Trees as thin and packed as matchsticks line the one-lane gravel road. Shafts of silver light pierce the forest. The GPS arrow hovers above a green blob on the map, and the indicator on the dash says “offroad”. A crooked tiny sign points to the left and our small caravan follows. The rocks and potholes challenge my Skoda sedan, but determined, it climbs toward the invisible destination – De Kluis, (Dutch for “The Safe”). A comforting name for a campsite.
“Places in Belgium are hard to find, period,” my husband admitted a week earlier, “I can’t imagine trying to find a campsite in the middle of nowhere,” and boy, was he right. The map we had received was like a sketch of a Little Red Riding Hood’s forest – the main attractions (a bathroom and the camp headquarters) in squares, campsites with small circles around numbers, and lots of hand-drawn trees in between. Crooked lines snaked through the site – water, trails, or roads were up to the reader’s imagination and interpretation.
Weeks earlier, we sat in the Girl Scout leader’s home and made plans for the weekend. Most of the other moms had sons and husbands that had camped together. As the leader ticked checkboxes off the list of equipment we needed – tents, camping stoves, portable BBQ grills, tarps, camping tables, etc. I looked on in amazement at the gear everyone else had. My name remained vacant from the sign-up sheet and I grew nervous. I raised my hand, “Sorry girls, I haven’t been camping in decades – actually, the last and only time I’ve ever slept in a tent was when I was a Girl Scout,” and everyone smiled. The leader admitted while her husband had been camping, she also had not been in years, either. I breathed a sigh of relief but still felt a little guilty about my lack of contribution. Then an idea popped into my head, “How about the adult food – I’ll handle that,” they smiled and agreed. Perfect. (I didn’t admit to them that I don’t eat hot dogs. I know. It’s ridiculous. I eat chorizo instead. Don’t judge.)
Meanwhile, the caravan crawls to a stop on a sandy road outside the bathrooms. Four sets of furrowed brows peer at the fairy tale forest map. Two moms set off to explore the area on foot in search of our campsite. In the end we just guessed. I don’t know how much a sign labeling the “#5” campsite would have cost, but it was clearly outside this camp’s budget. That, and toilet paper for the bathroom.
Our cars hop over more ditches and we park. The desolateness of the camp spreads out before me. No picnic tables. No gazebo. Nothing – the entire space a canvas in which we were to set up our own primitive civilization. I breathe and nod. Of course it’s empty, I pep myself up. It’s camping. Like I said, it’s been awhile.
The moms get to work with gusto to make this place our new home. We decide where to put the tents, set the tables, and where the food was going. The other three moms brought tents (we were to bunk with the mom with a 4-person tent). As I eye the task in front of us, I realize pitching tents is like baking cupcakes – except the “recipe” is either in confusing English (with equally confusing photos) or Dutch. All the ingredients are here, but it was up to us to interpret and create. We start with the prep work – and I shadow the master chef (and my roommate for the night) putting down tarps and hammering stakes into the ground. We all weave poles through tabs, and then weave them through again correctly. The tents rose as steady as batter in the oven. Rain covers stretch like frosting over the tents and in the end, we had three upstanding, complete, and functioning cupcake tents.
The other equipment (two tables and a canopy) were from the “Girl Scout shed” – a magical place where the Brussels Girl Scout camping gear goes to age, only to be released once a year – without the pep or clarity of mind they once had. Aching joints and stubbornness plague the residents of the shed. I notice my fellow moms struggling to open one of the folding tables. The tab, clearly labeled with a tiny lock and unlock symbol is unyielding to the coaxes of my friends. The table stays clamped shut. Happy in it’s dark and flat state. I give it a go. I turn it over. “I bet it’s just like a stroller,” I tell my friends, “once you learn the trick, you’re good to go. It’s just figuring out that one maneuver,” and as I speak, the table opens – like a relic emerging from its grave – and we all cheer. (The ‘trick’ however only worked on that one table – I tried to replicate it with the second one, and it just didn’t budge. We decided one was enough, and that geezer remained grouchy and flat on the ground the rest of the weekend.)
With tents and tables up, an overwhelming sense of accomplishment washes over the campsite, and the four girls dance around like fireflies. We take a break and venture over to where the Senior Girl Scouts are camping – through the woods.
We march down paths and into the Senior Girl’s camping Utopia – pairs of kitchen gloves in every color are clipped to a clothesline like a funky birthday banner for a 1950s housewife. We duck under the line to see folding chairs ringing a campfire and small stream of smoke wafting through the trees. A cardboard box lined in foil reveals rising biscuits and brownies above small warmed coals at the bottom of the box. Five tents outline the site and a cavernous portable screened in porch houses tables heavy with fresh fruits, vegetables, snacks, and all gear to make dinner. The two leaders lounge in the camping chairs – their work done – and invite us to sit. Wide-eyed and starving after our tent-pitching exertion, the four of us ease ourselves into the chairs and munch on the homemade biscuits “Jelly, whipped cream, or butter?” their eyes twinkle. I take all three.
“So, did you guys, uh, get here yesterday?” I ask, looking for a measure of progress.
“Ah, yes,” she smiles and we continue to talk about their camping experiences. We find out this is the leader’s (and some of the girls in her troop) eighth time camping and I nod as I look around the camp. Eighth time. I see. The seniors return and take our Daisies out to a nearby field to play games. The moms chat more about camping, ourselves – where we’re from, how long we’ve been in Belgium, what schools our kids go to, etc. – the typical introductory expat stories. They tell us about their camping experiences, the tricks they’ve learned over the years, and funny stories in between. I’m like a small child at the foot of a grandparent, full of hope that things get easier, but conflicted – is this-living-outside-for-a-few-nights-thing something I’m really interested in adding to my skill set?
