10 Things You Should Know When You Go Camping with Your Boyfriend’s Entire Family for a Whole Week
1. You must first remember that camping is not a right, it is a privilege.
Your boyfriend’s parents have been camping at this same campground every summer for 40 years, and your boyfriend and his sister have been camping here every summer of their lives. (In fact, your boyfriend is pretty sure he was conceived here.) You will be a newcomer to an exclusive annual tradition, one that also includes your boyfriend’s aunt, his cousin and her husband, your boyfriend’s childhood nanny (better described as his second mother) who now looks after the cousins’ two-year-old son (also in attendance), your boyfriend’s sister’s boyfriend (who has been around for eight years, as compared to your eight months) and two dogs, Milo and Bella. Both your boyfriend’s parents and your boyfriend’s cousin and her husband will be celebrating their wedding anniversaries during this week. In other words, this is not so much a camping trip as a trial by fire. One that you must never forget you are exceptionally privileged to partake in.
2. You will need to pass an entrance exam.
Despite the fact that your boyfriend not only invited you camping but begged you, pretty-please, to come on this trip to his favorite place in the whole world, even though you are not an outdoorsy person, because it means so, so much to him, do not assume you are entitled to attend on the strength of that invitation alone. Even though (or, maybe, because) the last time you went camping was when you were an eight-year-old Girl Scout, your boyfriend’s father and cousin will write up a twenty-five-question exam, requiring you to report your estimated carry weight, what temperatures you can withstand, whether you own hiking boots or know how to canoe, your willingness to flirt with teenage boys from other campsites, how often it is permissible to say “no” to the toddler, whether you like country music, and so on. You will be administered this exam while severely under the influence, and your attempt to cobble together responses to this mishmash of camping minutiae and inside jokes with which you are obviously unfamiliar will be declared a failure. Luckily, you are informed that you get the chance to re-take the exam after the week of camping is over. Phew!
3. You will cry.
This will happen twice. Early on the first day, your boyfriend, who is decidedly not a morning person, will insist on staying in the tent to cuddle. As a result, you will miss breakfast (and find yourself on the receiving end of a couple well-aimed wisecracks). However, the tears are a result of what follows immediately after: the announcement that everyone is about to go canoeing. In fact, there’s a canoe all ready for you and your boyfriend, heaped with a cooler and several plastic chairs and a tackle box and a hatchet and some firewood—so much stuff that your boyfriend’s mother frets aloud that the canoe might flip. Before you have time to register the likelihood of this possibility, your boyfriend’s father will chuck a life vest at you, and your boyfriend will climb into the back of the canoe, completely ignoring your silent, wide-eyed pleas for mercy. This is the first time you have canoed since an epically awful Girl Scout camp experience in which you were sent into the middle of a lake minutes before thunder and lightning hit, causing the teenage counselors to shriek “COME BACK TO SHORE! COME THE FUCK BACK TO SHORE!” as you and the other girls paddled furiously and futilely in circles. You swore never to canoe again and have made good on that vow to this day. What’s more, your boyfriend explicitly promised that you would not have to canoe at all on this trip. So, of course, first thing on the first day, you find yourself clambering into a canoe and handed a paddle.
4. You will encounter some unexpected goodness.
After crying a few angry, spiteful, bitter tears, you will calm down a bit and realize: the lake is really pretty, you have no responsibility for steering, and this paddling thing is actually not so bad. In fact, you will really enjoy winding through the beautiful scenery, and you won’t even mind how wrung out your arms are by the time you finally reach the embankment. The dogs will leap excitedly into the water and you will help unload and carry things up a hill. Only after your boyfriend disappears in search of more firewood will you realize that you have no idea what to do next to make yourself useful. Finally, you will be sent with the dogs to find a place to picnic, and you will once again find yourself crying, mostly because you do not come from a loud family full of blunt people who are not afraid to make you the butt of their jokes and you cannot fire back with the passive-aggressive bile that you learned in your own household because you want these people to like you, goddammit. But you’re lucky, again, because the woman who looked after your boyfriend as a kid, who has lived with his family for years, follows you, and sees you crying, and thankfully does not make you feel like an idiot. Instead she informs you that quiet people can get by in this family, too, and to take it one step at a time, and not so personally.
