31 December 2010

Writing Contest Submission: "There Are No Tiaras in Camping"

To: Wanderlust and Lipstick
Travel Article Submission
From: Victoria S. Wynne
Category: “Off the Beaten Path”
There Are No Tiaras in Camping
Male strippers, late-night dancing at a club, coughing up hundreds for spa treatments...typical events of bachelorette parties, sure.  But these were not ideas that appealed to me when planning my own final celebration of the single life.  Considering my love of nature, I leaned toward a getaway both unique and free of sequins and heels.  The plan: to take my closest girlfriends on a camping trip on Georgia’s largest and most historic barrier island, Cumberland Island.
My fiance, Michael, offered his two cents on the idea: “What normal girl camps for their bachelorette party?”
“This is coming from the man who eats ravioli straight from the can with a plastic fork,” I shot back.
Cumberland Island is not just a destination, it’s an experience.  Known for its feral horses, crooked live oaks, and weeping Spanish moss, the island charters its visitors via river ferry.  My parents would take my brother and me on day trips to the island during holiday breaks from school.  When I entered college, I rallied a group of fellow dorm-dwellers to camp on the island during spring break.  Even after graduating and getting a “real job”, I continued to invite friends to the island for multiple-night stays.  I then found myself seeking literature on Cumberland and discovered its complete history in Charles Seabrook’s Cumberland Island: Strong Women, Wild Horses.  My best friend and I acted like Mr. Seabrook’s groupies, reading the book cover to cover several times and getting him to sign our copies twice.  So the idea of camping on Cumberland for my bachelorette party was a better fit than Cinderella’s glass slipper.
When making the plans for this trip, we had to consider that two of the girls had never been camping before, and one was expecting her first baby.   In order not to overwhelm the pregnant and the inexperienced, we scheduled the trip at 2 nights and 3 days.  The first and last days would include the 5-hour-one-way drive to and from St. Marys, Georgia, the riverfront town where we would catch the ferry.  We would stay in a hotel on the first night, and then take the ferry to the island for the second night.  It would be a whirlwind weekend, but knowing my girls, they would the most of every moment.
There were six of us in all: me, the bride ready with her pick-up for carting camping gear; Christy, the maid of honor and walking First Aid kit; Janaki and Kajal, the non-campers and token vegetarians; Llewelyn, the mom-to-be and serious adventure-seeker; and Emily Lemmon (AKA EmLem), the go-with-the-flow sexy librarian type.  We split our motley crew into two carpools--one out of Atlanta and one out of Athens--and met up in the state’s southeast corner on the Saturday before “I do”.  Those of us who had camped before showed up with hiker’s backpacks, pocketknives, and Nalgene bottles.  Janaki packed her necessities in a duffel bag.  Kajal brought her rolling carry-on suitcase.  It ended up being the butt of a couple of jokes.
Our hotel, complete with a restaurant and always-busy saloon, was right on the St. Marys River and walking distance to every local attraction.  We visited the park and its street fair, hitting up the bratwurst stand and relieving our exhausted feet by dangling them in the fountain.  We snapped pictures of the black-eyed Susans on the river banks and of each other on the park swings.  Dinner followed our stroll at a quaint restaurant next door to our hotel as the evening haze settled upon us.  We conversed about the wedding and Llewelyn’s baby, whom she nicknamed “Egg Roll”, while we dined on gourmet salads and fresh seafood.
As part of every Cumberland trip tradition, we make a run to the local Wal-Mart for last minute supplies after dinner.  We were only going to be on the island one night, but we wanted our one dinner there to be really special.  Ingredients for steak and vegetable kebabs were wrangled up for the campfire.  Pop Tarts and dried fruit sufficed for breakfast and snack.  Peanut butter and bread covered on-the-trail lunches.  Everything was thrown into our cooler and smothered in bags of ice.
We returned to the hotel, ready for a pseudo night out at the saloon downstairs.  The girls dressed me in a battery-powered butterfly tiara and necklace tied up with condoms they purchased on the sly while we were shopping for our rations at Wal-Mart.  Our group was already going to stand out in the 40+ crowd that frequents the cramped saloon.  A blinking tiara was going to put a target on my head.  We had barely crossed the threshold when we were interrogated.
“Hey, baby chicks, where are ya IDs?” growled the bartender.  Her rotund figure was stuffed into her overall shorts, her freckled breasts swinging (sans brassiere) to her knees.  Greying blond hair whipped around her face.  I noticed she was only wearing one earring, a large hoop encrusted with rhinestones.  All six of us gaped, patting our pockets for our licenses.
“Can’t have ya risking my business if you chicks are underage,” she barked.  We proved our legal drinking statuses and found the only free table, smack dab in the middle of the room.
Llewelyn ordered herself a sex on the beach, alcohol free for the Egg Roll.  Kajal and Janaki, being the stand-up gals they are, wouldn’t let her drink virgin alone and ordered the same.  EmLem, Christy, and I shared a pitcher of amber beer.  Having camped on the island before, Llew, Christy, and I talked up Cumberland to the other three, describing everything from the ruins of Dungeness mansion to the rolling sand dunes behind the campsites.  As we killed the night and our drinks, folks in the saloon approached us, running through a list of possibilities as to why a group of women our age was there and why I donned a tiara.  They were shocked at our answer.
“We’re here to camp on Cumberland for my bachelorette party!” I explained.
“What normal girl goes on a camping trip for their bachelorette party?” they would ask.
We could only laugh.  “Who says we’re normal?”  Our bartender, liking our attitude and our answer, began to warm up to us.  She freshened our drinks and even posed for a picture with me, her one earring hanging on for dear life.  Reaching the middle of the night, we were tired and past our limit.  We retired to our rooms upstairs and slept off the day.
It was the morning to catch the ferry to Cumberland.  We sought out the free continental breakfast downstairs.  Cereal, bagels, and carafes of milk and juice lined the bar top in the saloon where we had caroused the night before.  We filled our bellies before checking in at the dock across the street.
The ferry ride to Cumberland Island takes about 45 minutes through the marshy St. Marys River and up the Cumberland Sound.  Seagulls follow the ferry looking for a handout from snacking tourists.  Dolphins occasionally swim in the boat’s wake.  If you get lucky, you might witness a submarine coasting through the waters of the sound as it leaves the naval base.  My favorite part, though, of the ride toward the island is watching the faces of first timers.  They try to take in the swirling sights of swamp meeting sand dunes, boardwalks running across mud flats, the chimneys of the Dungeness ruins peeking over the maritime forest, and wild horses grazing among the saw palmettos.  They realize they are arriving at a place that is a fantastic amalgamation of rich native history and preserved wilderness, and the view from the ferry was just a tease.