Meanwhile, the Daisy girls return and we head back to our camp – with promises that the Senior girls and leaders will join us to close the day with songs and S’mores at our campsite. It’s time to complete the setup and start dinner. Another relic from the shed smirks at us – a five-legged canopy with about five hundred poles and joints. We had met our match with this one. Our team of four moms try to visualize the final product. We push and pull the joints in and out. We gaze at and interpret the directions, but never correctly. It creaks, it aches, it taunts us to the point of exhaustion and almost giving-up. But I eyed the sky (living in the Netherlands for three years – I learned something about rain) I knew the storm was coming. Determined, an idea alights – it was time to call in backup. My daughter and I head to the Land of Oz to recruit some munchkins. We return with two of the Senior girls, willing to help us defeat the canopy challenge.
Within minutes, the girls and moms have the thing up. “Yup, we had this stubborn thing last year,” the 13-year old girls explain and we nod at each other. Within minutes of the rain tarp crowning the canopy, the clouds let loose. Raindrops fell, but our food was protected. We gave ourselves another pat on the back.
We brought a small barbecue grill and the fire flamed. I watched with interest as one mom tamed the fire. She knew when to put the lid on, when to take it off, and when the coals were ready for the dogs. In my house, the grill is the hub’s domain, but she just tackled it like no one’s business. Another mom attached the propane tank to the gas stove to boil milk for the hot cocoa. As a team – we were undefeatable – Pitching tents, barbecue grills, gas stoves, and the entire kitchen and pantries we’d all brought – we were moms on a mission. And I was impressed and proud.
Tasked with the adult food, I had volunteered to bring kabobs, but later in the week, I decided I’d go for something a bit bigger. A bit bolder. I knew we’d be starving and I wanted to try a few new recipes anyway. So, I marinated chicken on Thursday night and then my husband grilled it on Friday. I made pico de gallo and homemade flour tortillas. I sauteed mushrooms and peppers earlier that morning. It was a feast.
“Ladies, this is how the Belle in Belgium goes camping,” I announce after reheating the chicken and vegetables and they looked on with awe. We bite into our homemade Tex-Mex meal in the Belgian wilderness and decide, it’s pretty good. (Although, I do think it could have used some sour cream, heh). After dinner, the Seniors and their leaders join us for s’mores, we sing songs, and say goodnight.
Darkness encloses on our campsite and we rummage through our bags for toothbrushes and toilet paper. Together, our team of eight treks up the hillside to the toilets. We enter into the mysterious building and are met with the sketchiness you’d expect from a toilet in the woods. Yellow fluorescent lights flicker above a hallway lined with scratched wooden doors with creaky metal handles. Cobwebs line every corner and water mixes with the dirty contents of the floor – creating a sickly version of iced tea on the ground. A metal trough, in the likeness of the equipment cattle dine from, serves as the sink. Nevertheless, business needs to be attended to, and I encourage my daughter to take a seat. My attention is diverted when I hear, down the hall, that one of the youngest in the troop has locked herself into a stall. Her mom starts to encourage her from the outside, “turn the knob to the left, no the left!” she shouts to her daughter. My eyes open wide. Being locked in a bathroom stall as a child has got to be one of the scariest moments – for both mom and child. This place? This bathroom is the making of a horror movie. The leader is at the door now, and the girl is still trapped. Tensions are rising, the moms and the little girl are starting to plead. I start to panic as well and my mind jumps to action like an episode of Sherlock Holmes. My eyes dart around my daughter’s own stall, looking for clues. In a flash, I notice the walls dividing the stalls have a gap between the top and the pitched roof. There’s a large pipe from the toilet, snaking along the wall, making an “L” shape that stretches towards the ceiling. At five foot nothing, I venture to guess it will hold my weight. I tell my daughter I’ll be right back and fly down the hallway. In my panicked quest, I shove my roll of toilet paper and soap over to one of the other daughters, and leap onto the toilet in the stall next to trapped girl. Reaching the top of the cinder block wall, I hoist myself up, balancing a foot on the crooked pipe. I peer over, at the frightened little girl, trapped in this nightmare of a stall.
“Look at me,” I shout, and her beautiful eyes peer at me in amazement. “Okay, good – you’re going to be okay. Which way does she need to turn the lock, ladies?” and we instruct her together. She takes her tiny hand and moves it toward the wall I’m pointing at. With a click, she’s freed herself.
The other moms laugh – “You just jumped right up there,” they smile at me after embracing the girl.
“I guess I’m kind of like a monkey!” I laugh. I’ve spent way too many moments climbing through play areas at Chick-Fil-A and on safety-questionable playgrounds in Europe to get my kids down. Mom skills to the rescue once more.
White orbs from our tiny flashlights dance over tree limbs and rocks and we follow them back to our tents. With a zip, our cocoons are enclosed. We wish our roommates goodnight and shut off our light – our daughters giggling in the darkness. Within minutes the girls were snoozing and the rain starts to drop whispers of water on the tent. As I listen to the rain fall, I wonder if it’s scary or relaxing. In the end it doesn’t matter because I’m so exhausted. But before I fall asleep, I reflect on this team of four American expat moms in Belgium. Between us, we have a handful of camping experience, but it was the life (and mom) skills – always be prepared, try again, know when to ask for help, be fearless, and have a good time – that have saved us throughout the weekend. For a couple of Belles – I think my daughter and I did pretty decently. And we ate well. That’s always important too.