Finally finished this up tonight and probably have missed a couple of things in the editing process which you can feel free to point out to me. It really happened and for whatever reason thought it would make an interesting short story. Would love your thoughts.
When a simple family camping trip turns into a scene from Raymond Carver, one corner of the sleepy beach town of San Clemente takes on a life of its own.
San Clemente State Beach is a campsite we often refer to as “camping lite.” While it neighbors the mighty pacific ocean on one side and rests on bluffs offering a beautiful view, it also neighbors the 5 freeway-the main thoroughfare and artery that connect Los Angeles and Orange County to San Diego counties and then Mexican border. An eight lane monster that sees a gazillion vehicles pass through non-stop its literally a man made oceanic paradox that thunders and rages with an ocean roar of its own. Gas stations, Lodging, Fast Food, and Liquor Stores are all a stone’s throw from the campgrounds. Roughing it? Not exactly.
As the suns finals ray were being swallowed by the horizon, my family, as well as that of my brother’s family, started the obligatory tradition of getting the camp fire started. Normally, I can go to the semi dry riverbed by my home and collect enough firewood to last a night or two. Or sometimes my brother, in the construction trade, can pillage a job site for scrap lumber. When it’s a very special occasion and I have time, I will make the trek inland to another local campsite that sells large bags of thick slow burning firewood for 5 bucks a head. Normally, firewood has rarely been an issue, but tonight was different.
Throwing the last large log into the thick cast iron fire ring and my cell phones display tapping me on the shoulder to tell me it wasn’t yet 8:30pm, it was apparent this was the trip we were going to need more wood. Life is never better, nor simpler, no more profoundly sensible and validating as the waning moments of the night spent watching the flicker of the fire, favorite beverage in hand with the people you love. It’s simple.
Of course at this site in San Clemente it’s not nearly as soul soothing as other campsites given the nearby lights from the freeway and the accompanying traffic noises nor the visible signs from the local businesses easily spotted from the campsite. But it still is camping nonetheless.
Another reason for “Camping Lite” is the local market/liquor store is about a 5 minute walk. And while some stores that cater to campers via a semi desolate location tend to mark up the prices for its good and services, the fact this market actually is located in an area that makes it non-camp specific I have found the prices very reasonable and the two guys working the front counter always very nice to me and my oldest son who try and make the walk every time we camp here.
Heading through a dark well worn walking path bordered by half logs in some areas and marked by missing foliage in others, my brother and I and one or two of our kids set out in our portable jogger stroller which I always found handy to take on the trip as it not only could seat 2 kids but had space enough to carry a couple of bags of ice or a twelve pack beer or any other items I would rather roll with then carry on my shoulder.
Finishing a beer on the walkway and throwing the can away before stepping foot on one of the official sidewalks of San Clemente, I noticed that even though it was not yet nine pm, the normal red neon of the market was not lit….as a matter of fact the entire store was not lit which was a bit unusual and disappointing since the closing of the store meant going to the camp entrance to buy wood from the Ranger Station-which was open but out of wood.
Seems the 20 or so bundles of remaining wood were bought up in their entirety from one camper. If we wanted more wood, it meant leaving the solace of the campgrounds and venturing into the Evil City. “The Shell Station generally has wood. I’d try there first” echoed a blasé statement made by the same ranger who checked us in and not 2 hours earlier promised Wood available aplenty. It almost reverberated in my thoughts as I knew something, or someone was sending me out of the comfy confines and semi-tranquil solace offered up by the semi suburban spot of nature in an otherwise asphalt existence.
I was already on my 3rd or 4th drink, me taking the wheel would be out of the question. My brother was on a more moderate pace and having arrived later to the campsite then I did, it was agreed upon that he would drive. Being his vehicle was still hooked up to his travel trailer though meant we would be taking our families mini-van to do it. It’s always a strange feeling sitting in the passenger seat of the vehicle you normally would be driving and that was a hint and harbinger of the next 10-15 minutes that seemed to last a lifetime.
