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“I really don’t feel well, I hope I’m not sick,” I said, lying on my sleeping pad, clutching my stomach.

“Can we just go?” Simon asked.

He was standing outside the tent looking in. The sun was just starting to rise behind the mountain to the east, it wasn’t even 6 am yet, Remy was asleep. He was still annoyed I made them sleep here last night, in the desolate, creepy, dark, scorching hot desert.

“I hope it’s not the fastfood we ate last night. Do you feel alright?” I asked Simon.

After one too many trips where one of us fell ill, I had stocked up on immunity building supplements, and the three of us had been popping pills on a daily basis. Then I broke my vow to not eat fast food on the trip when, after a late day at Zion National Park, we hit the drive through in an attempt to reach our campsite before dark.

I unzipped the tent and headed for the bathroom to assess my health. Yes, my fears were confirmed. I started to freak out, alone in the strangely air-conditioned bathroom, heaving my guts into the toilet. I was supposed to drive 350 miles today, to my parents house in southern California. The relief from the heat we had felt the moment we opened our eyes was diminishing just as quickly as the sun was rising in the sky. We couldn’t stay here. And I was the only adult. I was the only one able to drive the car. 

Then, with that realization, I snapped out of it and transformed into Survivor Mama Bear. A plan started to formulate in my mind.

I walked back to the tent. “I really am sick.”

“You are?” Simon asked, his annoyance suddenly gone. 

I felt better now but I could tell it wouldn’t last. Time was limited before I’d need to get back in the bathroom. “I need your help taking down the tent and packing up the sleeping bags and sleeping pads.” 

A wave of nausea was coming over me again. With my energy draining, I half-frantically finished stuffing a sleeping bag into a sack. “Remy, wake up. Simon, help me pack up.” 

The tent was cleared out when I emerged again from the bathroom. Remy and Simon stood silently looking at me.

We took the tent down quickly and I shoved everything in the back of the Subaru.

“Remy I need the bag from the t-shirt you bought, in case I need to puke while I’m driving.” 

“Okay. Sorry you’re sick, Mom.”

On our way out we passed the only other inhabited site, the spot the campground host had made home. There were two RVs, noisy generators, a 4×4 truck and a set of motocross bikes. When we pulled in last night I felt contempt for whoever owned all that. On our way out, my feelings changed to affection. She had recommended we camp at the site nearest her, which also happened to be the site nearest the restroom.

(to be continued…)

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I opened my eyes. It was morning. Yes! Our initiation was over. We had found a place to camp the night before just as the sun was setting, in the wilderness–not a campground, and slept in the bed-car, for FREE.

No bears or burglars came. And I was done lying on my right side, my pillow covering the gap between the laid down backseat and the door. Dew dripped down the fogged windows. I tried to roll onto my back, but I ended up on Simon. I opened the door next to my head and cool crisp air blew in. Too cold. I pulled it closed. The kids woke up. We got on our way.

Camping outside developed campgrounds on national forest land, called dispersed camping, comes with responsibilities. Always check with the  US Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management for rules specific to where you’d like to camp, but here are some general rules: 

  • Locate your camping spot at least 1/4 mile from major roads, outside of fragile meadows and restricted areas, and preferably on bare or mineral soil.
  • Camp at least 100 feet away from lakes and streams.
  • Use camp stoves to help conserve ground cover resources.
  • Check for fire restrictions before building a fire.
  • Never leave fire unattended. 
  • Use an existing fire ring where available. If you need one, build it small and in a safe place.
  • Gather only dead and down wood for your campfire. Never cut live trees.
  • Be sure your fire is out before you leave — drown it, turn it, stir it until it’s cool to the touch.
  • If no toilets are available, dig a hole 6-12 inches deep and refill after use. Bury toilet paper in the same hole or pack out in a plastic bag.
  • Take all trash with you when you leave.
  • Leave site as you found it (or cleaner) when you depart

The rewards of dispersed camping are endless. You’ll have no campsite neighbor blaring annoying country western music. It’ll be just you and the wilderness and the stars in the night. It’s CHEAP. You may even be treated to a herd of bovine and their calves blocking the road on your way out.

Bed-car is a term I stole from the parents of Brian’s aunt. Well into their retirement, they’ve crossed the U.S. twelve times in a mini van outfitted for sleeping. They’ve removed the back seats and built a wooden platform that holds a queen sized mattress and they stow their cooler and suitcases below the platform. Travel is cheap. I was inspired. Remy and Simon were excited. 

But we have a Subaru Outback, not a van, and this trip had three people traveling. There actually were some novelties to sleeping inside the Subaru. It was the first time I ever slept the entire night in a car. It was the only time I ever watched a movie on a little dvd player in bed while camping. And I got to sleep more snugly and cozily with my children than I had in recent years.

But where we were going was warmer than the Montana high country and sleeping in crammed quarters with growing children was quickly losing its appeal. I decided future nights would be better spent luxuriating in the tent. Then the ranger at Nine Mile Fire Station down the road told us he spotted a GRIZZLY bear the day before romping through the meadow with an elk calf in it’s mouth. Maybe the car wasn’t too cozy after all.

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Sometimes the best meals result from those that hold your lowest expectations.

After stopping throughout the day to explore spots across the Colorado Rocky Mountains, the sun lowered in the sky signaling it was time to find a place to camp. I left I-70 in Fruita and stopped at the state park near the exit. Their available sites would leave us sandwiched between two RVs or, if I wanted, the site amidst the Boy Scouts would be open just as soon as the couple before me packed up their belongings to relocate.

“What about Colorado National Monument?” I asked. “Do you know if they still have campsites available?”

“It’s two miles up the road. They’ll be gone for the night but you should be able to get in. There’s camping up there, but I’ve never been.”

It was too close not to see if better opportunities existed.

I entered the national monument and was blown away by the beauty. I had driven this east-west route on I-70 several times throughout the years, roadtripping to my parents and inlaws in California when we lived in Denver, or heading to Canyonlands or Arches National Parks in Utah. I never before had interest in stopping at Colorado National Monument. As the remaining yellow sunlight reflected off the red rock walls, we passed through tunnels carved into the rock and climbed the winding road to the top of the plateau. I suspected canyons and spires might be hidden further on. This was the landscape of the west I was missing.

We turned into the campground and as the sun was setting, found a perfect spot with a view, two thousand feet above the Colorado River Valley. How could the ranger working the campground in town never have ventured here?

That night I laid in splendid darkness, crickets chirped in the distance, my children breathed quietly as they slept, and an occasional breeze rustled the tent flaps.

When morning came I realized I had forgotten to plan for breakfast. I opened the rear hatch of the Subaru to look for food. The yogurt we didn’t eat the previous day bobbed in the cooler, the ice nearly all melted. A mango had reached its perfect ripeness. And a granola bar could be crumbled on top. Breakfast did exist.

Remy and Simon gobbled down their yogurt and mango separately and skipped the granola before I had a chance to prepare mine. When it was ready, I sat at the table in our campsite, eating my breakfast as the sun rose further in the sky and the scent of pinyon-juniper permeated the air.

Then we went searching for those canyons and spires.


For more stories about food and travel, check out Wanderfood Wednesday!

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