True Grit


When I was a kid, August often brought camping trips. Mom couldn’t take vacations from work during June and July, so we had to sleep in the elements, on the ground, with no air conditioning, during the hottest month of the year. One year, my cousin Jessie joined us on a trip to beautiful Red Arrow Campground near the Big Thicket of East Texas. Being the Annie Oakley type, I was a great help setting up camp; Jessie helped Mom put up the tent, while I explained that helping might mess up my hair.

Since the trunk of the car was cooler than inside the tent, it was our pantry. On our third day, when Mom went to unpack more canned food from the trunk, it wouldn’t open. So, Mom drove to a Plymouth dealership she’d seen in a nearby town. Instead of figuring out how to unlock the trunk, the employees showed Mom how to remove the back seat, so she could crawl through and open it from inside. What chivalry. After driving back to our campsite, Mom removed the seat and crawled into the trunk. When she finally opened it, her face covered in charcoal dust from a bag that had spilled, I was right there with my camera, ready to capture the Kodak moment. If you need a sidekick in the wilderness, I’m your gal.

We rode bikes, built fires, and spent most of our time in the spring-fed pool. The days went too quickly, and the nights were peaceful. In all our years of tent camping, I was never afraid at night.

Except when I camped with my brother, Doc. He joined me, Mom, and my grandmother on a campout at Canyon Lake. The camping was fun, but I was most excited about our trip to Six Flags over Texas in Arlington the next day. I snuggled down into my sleeping bag, about to drift off, when Doc, as was common to his nature, shattered my serenity. “Did you hear about the time the Ferris wheel at Six Flags came off its axle and went rolling down the freeway?”

“It did not!” I screamed. Prior to his evil revelation, I’d never thought about rides malfunctioning. Suddenly, I was a bundle of nerves.

“It did. It was on the news and everything. It just rolled right down the freeway.”

Being well versed in BS, he was pretty convincing; I didn’t sleep much that night. Mom and Grandmother’s reassurances fell on deaf ears and a vivid imagination. Of course, it didn’t help that Doc also warned me about scorpions crawling into our tent, and when we woke the next morning, Grandmother had been stung by one. Maybe he’s right about the Ferris wheel, too, I worried. Because of my fervent prayers, all the equipment at Six Flags worked properly on our visit, but I stayed off the Ferris wheel. That was my last campout with Doc.

Every year, as summer winds down, and we’re staring into the face of September, I suggest we take Cowboy on his first camping trip. My grief over summer’s ending is eased by the thought of planning another trip.

But it never happens. I’ve agreed to Flash’s stipulation that we rent a cabin, rather than use a tent. “I’m not sleeping on the ground at this age. Sleeping is hard enough; we’re not young enough to be Tent People,” he informed me. Even some of our hard-core camping friends are crossing over to cabins, trailers, and RVs, so I don’t feel so wimpy. Except for the fact that they did their time on the ground, as adults, and we didn’t.

Last week, my friend Bubbles and her daughter, Gracie, told me about their upcoming family trip to a cabin in the Smokey Mountains.

“I want to see bears,” Gracie said, while her young daughters, Scout and Spunky, smiled excitedly.

Bears? You want to see bears? How closely do you want to see them?”

Gracie indulged me with a smile. “We saw one last year, but I want to see more. It’s so cool; I can’t wait.”

Well, they have more camping experience than I do, I thought. They have courage. They have an adventurous spirit. They have true grit. I pictured a log cabin, complete with spiders, scorpions, roaches, and a Ferris wheel. I shuddered, as I had visions of a large grizzly toppling their cabin with one swoop of his paw. Maybe I’m too old for cabin camping, too, I told myself, remembering the smell of musty floorboards that grossed me out. Perhaps I’ll be hotel camping forever.

“Here’s the cabin we’ll be staying in,” Gracie said, as she handed me her tablet.

My jaw dropped. Before my eyes was the most beautiful structure in the history of wood, as high as the tree tops. It looked like something out of Architectural Digest.

“Oh my gosh. That’s a cabin? I thought you meant rustic.”

“Oh no,” Bubbles explained, laughing, “we’re not doing that kind of cabin.”

Not that Bubbles couldn’t handle it; she’s quite the pioneer woman. She plays the part of a mild-mannered professional woman by day, but she’s Laura Ingalls Wilder by night. Several years ago, it started with quilting. Before that, I thought quilting was for women over 70. But now, I’m one of the few 50-something-year-old females in town who doesn’t cut little squares out, then sew them back together. I don’t even have quilted toilet paper.

Bubbles sews; I only do buttons. When she wanted to learn to play guitar, she stayed up until all hours of the night picking out new tunes. I tried guitar once, but no amount of money could persuade me to inflict that kind of pain on my fingers again.

Now, she’s the Soap Lady. That’s right - she makes her own soap in her backyard. As she began explaining the process to me, I thought perhaps she’d lost her mind. Who has that much free time? She’s one of the busiest people I know, but she has time to make her own soap?

“…and you use lye,” she continued explaining.

“Lye? Isn’t lye bad for you?" I asked. "I thought only our great grandparents used lye.” I knew she was making her own soap partly to have a healthier option.

“Well, it will melt your skin off.”

“Oh, that sounds safe. Don’t worry about that acne anymore; this pretty homemade soap will take that top layer of skin off with no problem.”

“Well, it’s dangerous, until you get to the soapification part of the process.”

“Is that even a word, Bubbles?” Okay, she said “saponification,” but I heard “soapification.”

She continued, but all I could think about was the lye.

“Lye is what makes soap,” she said.

“All soap? Really? All of it? Skin-melting lye? Where does it come from?”

“I don’t want to tell you.”

“I’ll Google.”

“Well, drain cleaner is pure lye. But during saponification, the lye, water, and oils mix, molecules change, and you are left with soap.”

I was stunned. Who on earth figured out that the same substance our ancestors used to make soap will also dissolve hair in my drains?

“Yeah,” Gracie added, “the soap making was my idea, but then I didn’t want my kids around the lye. Breathing it, possibly getting near it.”

“Right. I’m with you, Gracie.”

“I wear gloves,” Bubbles assured me. “You should join me some time.”

“As soon as my hazmat suit comes in, I’ll come watch.”

“It takes at least three or four weeks to cure, then it’s ready,” she added.

“Or you could drive eight minutes, in your covered wagon, to Walmart, and pick up a four-pack.”

She’s serious about learning to be more primitive. I’m not sure what’s next. Probably blacksmithing or candle making.

“Bubbles, no more hobbies,” her husband, Sparrow, told her. But we all know there will be more.

“I’m a hoarder. A hoarder of hobbies,” the Modern Pioneer confessed.

With her Vera Bradley purse on her shoulder, carrying her cute little white dog everywhere she goes, Bubbles will be wearing 10 pounds of Brighton jewelry while she washes her designer capri pants on a washboard, during their trip to the mountains. I expect lard will soon be used in her cooking, and she’ll start calling her husband “Pa.”

She’s making me feel better about my modern ways; I don’t have the energy to time-travel back to “simpler” times. I own 15 fleece blankets from Walmart, 10 bars of coconut oil soap from HEB, and the only lard in my house is attached to my thighs, from eating too much ice cream.

I admire her gumption, but can’t follow in her footsteps. Except for her definition of camping. I could get used to the gorgeous pine walls and ceiling, the flat-screen TV, fireplace, pool table, 24-hour on-call masseuse, heated indoor pool, hot tub on the deck, and room service from a nearby yeti. That's enjoying the great outdoors the way God intended. With thick walls and heavy doors between me and visiting bears. I’m booking our reservation tonight. But I’m taking my store-bought soap.