On a March night when I was nine, I was in my sleeping bag listening to something other than raccoons scrabbling at the coolers. Strangers were talking to my parents outside, and flashlights bounced in the dark. We didn’t know it, but our polyester tents were the only thing between us and the Storm of the Century.
The palm leaves overhead were restless in the cool, humid darkness. Rousted from bed in a series of unceremonious zips, I tried to stay out of the way as my parents began to throw our gear into the back of the pickup faster than I’d ever seen them pack. When the tailgate banged on the last bundle, the trees shivered, and a cold spatter of rain chased us into the truck.
Camping on Sanibel, a small barrier island on Florida’s Gulf coast, was a mainstay of my childhood spring breaks. Dad drove, Mom kept the maps, and in the cramped backseat, my younger brother and I survived the 18-hour ride from Maryland, a journey of two days.
Something about 75 days (and counting) confined to the sidewalks and scrawny Bradford pears of South Philly sends my mind down the bleached and dusty roadways of Periwinkle Park Campground, crunchy with pebbles and battered shells. I loved the spiky glimmer of sun and shade under the palm trees, and the lofty, insouciant curves of their trunks, skittering with lizards. I shook hollow, heavy coconuts to hear the splashing inside. I woke up to mourning doves cooing in the breeze.
When I was nine, we traveled with our friends, another young family with three kids, and our campsite bordered a shady green canal. But all activities at the water’s edge were strictly forbidden after someone exploring down the bank roused a massive alligator—12 feet long, the story goes. To this day, I’m not sure whether I’m looking at it in my own memory, disappearing into the crackling underbrush on squat scaly elbows, or if one of the grown-ups described it so urgently that my mind appropriated the sight.
In retrospect, it’s good to know exactly where my parents’ risk tolerance lay: camping right next to a 12-foot gator’s creek was okay as long as you administered a stern talking-to to the younger set, but they drew the line at hurricane-force winds.
We were lucky our neighbors were listening to a radio and looking out for us. Back in the mists of the early 1990s, you couldn’t follow a week of breathless internet stories about bombogenesis. You just went camping, hoped for good weather, and packed up real quick if you had to.
Our little caravan was among the last vehicles off Sanibel before the storm shut down the long, narrow causeway to the mainland. I don’t know how long we drove, Dad jumping out into the drenching rain to inquire at motel after motel. They were all booked. Cracks of lightning seemed to freeze the lashing palm trees against the purple sky, and transistors exploded on the side of the road.
Finally, we pulled into a Cracker Barrel parking lot for the rest of the night. In the gray, windy morning, the edges of the lot were flooded. We tidied ourselves up as well as we could in the bathroom before ordering breakfast, making up a song about “The Disheveled Family” to the tune of the Addams Family theme. After a long, strange day of gas stations with no power, candles flickering on the backs of toilets, we hit Jacksonville before we finally found a motel, whose roof tiles were still flying away in the wind. Our snow-crusted yard in Maryland was the final bizarre note of our escape from spring break.
I haven’t been camping in more than 20 years—but not because of alligators or the storm of ‘93 (apparently these are mild inconveniences compared to the general indignities of sleeping in the woods). I camped again as a teenager, but still didn’t like the clammy warmth of my sleeping bag or the rivulets of dew on the tent. I dreaded cabin and campsite pilgrimages to whatever passed for a bathroom (amenities perhaps more necessary for a young girl than for others). I tried reading after dark by the light of the fire or flashlight, but the glare hurt my eyes, and I’d give up and go to bed. Who is the sun to tell me that my day is done?
Today, my grownup bad back and a terror of tick-borne disease make another camping trip seem even less likely (and it isn’t like anyone’s inviting me). But no matter where I am, the sound of a mourning dove transports me to the start of a fresh, bright day, when the toothy whistle of a zipper was the only thing between me and the trees (or an alligator).
Maybe I should trust that I can weather more than I think. Maybe there are some things out there I should try again, if I ever have the chance.