Fifty eight degrees. Fifty-seven. Fifty-six. Fifty-five. Groans filled our van, accompanied by shouts of “Nooooo – make it stop!”
We had just left the Cedar Key tree lighting ceremony at City Park and were on our way back to Shell Mound where our six-man tent awaited us. Not that we needed that much space – the six of us slept in a puppy pile the night before, trying to share each other’s warmth (or steal it if possible). We could have easily fit another six. Fifty-four, 53, 52 degrees. We watched the numbers on the thermometer drop before our eyes on the short nine mile drive. It was supposed to get even colder than the previous night’s high 40s. What were we thinking? Vacation. That’s right, we were desperate for a vacation – no matter the cost. Chancing frostbite and hypothermia was a small price to pay. Okay, so not really frostbite, but it became quite clear – quite fast – that we had definitely acclimated to Florida’s climate. The negative temperatures of Salt Lake City seemed just a hazy dream. (If you’ve been there before, you know hazy is surely the right word.) Fifty-one. Forty-nine. “Wait! What happened to 50?” squealed the back seat in stereo. No matter, we were determined. The icky rain may have delayed the start of our vacation by a day, messing up our plans to cook Thanksgiving dinner over the open fire – and in our portable oven, of course – but as long as the skies were clear, we were hell-bent to brave the cold like fearless, happy campers. We arrived at Shell Mound campground Thursday around dusk. In our efforts to get there before dark, we rushed through our annual feast with purpose and resolve. So much so, that we forgot our most important Thanksgiving tradition: the pomegranate. It sits patiently in our fridge even now, waiting to be sliced in two as the story of Persephone and the reason for the seasons is told, followed by several rounds of passing the fruit about the table to take a seed and share what makes each of us most thankful. It’s a time for lots of laughs, hugs and even a few tears. That’s the nice thing about traditions, though. There’s always room for improvisation – the important thing is to keep them alive. So we’ll enjoy our pomegranate (and the ritual) this weekend instead. In our rush to beat the sunset, we packed quickly and threw the gear in the van. Well, gear might be a bit of a stretch. Somehow over the years, we have lost, used up or misplaced every bit of our camping gear. We had been camping for the entire year leading up to our arrival in Florida, and I guess we were so happy to live as civilized folk again, that we failed to maintain – or even keep track of – our equipment. I’ve never been much of a planner (not a big surprise to those who know me). I’m much more into the spontaneous adventures of life. And this trip was no exception. Camping gear? Who needs it? Armed with a tent that my parents gave me for my birthday (thanks mom and dad for not questioning my sanity too much), we were left to improvise, yet again, for our remaining needs. No biggie - we just took our regular household stuff: bedding, dishes, card table, skillet, and coffee maker (an absolute must). In our haste, though, we quickly realized a few things had been left behind. Important stuff, too, like the can opener and pizza cutter – without which there would be no pizza. This was not acceptable. It is not a Parkin family event without Warren’s homemade pizza with homemade sauce and homemade crust. As the kids say, “It’s better than a restaurant.” And they are so right. Conveniently, we had only reached the mailbox when my mental checklist flipped on the sirens and we turned around for the necessities. The girls made one last futile attempt to take some of their instruments with them. With soon-to-be fellow campers in mind, we told them that they would survive for a few days without their music. Unfortunately, though, a few things were still forgotten. But hey, who needs a wallet while camping, anyway? Or campfire chairs for that matter? That’s what coolers and extra firewood are for, right? Turns out, our wood was so damp from the previous day’s downpour that a fire was not in store for us that first night. Enter Madre del Fuego. That’s what we named our campsite neighbor who saved the day – or bitter freezing night, I should say. She meticulously built us a fire with her own firewood, paper towels and kindling. Angelina made art – with both the creation process and the final product. The next day I tagged along with Madre del Fuego and her friend Mindy to collect more wood. I’d like to think I was productive help, but I know better. I was the clueless follower just doing my best to keep up. (I have the wounds to prove I tried.) When we got back to camp, Warren was assigned the job of chopping the collected timber. His attempts were valiant. And short lived. Fortunately, Mindy was there to take over. Watching her use that axe to wail on those unsuspecting logs, I felt a kind of hero worship like no other. I want to be like her when I grow up. That is my favorite thing about camping – meeting others who are just as crazy to venture out into nature and brave the elements. A solidarity among strangers. Something totally absent when staying in a hotel. And lucky for us, these two incredible women took pity on our lack of camping ability. (Somehow in our jump back into civilization five years ago, we forgot simple basics – like how to camp entirely.) Forty-eight, 46, 45 degrees. “Forty-seven! Yeah!” Oh, 43. So much for wishful thinking. (Who trusst those digital thermometers anyway?) Thankfully, when we made it back to camp that second night (at 42 degrees!), there was a perfect creation in our fire pit – just waiting for a match and some cold hands to warm. Angelina – our Fire Mother – truly lived up to her name. I hope to know this angel for many years to come. Our two separate groups effortlessly became one, wandering from one site’s fire to the other and back, sharing stories, laughs, pumpkin pie, fudge, coffee and ginger beer. The next day we stayed at Shell Mound for one more unbelievable sunset and then headed for home. We could’ve stayed another night, but I thought it best to quit while we were ahead. Our much needed vacation was a huge success – great recreation in a beautiful location and even a little relaxation. There might have been more rest, but the six of us spent hours giggling ourselves to sleep. And then there were the noises of the night making certain we didn’t sleep too deep. Just what are those airboats doing at four in the morning? We arrived home with new appreciation for our beds, modest house and quiet country living. Whitney hugged the piano, and played for hours.