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This past weekend, I had the opportunity to go “Fall camping”. For those who have never been (like me), it’s exciting and fun… except for the fact that you need to pack gloves, extra socks, toques (warm hats), realize that it takes forever to get a fire going, and layer up your blankets, because by gosh it gets COLD!

I loved it.

But the experience taught me some pretty startling truths – some humorous, some not so much – about my perception of myself, my own expectations, and how sometimes everything going to hell is just what you need to smack you in the face and get you back on track.

Let me preface this by stating that the trip was NOT a complete flop, and not even a bad trip. Just enough things went just sideways enough to make for some great reminiscences for the next camping excursion. Ben and I got to the camp site right on time, after a minor detour to the wrong campsite on the far side of the canal. Unfortunately, pulling in to the wrong campsite – a heavily treed area – signaled to Jenny that yes, yes yes, this was a PARK and this would be FUN, and let’s start whining the WHOLE rest of the way to getting back on the road and on route to our correct campsite. Thankfully this whining thing stopped until we literally pulled in, and she let out one plaintive yowl… and proceeded to hop out of the car and sniff all the trees and bushes within a ten-foot radius.

Our friends had been there for a couple of hours, had tried (unsuccessfully) to catch fish for dinner, and spent thirty minutes to get a campfire going. For some reason, the fly on our tent wouldn’t cooperate, so it took all four of us to actually get the thing assembled (this is what happens when you go camping less than once a year). We sat around the fire, but no matter what direction the wind blew, which chair I sat in, the smoke kept blowing in my face. Thankfully this doesn’t bother me too much, so I just rolled with it, drinking strong coffee and attempting to keep my already cold fingers warm. Jenny started shivering almost immediately, and was ecstatic to be able to lay on her bed on the cold ground. We enjoyed steaks, potatoes, and Greek salad for dinner, then donned extra socks, gloves, and/or sweaters and chatted around the campfire, complete with funny stories, whiskey, and beer, until one of the lanterns went out (about 11:30). Ben and I retired to our tent, and our friends headed to their camper…

Whoever can successfully change into their pajamas in a 2-person tent with their spouse and their dog inside it should get some kind of award. I can say this because I’ve successfully done it. Now, try telling said dog that yes, it really and truly is warmer under the spare blanket, NOT on top of it… one of those useful things they didn’t teach you at guide dog school. Repeat this three times during the night, lose your toque somewhere in your tent and wake up with a frozen nose, realize at 6:00 AM (while your dog has to pee) that your air mattress has a leak in it, and you’ve got a pretty good idea about the awesome time that was had by all in the Lang tent. No word of sarcasm… we had a ball… especially when Jenny woke up at 6:00 AM, wagging her tail against the side of the tent and giving Ben a tongue bath to wake him up; we laughed uproariously, making our friends wonder what in the world was going on just a few feet away from their camper.

The water at the pump had a sign on it that it wasn’t suitable for drinking, so we went into the nearest town (about half an hour away) and filled up on water, gasoline, and coffee. Jenny did terrific guide work in the restaurant, despite the fact that I didn’t have her regular harness with me, and we had to explain about six times that she is a service dog. Thankfully, we had our coffee in peace, filled up our water bottles and our friend’s Jeep’s fuel tank, and back to camp we went.

At this point, Jenny still thought that camp was the biggest off-leash dog park EVER. Her only exposure to wooded areas for the past couple years has been at off-leash or multi-use trails, and the trees and bushes and ground at camp all smelled SO AMAZING. Little matter that I was telling her to do something guide dog related (or even not guide dog related); listening was apparently optional. My city dog just wanted to get out her mojo. So we stuck a railroad spike into the ground, clipped her leash to it, and let her sniff around camp. This pleased her for about fifteen minutes… until she wanted her bed again – close to me, but far from the fire, please.

The fish weren’t biting. And the new campfire was taking forever to light. And the barbecue Ben was using slipped and fell off the picnic table, spilling a sizable chunk of bacon on the ground. Thankfully, we had enough bacon in the cooler – and eggs and Greek salad in the ice box – to make a terrific lunch. Undaunted, our friends wanted to go further up the canal to see if the fish were biting there, and I wanted to take Jenny for a hike…

But Jenny had other ideas. She didn’t get the memo that I had this awesome hike planned for us. Wouldn’t it be fun? No no no no no! It’s GRASS!!!!! And what do I mean that I want her to stay on-leash? This looks like a dog park! And not pulling? Pffffft. She’s off-leash at the dog park and doesn’t understand why I’m not happy. We spent the next thirty minutes like this, in a heated power struggle, until we walked back to camp and Ben and I reassembled the tent and loaded up the car. Our friends came back (still no luck fishing), minus a good lure that got caught in a log. As we drove away from a spectacular 24 hours, they were headed back out to give it one more try.

Camping has always taught me many lessons. As a small child and young teen, I was able to get away from the city and explore nature, pitch a tent, think my own thoughts, and just rest in the quietness of a summer night. This experience was wholly different, because I expected in some ways to be that same young girl with skills to assist those who were camping with me, even though I haven’t used any of those skills since I either had more vision or finished grade school… or both. I also expected Jenny and I – true city dwellers) to simply pick up and act like camping and hiking was no big deal, just another fun activity, not realizing that – like building a fire, catching fish, or cooking over a camp stove – it takes skill and practice to become profficient. Jenny and I both lost out in some big ways this weekend thanks to some expectations that I – ever the perfectionist, dreamer, nutcase – somehow got into my head. But we also walked away with some things, too. I’ve got a game plan for whatever remains of this fall, and next spring, to get out into more woodsy areas. Even if we never go hiking as a guide dog team, simply letting Jenny be a dog on leash and her understanding those limits will transfer into a much less frustrating camping trip the next time around.

By the way, I’ll go camping again. Even with gloves, toques (even ones that go missing), no fish, fires that take forever to light, and warm sunshine right next to nearly arctic shade, I far prefer fall camping to summer. You know why? No mosquitoes!