The Singing Campground Part 4

            Lilly struggled to sit up in the soft feather bed. Her heart raced and she could barely breathe. The room in which she woke was peculiar. The stone walls were covered with brightly colored tapestries of forests and animals. The floors were wood planks and partially covered with thick green rugs.

            Or were they rugs? As her foot slipped out of bed, she felt blades of grass.

            The bedframe was built with huge logs. There was a carved pattern of birds along the side facing her. A brilliant white comforter spilled over the sides of the bed with pale green bedding underneath. Bedding that looked suspiciously like giant leaves. And the comforter looked more like milkweed fluff than fabric.

            Where was she?

            She ran to the narrow, high window, and reached up on her tiptoes to peek out. The scene below revealed rolling green hills bordered by dark forests. No sign of any cars or trucks. Or telephone poles.

            I’m in Faerie.  

            Her fuzzy mind cleared, and she remembered. Her family was tricked and pulled through the portal by the faeries they heard singing at the campground. Just so the faery family could take four more people on their camping trip in her world.

            It was too much for her to think about. Time to find her parents and Willow.

            Up to this point, she didn’t even notice she was dressed in a long white nightgown. Someone had dressed her for bed. She tried not to think about that as she threw open the doors of a huge carved wardrobe. Inside were various tunics, leggings, gowns, and other clothing she was not certain of their purpose. Everything was in shades of green and brown. She grabbed brown leggings and a plain green tunic and put them on. Then she pulled out some soft brown leather boots.

            Now feeling like she was in a Robin Hood play, she left her bedchamber and carefully descended the narrow, stone steps that led down to the main floor of this …Palace? Castle?

            After wandering down a long, narrow hallway, she found the dining room. Seated at a table that was longer than ten cafeteria tables set end to end were the rest of her family. Willow was chowing down on several slices of toast and what looked like oatmeal covered in cream.

            “Mggmg! Ya mmgup!” he said, gesturing toward her.

            “Willow! Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Mom scolded. She stretched over to hand him the large linen napkin from her lap. “Wipe your face. You look like a barbarian.”

            He swallowed, dabbed his chin, and repeated, “Lilly! You’re finally up. We’ve been waiting for you. Get some food. It’s great!” He grabbed more toasted bread from a huge plate.

            “Mom, Dad, what are we going to do?” Lilly said.

            “Sit down and eat your breakfast,” Dad said. His plate was overflowing with sausages and scrambled eggs. “It’s hard to think on an empty stomach.”

            Lilly rescued two slices of toast before her twin could eat them all. The pieces were small and dark brown, and they didn’t have holes like bread from the grocery store. She scooped some honey from a pot with a wooden ladle and spread it on the bread.

            She hesitated. Although the bread looked delicious, she couldn’t get the warning about faery food out of her head. The rest of her family looked normal, though. Her stomach rumbled to settle the argument. She nibbled the bread, slightly crunchy and bursting with sweetness. Then she took a sip of tea that a servant brought her. It was spicy and sweet.

            “Now that we’re all here, we need to figure out how to get back,” Dad said. Mom nodded from her seat across from him. “There’s no need to panic. Willow told me that Thorn said the portal here was no longer used. That means there must be others.”

            Lilly jumped up and clapped her hands. “Let’s go find another portal!”

            Before her parents could respond, a ruddy-cheeked faery wearing a blue dress and white apron entered the room. “If you are finished with your breakfast, there are some humans that are eager to meet you.” Her wrinkles deepened with her smile. She tucked a wisp of white hair back into her bun and then wiped her hands on her apron. Lilly had never seen an old faery before. Truth be told, she’d never seen any faery before yesterday. In her mind, she always thought they would be tiny like Tinkerbell and eternally young.

            “You may call me Thistle,” the faery said. “I am the housekeeper of Forest Home. My master and mistress left me strict orders to make you comfortable in every way. You must be disoriented, going through the portal like that. Meeting more of your kind will make you feel at home.”

            “There are other humans here?” Lilly asked.

            “They come in various ways,” Thistle said. “Tributes, changelings, and humans who wander through portals.”

            “We got pulled through that portal!” Willow said. “We didn’t choose to come here.”