5. You will ignore the pinecones.
The tent you and your boyfriend are sleeping in is closest to the campground bathroom, so of course your boyfriend’s sister and cousin and cousin’s husband will pelt the sides of it with pinecones on the way to brushing their teeth. Inside the tent, on top of an air mattress and underneath two half-zipped sleeping bags and several blankets, curled up beside your boyfriend with your head on his arm and his legs crisscrossed with yours, what has felt like an endless barrage of teasing will suddenly no longer bother you. Of course they are giving you a hard time. Who wouldn’t seize the opportunity for a little hazing? But not only are the jokes and pinecones harmless, they’re also not aimed solely at you. And this trip, after all, is not about them. It’s about him, the guy sharing this tiny enclosed space with you, the person for whom you have ignored the red-hot alarm bells that the word “camping” triggers in your brain. The guy who, even as the pinecones come sailing, reminds you how thrilled he is that you came camping with him. So, forget taking things personally—and fuck the pinecones.
6. Your menstrual cycle will, in fact, sync up with the other women’s.
As warned, despite being a solid ten days away from your period, that time of the month will choose to arrive during this exact week, along with everyone else’s. Your face will break out in a cluster of tiny volcanoes, and your cramps will hit you in mindbogglingly terrible waves atop a mountain you have just spent the last hour and a half climbing. Nevertheless, despite legs like spaghetti and the sensation that your uterus is about to drop out of your body at any moment, you will eat sandwiches and fruit snacks with everybody else, laugh at the jokes you are starting to understand, and admire the view from the top of this mountain. If heaven exists, you think, it is probably a lot like sitting on this outcrop of rock on a crisp August day: a view of endless pine trees, still bodies of crystalline water, clear sky tinged with gray. The company of the person who means most to you.
7. You will prove yourself to be a pretty damn good marshmallow roaster.
Okay, so you don’t know how to whittle a weenie stick, and you can’t paddle a canoe, and you prefer to read while your boyfriend fishes, but if there’s one thing you picked up from your years as a Girl Scout it’s the ability to roast a marshmallow. You don’t even like roasted marshmallows that much, to be honest—you actually prefer them as they are from the bag—but you are good at getting them gooey and golden and also letting them burn a little if that’s what’s requested. So one afternoon, after the rain has cleared and the fire is no longer spitting small dark clouds of smoke, you figure out what you are useful for: you roast marshmallows for anybody who asks.
8. You will spend a lot of quality time with the toddler and the dogs.
When you need a break from the constant company of a dozen other people, there is nothing like jumping over a tree root a couple hundred times with a two-year-old. Or taking the dogs on a walk around the campground, following the loop past the other sites, watching families set up tents and build fires and play cards and hang out with friends. And when you have had your fifteen minutes to yourself, you can come back to your own picnic table, to read magazines and drink beer and eat chili and, on one night, smoke a joint while the fire dies down. After dark the wind seems to pick up, and you and your boyfriend and his sister and their cousin and her husband huddle in sweatshirts as close to the fire as possible and talk science and nature and a little bit of life. Everything is still, and in the quiet, none of you looking at each other’s faces, only the crackling orange flames, you find yourself talking a little—talking like yourself, not like someone trying to be on their best behavior, not like an introvert faking extroversion, not like a guest. In that moment, relief washes over you, and the feeling is nearly as tangible as the heat from the fire.
9. You will have fun.
You will take a nighttime canoe trip to look at the moon in the sky and on the water. You will drive the giant truck down some twisty country roads to buy more beer at the general store. You will not shower that much and when you do you will feed quarters into a tiny machine to turn the water on and will whack your head on the lock for the stall door and stifle your scream because “OW! FUCK!” is not an appropriate thing for a two-year-old to overhear. You will go shopping in the picturesque town near the campground and buy homemade candy and drink beer in the brewery in which it was made and you will fall asleep on the car ride back sitting on your boyfriend’s lap listening to the songs of his childhood (which sound nothing like the songs of yours). You will have sex to the sound of the rain on the tent and learn to fall asleep with socks on to keep your feet warm and wake up with them pried off in tiny balls at the bottom of the sleeping bag. You will laugh a lot. And even though, by the end of the week, your camping exam grade has only been adjusted to a B-, you will feel glad that you came, and you think—you hope—that you’re not alone.