Our camping reservation was for Sea Camp, nestled under the canopy of aging oak trees and tucked neatly behind the dunes that rise to greet the Atlantic Ocean.  It was just a half mile walk due east from where we docked.  We used one of the carts at the dock’s ranger station to carry our bulky tent and cooler full of meat and veggies.  Everything else, we bore the weight.  Before lunchtime, our camp was set up and we were off to introduce the island to the three newbies.
Knowing we only had 24 hours on the island, we started our hike to the ruins of the Dungeness mansion and other buildings on the property.  The very first Dungeness building was constructed by James Oglethorpe back in 1736, but the crumbling structure that remains today was built by Thomas Carnegie in the 1880s.  It’s hard to believe that this island, whose first inhabitants (the Timucua) settled here 4,000 years ago and were wiped out by Old World diseases brought by Spanish missionaries in the 17th century, is the very same place where Big Steel built a summer home.
Walking around the ruins, we saw dozens of the island’s famous wild horses quietly grazing.  Graceful and coming in almost every shade, but always malnourished due to overpopulation.  Turkeys and armadillos wandered about the grounds, too, avoiding hikers, but not their cameras.  The marshy areas at the edge of Dungeness were alive with fiddler crabs and mosquitoes.  EmLem, Kajal, and Janaki were obviously smitten with our destination and the wildlife it had to offer.
With the day getting hot, we decided to trek back to the campsite to change into our swimsuits for a little beach time.  We took refuge in the shade of the woods as we hiked.  Aware of the need for a fire for cooking kebabs later, we collected firewood along the trail in the forest.  Kajal and Janaki were a little ambitious in their collection.  They found long, thick branches that couldn’t be cradled in their arms, so they dragged their finds behind them.  More critters popped out of the woods as we hiked, most of them being disgruntled armadillos in search of a fistful of grubs.
Losing daytime hours, the six of us packed in several more activities before dinner.  We walked out to the beach on the long boardwalk over the dunes.  It was too windy for the tubes of bubbles we packed, but there was plenty of sun for Llewelyn to deepen her tan.  We combed for shells and waded in the ocean shallows.  EmLem and I went back to the campsite for a short nap.  Christy spruced up our site, making sure our trash bag was tied up properly to avoid raccoon invasion.  We visited the car cemetery and gawked at private homes currently inhabited by Carnegie descendants.  All six of us wanted to see the sunset over the sound, so we regrouped and hiked a trail alongside the calm waters where we saw a replica Timucuan hut and, of course, more armadillos.  Kajal, feeling a little frisky, flashed one of the feral horses that fed just inside the woodline.  He kept right on nibbling at the grass, ignoring Kajal’s efforts.
We settled ourselves on a rock wall near Cumberland’s other public dock further south from where we had disembarked earlier in the day.  The sun began its show, painting the sky a vibrant red-orange.  Clouds streaked through the intensity, smearing the orange with white and grey.  The tide was out, so we walked out on the damp, sandy banks.  Barnacles struggled for breath.  Crabs feasted on tiny creatures.  We left the spectacle for our campsite, losing the light with each step.
Back at Sea Camp, we assembled our kebabs using flashlights to guide us.  Honoring the vegetarians of the group, we cooked the vegetable skewers first.  The roasted onion, pineapple, zucchini, and tomato tasted finer than any meal at a five-star restaurant.  Those of us who were proud carnivores tore into the strips of grilled steak from separate cooking rods.  Since darkness has fallen, we ate by citronella candlelight.  They deterred only a fraction of the mosquitoes.  We sprayed each other’s ankles in between bites.
There was still a little spunk left in us after our savory meal.  Keeping up with yet another tradition in camping on Cumberland, we trotted back out to the beach for an hour of stargazing.  We had to turn off all flashlights and headlamps once on the beach so as not to confuse nesting sea turtles.  The waning moon illuminated the beach enough to see each other’s outlines, yet not enough to recognize faces.  Telling each other apart was based on the sound of our voices.  While reflecting on our day, we noticed three figures coming out of the water toward us.
“Are you in our group?” they shouted, shaking off the salty water.
“We have our whole group,” Christy shouted back, counting our silhouettes.  “Who are you?”
“Oh, crap!” one of the voices exclaimed.  The three of them froze, flinging their hands in an effort to cover their shadowy bodies.  They had been skinny dipping and were looking for the other members of their troupe.  I assumed their missing friends were responsible for bringing the towels.  They had nothing to worry about: it was too dark to see anything important.  Obviously embarrassed, they scuttled back to their pile of clothes near the dunes.  We whooped and slapped our knees.  Who would be crazy enough to swim in the ocean in total darkness--naked?  There are man-of-war jellies in those waters.
We retired to our tent.  Sleep came easy, as it usually does when camping.  We heard raccoons scurrying through our site.  They hissed at one another when they couldn’t reach the strung-up trash bag.  An armadillo followed their trail, keeping to himself and hollowing out the ground searching for grubs.
Our final morning arrived, the sun sending its rays through the branches of the oaks, warming our tent.  It was with heavy hearts that we broke camp, especially with it being so soon after our arrival, but we all had jobs to get home to.
We left the site and headed for the dock, piling our gear near the ranger station.  We blew bubbles while waiting for the ferry.  It was during our wait that we experienced the most notable memory: a manatee and her baby swam up to the dock.  With the manatee having always been my favorite animal, I didn’t hesitate in leaning over the water and rubbing the mother on her snout.  Other campers had gathered on the dock around me.  The manatee spun.  Her baby floated nearby.  Children told their mommies they wanted to pet the manatee, too.  Janaki took pictures and a video, realizing just how meaningful the encounter was to me.
I focused on the perfection of the moment.  I was petting my favorite animal in one of my most beloved travel destinations with my closest girlfriends in my company.  It was beyond surreal.  A ranger shooed us away and made us wait at the station for the ferry.  She said something about petting manatees being wrong, but I wasn’t listening.  I pulled my butterfly tiara out of my backpack and crowned myself for the last time as a bachelorette.