Merely a 5 minute blip from the campsite we came to Shell Station. It was a humid night and strangely there was not a lot of traffic on the road. We pulled into the Shell that was anchored the same corner as the North Bound Onramp and thus pulling into the station itself was a bit tricky. We walked into the minimart that was staffed by 2 young 20 something Hispanics one male one female. The female had a smile on her face as we walked in the male was standing with a strange lean that lurched awkwardly on the counter. I got the feeling that we maybe interrupting something as we paid for the wood I happened to noticed the top buttons of her blouse were undone and she looked a tad frazzled. We paid and got and joked about it a bit before seeing a liquor store with a Green Neon Sign caddie corner to the station next to a small motel.
Pulling across the street was a bit confusing with the freeway on ramps as well as a lack of driveway entrances. What looked like the liquor stores parking lot was was actually the Motel parking lot. The Neon sign for the Motel wasn’t lit and there was a card board box that had the words “No Vacancy” written in Black Magic Marker on a square of card box. Classy place.
A Chain divided the store and the motel and even though it was a red zone we figured we would only be in for a moment or two and given the lack of traffic rolled with it. Stepping out of the van I noticed we had parked right in front of an old rusted/sun bleached pickup truck that not only had four flat tires but also weeds growing from the concrete it was parked on. “Something tells me we won’t be boxing this guy in” I said pointing to jalopy that may have been a great prop for the tv show Sanford and Son. “Ive seen day laborers who wouldn’t be driving in that” my brother said, his construction background ever present.
Holding down the chain we walked over to the liquor store. Even though we had our wood my brother wanted to go buy a package of cookies for later in the night after a few more drinks out in the night air when cheap snacks taste particularly good. We parked and once again noticed the lack of other cars and trucks in the area. The humidity coated my skin once again. We walked in and were greeted by a heavy set women with semi crossed eyes and thick European accent with huge drooping breasts. We walked through the some of the aisles before noticing they had a pretty good wine selection for a typical liquor store.
“Maybe I’ll pick up a good bottle of wine for the wife,” my brother said. Knowing that I am up to date on Wines and pricing and what not he asked if there were any good deals to be had. I pointed out one or two bottles of some really expensive stuff and asked the women if we could haggle over the price or if we bought one of the wines would she throw in some Nilla Wafers and maybe a package of Pemican. She smiled and laughed a bit and saw through my routine fairly quickly. Finally my brother picked up a jug of some of the cheap red wine that I have never bought in my life thus not knowing the name but it comes in a huge jug with a little nub of a handle on the corner. “She’s not choosy about her wine so this will do.” I was a bit disappointed as I hoped he might of bought one or two of the good bottles.
Also seeing firewood at the liquor store my brother noticed it was Pecan. He loves pecan we use his Texas smoker and even though it was going into the fire pit I guess he thought it was a sign of good luck-we bought it along with our Nilla wafers and our gallon of cheap jug wine.
Getting back in the Van and doing a quick u turn in the parking lot to leave the one exit/entrance of the 4 room no vacancy beach motel with broken down truck occupying one of the 4 parking spots I noticed a light on in the one room closest to the street. From the passenger door, I could clearly see into the room with its see through white drapes lightly blowing through the wide open windows and tattered screens saw a 70 or 80 year old white haired man sleeping on a pull out couch wearing a wife beater tank top, chest heaving up and down in his sleep.
Driving forward I stopped my brother from turning onto the street instead imploring him to put the van in reverse to witness the scene. Slowly reversing and myself leaning well back in the passenger seat of my own vehicle for his to get a view we also noticed various old man toiletries scattered around the room and though my memory may be taking some dramatic license I could swear a black and white TV.
Hearing the engine the old man lurched up suddenly to see what was happening but only caught a glimpse of us as we drove back onto the street.
“It’s a shame the Neon sign of that Motel didn’t work” my brother said shaking his head and continuing with, “If it did I bet a couple of the letters would still be out completely and the L would only have that half power flickering look to it.”
Driving onto the street the campsite was on I couldn’t help but think that not only was he was right...but it was the only other possibility.