So it’s summer, and your parents want to take a fun trip. Maybe, like me, you are home from college for the summer, and they missed you. Maybe you are still in high school, and this is the summer before your senior year, and they can hear the clock ticking down hours until you spread your wings and fly away. Either way, I would like to share a story with you. It is part comedy, part horror, and all memoir.
This essay contains some adult language, so if that offends you….. well, EXCUUUUUUSE ME!
The summer before my senior year of high school, my mom wanted to go camping. This in itself is not unusual: we are a fairly camping-friendly family, in the I-need-plumbing-but-I-like-cool-rock-formations sense. But she wanted to go tent camping. On Jekyll Island. In mid-July.
If you are not familiar with the southeast coastline, you probably don’t realize the gravity of what I just said. Jekyll Island is a barrier island off the coast of Georgia, part of a group of barrier islands. Much of the island is a nature preserve, to ensure that nobody goes trampling around the brackish waters where alligators and snakes and poison ivy thrive, which I’m sure is a huge problem. There is a section of the island dedicated to public beaches, campgrounds, and resorts.
We should have been smarter. Only my dad said, “Wait a minute. We’re going tent-camping in July in the armpit of the nation?” We, my mom, sister, and I, said “Yes. It will be fun. Camping! Yay!”
I’m not good at remembering exact quotations, but that’s just about exactly how it went down.
We booked our site online, and we were even able to see pictures of it on the internet. It seemed good, plenty of trees for shade and a fairly level ground. Also it was close (but not too close) to the bathhouse. Everything seemed fine.
The drive down was not terrible, but it was 5 1/2 hours of rural Georgia, so take that however you will. You can only talk about signs for “hot, boiled peanuts” so many times before it gets boring.
When we got to the campground, we were unpleasantly surprised to learn that the management had given our site to someone else. Apparently, people who request specific campsites win out over people who have had a generic booking for a site for 8 weeks. Whatever. We were moved about 40 feet over, to a site catty-corner from our original, and what a difference 40 feet makes. Our new site had zero trees, was uneven, and (we found out later) was located on the raccoon trail. Awesome. We set up our tents and then showered and changed clothes, because we were drenched in sweat. Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you that it was 95 degrees and 111% humidity, because we were on JEKYLL ISLAND in JULY. Also, as we would find out once we got home, that summer a giant high pressure system sat over Georgia, causing a heat wave of higher than average temperatures. The average temperature for the trip was 95 degrees, including nighttime. This has fueled my suspicion that Jekyll Island sits right on top of Hell, making the Sun an unnecessary source of heat.
Once we changed, we went to bed. We had left the house later than expected, and we were tired from the drive and from setting up the tents. Sure, it was still light outside (in the southeast, summer means that the sun doesn’t set until 9 pm), but we were exhausted. You can judge us, but we won’t care.
The next morning, we changed into clean clothes– neither the temperature nor the humidity had dropped during the night, so we had to peel ourselves off of our cots in order to stumble to the bathhouse. We set up the coffee percolator, and waited for the sweet, sweet sound of coffee to begin. One hour later, we checked the pot, and about a half teaspoon of coffee had been produced. So we fought over who got to drink it, and then we piled into the car to find a diner or a Starbucks or a crack dealer, anyone who would help us stave off the inevitable caffeine withdrawal we would experience soon. We quickly found a Starbucks and all ordered the tallest size of iced coffee that they made. If only the Trenta had existed then.
While we were drinking our coffees, my dad explained why he had gotten no sleep. We had isolated him in his own tent because he snores, though in retrospect I’m not sure how we could have possibly thought that 15 feet and 2 sheets of canvas would prevent us from hearing him, especially considering that we unzipped the screens of the tents because it was hot as balls at night and we needed some goddamn air circulation or we were all going to simmer in our own juices for 8 hours. It wasn’t just that the tent was unbearably hot, but also that in the middle of the night he had heard something scratching at the coolers. He got up and investigated, and discovered that raccoons were trying to get into the coolers. He ran them off, dragged the coolers inside his tent, and tried to go back to sleep. For the rest of the night, every 20 minutes the raccoons tried desperately to get to the coolers by scratching at the sides of his tent. What a bummer.
Caffeinated, we went out to explore the island. We went to the Sea Turtle Center. We explored historic downtown. Honestly, I’m not sure what we did downtown: historic downtown districts are all the same in tourist cities, and the rest of this trip was so blindingly horrible that I can’t remember all the kitschy stores I saw for the utter desperation I now associate with Jekyll Island.
Then we went back to the campsite to change. Did I mention that Jekyll is a place where you are always in the ocean even when you are not in the ocean? Lake Avernus has nothing on the southeastern coastal region of the United States. Chugging water became a fun game; I just managed to keep up with my sweat glands. At this point, we realized that nobody had packed enough clothes. I had one shirt left, and everyone else was out. Briefly, we wondered if maybe we could just not wear shirts, like the rest of our Georgian brethren, but we quickly dismissed that idea when we saw our salvation, the island’s only Target. Like religious pilgrims, we drove straight for the red bullseye, and when we lurched into the air-conditioned store, we cried. It was the greatest thing I’ve ever experienced. We all picked out tank tops and underwear, and then we pretended to shop for another 30 minutes to have an excuse to stay in the AC.
Leaving Target, we realized that it was lunchtime, and omg there was a Whataburger in the Target parking lot. What luck! We ate there, and nothing of note happened except that I had to once again convince somebody that yes I really do want jalepeños on that, you bitch.
Then we decided to go to the beach. And here is where our real problems began. Here is the point during the dream when you realize that it is actually a nightmare. We changed into our new Target clothes, and my sister changed into her swimsuit. I did not bring a swimsuit. I do not like the beach. This trip was for my sister, who was a sea creature in a previous life and loves to swim.
