My Absolutely, Positively Last Girl Scout Camping Trip
by Susan Berry Eberhardt
During the time I was a Girl Scout leader, a job I had undertaken to benefit my daughter Amy, I survived girls punching each other, an assistant leader who usually failed to show up, my own toddler running wild through the cafeteria where we held our meetings, and the cruelty that pre-teen girls inflict on each other. Near the end of the third year, I’d had enough. We had one more camping trip to get through, though, and I decided to make it the trip of trips, my swan song. This time, I wouldn’t ask the girls to plan the trip themselves only to listen to their wrangling and whining. This time, I wouldn’t make the futile effort of urging them to create work schedules and stick to them. This time, there would be no pretense of letting them pick the campsite and activities, of expecting them to take the responsibility to fulfill badge requirements. There was a difficult badge that most troops didn’t attempt or took three years to complete. Outdoor Cooking. I’d get my girls to qualify for the badge on one camping trip, whether they wanted to or not.
You had to use four different cooking styles and four different types of equipment. You had to construct some type of cooking apparatus and use it to make a meal on the trail. There were six requirements in all, as I remember. I started to make elaborate plans and lists, made a reservation at a campsite, only an hour away, where we could build a large fire without any restricting fireplace. I recruited another mother to accompany us, since my assistant was again unavailable. We spent the meetings leading up to the trip making paraffin burners out of tuna cans and portable stoves out of number ten cans, talking about the menus and making sure everyone had her personal equipment in order.
Wednesday before the trip, the recruited mother called to say she had a singing job on Saturday and couldn’t go camping. I appealed to all the other mothers in the troop and found no one willing to go with us, so it looked as if the trip would have to be cancelled. Then I had a brainstorm and signed up my husband as a Girl Scout leader, paid his dues and insurance fee. Our ten-year-old son would have to accompany us and one of the troop mothers agreed to take my toddler for the weekend. We were back in business.
Some of the menus were the most elaborate we’d ever attempted. Friday’s dinner was the easiest: hot dogs cooked with sticks over a charcoal barbecue followed by s’mores. Saturday breakfast: pancakes on the propane camping stove. For lunch, we’d take a hike and use the tin can stoves to cook packaged hikers’ meals: pasta and a dessert of fruit cobbler. Dinner was the real Herculean effort: Cornish game hens on a spit, stuffing, cranberries, baked potatoes and corn cooked in foil, apple pies baked in Dutch ovens. It would require a large bed of coals, careful timing and cooperation. My husband, Peter, and son, Richard, would enjoy building the fire—they love fire. I thought I could manage the timing. Cooperation among this bunch was another matter. For Sunday breakfast, we could build a small campfire for the girls to make scrambled eggs in their mess kits and bread-on-a-stick.
I did the shopping on Thursday and packed carefully. This was much bulkier food and much more equipment than we were used to hauling. Thursday night, I packed my own and my daughter’s personal gear and then lay sleepless for hours of anxiety. I worried the hens wouldn’t thaw in time or would thaw too fast and seethe with salmonella; that they’d take too long to cook or burn on the outside, leaving the inside raw; that the girls would, as they usually did, make too much noise at night and attract the disapproval of the ranger; that it would be too cold this early in spring; that we would encounter a rabid raccoon, deer ticks, gnats, a skunk. I hoped the latrine at this site wasn’t too horrible. On our first camping trip, one of the girls refused to go to the bathroom at all until she couldn’t hold it anymore and then insisted on being in the middle of a field where no creature could sneak up on her, and in the dark, the other girls and I surrounded her for privacy. On that trip, as we walked along the dark trails from the common campfire to our tents, these girls, who often seemed to hate me, clung to my clothes as if to let go would send them shooting out into space or into the woods never to be seen again. There were two sprained ankles on that trip, and one cut finger. On one October trip there was snow.
We couldn’t leave till five o’clock because that was the earliest my husband could get home from work. At noon, clouds began to gather. Between packing the cooler and hauling the gear to the door, I checked the weather report. It didn’t look good.
Amy and Richard arrived home from school.
“Mia says she might not go. Her mom thinks it’s gonna rain.”
“What’s the matter with that? We’ve camped in rain before.”
“That’s why she doesn’t want to go.”
At four o’clock the wind picked up a bit and the sky darkened. The phone rang.
“Are we still going, Mrs. Eberhardt? They say the weather’s gonna be awful bad.”
