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California is hot. Sun-blazing, earth-baking, dry-dusty hot. I came there from England and I didn’t know what hit me. I held my breath from May to November until the rains came.
Except they didn’t.
‘When will the hills turn green?’ I naively asked my neighbour a few months after moving there in 1986.
‘Around November time,’ she replied, neither one of us knowing a seven year drought lay ahead.
I had moaned about the rain back home. Now I longed for it. Was it true it never rains in California? I started believing it so. Decades hence, how I wish now I could send over our rain.
But at the time, the novelty of being able to plan a barbeque or a picnic without worrying about a cloud burst felt almost decadent.
As a girl, I went camping with my family, once or twice. Long before “glamping” was a thing, we used my grandparents’ canvas tent which I suspect, given Granny’s penchant for recycling everything, dated back to the war. It had flaps for sides you could roll up for airing and a separate groundsheet. Not the warmest of places.
We once hired a static caravan (trailer) in Cornwall on a bluff overlooking the sea. But done in by the constant lashing rain and buffeting winds, we couldn’t sleep so went home early.
As I said, we camped once or twice.
Most often, we hired a boat on the waterways of the Norfolk Broads.
And I think of those halcyon summer days in England. When the breeze drifts soft and warm and everything feels lazy and slow.
Those days when I hopped off the school bus, walked down our drive and found that Mum had laid a blanket and cushions out on the grass.
She appeared from the kitchen, tray in hand.
‘Let’s have tea in the garden.’
Whatever the weather, I treasure all those childhood memories.
I raised my own family in California. Tent camping in the summer for my children brought an entirely different experience for them. Instead of shivering cold and damp to the skin trying to keep warm as I had, we flopped about, too hot sleep until dawn’s gift of fresh, cool air.
Nestled among the grand sequoias, we watched out for bears. And on one sultry, sleepless night we indeed had visitors: not a bear but a family of wild pigs. The cutest tiniest piglets of spots and stripes snuffling around while we observed from the window safely snuggled inside our tent.
And a cheeky racoon who stole our Cheezits. Before our eyes, it jumped up on the picnic table, grabbed the bag with the crackers inside and made for the trees, loot in paw, leaving the empty box behind.
Campsites in California allow an open fire pit. This was the kind of camping I had dreamed of. As the sun went down and the sky turned inky-black alive with stars, we gathered around the glowing embers and roasted hot-dogs and marshmallows and made S’mores. We told ghost stories and kept guard for mischievous racoon’s cousins, eyes darting at each tiny rustle.
My heart is joyful for the memories I hold dear of those experiences with my children.
My dad was a sun worshipper. If he was in the garden at the weekends pottering about, sleeves rolled up, and the sun came out, he was ready. He’d whip off his shirt, grab the deckchair from the shed and bask in the sun until the clouds stole it back again. Five minutes or fifty. There he’d be.
‘He only has to look at the sun to get a tan,’ Mum always said.
But in California, I hid from the sun. Summer and our neighbourhood was deserted. Windows shut tight, blinds down. Not a breath of air in the noonday sun. Too hot to sit outside in the shade.
Too hot for mad dogs and Englishmen and women at any hour.
Of course, summers with my children called for days at the beach and the outdoor pool, maybe the store and a diner. Blips of heat bursts of 100 plus degrees so avoided by hopping from house to car to destination, all conveniently air conditioned.
But a large portion of the hottest part of the day was spent confined inside our darkened, shut-up house, ceiling fans whirring in every room.
And that is how I discovered something else about my new way of life: going to “the movies” on a bright sunshiny day. The idea of it was at first unthinkable – nobody goes to the cinema on a hot day in England (yes, we do get them when it’s humid and sultry but we don’t have much cooling when it does) but I soon understood the appeal in California.
What better than sitting inside an air conditioned movie theatre with an ice-cold drink and a bucket of popcorn watching the latest blockbuster with your children? I could almost forget the punishment waiting outside when we emerged, blinking, like bats from a cave.
The heat went on and on and I longed for the turn of “fall”. I yearned for that first gust of wind and smell of damp in the air. The first drop of crisp, orange leaves on the fading grass, pulling jeans on for the first time in months.
In California, summer shut us away. I waited with my children for autumn’s escape.
Today in England, we are shut away because of a virus. But this time, I am without my now adult sons.
The year is almost half-way through, and this interminable separation is too much. Too many cancelled plans thanks to tiers and lockdowns. Yes, I am grateful we are all safe and well, but when the heart of your way of family life is stolen from you, the toll is great. It brings its own brand of loss and sorrow.
