Four months later, we were in Em’s car smoothly cruising towards The Poconos. He’d offered to let me drive part of the way, but I declined. It’d been a while since I’d driven at all, and I’d never been behind the wheel of such an expensive car before. I didn’t want that kind of pressure, so I was content to be a passenger. Plus, I could take in the scenery better this way. I was relaxed, confident that I was in safe hands. He’d even gotten his car tuned up and renewed his license in preparation for this little road trip. We loaded up on gas before we left New Jersey, so we wouldn’t have to worry about pumping our own. I’m sure he could manage if need be, but I’d never done it and I wasn’t about to start now.
I’d expressed my concerns about camping, and we’d come to a mutually amicable compromise. We’d go camping the first night, and he set other plans for the rest of the week. He wouldn’t tell me exactly what the plans were, but by now I knew him well enough to know that he was fond of surprising me. No amount of whining or begging or seducing would induce him to reveal anything, so I didn’t even bother to ask. I trusted that he’d picked something fun for both of us.
When we’d driven far enough from home that our local radio station faded to static, I started to get bored. I twiddled with my opal necklace a little before I started rummaging through the various CDs that were floating around the car. There were a few in the console, and a couple more slid into a slot in the door. None of them were anything I was in the mood for listening to. In the glove box, I made an interesting discovery.
“What’s this?” I asked as I pulled out a jewel case marked ‘Elle Mix.’
“It’s nothing,” he insisted as he flushed bright crimson. I was pleasantly surprised, because I’d never seen him look so embarrassed before. I delighted in it.
“Did you make a mix for me?”
“Oh my God! I can’t believe what a dork you are,” I teased as I popped it into the CD player.
I let it play through without skipping any of the songs, even if none of them were to my taste. Most were too folksy. I guess that these were all songs that made him think of me, which was adorable. We arrived at the campgrounds right before the last song ended.
He parked the car and I helped carry as much of the gear as I could, but Emile bore the majority of the burden as we marched to the campsite. There was a lot reserved for us, and I had found the idea of making a reservation for a plot of wilderness kind of humorous. I’d always assumed that you just, like, marched into the forest and set up wherever you wanted to. Apparently I had been wrong.
When we arrived at our designated campsite, I was surprised to see a family of six just a couple yards away. I had imagined that things would be a little more secluded than they were. The family must have been here a few days, as they looked well-established. They had a strong fire going, and three colorful tents. The youngest were running around barefoot and were caked in mud up to their knees. A couple of mutts were hot on their heels.
“Howdy, neighbors! Let us know if you need any help setting up,” said a fat man with a bandanna on his head. He had an unkempt graying beard and was wearing a worn out tie-dye t-shirt that screamed ‘dirty old Hippie.’
Emile politely declined the offer. Since we only had the one tent, he could more than manage on his own. We’d only be here one night, so we didn’t need to bother making friends. I swatted at a cloud of gnats in the air while he did all the work. The heat was sweltering under the late afternoon sun, and I was already longing for the comfort of air conditioning. Thank God I only had to survive one night out here.
Once the tent was erected, Em suggested we go on a scenic hike. We set off towards a trail that led us deep into the woods. Supposedly it offered some breathtaking views farther up the mountain, so I brought my phone along to take pictures. I thought it’d be nice to have some printed up to commemorate our vacation. Maybe I could get Vee to edit some inspirational quotes to set over them. She knew a little about graphic design. We could hang them up in our apartments to impress people.
After what must have been an hour of walking, all we’d seen was trees and sticks and rocks. Nothing that would make for a good photo. My legs were starting to feel strained as the incline increased. I probably should work out more. Or at all.
About another fifteen minutes I caved and asked, “How much farther is it?”
“When we hit the creek, we’ll be halfway here.”
I stopped dead in my tracks. Holy shit. We weren’t even halfway yet? Thankfully he was several steps ahead and couldn’t see how horrified I was. When he noticed I stopped, he turned back and I quickly schooled my expression.
