Beware the Thirsty Bees: First Time Camping in Joshua Tree

We went camping in Joshua Tree for the first time this weekend.

My last camping trip was over thirty years ago. I was seven or eight, and I spent the entire three days refusing to use the filthy communal restrooms and getting bitten by mosquitoes.

It was not a good trip. I never really thought I’d ever try camping again.

But the pandemic has shifted things there, as it has in so many others.

My wife and I love to travel, but there’s no way we can risk staying in a hotel or taking a plane anymore. She has a clotting disorder, and I have asthma, two of those “co-morbidities” they blame when someone dies of Covid-19. We’ve been social distancing since March: No friends, no family, no exposure. We can’t risk our health staying indoors with other people for any length of time.

But camping’s not indoors! So long as we’re able to drive there — buying gas while masked up and wrapping our hands in a waste-disposal bag before touching anything — we can stay, outside, and keep other people at a distance. Low risk of exposure, high risk of hearing coyotes howl at night (but more on that later).

Beyond wanting to travel, though, we have an emergency waiting to happen, in the form of my wife’s mother. She’s in her upper 70s, and lives 1,500 miles away, in Arkansas. If she has an accident, or any kind of health incident, it’s up to us to get there and take care of her and my brother-in-law (who has special needs). We can’t fly anymore, so we’ll have to drive. And neither of us want to try to drive that whole distance without sleeping.

So camping is the only safe way for us to travel, for any reason.

Being proper nerds, we did a lot of research first. Read blog posts about camping with pups (we have two), how big of a tent to get, where to go for your first trip (close to home, which is why we chose Joshua Tree), even what pants to wear. We bought everything that was recommended, we loaded it all into the car, and we set off.

Ah, what fools we were!

And still, we were not prepared.

Not prepared for how loud the campground gets at night, when everyone returns from hiking and sets about drinking and smoking and cutting up. Long past midnight, we’d hear people singing and carrying on. Both nights we were there, I finally broke down and asked people to keep it down till morning, so we could sleep.

Not prepared for how long it really takes to setup camp. At home, when we practiced, we had everything up and ready in 30 minutes. But out there, at night (once), or in the heat of the day (the second time), it takes longer, and it feels much much longer. Between getting there, setting up the first night, then deciding to switching campgrounds the next day, then packing up for good the last day, I think we spent most of our time just setting up and tearing down.

Not prepared for the, um, toilet situation. I’ll spare you the details, but basically we couldn’t use the communal toilets, so we brought our own. And…let’s just say “leaving no trace” is good for the environment but not enjoyable in any shape or form.

And not prepared for the bees! Those thirsty, thirsty, bees.

They swarmed our water jug. They swarmed our food while we were cooking. They swarmed our toilet (I told you it wasn’t fun). And they were aggressive, too, the little buggers, as if we owed them something. Sometimes the only way to get them off was to run by the water jug, whose sweet smells of moisture would pull them away.

Our campsite, before the bees descended on us.

So after coming back, I’m stiff, I’m sore, I haven’t slept well in two days, and any buzzing makes me clench.

But we’re going back in two weeks! Why?

One, because we have to. We simply have to get better at camping if we’re going to be able to come to my wife’s mother’s aid when she needs us.

Two, because this was just our first trip! We were bound to mess it up, no matter how much we prepared.

And we can fix a lot of what went wrong!

Choosing the right campground from the start (we’ve already reserved it) means we won’t have to waste time breaking down and setting up twice.

The backdrop for our second and final campsite. Unbeatable, right?

Making meals ahead of time and bringing them along (rather than cooking) will mean less water exposed for the bees to swarm on (and less fuss setting up camp).

Taking a pavilion with us will mean we have some shade from the sun, no matter what time of day it is.

Using the rain fly on the tent will keep out smoke at night, so we can breathe.

Packing less ice in the cooler will make it lighter, and easier to find things we pack in there. And that means more room for things like water and soda; we packed water bottles, but left them out of the cooler, which is a thing so foolish in hindsight I want to reach back in time and slap myself for it. No soda meant that my wife’s headache from sun exposure and dehydration joined forces with caffeine withdrawal to take her out for the latter half of our last full day there.

And leaving the pups at their “camp” (an outdoor boarder) will mean we can explore the park this time, taking trails and hikes that they aren’t allowed on (which is all of them, I mean they want to keep it wild and let the animals that live there feel safe, so dogs aren’t allowed anywhere except roads and campsites).

The trail starts just outside our camp, but we can’t go…

So we’re doing it again! Wish us luck; or better yet: Got any tips to share for two tenderfoots who are trying to get this right?

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