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To celebrate the publication of this unique collection, we created a sweepstakes and asked our readers to enter by submitting a story about their own piece of paradise in the outdoors. Below are excerpts from some of our editors' favorite submissions.
It was just a routine camping trip in one of Florida's state parks. I was grimy after a hard day of paddling on the Oklochonee River and craved a good scrubbing. I also wanted to impress my new husband with a little "smell pretty" as we settled down in our cozy tent, so I washed my hair with a luscious, strawberry-scented shampoo.
After sleeping for a while, I was awakened by a feeling of pressure against my scalp and the sounds of breathing. No, it wasn't my groom being amorous; he was snoring softly at my side. Unzipping the tent flap, I looked outside to see a large raccoon staring expectantly at me, as if I might offer up some whipped cream with my strawberry shortcake. An insolent fellow, he took some persuading to leave, but eventually he did. I was awakened by the persistent sniffing a second time. Again I chased the reluctant critter away with flailing arms and threats, waking my husband. When the sniffing resumed a third time, I was pissed! I grabbed a grapefruit out of our food box, determined to give the offensive beast a good scare. As I took aim and drew back my arm to throw the fruit, I realized that the creature standing in the dim moonlight was not the raccoon I had expected, but a large skunk. By then it was too late to stop the forward motion of my arm. I've since switched to unscented shampoo.
Trust me when I say that there is such a thing as urban camping. A couple of years ago, a local TV station ran a promotion for a show about young, single, fashionable women: the first 500 people in line at a downtown store at 10:00 A.M. one Saturday morning would win a pair of designer shoes. As a starving college student, I couldn't fathom ever spending over $500 on a pair of shoes, so I rationalized that this might be my only opportunity to own something so nice. That Friday night I borrowed my roommate's sleeping bag and stuffed a novel, flashlight, almonds, and an airplane pillow into my backpack and headed to the city. I forgot an extra blanket, which might not have been a problem if I hadn't lined up right next to sprinklers. I was so excited about my place in the line (approximately thirtieth) that I forgot to consider my surroundings. Snuggled up inside the sleeping bag, on the cusp of sweet slumber, I only realized that it wasn't raining when the person next to me wasn't getting wet. I ran for cover and found a more suitable place to sleep, still in line, near a row of trees. Morning came and I got the shoes—mauve flats that felt and even smelled wonderful. Were they worth a night of urban camping? Yes. Do I find them heavenly, my own piece of paradise? Absolutely!
In August 2004, I was camping at Kruger National Park, South Africa, with a small, low-impact group that has a commission to camp within the park. The camp was surrounded by an electric-wire fence powered with portable solar panels. One night a pride of lions rushed a bush pig into the electric fence, the wires snapped, and the whole hunting party raced into camp. There’s nothing quite as heart-stopping as the sound of a male lion in trumpet roar just outside your canvas tent! Our guide rushed out of his own tent and threw rocks at the lions to make them leave. The next morning he calmly remarked, "You know, it’s hard to find good rocks in the dark when you need them."
It was a warm August evening, and we were camping at Manresa State Beach near Santa Cruz, California. As I was walking down the trail from the parking lot to our tent, I had a wonderful view of the ocean. The air was balmy, with no fog rolling in that night, and I couldn't take my eyes off a dark cloud descending on the water. What was it? It must have been a quarter-mile wide. As I continued down the path, I suddenly realized it was a huge, swirling, diving cloud of birds. I ran the rest of the way to our campsite to tell the kids, who were inside our tent playing cards. "You guys won't believe this! Come on!" I couldn't begin to explain the magnitude of what they were going to see. We ran up a sand dune, at the top of which the sound of the birds was overwhelming. We dropped down onto the beach and couldn't believe our eyes. There were thousands of birds circling only a few feet above the water. They were squawking and diving, all flying in a moving, frantic cloud. We watched for a long time as they traveled up and down the coast. We assumed they were following a large school of fish. Then the dolphins came—a half-dozen or more. They seemed more interested in watching the birds than feeding. It was a magical experience that we’ll never forget.
Growing up, I spent much of my childhood summers in the wilds of Ontario, Canada, where encounters with black bears, moose, deer, porcupines, beavers, and a host of other wild creatures were pretty much second nature to us. We knew when to quietly watch, calmly back off, or, in the case of an angry bear who caught us picking his blueberries, to size up the bear and scramble up a tree too small for him to climb but too large for him to knock down. These childhood experiences had endowed me with a confidence that I was well equipped to handle most wilderness encounters.
Fast-forward to my honeymoon, which my wife and I spent in sunny Florida, mostly tent camping. After a day of driving and sunning, we found ourselves in the Everglades. It was dark and we were ready to get some sleep, so we found a place just off the back road we had been traveling and pitched our tent in an apparently secluded location with a soft, sandy floor, then fell fast asleep.
As the morning sun began to warm our camping spot, we awoke to something moving the side of our tent. I sat up, unzipped the door, poked my head out, and was startled at what I saw. In the dark we had selected a small peninsula in a lake as our campsite. It was apparently a favorite spot for the local wildlife to get their morning sun: we were surrounded by more than a dozen large, hissing alligators. In a moment of desperate panic, I grabbed the rain fly from the top of the tent with the pole still in place, spun it over my head like a crazed helicopter, and danced around yelling at the gators. I'm not sure which of us was more startled, but we all went our separate ways as I set a new record for breaking camp and packing the car.
In 2006, my boyfriend and I decided to start our annual National Park vacation with Death Valley. We rented a car in Las Vegas and drove to the Death Valley campgrounds, and as we got out of the car I immediately understood how the place had gotten its name. I’d never felt a truly hot breeze. Usually a breeze cools you off, no matter what the temperature. Not here. I actually wanted the wind to stop blowing, since I felt hotter when it blew. We put up our tent, made dinner, and settled in for the evening. Lying there in the tent—no clothes, no covers, and burning up—I thought there was no way I’d ever be able to sleep. But as the night deepened, the temperature dropped, and before I knew it I was reaching for a blanket.
Then, in the middle of the night, I was awakened by a sound that sent chills down my entire body. Dozens of coyotes began howling all around us. Each howl seemed to echo through the desert, and it went on like this for just a few minutes. I wasn’t scared, but I reached over to grab my boyfriend’s hand to see if he was awake too. He squeezed my hand tightly, and I knew he was feeling the same way I was. This was the most amazing sound we’d ever heard. To be there when the silence of the desert night was broken by such an eerie, yet captivating, sound was truly a memorable experience.
My husband and I went to Lassen Volcanic National Park a few years ago on a weekend camping trip. Waking up the first morning, I heard something outside our tent. It was an unfamiliar rustling sound, and I was a little scared. My husband was still asleep next to me, so I decided to be brave and slowly unzipped the tent door to take a peek outside. When I looked around, there he was, a big chipmunk sitting on our picnic table trying to shove as many paper towels as he could into his mouth. When he saw me he froze, and it was the funniest sight I'd ever seen: a chipmunk looking like "OH NO, I'M BUSTED!" with paper towels hanging out of his mouth and his checks bulging. I laughed and laughed. To this day, I still remember the look on that chipmunk's face.