“Is everything alright?” He was wearing a red flannel, and with the sun streaming behind him he looked like some kind of handsome lumberjack. He was right at home here, out in the wilderness.
“I thought I saw a deer or something,” I lied.
“You might have, they’re out here.”
We arrived at the creek not much later. It wasn’t very impressive, but with some careful framing it might make for a decent photo. As we approached, the dirt began to turn to slick mud. It was at this point that I realized that even my sturdiest sneakers weren’t cut out for forest trekking. They were disgusting pretty much instantaneously. Now my socks were soaked and chaffing my feet. I didn’t bother to snap any pictures after that. I didn’t want to remember this. We continued on and I envied Em and his dry feet in his stupid hiking boots.
Finally, the trail ended at a plateau. Em stopped and sighed, “Isn’t it beautiful?”
“It’s...nice.” It wasn’t awful. I probably would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t had to hike all the way up here to see it.
“Doesn’t it make all our struggles seem so insignificant?” He gestured to the sea of treetops stretching into the distance. The farthest ones were barely more than specks.
I mumbled something agreeable and suggested we sit for a while. The longer he spent taking in the view and musing over the splendors of nature, the longer I had to recover for the return trip. Instead of opening my soul to nature, I pondered over what my friends were doing in Wildwood. I heard the weather there was going to be nice this week. They were probably eating ice cream on the beach without me right now, and I was green with envy.
Gravity was on our side, and the trip down the mountain wasn’t nearly as grueling as the ascent had been. I was practically dead on my feet, mindlessly plodding along the path. When we made it to the creek, I stepped on a nasty slime-covered stone and almost went down on my ass. I brushed it off and kept going. Once we were accosted by one of the Hippie guy’s hounds, I breathed a sigh of relief knowing we were finally back at the campgrounds.
Our humble tent was a sight for sore eyes. I crawled inside to peel off my socks and shoes while Em arranged a little fire. Once it was going strong, we roasted up a couple hot dogs to eat. It seemed like a sufficiently traditional campfire meal. I didn’t care much for hot dogs to begin with, and I would enjoy mine even less with the dogs buzzing around. We hadn’t even finished cooking, and they were already eagerly begging for scraps.
“Don’t give the fat one anything,” bellowed the Hippie guy, “He’s on a diet!” He made no move to get up from his lawn chair and retrieve his mutts.
The fat one was very persistent. I tried to shoo him away, but he ended up jumping up on me. He was strong enough to knock me down, and I was left with disgusting muddy paw prints on my chest. Em bit back a laugh as the smaller dog darted out to grab my hot dog and skittered off with it, skewer and all.
The bigger dog tried to jump on Emile, but he was too solid to be toppled the way I was. Once he realized he’d missed out on any snacks, the dog trotted off back to his owner. The guy was apologetic, at least. He offered for us to come over to have s’mores with his family. Emile accepted before I had a chance to decline. It took every ounce of energy I had left to maintain a friendly smile. We chatted with them for a while, since there was basically nothing else to do anyway.
Later that night, we started drinking back in our tent. I still hadn’t developed a taste for beer, but I’d take any alcohol on hand after the day I’d been through.
Em ran his fingers through his hair. He looked unfairly beautiful, considering we’d spent all day sweating in the woods. He was picking up a tan, while I was covered in sunburn and mosquito bites.
“I’m sorry, Elle. I can tell you’re not having a good time.”
It was the truth. I’d been trying to hide it from him, but obviously I’d failed. “It’s alright, I only have to rough it this one night. I think I can survive, for you.” God willing, I’d never have to go camping again for the rest of my life.
“Thank you for trying it for me,” he said as he leaned over to kiss me. When he pulled away, there was a hint of sadness to his expression. It was quickly replaced with a mischievous smirk, “I promise that tomorrow you’ll be in the lap of luxury.”
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