Fueled by hope and kerosene, a down-and-out family embarks on an unforgettable camping trip
The eviction notice arrives in the mail, just like any other bill or letter. That night, when my parents have a spare moment, one of them will open it and read it and then read it again. It doesn't matter that they've got three kids and a broken-down car and Dad is only sort of working and sort of trying to be an artist; it doesn't matter that it's the middle of the school year and they've always paid the rent on time and kept the place relatively quiet and clean. It's just that the building has been sold, and the new owners want to live in the third-floor flat we call home.
We visit courtrooms, stalling. My father does not have a suit or tie, so he puts on his least-paint-stained shirt and pants and takes one or two of us kids with him downtown to plead his case. But it's no use. Soon enough we are packing up boxes and loading them into the blue Ford pickup with the homemade wooden camper on the back. It's a sunny, cool June day in San Francisco. School just let out for summer, and the neighborhood is saturated with children and noise. Upstairs my mother is packing our belongings into boxes, which we kids will then carry down the stairs so Dad can load them onto the truck the right way, the way that doesn't waste space or break anything. We have moved several times now, but we are not getting any better at it. Mom is running behind with the packing, so Dad has to wait on the street with the truck double-parked. My brothers, who are 6 and 11, and I, 9, sit on the stoop listening to the chorus of kid sounds emanating from the schoolyard: the thwack of the bat hitting a ball; the thump of the basketball against the backboard; the angry trill of voices arguing over fair or foul.
My father sighs and looks up at the traffic he's disrupting. 'Why don't you go help your mother,' he says to us.
It's not exactly a command, but neither is it a question. I run up the staircase, and in the kitchen I find my mother frantically emptying shelves of dishes into boxes. 'Is he ready for another one?' she asks, her face framed by thin bangs and feather earrings. 'Uh, yeah,' I say, trying to sound casual. When Dad gets mad, Mom gets nervous. She moves faster, but accomplishes less. To preserve some semblance of peace, I've got to get boxes packed and down the stairs. 'Just shove that stuff in there, Mom,' I say, piling plates into a box.
'But some of it is coming with us and some is staying,' she explains. These boxes and our furniture will go to a friend's garage. Then we will load the rest, plus some camping gear, into the homemade camper and face the truck brazenly to the north, toward optimism. The plan is to cross the Golden Gate Bridge and look for Land-my father pronounces this word as if it were a proper noun-so we can get out of the city, escape the corner of Sixteenth and Sanchez, and live a better life in the country.
We kids don't know much about the plan; we're not supposed to ask too many questions. If we do, my father will sigh, take a drag off his cigarette, and look away, disappointed again. It's not clear how much of the plan even my mother knows, though surely they have discussed it late at night after we have gone to bed. Perhaps it was these discussions that caused some of those muffled bangs and raised voices that seeped through the walls and into our bedrooms, infiltrating our dreams. We'd wake up in the morning to find a broken ashtray, the kid-size table turned upside down, chairs strewn about the living room as if left there by the tide.
Eventually we get all of our belongings into the truck, and the next day, after the boxes and furniture have been delivered to the friend's house, we kids are loaded into the back of the truck ourselves. My father has outfitted the camper as if it were a child's fort on wheels, with pillows and foam and sleeping bags, and we look out the windows as our city slips by.
Our first stop is a cold, foggy beach. My brothers and I are released from the truck like air from a tire, and we scatter to find driftwood for a campfire. We help pitch our five-person tent behind the dunes and out of the wind. Then we tighten the hoods on our blue sweatshirts and go to play tag with the thick, foamy surf. Signs warn of riptides, undertows, and sneaker waves, but we don't need signs to tell us we are not supposed to enter this water. Its danger advertises itself: Thick gray wedges curl into sharp peaks before smacking with a loud pop against the sloping beach. A chaos of churning white foam rustles through the pebbly sand and sneaks high up the beach. We run up, up, and away to the dry sand, where the thunder of the surf subsides, and we give in to gravity and geography and emotion, dropping onto that dark, pigeon-colored sand, faces to the sky. Back at the campsite, our parents are starting the stove and unloading food from the ice chest. We have no place to live, and no one, not even my father, knows where we are going next. But we have maps and sleeping bags and piles of comic books. We have flecked metal dishes-a different color for each of us-and a bulky can of kerosene. We have yelling and kicking and whispering. And we have this plan of my father's, to find Land.