            Thistle nodded, and her face turned pale. “I know. Nettle and Thorn are always getting into mischief. Been that way since they were wee babes. They need to be more careful. If the Queen found out they reopened that portal, she would be quite angry about it.”

            “We need to go home,” Dad said in a firm voice. “Can you help us?”

            Thistle backed away, shaking her head. “I cannot help you. When the master and the mistress return from their trip, you may ask them.” She turned to the maid clearing the breakfast dishes. “Leave that and take them down to Connell’s cottage.”

            Lilly and her family followed the maid out of the castle and across the grounds.

            It is a castle. I can see the outer walls surrounding us.

            Next to the rear stone wall sat a tiny stone cottage. Behind the cottage was a garden full of flowers and vegetables. The maid led them to the wooden door. Lilly and her family stood there waiting as she knocked.

            Lilly wondered if they’d be friendly.

            The door opened, and a tall man with red hair and a bushy beard appeared. “Well, well. Who do we have here?” he said. Immediately he was surrounded by four small children.

            “Daddy! Daddy! More people like us,” one of the little boys said, peeking out from behind his leg.

            After we met everyone, we went inside and sat down on a couch that smelled like moss and was incredibly soft. The mom, Angela, brought us tea. The children, Tommy, Anna, Kevin, and Danny, sat on the ground watching us intently.

            “So you are the campers that everyone thought died in the brush fire,” Dad said.

            “Yes, if Nettle hadn’t seen us through the portal, we would have been goners,” Angela, said, patting Anna on the head. “We owe him our lives.”

            “Why didn’t you go back?” Lilly wondered out loud. Anna was only three years old and kept trying to touch Lilly’s hair. Little kids could be so annoying.

            “Nettle and Thorn need us to remain on this side of the portal in order for them to use it,” Angela said. “When we saw how much they loved camping in the human world, we decided to stay here. There are many advantages to living in Faerie.” She pulled Danny and Tommy into a hug.  

            “Nettle hired me to oversee the running of his farms,” Ryan added. “He gave us this cottage and all the food we can eat. The land is welcoming to all plant life and the faery workers are strong and tireless. It’s a lot less stressful than my law career.”

            Mom shared a look with Dad, but he shook his head. “That sounds wonderful for you. However, our family needs to get back to the campground. Is there another portal nearby?”

            “If there is, we have no knowledge of it,” Angela said. “I’m sure you will settle in quickly. I’m excited to have someone to share human recipes with. It will be fun. This is your world now.”

            While the adults were talking, Lilly and Willow got pulled outside by the kids.

            “Do you have any video games?” Willow asked.

            Tommy laughed. “No electronics here. No electricity at all.”

            Lilly’s eyebrows shot up. “You’re kidding! You can’t even watch TV. What do you do for fun?”

            “We’ll show you,” Kevin said. Lilly, Willow, and the rest of the kids followed him to the barn where four dragons waited in stalls. One of them roared with delight to see Kevin, causing a burst of fire and smoke. He gently patted the dragon’s neck. “Let’s go for a ride,” he said.

            Moments later, Lilly and Willow were riding the skies, each sitting behind one of the kids on a dragon. On a dragon! Lilly was so excited that she couldn’t even speak. She rode behind Anna, her pearl pink dragon’s wings stretched wide.

It was breathtaking to see the land from above. Lilly thought it was the most thrilling thing she’d ever done. She looked over at Willow, who had his eyes squeezed shut and his arms tightly wrapped around Kevin’s waist.

            When they finally landed, Willow jumped down and ran over to the bushes to throw up.

            “Not much for flying then?” Kevin asked, covering a smile.

            Willow wiped his mouth on the inside of his tunic. “Nope. I’d rather sit in my living room and play “Fantasy Combat” with my online friends anytime.”

            “I can’t believe your parents let you ride dragons,” Lilly said. “My mom wouldn’t let me ride a horse until I was eight.”

“We’re a lot older than we look,” Tommy said with a shrug.

            Then Lilly remembered what Willow said about the missing campers. It happened 25 years ago. That meant even if Anna had been a baby at the time, she should be at least 25 years old now. “Wait a minute! You haven’t gotten any older than you were when you came through the portal. How can that be?”