My philosophy about the ocean is simple: I have legs and lungs, not flippers and gills. I sat for a while with my family on the towels. Somewhere behind me, I heard a little girl laughing and saying something like, “I’m gonna get you!” Then I felt something hit me, and I assumed it was a frisbee, maybe, or a ball, or just some sand. No. Turning around to pick it up and return it, I saw a huge-ass crab scuttling away from my butt very quickly. This was no adorable I’m-going-bury-myself-in-the-sand-because-I’m-tiny-and-shy beach crab. This was a If-you-touch-me-I-will-murder-you-in-front-of-your-family crab. It had the leg-span of a Rhesus monkey. And the little girl ran past me after it, laughing.
So then I decided to sit in a camp chair and read. And I stayed there for about an hour and a half, until my sister got bored of the ocean and we left. And here is where I give you the one piece of advice that I am completely qualified to give: Always, always wear sunscreen. Like an idiot, I wore none. None. Let me repeat: none. I get sunburns fetching the mail on really clear days, and I thought it would fine for me to sit at the beach in July for 90 minutes with no sunscreen at all. I am stupid.
We walked along a section of the beach crowded with driftwood, but returned to the campsite when the clouds began to look stormy. We showered and changed, of course, and began to make our dinner. We wanted to make turtles on the campfire. People who are familiar with Georgians but not with camping might think that we actually caught and ate turtles. Not true. A “turtle” is an aluminum foil packet that one fills with vegetables and throws on the campfire to cook. It’s basically grilled vegetables, and there’s no prep required except to cut up the veggies and maybe some meat to go with them. Bring some tortillas and you’ve got fajitas. It’s a great way to camp and eat real food at the same time.
Unless, of course, a rainstorm extinguishes your campfire. We had barely gotten the turtles on the fire, and so our one chance at camp food ended in failure. We sat at the picnic table and ate some snacks from the cooler: celery, apples, yogurt. Not exactly an award-winning menu, but not terrible. The rain picked up, and we had to seek shelter in the tents. The rain picked up some more, and we noticed that the floor of the tent seemed squishier than it really should be. We went outside, and discovered that the world had ended. Our campsite was entirely underwater. One step outside the tent landed one’s foot in an inch of water and, underneath that for added fun, an inch of mud. My mom and I made eye contact and simultaneously bolted for the car, with my dad and and sister right behind us. The car was only 20 feet away, but we had to slog across the entire campsite to get there.
Once we were all in the car, we watched the tents both slowly lift up, tightening whatever slack had been in the stakes. We looked at the campsite we had been booted out of: no flooding. I mean zero. There was a drainage channel and the water ran off perfectly. And the camper who had taken our spot away from us? He had set up his “camp” by then: it was a one person coffin-sized trailer that he had dragged there behind his four-door sedan. He hadn’t even bothered unhitching it from his car; he’d just driven the entire car into the campsite and left it like that. We spent most of the next hour cursing him and his family to a life of horrific injustices.
We got hungry, naturally, because celery isn’t very filling. I dug around in the back of the car for our road trip food, and hit the jackpot. “Pretzels and Triscuits for dinner!” Everyone cheered and we feasted. When the rain slowed down, we slogged back to our tents, changed, and went to bed. There were tiny bugs in the tent, a lot them, and we could see them jumping around if we turned on a light, but we did not care. We did not care. I don’t think I went to sleep so much as passed out. It was the most peaceful part of the trip.
In the morning, I woke up and wondered why my face itched so much. I thought, I must have gotten a couple mosquito bites on my face last night. Wrong, wrong, so wrong. To this day, three years later, I do not know what those jumping bugs were, but they bit the absolute shit out of my face. And each bite had swelled into a bump, so that when I looked in the mirror that morning, I thought maybe I’d had an allergic to the air, and I hated Jekyll Island all the more. Both my mom and sister had 1 or 2 bites, not the shotgun-style mauling I’d received. On top of that, the tops of my thighs and shoulders were starting to show signs of a sunburn.
We packed our shit up and got the hell out of there, muddy shoes and all.
When we got back to our house, everyone else unpacked, showered, and tried to forget everything about the trip. But I could not, because my face had a strange new topography and my sunburn had finally showed up.
Just as I emphasized how hot and humid Jekyll was for every single second of our visit, let me now emphasize how serious my sunburn was. This was no it-hurts-to-put-on-clothes sunburn. This was a it-hurts-to-stand-up-or-do-anything-else sunburn. The tops of my thighs had the worst of it. When I stood, they hurt so much that I could barely walk, and had to sit down every couple of steps, which means that I mostly sat in my chair and did not move and just cried about my life as I told my sister to put in another Harry Potter movie. I could not wear pants at all, and rarely changed out of my soft boxer shorts. I took showers as cold as I could stand them, and stared in horror at my thighs. To say they blistered is an adorable understatement. My parents bought me sprayable lidocaine, and I went through two cans in just 3 weeks. I also used an entire family-size bottle of aloe vera gel. The bug bites went away after about a week and a half, and I could walk across the living room before needing to sit down after 2 weeks, but my legs were still touch-sensitive when I started school mid-August. Once they completely healed, I noticed that I now had freckles on my legs, just on the tops of my thighs where the sunburn was. I also had some freckles on my shoulders. I have been slightly paranoid over the last three years that I would develop skin cancer on one or both of my legs as a result of the burn, and last week I noticed a strange light-colored spot on my right leg that I don’t think has always been there.
Just kill me. And after that, never ever go tent camping on an island in the summer.