“Of course, Nicole. We’re girl scouts.” You had to reserve these campsites months in advance. A mountain of food was sitting in my front hallway. It was now or never.
At four thirty, my husband got home and started packing. Girls and their mothers began to arrive at our house. Brandi’s mother called to say she couldn’t get the car until five o’clock and would be fifteen minutes late. The rain became heavier, the sky darker.
“Shouldn’t you postpone this thing till next week? It’s turning into a monsoon.”
“It’ll pass. We can’t get the campsite next week, and some people have other plans.”
The phone rang: probably Mia’s mother.
No, it was a man’s voice. “Is this Susan Eberhardt?”
“Are you supposed to go camping this weekend?”
“This is Joe at the campsite. There’s a problem. The police found the car of some woman on our property and they can’t find the woman. Maybe you shouldn’t come; there are cops all over the place.” I had to make him repeat it twice. Maybe it was a prank call—a brother of one of my girls. I called the Girl Scout office. No, they hadn’t heard of any trouble, but they’d get back to me. Mia and her mother arrived.
“Mia, I’m so glad! Amy said you might not come.”
Her mother looked grave. “I could hardly see on the way over here. If it keeps up you really should cancel.” Compared to my images of an ax-wielding maniac, a monsoon seemed tame. There were now nine girls and two mothers, volunteer drivers, in my kitchen, teasing my toddler, complaining about the math teacher, inspecting the contents of my refrigerator and cabinets. My son hid in his room. Brandi didn’t arrive until five thirty, when the phone rang again.
“You were right. Cops are investigating; you can’t go; but there’s a cancellation at Ludington. Should I tell the ranger to expect you?” Ludington was a half hour farther away. Of course there would be a cancellation. You had to be crazy to go camping in weather like that.
“I don’t know exactly; they’re searching for a missing woman.”
“Okay. Tell the ranger we’ll go to Ludington. We can’t get there till seven at the earliest, though.”
“Right, but don’t make it too late. He’s supposed to be off duty after six.” I hung up and explained to the group there was a change of plans but didn’t mention missing women or murderers. Some groaned, remembering the latrines at Ludington; some were relieved to go to a familiar campsite.
Packing the cars took longer than expected, and our little caravan didn’t set out until six-fifteen into a black, driving rain. We needed a song. I had set words to the “Pinafore” song, “Little Buttercup” for our troop song, and the girls in my car started singing, “Oh, we are the Buttercups, beautiful Buttercups. We’re the Ranunculus troop . . . “ then they sang “Make New Friends But Keep the Old” and “Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall” all the way down to the last bottle. Visibility was terrible, and we had to drive slowly. We didn’t get to camp till close to nine o’clock. I had forgotten about the boulder in the middle of the dirt road into camp and scraped the bottom of my station wagon. The two cars following me probably scraped too. The ranger was waiting for us in the parking lot.
“You’re the only troop here. I gave you the highest campsite—it’s dryer. Throw your gear in the truck and I’ll meet you there.”
After saying good-bye to our drivers, we followed the ranger’s directions and hiked up the hill to the campsite where he was already tossing our gear onto the dirt road. I was glad I’d insisted every sleeping bag and every backpack be sealed in a plastic garbage bag.
“That’s it.” He waved a hand at a circle of four tents at the top of a muddy slope. “Enjoy your stay.” And he drove off to his warm, dry cabin, his television, his flush toilet, his kitchen. We slogged up the hill with our gear, slipping in the mud, getting soaked. We were filthy, wet, cold, tired and starved. The girls were quiet.
Most Girl Scout camps are equipped with platform tents large enough to hold four cots. On fine nights, you can roll up the sides and have only the canvas roof between you and nature. In wet weather you have to roll down the sides and lace up the four corners and the front and back flaps. On this night the sides were down but unlaced, so the tent walls were whipping in the wind. The wooden floors were soaked; puddles had collected on the plastic mattress covers. I had given up thinking, “Well, we got through that problem, nothing else can happen to us,” and started to believe each new difficulty would be worse than the last. It took a whole roll of paper towels to dry the cots, and I was amazed at how quickly the girls got the tents laced up. There was a kitchen shelter—a roof on pillars, where my husband set up the camp stove to cook the hot dogs; there would be no campfire that night. Huddled under the roof, backs to the wind and horizontal rain, we ate our hot dogs, then finished off all the marshmallows, chocolate and graham crackers, and I sent them to bed. I didn’t insist, as I usually did, that the kitchen area be left in perfect condition. I didn’t make them Lysol the latrines. I didn’t ask if they’d brushed their teeth because I didn’t care.
