By Ashley Daniels
I wanted our beach camping experience on a Saturday this summer to be a success story so badly. I mean, badly like a-day-at-Disney-World-would-be-a-close-second-to-this badly.
But, you don’t always get what you want.
Saturday did, however, flush out something for us as a family to talk about – and a lifetime of lessons for my boys on adult male behavior.
Freeman Park in Carolina Beach, N.C., is an oceanfront campground laid right out on several miles of hot sand, sans the trees, shade, dirt and bugs that come with the camping norms. Instead, there’s a swarm of Hummers, pickups and Wranglers driven by various species of society ranging from twentysomething day drinkers to hard-core surf fishermen to families of happy campers, like us.
A few years ago, my husband and I traveled here to camp overnight in late October and it was a completely different scene that we couldn’t wait to bring the boys back to experience. Back then, the haze of the summer heat had faded, along with the constant traffic trolling the sand-packed “highway” that divided the line of tents pitched back by the dunes and the few fishermen parked closer to the water.
This Saturday, however, was a complete 180. After a surprise $30 charge at the gate to actually park our vehicle at our campsite (most likely the park’s way of making it more expensive to impulsively cruise up and down the beach) and warnings from the millennial park employee at the gate that quite a few vehicles were getting stuck in the sand today, we flipped on the 4-wheel drive and headed out on a bumpy road.
Quite literally, too, it was a bumpy road, ridged deep with tire tracks from the heavy traffic that had plowed through before us. It was like we were strapped into a monster truck, bouncing off of ramps and dirt mounds. The two older boys were laughing and letting out “Woo hoos!” – our youngest even giggled in his car seat. This part was fun, I admit – like driving in snow from my childhood Pennsylvania days. Drive steady, but don’t brake suddenly (and don’t gun it either) or you’ll fishtail and bury yourself deeper into a grave of snow/sand.
We slowly passed a packed army of 4x4s lining every inch of the low tide beachfront – very different from October. A few pickups of fishermen threw lines into the surf, but most tailgates were laden with Yeti coolers, kids sucking on popsicles around the floaties shoved up to their elbows, and parents tipping back beers wrapped in Koozies. It was a party, and this is where it was. Don’t get me wrong, we had our beer and sangria packed in our cooler in the back, but it soon became evident, loud and clear, that most others had a hefty head start – and it was 1 p.m.
After rounding a soft curve toward the bay side of the park, we found site #92 and backed into our roped-off plot for the night. It didn’t seem as congested here, as it had seemed closer to the entrance, which was nice. But the sand still burned. Despite that, my dear, loving husband spent nearly an hour sweating in a heat index of 110 degrees while piecing together our massive 10-person tent. The boys tried to help, but lack of coordination with the tent poles and straps led to lack of patience from Daddy. To make peace, I balanced the baby on one hip while rummaging sandwich ingredients out of the cooler with the other hand and slapping a few together, tailgate-side. Hubby sank down in the middle of the tent and chugged two Gatorades in between a ham-and-cheddar-on-white.
Mission accomplished (food, shelter), we all trudged across the ridged sand highway to the hallelujah refuge in the cool waters of the bay. It was gloriously refreshing. And, after a couple cans of beer and another trip from tent back to water with fishing poles, we were on our way to my dream beach camping vacation.
“Hey, you’re camping right beside us, right?”
It was the cute, perky twentysomething blonde that had backed into campsite #93 beside us with her boyfriend behind the wheel of a silver F150 blaring Luke Bryan. Now she was leaning her cleavage over the side of my Tommy Bahama beach chair.
“Well there’s this guy that just pulled up and said you’re in his campsite for the night and you guys have it tomorrow night.”
My stomach dropped lower than the back tires of one of the pickups we passed were buried in the sand. My husband and I looked at each other, told twentysomething that this must be a mistake, but then husband begrudgingly trudged over to our campsite in question. I followed behind holding the toddler.
Turns out we were the ones who made the mistake. When I’d reserved the campsite a month ago, the park’s online calendar started the week on a Monday, so when I thought I’d clicked on Saturday, I was actually clicking on a Sunday. And, in my defense, I printed it out in a hurry that morning after an hour’s worth of packing and prepping – and the distracted millennial at the guard gate looked at it and waved us on after he charged us for parking and warned us of the track record of cars getting stuck that day.
But we discovered that after re-reading our permit, after a very short man driving a big Hummer with New York plates puffed out his hairy tanned chest and confronted my husband like a tough guy on Goodfellas.
“So, you got the campsite tomorrow night and I have it tonight, huh?”
He was shifting weight from one foot to the other, like a boxer. To him, it was as simple as accusing us of stealing his barstool, our family of five, with our tent’s beachfront littered with boogie boards and pint-sized chairs, and now he was going to settle the score.
“I’m sorry, was that a question or a statement?”