And so we smile, my brothers and I, not at each other, but at the benevolent gray sky above us. And we move our arms and legs in slow, deliberate arcs through the sand, etching out the West Coast version of snow angels. Then we try to get up without smudging our wings.
The next morning we head inland, where it is warm and golden, just like the summer we have read about in books and seen on TV, and we begin the long search for a place to live. We sit in the wide, fancy car of a real estate agent-Dad up front, three kids and Mom in back, the man in the suit glancing in his rearview mirror as we kids pinch each other and push the buttons to make the windows go up and down, up and down. We spend a day, but not the night, at a commune with real hippies, who swim naked in the creek behind their house while we city kids keep our bathing suits firmly on. We look for maps and pay phones and 'For Sale' signs and little colored markers that show the edges of a piece of property. We park the car on the side of the road and trudge into the blackberry bushes and poison oak, into the mass of trees and brush that would have to be taken down somehow to make room for a house.
We stay as long as they'll let us at a campground on a warm, shallow lake, where my father teaches us to fish and my mother teaches us to swim. One morning my brothers and I wake up early, leaving our parents sleeping. We put on sweatshirts and navy blue knit caps, get out our enamel mugs and bowls, and make cereal and cold hot chocolate. Then we carry those mugs, which we pretend are beer steins, to the picnic table of the empty campsite down the gully from ours. The beer steins make us think of gangsters, and so we start calling each other Mugsy and Bugsy and Moe. To feel more like criminals, we pull the knit caps down low on our foreheads, until we can barely see out from under them.
'What's the plan, Mugsy?' my older brother asks me.
'I don't got the plan, Moe. I thought you had it.'
'I do have it,' he says, reaching down to the ground and picking up an old metal fork from the dirt. 'I was just testing you.' He uses the fork to etch a few maplike lines onto the picnic table. Bugsy and I lean in close to inspect the details. When we've finished our cocoa, we raise our mugs and slam them down on the table. Then we get up and rove the area, looking for any loot previous campers may have left behind. The sun is up, though not enough to warm us, and the campground is beginning to come to life. Crows and Steller's jays squawk at each other, and thin curls of smoke rise from resuscitated campfires. After we've canvassed an empty campsite for several quiet, serious minutes, my little brother's voice beckons from the fire pit.
'Look,' he says, holding out his treasure: one of those aluminum pie pans filled with popcorn that we have seen on television. We know from the commercials that you can cook the popcorn by holding it over a campfire, but we have never dreamed that we would actually possess such a thing. Now the littlest, blondest, luckiest of us is holding in his outstretched hands a completely unpopped pan wrapped in shiny foil, the tantalizing blue-and-white cardboard label intact.
It is all we can do to wait till nightfall so we can scavenge wood and start a fire and cook our popcorn just like we imagine all the other families do on camping trips.
After miles of freeways and highways and dusty country roads, we finally land in a little trailer my father borrows from a friend, just a few miles from a brown body of water called, for some reason, Clear Lake. With no water or electricity, my parents camp in the trailer, and we pitch the tent alongside as a kind of kids' room. We cook and wash outside, with a Coleman stove and buckets of water, and we drive to the lake to swim and cool off and use the public restrooms. Every once in a while-like when the whole family gets poison oak-we go to the other side of the lake, where they have a beach and a campground and a shower.
Other than the corner of Sixteenth and Sanchez in San Francisco, Clear Lake is the best place a kid could live. We spend all day in shorts and bathing suits, wandering back and forth between water and land. We turn over boulders, logs, and old tires to look for salamanders and potato bugs. We collect apricot pits and use them like coins to buy stuff off each other. We rearrange the rocks on the beach to create forts and moats and channels and deltas. We dig our toes into the mud bottom, feeling for clams, then use those squishy lumps to catch bluegill and crappie. We pull those fish up and grab them behind the head, where the sharp back fins can't prick us. Then we look for a good long while at their round, startled eyes, at our hands gripping something beautiful and wild and helpless. And then we toss them back into the water with a splash.
