower meadows, picking orange sneezeweed blossoms for their moth named Cinderella. The nuclear family structure got pleasantly dismantled as parents casually rotated through positions of responsibility, cooking, cleaning and minding children. And even the minding of children takes on a relaxed, more auditory flavor in the woods, as in “I can still hear them, everything must be fine.”

Orange sneezeweed showing off on a south-facing slope

The kids did beautifully, they really did. They picked wild strawberries and discovered ancient dinosaur jaw bones and gave every single fruiting mushroom the exotic label: poisonous. There were hardly any scuffles, perhaps because sharing, the prickly goblin of the home scene, is easy when there are plenty of rocks and sticks and moths to go around.

And sometimes it seems like we need a life coach, cheerleader and super nanny just to pack up the family and head to the mountains for a night, and I don’t get much more sleep than when I was seventeen and slurping down crappy coffee in a Denny’s booth at 3 am. But ambling down the forest service road—pre-coffee—to see the morning mist draped across the mountains as magically as if exhaled by a dragon, was like falling in love with life itself.

Driving out, watching the mountains come in and out of focus as we rolled down the forest service roads, I felt like something internal–small and unnamable–had shifted from our time in the woods. And that will always be enough.

Fireworks

How was your 4th? Are you still recovering from overdoing everything: sun, food, social engagements and beer? Except for what you underdid: sleep and laundry.

We took Col’s training wheels off his bike, and after a year on his balance bike (read about this genius, European invention here), Col hopped on his two-wheeler and rode down the street. He rode down the street. He didn’t seem to mind that a certain parent was crying and cheering and leaping around with a camera.

And I don’t know if it’s because Col is my first child or his preemie history, but I get choked up at any moment that smacks of a normal, developmental milestone (we strive high here). Watching Col whip around the church parking lot on our street, I couldn’t help but flash to Col’s NICU days. That doll-sized baby in the volunteer-sewn preemie shirts, open in front to accommodate the sprawl of tubes and wires attached to his mini body; the doctors dodging my desperate inquiries into the likelihood of a 25-weeker turning out “normal.”

Col barely took his helmet off all weekend (which isn’t entirely a bad thing), pleading constantly to ride. We rode to the park, to a friend’s house (up a big hill), and all around the neighborhood. Rose came along for the ride (agreeably pulled in bike trailer) like a handbag we remembered to sling over our shoulder at the last minute. Poor Rose, by the time she’s riding a two-wheeler, Col will be zipping around on a unicycle or something.

It was sweet to see Col’s pride in his achievement. His eyes were as shiny as his black helmet as he dashed around like a fledgling bird on first flight. But he still has a lot to work on, namely, remembering that he’s riding a bike. It’s not unusual for Col to slip 20-feet behind me delivering a thoughtful monologue on how birds and marmots are similar, or veering dangerously close to ramming into my bike because a tiny beetle scurrying across the street caught his eye.

*****

Saturday afternoon, we plucked the kids from their damp, nap-cocoons and deposited them in the mountain-bound Subaru. We brought friends Collin and Tina along as “decoys,” says Dan, but what he really meant is “beloved, childless-friends who might pay the kids some attention.”

Here’s Rosie helping Collin chop some wild mountain parsley:

See how Rosie's steadying Collin's wrists as he cuts?

Here’s that same wild parsley mixed into grilled elk burgers (yes, they were as delicious as they look):

We’re pretty organized when it comes to camping, but on these evening mountain romps (where we return to our own beds) we sometimes forget simple accessories like plates. Collin and Tina didn’t mind eating salad off rocks:

I found this gorgeous indian paintbrush blooming and am wondering if anyone has a name for this color?

electrified pumpkin?

There was a family bow-shoot, because, obviously.

It's Dan turn to shoot in the pre-choreographed scenario: *okay, you're sneaking through the trees and you hear something on your left. You turn, see it's an elk and have to get a shot off immediately.* Also noteworthy is Rose took her first shots without any assistance! Also, Dan would want you to know that we saw a small herd of Mama elk and their newborn calves in the green meadows you can see in this photo.

And this:

can you see the rainbow?

*****

I was in the middle of planting two grape vines and Dan was tanning a deer hide (a supremely stinky process, involving stretching and abrading the thick animal skin for hours after it’s soaked overnight in a mixture of blended deer liver and brains), when our new downstairs roommate arrived for the first time, from Brooklyn.

Gorgeous, putrid-smelling hide, strung up and ready for softening.

I shook the rabbit manure off my hands and showed Karen around, noticing suddenly the stranger flotsam of the collective lives of this property’s inhabitants: an old, matted-hair, deer head in the chicken coop; dried herbs cobwebbing through the downstairs house; antlers every which way; over-caffeinated mother in stained skirt trying desperately to finish planting grapes; naked, dirt smudged children daring each other to “scratch my buttocks.”

It is rumored that Karen called her mom and said “I’m not in Brooklyn anymore.”