Dare I say our reunion is imminent? Yes, I dare. I wait to hug them soon, counting down the days.
Raise the blinds, throw open the windows, embrace the light.
We’re breaking free.
We’re coming home.
Sherri has published a collection of non-fiction articles in magazines, anthologies and online at her Summerhouse blog, and a memoir column at Carrot Ranch, an international online literary community. A keen walker and photographer from the UK, she raised her family in California for twenty years. Today, she lives in England’s West Country, hoping soon to publish her debut memoir.
Last week, Lisa Reiter of Sharing the Story, stirred up our memories of camping which led me to think of the camping cake that requires no stirring. That’s what a Dump Cake is–dump in the ingredients; no stirring required.
In 2007 my family camped in the northern forests of Wisconsin at Birch Lake. My kids were still kids then, as my eldest, Allison, was perched to fly the family coop. Kyle, the youngest was turning 16 and Brianna was going into her senior year of high school. It was trip that stirred my memory of fun family times in my Bite Size Memoir No. 5.
Because we were camping, the Dutch oven was working overtime. My husband grumbles that I bring the kitchen sink and I respond, “No, I bring the whole kitchen.” The kids tell him to hush and eat. They don’t mind packing the extra iron, utensils and food because we all like to eat like kings around the campfire.
A Dutch oven is a large cast iron pot with a flat lid. You can hang it over an open flame, set it on a grill or even snug it into coals. The latter is required for baking.
Ten years prior to this camping trip, in 1997, I was the writing intern for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. It was one of my first freelance gigs and I was covering an event called “Becoming an Outdoors Woman.” Being a buckaroo, I grew up outdoors and was no stranger to logging camp meals and cowboy coffee.
Yet, I was not familiar with the Dutch oven. We had cast iron pans, enamel coffee pots and grills, but I learned how to use the oven on this assignment. Mountain-man, Darrel D. Johnson, was our teacher. He wore a fox-skin hat, leather leggings and was the keeper of “extremely useful information.”
Today, I share with you Mountain-man Johnson’s recipe for Dump Cake.
It’s all in getting the coals white. Notice that we had half our fire pit dedicated to coals, the other half to wood. We aren’t fancy when camping, so just set that Dutch oven in the dirt and lightly butter the bottom. Add one can of cherry pie filling. Next, spread one box of yellow cake mix over the fruit. Melt one stick of butter and pour it over the mix. Don’t stir. Just “dump” the ingredients in the order given.
Nestle the Dutch oven into your pile of white-hot coals. Add a few coals to the lid, scattering evenly as you can see in the photo above. Bake about 10 minutes before you lift the lid to check progress.
Your Dump Cake is ready when the fruit bubbles up around the edges. When it is, remove it from the coals, but set the lid (with coals) back in place until the top is browned.
Decorate if you’d like, as we did. Slice and serve like brownies.
The fun of a Dump Cake is that it’s versatile. You can use any can of pie filling or even canned crushed pineapple. You can add 1/2 to one cup of walnuts, almonds or pecans. You can use any boxed cake mix–white, yellow, spice, cherry, chocolate. Just remember to dump in order:
- canned fruit
- boxed cake
- stick of melted butter
And there you have it–Dump Cake! And now a parting shot of Birch Lake:
And that’s Bobo swimming for the canoe, not Nessie. But if you like magical creatures, join us for the June 4 Flash Fiction Challenge: June 4, 2014 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a fantastical element or creature. Respond by noon (PST) Tuesday, June 10 to be included in the compilation.
The year K. turned 16 we pitched our rain impervious tents among white pines in Wisconsin. We had Birch Lake to ourselves so we set the dogs loose until they ran so hard that one began to pant like a wheezy old tractor.
Over an open flame, we grilled steaks marinated in Tabasco and tequila, and baked a cherry dump cake for K. in the Dutch oven. Camping is remembered for the food, and that year was the best menu if you ask the kids. It was the best fishing if you ask T.
Smelling of campfire, we drove from Birch Lake to Northland College where we dropped off A. for her first year. If you ask me, it was the best camping trip because it was the last year we camped with all three kids while they were yet kids.
I can still see them posing on the felled tree like it was yesterday.
Join memoirist, Lisa Reiter, as she encourages other writers take a bite out of camping memories this week. #Bitesizememoir at Sharing the Story.
A., B. and K. on Camping Trip to Birch Lake, 2007