            The Connell kids laughed.

            “I’m actually 28 years old in the human world,” Anna said. “After a few years here, Mom and Dad noticed we hadn’t aged. They got worried and asked Thorn. She said time moves way slower here than in the human world. Our minds still mature like they would back there, but our bodies change more slowly.”

            “That’s creepy!” Willow said. “You guys aren’t really kids at all!”

            “Nope,” Kevin said. “Mom loves it. She says she never wants us to grow up.”

            But Lilly did not think she wanted to have a little girl body forever. She wanted to be an adult. Then people would take her seriously.

            Her parents came out and joined them. “Nice dragons,” Dad said. “Willow and Lilly, I hope you didn’t ride without permission.”

            Lilly’s face turned red. “Only a short ride.”

            Dad gave her a stern look. “We’ll talk about this later. Right now, we’ve got to get back to the castle.”

            The maid who had brought us to the campers stepped out from behind my parents. She appeared to be in great distress as she wrung her hands and stepped back and forth from foot to foot. “Quickly. You must return to the great hall. The Queen is here.” Her eyes grew wide as she added, “Whatever you do, you must not say anything about the broken portal.”

The singing campground Part 3

            “I love story time!” one of the faery children said. They settled down on the logs around the campfire and eagerly waited for their mother to speak.

            Lilly narrowed her eyes at her twin, but Willow sat down next to Rudy, the oldest of the faery children and probably the closest to his age. “Come on, it would be rude to leave without hearing her story,” he pleaded. She shook her head but sat down next to him anyway. If she had to admit it, she was a little curious about the faeries, too.

            Nettle and Thorn sat across from them on another log. Thorn tucked wayward strands of her curly brown hair behind her pointed ears. Then she began to speak.

“In a time past, maybe twenty or so of your human years, some campers got caught in a wildfire right here in the woods. Nettle just happened to be trimming the hedges by an old, abandoned portal when he smelled the smoke. He peeked out and saw a human family scrambling to protect themselves from approaching flames. My husband’s heart was pricked, for you can see we also have children we love.”

            “I had to do something,” Nettle said, his face grim with the memory.

            “Of course, dear,” she said, patting his hand.

            “Nettle had no idea whether the old portal still worked. It had been dormant for centuries. Faerie centuries. But he could try. He reached through the portal and grabbed one of the children. Her brother saw his sister being dragged away and held onto her. The other children tried to free her. But Nettle’s magic was too strong, so the children were all pulled into Faerie. As the last of the four children landed in our garden, the parents also fell through.”

            “That’s amazing,” Willow said. “Everyone in our world thinks they died.”

            Lilly tipped her head like she was chewing on a deep thought. “No one ever saw them again. Why?”

            Thorn and Nettle exchanged glances. “They remain in Faerie,” she said.

            That’s when Lilly remembered that faeries couldn’t lie. But they could bend the truth and leave out what didn’t serve their purpose. “But they must have had friends and other relatives that they left behind,” she said.

            “Sacrifices had to be made,” Thorn said, getting up quickly. “Does anyone want some lemonade?”

            Lilly didn’t like how the faery mother had changed the subject quickly. But she didn’t have anything to accuse her, and Nettle had saved that family.

            “So now you use the portal to come here camping?” Willow asked, taking a cup from Thorn.

            “That’s right,” Nettle said. “When I pulled the human family through the portal, its magic was changed. It now allows six faeries to travel through it. Only six. The same number as the humans that came to us. When we are in your world, no one else can use the portal. Anyone who tries it gets bounced back.”

            “That’s weird,” Willow said.

            “For sure,” Rudy said. “But it means our family can go camping in these woods. We love it here!”

            “It’s fun to go to a place where we don’t have to hide from dragons,” one of the little girl faeries said.

            “A nonmagical world is a much safer world to camp in,” Thorn said. “We’ve talked about it so much, now some of our friends wish to join us. However, the way the portal works, it would be impossible.”

            “That is too bad,” Lilly said. There was something more that the faeries weren’t telling them, but she wasn’t sure what to ask. “We should be getting back. It’s been great to meet you, but we don’t want to get in trouble with our parents.”

