When the going got tough at home, I escaped for three days into the East County wilderness with my kids.
Upon famously living life in the woods, Henry David Thoreau declared that he could never have enough of nature. “Heaven,” he wrote, “is under our feet as well as over our heads.” For his thoughts on solitude and his piercing insight on minimalism, Thoreau has always been my guiding star. A native Upstate New Yorker, I spent many cold nights sleeping in a tent in the woods, and I admit I’ve burned books to stay warm. “Walden” was never one of them.
But here’s the thing about Thoreau, the patron saint of daydreamers, loners and tree huggers: he never had kids. He never harangued his five-year-old for kissing the neighbor girl. He never yanked a dirty diaper out of his dog’s mouth, or used tweezers to pull paper out of his toddler’s ear canal. He never burned rice because he was fishing Legos out of the toilet, and he was never roused at 6 a.m. by a light saber blow to the face. Thoreau didn’t need to go to woods to find solace. He already had it. Trust me.
My life – once the bohemian, writerly existence of an adventurous 20-something – is now an endless chain of spilled cereal, pediatrician visits, time-outs, laundry, car vomit and drive-thru chicken. As the harried mother of two boys, ages five and one-and-a-half, I have come to recognize that in between the nuggets, vomit and time-outs, are beautiful, fleeting moments of peace. The pioneer woman in me has always believed that these rapturous flashes happen when I’m outside with my kids. Maybe it’s because I have feral boys. Maybe it’s because I’m feral myself. Maybe it’s because I’m sick of duct taping all the broken stuff in my house and gorging on Advil amid the cacophony. Whatever the impetus, I decided on a whim, during spring break, to take my kids tent camping (alone) in East Manatee County. My husband, after spending one maddening Saturday consoling our older son, Henry, after our younger son, Chip, bit his brother and leveled his pillow fort, gave his enthusiastic blessing. “You know what you’re doing,” he said. “Have fun.”
AN ENCHANTED FOREST
I committed to my plan with the fervor of a runaway teen. My children were driving me crazy. I felt claustrophobic in my own house, a cramped St. Petersburg bungalow in which my family no longer fits. To relieve this stress, most mothers would escape to a hotel on the beach with a girlfriend and a pitcher of sangria. Not me. I booked a tent site at Lake Manatee State Park and packed the trunk of my compact car with provisions for a three-day sojourn in the woods: rubber boots, sleeping bags, an old tent that’s missing its fly, a rusty tabletop grill that my grandmother exhumed from a dumpster and a brown grocery bag stuffed with peanut butter, jelly, white bread, bananas and a lot of diapers.
“If Uncle Pete even suggested camping, there’d be divorce papers in his future,” my husband’s aunt mused. The fact that the weather was forecasted to drop into the 30s at night further solidified my insanity.
A resident of the Sunshine State for 13 years, I’ve pitched a tent in many Florida parks, including the isolated Ocala National Forest. I knew nothing, however about Lake Manatee State Park, except that it was one of the only campgrounds from Hillsborough to Charlotte County with a tent site available during spring break.
“How far away is this place,” Henry asked as we barreled along State Road 64, passing housing developments, vegetable stands, cows and a lone diner called the Buckaroo Roadhouse. “Is it a secret place ordinary people can’t see? Like a wizard campground?”
I smiled in the rearview mirror, locking eyes with my son, who is obsessed with Harry Potter. “It’s a muggle campground,” I replied. “But wizards like us are allowed.”
Within 15 minutes of exiting the interstate, we were idling at the guard gate, where much to Henry’s delight, a friendly ranger greeted us with a British accent. “Mama,” my son whispered as we waited to be flagged in. “He was definitely a muggle.”
At 556 acres, Lake Manatee State Park is located along three miles of shoreline surrounding Lake Manatee, a reservoir 10 miles east of the interstate off State Road 64. The 7.5-billion-gallon basin, which was created in the 1960s when a dam was built across the Manatee River, supplies drinking water for more than 250,000 residents in Sarasota and Manatee Counties.
Coming upon this Caribbean blue reservoir in the middle of the dusty bucolic wilds of East County felt a little like conjuring a mirage. Chip was asleep in his seat and Henry was craning his head out the window. The frustration that had dogged me within the confines of my house evaporated with each breath of fresh air. There’s no place like away from home, I thought as Henry let out an enchanted sigh like a child entering Disney World for the first time.
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
We unpacked the car while Chip slept. At home, I have to beg my oldest son to help me with a task. With nothing to distract him outside, he immediately pitched in, lugging tent poles and stacking firewood.
