Weathering the Storm: A Murphy's Law Vacation

As part of my goal to work on writing during our time in New Haven, I started submitting essays to literary magazines. I submitted this essay in response to a prompt about the weather; while it was sadly returned to me with a standard, polite rejection note, I'm happy to share it here with you!

Want to help with my next goal of making this blog more interactive? Use the comments section here or the link to this post found on my Facebook page to quickly describe your Murphy's Law Vacation!

We call it The Camping Trip, because it needs no further introduction.

We like to believe that everyone has one, a Murphy’s Law Vacation, when anything that can go wrong does go wrong, and then some. The one when your sister, skipping in the sunshine, trips over an untied shoelace and fractures her wrist only hours before your other sister perches on a rotting log that is home to hundreds of fire ants. Or the one to Maine in the summertime, when the seventy-eight degree air feels just warm enough, so you give into the temptation and take a casual dip into the crystal clear lake, only seventy-eight degree air doesn’t do much to warm up the water temperature and someone catches a slight case of hypothermia. Or the it’s-so-hot-you-can-fry-an-egg-on-pavement camping trip to Kentucky, when you finally cry Uncle after a week of sleeping in hair-dryer heat and check into a hotel on the last night.

We call ours The Camping Trip, and it started with rain.

Little Talbot Island is a state park just south of the Florida-Georgia line, on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. The brochure boasts five miles of sandy beaches, dunes that are home to an abundance of wildlife, and plenty of waterways that are perfect for fishing and canoeing. Our campsites were flat, smooth plots of dirt surrounded by verdant greenery and sheltered by an overhanging “oak tree canopy,” that promised to offer shade from the sun.

Except, that weekend, there wasn’t much sun.

The first rain shower began as we set up our tents. The oak tree canopy fulfilled its purpose, diverting most of the gentle rain away from our bare heads. Three of us grandkids went to help our grandfather set up his Taj Mahal sized tent-for-two, unfolding the poles and pushing the segments together to make a taut arch. Meanwhile, my parents erected what would be one of our only sanctuaries for the weekend--a screen tent with zippered doors that surrounded the picnic table--on our half of the campsite. The shower did little more than dampen the earth around our feet and provide us with a restful soundtrack to accompany our chores, but the humidity that followed awakened the beasts.

The mosquitoes of Little Talbot Island proved to be as vicious as they were numerous. From the mossy oak canopy above and the bushes all around us they swarmed, anxious to feast on our warm blood. Relentlessly, they found their way beneath layers upon layers of clothing and burrowed into the seams of our shoes in search of flesh. The ensuing hives swelled to the size of ping-pong balls and the itching never ceased. Even Gus, our beagle-terrier mix, became their prey, his face swelling from the bites.

That evening, it rained even more. The inaugural rainshower that had welcomed us in the afternoon was just one in a system of storms that inundated the campground that weekend, flooding parts of the campground and compromising the plumbing. Hungry, itchy, and damp, we faced a dinner with no electricity, no running water, and dozens of not-so-tiny, uninvited dinner guests.

We retreated, driving eighteen miles to the nearest strip mall. I remember splashing straight through the puddles in the grocery store parking lot, flanked by my cousin and grandparents. When the automatic doors parted, we marched right up to a young, aproned stock clerk.

“We need bug spray.” He looked surprised by our frazzled appearance and abrupt proclamation, and he gestured meekly towards a tower of pink-capped Off! Skintastic.

“Well that won’t work,” my grandmother guffawed. “Where’s your DEET?”

“Aisle seven.”

We left the store armed with cans of Off! Deep Woods and enough Citronella tiki torches to ward off darkness for days. My parents bought red wine and M&Ms. After a hearty Burger King meal and enough time to shake off the damp, we returned to the campground, ready to defend ourselves against the elements. That night, my mother awoke to a rattling sound. She shined a flashlight through the window in our tent and saw a pair of gleaming eyes perched on the picnic table. Without breaking eye contact, the creature raised a fist towards her and shook the bag once more before scampering away. A raccoon made off with our M&Ms, a portentous sign that Mother Nature would not be deterred.

