2019 marks the13th year of our group of friends camping together. We’ve been to Patrick’s Point, Big Sur, Salt Point, Morro Bay, Huntington Lake, Union Reservoir, Running Springs, Dark Canyon and a few others scattered in there. This year about 40 people joined us at Mammoth Lakes, including three new families, as every year we have a different combination of people who can join us. Our philosophy – the more people, the better conversations, the crazier the campfire stories, the more chances to be able to outrun individuals in the occasion of a bear attack while hiking, and the higher possibility of being able to enjoy a campground game. Another benefit – we love new talent. This year, magical margaritas from the closet bartender and newcomer “campee,” Aimee Churchill, were a celebrated addition.
As much fun as we have – hiking, playing games, making S’mores, and whatever creative endeavor comes up, we have significant people who are no longer camping and we miss them. We’ve had two cancer deaths in our community. This is the second year without Danielle, the fifth without Amy. Danielle loved the Sierras, a legacy passed on from her father who frequented often during D’s life. We camped here in honor of her though when it went on the camping list back in 2017, I had imagined camping with her, not in honor of her. But her body couldn’t beat back the aggressive breast cancer in her body and she lived only six days in 2018, about 14 months from her diagnosis.
Her spirit was alive to us though deeply missed by us all, robbing us all of pure enjoyment because we had the certainty that this isn’t the way it should be. D should have been there as Matteo, her son, blew out his birthday candles – 11 years old and when the rest of the family took him to Starbucks (benefits of camping close to town) for his favorite drink, a hot chocolate and he demanded a Venti rather than the usual tall size. We could all rightly declare this isn’t the way it ought to be – this unending longing for her presence that will be unfulfilled this side of heaven.
There are many things to miss about D but what was unique between her and I was the hike and event planning. She was my comrade and took full responsibility to investigate hikes and local attractions along with me. She would’ve walked with Mary and me to the Welcome Center to discuss hiking options. She would’ve been with us when we sought shelter in an empty bear box due to a downpour, hail included, dumped on us as we made our way back to camp. True confession (which feels shameful to this country girl who prides herself on having an internal GPS) our trip back to camp wasn’t exactly a direct route because we turned left instead of going straight so we ended up on the wrong camping loop – and the country girl in me was determined to “find our way” going across country rather than backtracking down the road from which we came.
The other person missed, Amy, was always a willing camper but she needed her amenities. She would’ve been the first person to have crafts and activities for the kids, a role Laura filled this year with markers, paint (which was used as make-up by the younger girls painting the older girls’ face) and white paper. Amy would’ve color coordinated our table cloths and possibly rented a RV for her family so she could sleep – an important activity to her and one not done best on her blow up mattress and sleeping bag. She might have had the latest padded camping chairs, especially the rockers found at REI. And she definitely would’ve brought cloth napkins (possibly ones she’d made) with napkin holders to set the ambiance for dinner.
Present time, an event I think Danielle spearheaded from heaven was our junior ranger program. She always found the local programs and would get us special group presentations so I swear she was in the planning of our Devil’s Postpile Monument hike because we got off the shuttle and without even knowing it, picked the stop that had the ranger station and the booklet for all the kids. I was a miserable substitute because I didn’t actively engage with the displays of stuffed animals (via taxidermy) inside the forest station. Instead, my competitive state of mind kicked in as I saw forty people in the next shuttle bus start filing off, so I grabbed my backpack and began walking down the trail, yelling behind me, “I’ll see you at Devil’s postpile.” I’m certain Danielle, in her calm and collected way, would’ve rounded up the kids to look at the objects and thought absolutely nothing about the hikers getting ahead of us while we listened to the presentations. Later, she would’ve also loved the clever answers and interpretations from our group as the kids filled out the booklet — placing dog’s paws on a page for signatures of fellow hikers or circling phones and televisions as hiking necessities while asking, “will we get a badge with these type of answers?”
My mind can picture both D and Amy with us at different junctions. I know Amy would’ve been so proud of her almost-six-year-old son, Nathan’s, completing a 3.5 miles hike with the last mile a doozy – all uphill. D would’ve meandered, enjoying the present moment of being together and in nature, and would’ve taken turns with her husband, Mynor, with their dog, Juneau.
What I’ve learned about death is it’s honoring to family members to share grief, stories, and longings to let the family know they aren’t alone in their longings and sorrow. So we talked about D and how she would’ve loved taking the kids fishing or going on walks with the dogs and eating the edible cookie dough from the Schat’s bakery in Bishop. We also wondered how Amy would’ve felt about the wind and what she’d even think about camping now that two of her kids are old enough to drive. As a community we make an effort not to hide our feelings, having learned that there is comfort and goodness in sharing our grief. For certain, it doesn’t take away the longing for the other but it somehow makes it less lonely in the ache of the hurt.
The cliff notes of what camping with this community means to me. I have learned most of what I know about doing life well from these people. A number of them I’ve known since my early twenties, more than half my life. They’ve loved me when I had more rough edges. They’ve loved me through my own devastating loss of a our middle child in 2006. They’ve loved me when I haven’t loved my husband, who they like, well. They’ve loved me so I can be brave and take risks. They’ve filled the gaps when my children needed a second mother, a ride, a safe place and I couldn’t be there due to my work. I’m grateful to know them and their children – even the ones I’m just getting to know.
At the end of the day, what I love about communing in the woods as campers, is that for five days out of the year, I live communally -sharing meals, washing dishes, listening to snores or night talkers. And it’s here in this ordinary life where I know
I never want to live permanently with these people the best of life is found in the mundane and the ordinary – the conversations around the water spigot, on the hiking trail or at the brewery (because when your walking-close to the local brewery it would be sinful NOT to go).
What is reconfirmed year after year around the campfire is that one doesn’t need to travel around the world to find extraordinary beauty. It’s usually at our fingertips when we are in the company of those we enjoy and take delight in.
Bye, Mammoth! Until ski season when you just may see us again.