*****

We spent the fourth of July at Chimney Rock Archeological Area, participating in interactive, primitive skill demonstrations, which was fantastically fun.

Here’s Dan pounding yucca leaves into ropy fibers:

Making clay pottery with dear friends (and skillful decoys) Jojo and Emily:

And Col’s pictograph, using, er, primitive sharpies:

Col's pictograph story: a man with a feather in his hair hunting deer under the sun and moon with a turtle helper.

We asked the kids if they knew what was celebrated on the 4th of July.

“Fours,” guessed Rose. “Fireworks?” wondered Col.

While the rest of America ate hot dogs and potato salad, Jojo and Emily served up local goat with garden greens, and for dessert: ice cream topped with last year’s foraged and frozen strawberries and cherries. Hanging out with these friends makes me want to drop out of our monetary economy and spend my days roaming the county, picking fruit.

We got the sleep-overdue kids home and to bed just before the fireworks began, which was just as well because they were weary and crabby or as Dan says “not fit for human consumption.” Then, Dan and I laid on the living room rug in the dark and watched the sky pulse with color while the sweetest sounds of sleeping children filtered through the exploding night.

Camping, family style

Last weekend we crammed the Subaru with gear so we could snooze under the aspens while ticks investigate our ears and wind itches at our tent. I believe it’s called camping. It’s almost like the old days when Dan and I plastered the San Juan Mountains with the soles of our hiking boots. Except back then, when only world leaders carried cell phones and we lived fat off dishwashing paychecks, mountain-adventuring meant pawing our way up jumbly talus, hungry to spy bands of elk and the inconspicuous siberian gentian. Now we park our mounds of stuff 20 feet from our car and call it good.

Rose sucking nectar from a red columbine flower

And it is good. Long after the last child has squirmed his dirt-dredged body inside a sleeping bag, Dan and I tend the fire, marveling at how splendidly the kids are mixing with the wild land. How well they’re amusing themselves with the gritty, scratchy toy box of nature. The permutations for “rock-paper-scissors” are endless and Col pounds twigs with rocks, smothers pebbles with leaves and spears everything with a stick – the one super-glued to his hand the second he spills from carseat onto pine needles. Rose shovels bluebell blossoms and violet flowers onto her tongue, re-enacting some vital part of her female biology: must gather and eat ripe plants now.

Dan and I recline in camp chairs, coffee mugs sloshing with dark beer (from growlers! Eco-nerd style), and finish the conversation we started last spring.

Watching the sky change at 9000 feet is like taking an intensive course in Mountain Weather, or perhaps Buddhism. There’s a saying around these parts, “if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes.” And really, didn’t Buddha say something like that about our changeable thoughts?

Heavy brooding clouds knocked around the sky like angry toddlers much of the weekend, lashing out brief tantrums of rain. And then like an underdog, the sun would emerge briefly and exquisitely, electrifying our spirits like the greens of the mountain plants. And there was hail too, but mostly clouds, just enough to make you fall in love with the sun when it came curtseying out like a shy girl.

We met up with friends, and the adult to kid ratio allowed for each parent to break away for a solo foray. I strolled a section of Hermosa creek and got so absorbed by the worm-snatching robins, scurrying chipmunks, bedraggled wild irises, aspen-weave beaver dams, paired up mallards, shifting clouds, spring green and the thrumming life of the mountains, I felt like I was walking the wilderness for days. And where balance seems an aloof, intangible tease to us parents of young children, I offer you something else: take your one hour, your twenty minutes, your afternoon alone, and wring every drop of bursting life you can out of it. You might just return to your brood feeling balanced.

Col's perch on the cliffs we brilliantly camped next to. Col was drawn to the very edge of the rock shelf like a moth to a light, and every five minutes some parent or another was obliged to shout "step off the rock Col!"

Like the kitchen at home, the fire is the epicenter of our camp life. Our stove gave out and we cooked all our meals over the fire. Here’s Rose steadying an aspen log while Dan saws off chunks for our fire.

Our days in the woods follow a rhythm and simplicity that feels a little more, well, human. The kids stop asking “what are we doing today?” and get down to the business of investigating life in a spoonful of soil. In the absence of commerce, electricity and high level activity-shuffling, simply cooking a meal takes on appropriate importance, as does fluffing our nylon nest. As each day passes, we adults shed another layer of inessentials, while the kids’ skin thickens, literally, under assault of rocky ground, wild rose thorns and the mosquito’s sting.

The posse enjoying some wild trout

Driving out, kids napping in their car seats, watching the mountains come in and out of focus as we rolled down the forest service roads, I felt like something internal–small and unnamable–had shifted from our time in the woods. And that is enough.

**announcement for locals:

The local chapter of Holistic Moms Network has invited me to speak about the benefits of gardening as a family. Come get nerdy about plants! For free! Time tested tips for those of you braving food production at the challenging altitude of 6512 feet.

Thursday, June 17th, 6:30pm. 150 E 9th St, suite 400. Above the Red Snapper.