Pictures from this very trip are below!
Llewelyn, me, Christy, Janaki, EmLem, and Kajal.  How blessed I am to have such amazing friends who will camp with me for a bachelorette weekend.

Black-eyed Susans on the St. Marys River.

Christy, me, and Kajal after they attacked me with the Wal-Mart duds.

Our bartender who referred to us as "Baby Chicks".  She loved us by the end of the night.

Christy, EmLem, and me couldn't be serious for more than 3 seconds.

My RA shirt from GHP that I had personalized with my future last name.

Llewelyn taking pictures at the ruins in the garden area of Dungeness.

Janaki and Christy lugging firewood back to the campsite after a long hike.

Janaki and EmLem relaxing on the ranger's front porch, waiting for the sun to set.

The girls on the river side of the island.  Tide's out and the sun is going down.

Me, Janaki, Kajal, Christy, Llewelyn, and EmLem after we broke camp.  Time to catch the ferry.

Janaki and Kajal carried the one bag of trash we made during our stay.  Thankfully, raccoons didn't get into it.

Most incredible memory: petting a manatee in the river before the ferry arrived.

Maybe tiaras are a no-no in camping, but it was integral in making this particular weekend one we'll never forget.

1 comment:

Em said...

Aww, I loved reading this! You made the memory come alive so vividly. I hope you win!


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