On all previous camping trips, the first night was sleepless. My girls had a reputation as “The Wild Bunch,” chattering and laughing long after quiet hour, their shrill voices carrying over the entire camp. For me, the hours alternated between lying in my worries and tying on my sneakers to threaten and yell at them in their tents. At least they stayed in their tents. At least they were afraid of the dark. This night, a night when there were no other troops to disturb, they were quiet; or perhaps the wind and rain completely muffled their voices. I was still wakeful with anxiety, wondering if it would occur to an ax murderer to make the trip to Ludington, wondering if I would find a hacked-up gory mess in the morning, wondering if I would be there in the morning. My daughter and her friend were sleeping in my tent, my husband and son had a tent to themselves, and the other eight girls were split between the other two tents. Wriggling out of the sleeping bag and getting into my wet parka to check on them was out of the question. Dead or alive, at least they were quiet. For once, I slept.
In the morning, the rain had stopped, but we were surrounded by a sea of mud and dripping trees. The girls refused to get up until full bladders forced the issue, and squeals of disgust flew from the latrines as one by one they encountered spiders, webs, and a really foul stench. Lysol would be no match for it. As they drifted over to the kitchen area, I ordered one girl to pour juice and two others to mix the pancakes, then had to order them to clean batter from the table, bench, and ground so it wouldn’t be tracked around by thirteen pairs of boots. Two other girls mixed a new batch and kept it in the bowl. My husband made coffee while I helped each girl pour and flip her own pancakes, and the rest of breakfast turned out fine. There was only a little complaining about clean-up. After laying out some dead branches in the sun to dry, we prepared for our hike, filling canteens and distributing the tin-can stoves and food packages among the day packs.
No one, least of all I, had the stamina to hike as far as we’d intended in the sucking mud, but we managed half the distance and found a level, fairly solid area to set up our stoves. The little paraffin tins took fifteen minutes to boil enough water for the pasta meals, but more than half an hour to cook the fruit cobblers. We didn’t mind. As long as we waited for the food, we didn’t have to walk. As soon as we got back to the campsite, though, it was time to start preparing the next meal. Peter and Richard sorted the almost-dry branches according to thickness and recruited a few girls to help saw them into even lengths, one to three inches in diameter. Peter is precise that way. Recently, I asked Richard what he remembered of this trip, and the first thing he mentioned was slapping away swarms of bugs with the saw. I had forgotten about the bugs. I still don’t remember bugs. Not on that trip.
Ludington had small cement-block fireplaces and the rules required that all fires be contained within them. There was no way to cook our elaborate meal on that contraption, and the wet woods offered no danger of spreading fire. We broke the rules. An area was cleared of leaves and the fire set. While it flamed, creating a great bed of coals, we dug the hens out of the cooler and found them still half-frozen. Another of Richard’s memories is trying to pull rock-hard giblets out of the cavities. I do remember that. My fingers were frozen. By the time the coals were perfect, the hens were ready for the spit. Two girls were the turners and basters, another two mixed stuffing, two poured canned pie filling into frozen pie shells and set them to bake in Dutch ovens, two wrapped potatoes and frozen corn-on-the-cob in aluminum foil and two set the table. I sat wishing for a bourbon on the rocks. It was perking along. They were doing their jobs, laughing together, for once not tormenting anyone.
Dinner was fine. Everything was just fine. Some comments like, “This is the best chicken I ever had” brought vindication. They weren’t as willing to share clean-up chores, but we got through it.
Sunday morning the sun was bright and warm, and it didn’t matter that everyone’s bread-on-a-stick fell in the fire or that forgetting to put butter in your pan before cooking eggs makes an impossible mess. They were quick to pack up their gear. The drivers had arrived, and we were going home to showers, to television, to video games, to the telephone, to safety.
A few days later, the missing woman was found in the lake; a suicide note had been discovered earlier in her car. There was a story about a bad divorce, an abusive husband. There didn’t seem to be any reason for her choice of Girl Scout property as the place to end her life, only that she had found a remote parking place near a lake.
I also asked Amy recently what she recalled about this trip. She remembers nothing. Something in her ten-year-old brain blocked it from her twenty-three year-old memory. She remembers family camping trips when she was much younger, but not one thing about that trip. And you, Mia, Brandi, Nicole, Tracey and all my other Buttercups, do you remember anything? Anything at all?