The next day, the rain came again, this time in torrents. In an effort to keep her camp stove lit long enough to fry bacon, my grandmother over-pumped the gas and started a small fire. While my father went to help her put it out and finish cooking her breakfast, my cousin Kara and I were left to solve the problem of my aunt’s quickly-flooding homestead.

“Y’all are going to have to help me dig a trench,” she said, “and then you’ll probably have to dig one for your grandmother, too.”

Shovel-less, Kara and I chose two long sticks and a corner of the campsite that sloped away from the tents. There, we began to carve out a small trench, only a few inches wide and an inch or two deep. The night’s rain had made the ground soft and muddy, so with each strike of our make-shift spades, the trickle of water became a small stream, and the campsite began to drain. Excited by the potential to out-wit Mother Nature in at least one aspect of our trip, we began to dig faster, slinging mud onto the tops of our shoes, until we both heard something squish.

When I turned around, Kara looked at me, motionless, her eyebrows raised and her stick wedged into the mud. “I think it had eyes,” she said. We looked down to see two small, black, round eyes split by the stick: a frog that had emerged during the rain, probably in pursuit of the water bugs scampering across the puddles.

With that, the stream of water running from the corner of our campsite turned red.

As the rain continued, we claimed sanctuary in the screened tent around our picnic table. It was dry and offered an escape from the mosquitoes. We built card castle after card castle, not caring if the walls crumbled. The towers became quite tall, as the humid air and our sticky fingers helped the cards to stick. We built until we heard a whimper from underneath the table. Our dog, Gus, was huddled beneath our feet, but his safe haven was slowly shrinking into a tiny island as the water advanced and began to flood our tent. He had nowhere to go. My father scooped him up and delivered him to the truck, where he slept the rest of the day.

By nightfall, the torrents abated to a steady sprinkle and the mosquitoes returned with a vengeance. Ready this time, we doused ourselves in bug spray and set up a perimeter around our campfire with the tiki torches. There is a picture of all of us sitting around that campfire, dressed in layers of sweatshirt armor and staring into the flames. The smoke distorts our features, making it difficult to tell where the illusion of bumpy skin ends and the hives begin. The twins are roasting marshmallows and the adults are drinking red wine out of yellow Solo cups. No one is smiling.

At one point, my grandfather began passing around a tin of Planters Mixed Nuts. “Hey, it’s like us!” he said, breaking the silence, “A bunch of mixed nuts!” His chuckle turned into a laugh, and his laugh caused the nylon folding chair to buckle underneath him. My grandfather, the man with the Taj Mahal tent, was now stuck in a crouching position, his rear end as low to the ground as his ankles were, tangled up in blue nylon and black plastic, laughing. We all laughed harder, together. The laughter came in torrents.

We spent the rest of the night laughing and getting in touch with our inner pyromaniacs, watching the colors change as we experimented with different fuels for the fire. Yellow Solo cups with red-wine residue create the prettiest flames, in case you were wondering. The next day we took advantage of some sunshine and went canoeing on some of the waterways that weave through the marsh. The sweet breeze on the water kept the bugs away, and the water was still except for the ripples made by the push of our paddles.

We packed up the tents that afternoon, tied the canoes to the tops of our pick-up trucks, and drove away before Little Talbot Island could claim the life of a first-born son. As we ascended the bridge that crossed the Fort George Inlet and turned our backs to the sea, we saw my grandfather roll down the window of his pick-up, reach out, and cling to the side of the blue canoe teetering on the roof of the cab. Occasionally, he would let go long enough to wave us onward across the bridge, “Keep going!” he shouted as he waved. The closing theme to The Perfect Storm streamed through our car speakers.

The joke is that the ropes tying the canoe to his truck came loose, but he was too eager to get across that bridge and away from The Camping Trip to stop and tighten them. Our escape took priority over the fate of the canoe. The joke is that our memories of The Camping Trip--of the rain, the fire, the floods, and the hordes of mosquitoes--are forever colored by misery. But I don't remember it that way. I remember the hordes of laughter, even amidst the torrents of rain, as we dug trenches and huddled around the campfire. We weathered the storm. Together.