Lake Manatee is not heavily wooded. The park’s vegetation consists of mainly pine flatwoods, sand pine scrub, marsh and a smattering of hardwood trees. All 54 campsites are large enough to accommodate RVs. We got one of the sunniest, which seemed like a strategic move given the impending cold snap.
“I’m going to make a cozy place to sit and draw,” Henry said, spreading out a large straw mat in front of the tent. “Can you bring me my sketchpad and crayons?”
Shrouded by high tangles of palmetto brush and bathed in warm sunlight, I cooked us pancakes and sausage for dinner. Henry sat and drew sea monsters and Chip toddled around dropping rocks into a bucket. The weather cooled and we threw on sweatshirts. I built us a fire and Henry kept it going, stoking it with pinecones, pine needles and Spanish moss. The atmosphere was so tranquil, for a second I forgot I had children.
A man walked past with two large dogs and upon seeing our camp, stopped to chat for a while. Chip made a beeline for the pooches, patting their heads as they tried to lick flecks of sausage off his cheeks. “It’s going to get cold tonight,” he said. “I hope y’all packed a lot of blankets.” I assured him we had plenty of blankets, plus a small electric heater.
By the time I shooed both boys into a nearby bathhouse they were covered from head to toe in sand, dirt and melted marshmallow, traces of a good day and some fine ’smores. The temperature was dropping fast, so we showered under piping hot water, slipped on two layers of pajamas and trudged back through the nightfall, Henry dangling a lantern like a wizard’s wand to light our path.
“Just like in the Great Hall at Hogwarts,” he said, staring up through an opening in our tent at the starry sky.
We burrowed into the bedding, a nest of quilts and sleeping bags piled on top of an air mattress. I clicked on the heater and rocked Chip to sleep, sitting cross-legged with Henry nuzzled into my side. Neither boy had to be goaded to sleep; no white noise was needed to keep them from waking. We simply fell asleep pressed against one another on a silent night, like the cave family I always knew us to be.
THE BIG CHILL
All three of us were up before sunrise with the mockingbirds. Chip flashed me a wily grin and clambered over Henry, who threw off his covers and tugged on a pair of rubber boots. “Time to get up,” he announced with the assertiveness of a camp counselor barking into a megaphone.
I reached for my phone to look at the weather. It was 35 degrees out. Oblivious to the arctic chill that awaited them, my kids unzipped our womb of a tent and flung themselves into the icy pink dawn. Like any sissy Floridian, Henry immediately lost his mind. My transcendental camping experiment went south as soon as my Walden got cold. The Zen from the previous day devolved into melodramatic shivering and insufferable whining.
I tossed Henry a pair of gloves, a scarf and a winter hat. “Put these on. I’ll build us a fire,” I said, yanking a knit cap over Chip’s head.
“I’m f-f-f-reezing,” Henry moaned. “I can’t put on gloves! My hands are too cold!”
“Just relax,” I said. “It’ll warm up soon. I’ll make us oatmeal and you can sit by the fire and get toasty.”
Henry was convulsing like he had just stepped into a cryogenic freeze chamber. “I don’t even know how to put these on!” He cried, throwing the gloves to the ground in a huff.
I looked over at Chip in his fleecy footed pajamas, frozen in his tracks, seemingly stunned by the weather. His cheeks were rosy; his lips were purple. Snot was running down his face. “You cold, baby?” I asked, scooping him up and wiping his nose on the sleeve of my sweatshirt. He ripped off the knit cap and sniveled.
I surveyed the campsite. It would take at least 30 minutes to get a good cooking fire started and by then we would have woken the entire campground. The truth was, I was cold too. I motioned for Henry to come to the car.
“What,” he asked, sulking.
“Want to drive to IHOP for breakfast?” I asked. His eyes twinkled. A smile spread across his goose-pimpled face. He shook his head yes. “Get in the car.”
I buckled both kids into their seats, blasted the heat and pulled out of the campground, driving past the muggle ranger station and toward civilization. We arrived at IHOP around 7 a.m. in pajamas, rubber boots and unkempt hair. Under ordinary circumstances, I would have cleaned up; run a comb through my hair. That morning, I didn’t care. We slid into a booth behind a gaggle of truckers and ordered a gluttonous amount of food.
In those thawing moments, as I watched Henry mow down bacon in a Harry Potter scarf, I wondered how the self-righteous Thoreau would have fared in this situation. He probably would have bailed before bedtime. He certainly wouldn’t have been able to enjoy his coffee while playing tic-tac-toe with a five-year-old and fielding eggs thrown by a toddler. I took in the scene, caffeine settling into my system. I let Henry get three Xs in a row. I let Chip eat a straw wrapper. I’m never really out of the woods, I thought. And I’m OK with that.