My husband doesn’t usually get ruffled by bullies, but this little guy was packing a one-two punch with his big mouth and even bigger attitude. The twentysomethings had grown a crowd and just stood there, not knowing what to say.
Little Guy had a lot to say: “Why you gettin’ an attitude wit’ me? It’s a statement. I have this tonight, you have it tomorrow night. You better check your paper because that’s what it says. At the end of the night, I’ll be staying here.”
I wanted to ninja kick him in his tanned beer gut and then, when he weeble-wobbled over, shove his face into the hot sand. Instead, we unlocked the truck and grabbed the permit on the dash to read our mistake. I started to cry. Ugly, hot tears that scorched my cheeks as I carried my innocent toddler on my hip. This was all my fault because I reserved the wrong day, the day I wanted us to have an epic family getaway camping overnight on the same beach I had camped three years ago.
Little Guy was waiting for us with hands on hips.
“OK, looks like you’re right and we’ll have to get packed up,” hubby said. “It was an honest mistake and you’re not going to stand there and watch us. As you can see, we have a lot here, so you’re going to stay the hell away until we’re done.”
And he actually did, as we all mustered some grain of dignity to shake the sand off all of our beach toys and duffle bags, and load them back onto the truck we had just unloaded a few hours earlier. I was heartbroken, but after the boys ran up from the water and found out the situation, they warmed my heart by hugging me and assuring me, “It’s OK, Mommy! Don’t cry!”
Our neighbor in Campsite #91, Marcello, our Good Samaritan, had witnessed this all and just then walked over to throw us a lifeline.
“Hey, why don’t you take this campsite? We rented two because we didn’t know how big they were and we won’t need this one tonight. You spent way too much time setting up that tent and we want you to have a nice time with your family.”
Marcello, a New Yorker who had just migrated to Charlotte with his family of five, was suddenly my angel sent from heaven. He breathed renewed life into my high hopes for the day. We thanked him profusely, deliberated on whether, truly, it was worth moving ALL of our stuff over once again, and my husband gave in to my last wish.
While we played musical chairs (one that was barely in tune by now), Little Guy cowered down on the beachfront with his bleach blonde wife. One of the twentysomethings ventured over to my hubby, Marcello and his sons, as they retied the tent, to offer their sympathy on the situation and to assure them that “They have no idea who that guy is and he was a complete ass.”
Things were looking up. But the dark clouds forming up over the ocean, only the size of a puff of smoke for now, were not. We had been keeping an eye on our Accuweather app radar, and it looked like something would possibly pass through at nightfall. It’s inevitable, when the heat builds up like lava in a volcano over 12 hours’ time, that it needs to release.
Eight hours after we first pitched our tent, and three hours after we pitched it again, an angry thunderstorm raged and rumbled across Freemont Park, clearing everyone in its path. Clearing the neighbor kids who had been playing cornhole next to us with the boys earlier. Clearing the twentysomethings smoking pot around their campfire. Clearing Little Guy and his new entourage of shit balls crushing cans of Coors Light. And clearing the boys out of the tent, practically plucking it up like a Kleenex, then snapping it back down, as we had just sent them inside to get in their PJs.
Purple clouds eclipsing a slip of blue sky was a sign that Accuweather was off in the timing of this storm, so after throwing hot dogs on the grill, we’d begun repacking some essentials in the pickup bed. But she came too fast. The boys ran out screaming in terror; I had to run inside the tent to scoop up the baby, who was sleeping soundly through the entire thing in his Pack-n-Play; and, as we took cover inside the truck per hubby’s command, he remained outside the truck to finish packing and take the tent down one final time today in the pelting rain and wind. I love this man so much. We returned home at 11:30 p.m.
Four simple takeaways from this getaway:
- People can be mean. The boys saw this ugly truth, and the truth hurts sometimes. But it’s the way many people in the world have been hardened to react – too quickly, too rashly and too selfishly. We send texts instead of verbally talking through challenges. We download an app and, “click,” we get what we want. I’d like to think that if I pulled up on my reserved campsite, where a family had already set up camp, that I’d work through it and communicate with them in a positive way to find out what went wrong, rather than throwing a verbal punch to knock them down. It just makes a crappy situation even worse.
- People can be nice. The boys also witnessed the kind hearts that are still alive and beating around us as well, like Marcello’s. Instead of going about his happy day on two campsites, he took notice of the tight spot we were in, stepped into our mess and alleviated our suffering by shifting his tent and condensing into one site. It would’ve been much easier to stick to Plan A. It’s sometimes more difficult to be kind. But, like I teach the boys, the good guys always win.
- Show and share love. We try to be mindful of our actions, big or small – especially around the boys, whether we’re driving, waiting in the line to check out at the grocery store or just going about our daily to-do’s at home. I didn’t say perfect, because we are far from that – and that’s OK for kids to see. But to show how to be slow in anger and slow to speak goes a long way with boys who will be men before we know it – not a Little Guy.
- The Accuweather app isn’t “accu” anything.