“You’re going camping with your EX HUSBAND?” my girlfriends squeal. “Are you crazy?”
I shrug it off saying simply, “Well, it’s a tradition now…”
My ex-husband, David, and I have been separated for over three years, so each summer when I announce that we’re going camping again folks continue to find this a surprising curiosity.
Neither David nor I wish to forfeit our annual camping trip with the kids, so we’ve agreed to uphold the tradition as a family. While everyone applauds us for being so “progressive” for divorcing peacefully and without lawyers, they can’t quite wrap their heads around our yearly camping ritual. Our two daughters look forward to this trip each year, yet even they recognize that the act defies logic in divorce-land. “Mommy, no one else’s divorced parents go on vacation together!” Ultimately, everyone looks at us like we are some modern version of “Same Time, Next Year” minus the sex.
Is this ritual an act of rebelliousness? As though we’ve set out to prove that harmonious divorce is indeed attainable? How it’s perceived depends on the friend or my mood in conveying the story. Friends’ and families’ confusion aside, it really feels more like an act of love than defiance. We still enjoy each other’s company – in limited doses, of course; we have history, mocking nicknames and in-jokes that give us a foundation. And then we have our daughters. By getting along with one another we set an example for them that will impact their perception of their parents and divorce forever. Perhaps our annual tradition is about the simple fact that while I accept the death of the marriage, I’m not comfortable allowing our friendship to die.
Our camping custom began when a close friend talked David and me into joining her at an annual folk festival near the Berkshires. She painted a picture we could not resist: open farmland, lush mountain backdrop, tons of stuff for kids to do, great live music. I loved the idea; as a gal who feels naked without a pedicure, I feel it's beneficial to challenge myself with disagreeable circumstances (i.e. port-a-potties) occasionally. Besides, I had made a promise to myself that I would do for my children all the things that my parents would never have done for me. My folks were about as likely to go camping as they were to don crocheted bathing suits.
From the start I was struck by how different this “folkie” culture was from the brass-knuckle Jersey City vibe (land of corruption and buried toxic waste). People were simply nicer. There were more hugs and smiles; straight men wore skirts (and I don’t mean kilts); and every stage had an American Sign Language translator signing along to the music. While the food vendors fell short on burgers and French fries, there was plenty of tofu scramble and fresh beet juice to go around. And I liked all that. My kids ran amok and begged for henna tattoos, I became an expert at contra-dancing…and my husband and I never stopped bickering like we were Ralph and Alice Kramden in Birkenstocks.
Five summers have passed since that first trip when we endured a vicious summer storm followed by the maelstrom of our own unpleasant break-up. Somehow, with the help of “exit counseling” graciously suggested by his therapist, we were able to sort through our anger and blaming issues. Eventually we became friends again as we had been long ago, when we met as students in art school. Living apart was good for us. Though we were not interested in starting anew, we were able to rediscover a particular appreciation for one another. We felt proud; we felt like we had this divorce thing down.
By the time this year’s festival came around, I was in a serious relationship with a man who not only applauds my efforts to maintain this tradition with my ex but doesn’t even ask to tag along. David, in dating mode, was busy pursuing a young woman who was playing hard-to-get. He had been regaling me with the details and I had been helping him interpret her cryptic text messages. We left for this summer’s journey on a glorious blue-skied day. I couldn’t wait to get on the road, but when I got to David’s house he was not even close to ready. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that I had presumably rediscovered my appreciation for him.
For one, I acknowledge that David is far better at packing than I am. He’ll take a box that I’ve declared full and magically fit ten more items inside. Now he was taking forever to rearrange our gear to fit in and on top of his Toyota SUV. Over and over he packed and re-packed, using bungee cords to secure bags to the roof rack while I stood to the side breathing deeply. As an added annoyance, our diabetic cat had chosen to pee all over the box of bungees and some other camping items that were stored in the basement; the acrid stench of cat urine permeated the entire car. A neighbor walked out of his house and just shook his head at us. He had said good-bye about two hours earlier and couldn’t believe we hadn’t budged an inch closer to the Saw Mill Parkway. Finally, David was satisfied with the over-stuffed car. Before I had a chance to click the first car seat into place, he announced that he was going to take a bath before we headed out.
