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Camping With a Toddler Has Its Moments, but It's No Picnic : An 18-month-old takes the great outdoors in happy stride, but his parents find the pace, well, punishing.

October 06, 1994|KEN MCALPINE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Over the past 18 months I have been told many things about small children, often by people who wouldn't recognize a tot if they drove down Sesame Street. When it comes to kids, everyone has foolproof advice--which I find puzzling since no one can predict what a child will do next.

Recently this flood of wisdom became a torrent. My wife Kathy and I decided to take our 18-month-old son, Cullen, camping. The phone lines lit up.

"Oh, you don't want to do that," said one friend.

"Wouldn't it hurt less to have your eye teeth removed?" said another.

"Well, this is a bold experiment," said a third.

Precisely the point. It's my opinion that truly harrowing adventures, searing tests of stamina and grit, are fast becoming a thing of the past. So one night, while we were eating dinner, I proposed that we go camping.

"Camping?" Kathy paused. "With Cullen?"

After several years of marriage, it's not difficult to gauge spousal interest. I understood that my wife's enthusiasm was somewhat dampened by the knowledge that she would have to do most of the work. Before our marriage, Kathy had compiled a fair bit of outdoor experience, including backpacking trips into remote areas. My own wilderness training peaked when, as a Boy Scout, I learned how to eat minute steak that had been dropped in the dirt.

Cullen was seated in his high chair, daubing his face with a substance that had once been a banana. As he already makes most of the decisions in our house, I decided to ask him.

"Cullen, would you like to go camping?"

He issued his answer firmly.

"No."

As anyone who has had an 18-month-old knows, I could have asked Cullen if he wanted to wallow in fudge and he would have responded in a like manner.

I turned to Kathy.

"See," I said. "Cullen wants to go."

As any outdoorsman knows, the first task of camping is deciding where to camp. There are numerous campsites in Ventura County. Having no idea what would be best for an 18-month-old, I called our friend Jim. During the course of his life he has been a Marine, a member of an elite cadre of firefighters and a parent, so he is familiar with risk and danger. When I told Jim what we were planning, he was enthusiastic. Camping with a toddler was a terrific idea, he said. He'd done it with his kids, though they were now grown.

"You can take your baby and your little day pack and hike through the forest and sit under the trees and read and watch the clouds and the world go by," he said.

It was obvious to me that Jim hadn't had an 18-month-old around the house in a long time. Nonetheless I respected his outdoor expertise. He talked for several minutes about some of his favorite campsites, empty places atop mountain ridges commanding beautiful sweeping views, places where you hike to burbling streams to get your water, places where you are alone with the wind and your thoughts. Places no one in their right mind would take an 18-month-old on his first camping trip.

Jim made some practical recommendations too. One of them was Wheeler Gorge Campground, about 15 miles outside of Ojai up California 33. We could drive right up to the campsite, Jim said. There was a creek there and lots of shady woods. There was also a ranger who lived there. Having a professional on 24-hour call sounded comforting. Plus it absolved me of the awkward task of asking Jim to come along.

Just before hanging up, Jim suddenly had an alarming thought.

"Call the Forest Service and ask them about hunting season," he said. "I don't think it's going on right now, but you want to be safe."

When I called the Forest Service station in Ojai, I found out we would be camping during the last few weeks of deer-hunting season. The woman on the other end of the phone was perky and helpful.

"It shouldn't be a problem," she said.

"We won't have hunters trooping through our campsite?" I asked.

"Trooping through?"

Hunters, she explained patiently, are required to stay several hundred feet away from designated campsites.

I am not familiar with firearms, but a few hundred feet didn't sound like much of a buffer to me.

"You've never had any problems," I asked, "in terms of shooting campers?"

I was starting to feel silly. But I also believe all lines of questioning, especially those involving bullets, should be pursued to the end.

The woman left the phone for a moment, then came back.

"I just asked one of the rangers. He said no one has ever shot a camper."

GATHERING THE GEAR

It's fortunate my wife and I don't own any firearms or we might have shot each other before we even left on our trip. The second task of camping is packing. At noon our house looked like an explosion at a sporting goods store. This was unfortunate as the car was already full. Cullen wandered among the piles, scouting out the most toxic items and then putting them in his mouth.

"There's no way we're going to get all this stuff in," Kathy said. "I told you we need a bigger car."

What we really needed was a bus, but I refrained from saying so. I am a thrill seeker, but not a fool.

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