Summer went on and on, for three, four, five months. My parents read the want ads, then dropped us off at the lake with cheese sandwiches while they drove around looking for work and for that little piece of Land. At the lake my brothers and I learned how to ration the food to make it last all day, and how to make friends with families who had coolers and inner tubes and bright plastic buckets with matching shovels. We learned to do the backstroke and the dead man's float, to talk underwater, to flip the canoe over and then back, to repair the rafts with duct tape or chewing gum until Dad could do it the right way, with glue and a rubber patch. I outgrew my one-piece bathing suit, sky blue with white clouds, so my mother cut it into a two-piece, sewing a drawstring into the top and bottom seams. We gathered walnuts off the ground-they had to be roasted to taste any good-and ate apricots and cherries from farm stands and sometimes even ice cream at Dairy Queen, where the bug zapper flashed loud blue lightning all night long.
What struck us most about the country was how quiet it was-also how hot and still. Playing in the hills around the trailer, we hushed up instinctively; our voices, even when we weren't shouting, stood out. We missed the noise of Sixteenth and Sanchez, the kids in the neighborhood, the way you could just walk out your door and find someone to play with. But we trusted our dad to know what was best for us, and we found plenty to do in the country. There was infinity in the dry brown soil and the crackly straw-colored grass, just as there was in the schoolyard on the street corner. But the thing about infinity, about yearning and despair and the hot breezes off the lake, is that as long as you can say 'we,' everything is somehow all right.
Who knows where my father got his dream of bringing up his kids in the country; who knows where that sudden burst of optimism and intention came from, or where it would soon disappear to. He was a city kid himself, though he'd gone fishing occasionally as a child. His preference for the country was grounded as much in ideology as in experience. He felt instinctively that the city, like money, was evil and impure, and that in the country people could live the way humans were supposed to live. He knew how to tie knots and drive stakes, how to run power saws and hammer boards together. He figured he could learn gardening and chicken coops and the rest.
But he did not count on the kind of work available-or not available-in the country, or the kind of money the work paid. He did not count on his children needing to enroll in school, and also needing a way to get to school. He did not count on his family needing a place to call home that was not a tent or a makeshift trailer on a piece of borrowed land, with no water or heat or fridge, just a cooler with a block of ice and a camp stove and a Coleman lantern so we could read or play cards at night. My father did not factor in the character of country people, who were not necessarily up on the finer distinctions between hippies and bohemian artists, or between Mexicans and sun-darkened Jews. He did not count on the arguments and silences and despair hovering in the air above our family, ready at any moment to ignite, like the wildfires Californians are always so afraid of at the end of summer, when the ground can't even remember what rain feels like, and the shoreline of the lake recedes daily, leaving drying pools of mud where water used to be.
On a clear October morning, my father finally gave up on his plan. That summer would be the first and only time I would witness him in the throes of optimism, trying to make a wish come true. When he failed, he seemed to swallow his hope along with his shame, and he never let either of them out again. We spent all morning packing up the truck, then waited till the heat of the day had passed before starting back to the city.
We arrived between midnight and morning, both too late and too early to wake up the friends whose house we would stay at while we looked for a place to live. My dad parked on the street, on a block with more empty lots than houses, under the branches of a huge metal radio tower. My mother climbed in the back with us, my father stretched out on the front seat, and the five of us slept until a cop banged his fist on the truck window to wake us up and tell us there was no camping on city streets and we had to move on.
This essay is part of a forthcoming book, How to Have Not: A Memoir, by Frances Lefkowitz, FrancesLefkowitz.net. Excerpted from the Sun (Nov. 2006). Subscriptions: $36/yr. (12 issues) from Box 469061, Escondido, CA 92046; www.thesunmagazine.org.