A bath. Not a shower, not a quick spritz-off. A full-blown, luxurious soak in the tub.
After fuming silently for a moment, I stomped up the stairs and declared that I was going home and that we should leave in the morning. “At this rate we’ll be upstate after nightfall,” I yelled through the door. “And who wants to set up a tent in the dark?” The girls started crying and I felt like a heel. Reluctantly, I agreed to leave that night -- but not before hissing, “Could you please get a move-on!?”
It was no use breathing deeply now. Just a short time in close proximity to my ex brought me right back to the same irritable dynamic we had always had with one another. By the time we buckled in to his SUV – or what I was now calling "this nausea-inducing Hummer imitation" – my temper was hovering near the danger zone.
Finally, long after dark, we pulled into the farm grounds. The pervasive smell of manure was calming and familiar. But in the midst of setting up our campsite, David got a call from Ms. Hard-To-Get on his cell phone. I was annoyed that David and his technology were already breaking the spell -- we hadn’t been breathing manure for five minutes yet. Now here he was, trying to hammer in stakes and yammer away at the same time, phone awkwardly jammed in the crook of his shoulder. “Why are you on the phone?” I barked at him. “It better be a family emergency. There is NO GOOD REASON to be on the phone right now!” You might assume that my irritation came from some residual jealousy or discomfort with my ex's verbal mating dance, but you would be wrong. I supported his efforts to find a girlfriend "less complicated" than I – just not in the middle of pounding tent stakes.
Finally, we rolled out our sleeping bags and squeezed ourselves into the mildewy tent, kids sandwiched between us. We fell soundly asleep, ignoring the unforgiving ground beneath us.
By morning, in the rising hazy sun, it became clear that we were among many campers with young children, and they all seemed to be crying in unison. Our nearest neighbors included a father who was, incredibly, singing “The Wheels on the Bus” over his wailing baby. It pushed both David and me over the edge of sanity. We had an “in-the-trenches” type of solidarity in that we both find crying babies intolerable. Forgetting our previous day’s irritability and conflicts, we were silently pleased to agree on something.
David and I quickly fell back into the darkly comic banter that had been our primary interaction when we were married – and that had always shocked our friends. I think it's safe to say that my ex has never ceased to simultaneously entertain and annoy me, and this summer’s camping trip reminded me how entertaining his subversive sense of humor can be. For example: My friend’s teenage daughter sits in our kitchen tent puzzling over our container of kosher salt.
“I don’t get it,” she muses. “What exactly makes it kosher?”
“If you look closely,” David explains, “You’ll see that each grain is circumcised.”
Later, he grills me about my boyfriend’s camping abilities.
“Well…he’s more of a purist,” I explain. “He would never do car camping like this; he prefers hiking to an isolated area and sleeping out on a rock under the stars.”
David, not liking the ruggedness of this image, says: “Oh, yeah, I get it; he walks out of the woods with a baggie of feces and a ‘Leave No Trace’ t-shirt on.”
This irks me, but I can’t help laughing. Later I trot off toward the contra-dance tent where I dance with an armless man.
“Dancing with an armless man,” I consider, while grasping this stranger’s torso. It sounds like a metaphor for an imperfect marriage.
Twirling in the dance tent to Zydeco music, I catch sight of my girls doing their own foot-stomping off to the side. I’m thrilled that this experience is still a part of our lives and that they are comforted by their parents’ camaraderie. I wonder if it’s beneficial for them to see, firsthand, why their parents are not exactly a great match for one another – yet also see that despite this fact they can remain friends and enjoy each other’s company occasionally.
Clearly, we have lost a partnership as defined by marriage; but we managed to salvage a friendship as we define it. Our alternative approach to divorce is evidence that we can create our own rulebook. If a side effect is the positive message it sends to our daughters, then that is really what this annual camping trip is all about: smelly tent and kosher salt included.