            “It’s okay, Lilly. We could stay a little longer,” Willow said.

            “No. We need to go now,” Lilly insisted. She stood and pulled her brother to his feet. “Thank you for the marshmallows and lemonade.”

            Thorn and Nettle stood, and their children gathered around them. “Well met, Willow and Lilly,” Nettle said with a slight bow.

            Thorn smiled and it was like a beam of sunshine. “It’s wonderful that you have parents. A family of four. Perhaps you could bring them back with you tomorrow.”

            “Sure! That sounds great!” Willow said.

            “Come on. Let’s get out of here.” Lilly dragged her brother through the woods until they reached the road where their bikes were parked. Her head felt fuzzy, and her legs were wobbly on her bike.

            As they rode, Lilly could glimpse the sun resting on the horizon between the trees. No doubt they had missed dinner and would be in trouble.

            “Why did we stay there so long?” Lilly yelled.

            “You don’t meet faeries every day,” Willow cried.

            Lilly had a sense of uneasiness that settled over her like night over the sunset. The faeries had been nothing but nice to them, and yet… Every faery tale she’d ever read warned against dealing with the fae.

Hopefully, eating a few marshmallows was safe.

            When they zoomed into their campsite, their dad was walking toward them with a lantern. “There you are,” he said. “We were getting worried. I was just getting ready to come find you.”

            “Sorry,” Willow said. “The sun set extra fast today.”

            Mom jumped up from her chair. “Lilly, I expected better from you. Your brother has no sense of time, but you are usually more sensible.”

            Lilly’s heart ached when she saw her mom upset. “I’m so sorry, Mom. We went on a hike in the woods. It was shady in there. I didn’t realize what time it was.” She hated lying to her parents, but there was no way she was going to tell them they met faeries.

            “I’m starving,” Willow said.

            “Your plates are on the kitchen counter,” Mom said. “After you’re done, you can do the dishes and take the trash down to the dumpster. You can expect extra chores tomorrow.”

            The next day, Dad decided the family should take a hike. Lilly and Willow were excited because usually Dad preferred to sit in the shade and watch sports on their big screen TV on the outside of the trailer.

            “It’s a beautiful day, and families should enjoy it together!” he said. Mom packed lunch. Lilly grabbed the trail map the ranger gave them when they checked in.

            “Maybe we should hike down to the lake,” she said, squinting at the different colored lines on the map. “It’s only 1.7 miles and it’s rated moderate. I think we could do that.”

            “Let’s go!” Willow said.

            It didn’t take them long to find the trailhead for the hike to Lake Cuyamaca. Lilly and Willow walked ahead while Mom and Dad followed. The path was paved with tiny gravel, so it was easy to walk on. Occasionally, another path would branch out from the main one.

            “Willow, don’t go down there,” Dad said. “We don’t know where it leads. I need to conserve my energy.” He was already sweating in the steamy late morning sunshine. The lake trail crossed a huge meadow without any shade. Lilly was already regretting her choice.

            “Dad, maybe we should rest under those trees,” she said, pointing to the woods on the left.

            “Good idea,” Dad said. “It’s hard for us old folks to keep up with you kids in this humidity.”

            “I brought granola bars and tangerines,” Mom said. “This would be a good time to take a break.”

            Lilly and Willow followed their parents into the woods. Dad kept going until he found a place for them to sit down. The twins realized that the clearing looked familiar.

A large unnatural brush-free area with a fire circle in the middle, surrounded by fallen logs forming benches around it.

            This was the same place they met the faeries!

            Lilly started to shiver, which made no sense for a hot day. She was pretty good at directions. The clearing she and Willow visited last night was at the other end of the campground. In fact, when she chose the lake trail, she had purposely picked a route far from where they had met the faeries.

            A rustle announced six familiar foxes as they bounced out of the bushes.

            “Look, Arnie, foxes!” Mom said, taking a step back.

            “Stay away from them, dear,” Dad said, shielding her with his arm. “They might have rabies or something.” He turned to Lilly and Willow, who were standing frozen with looks of surprise on their faces. “Kids, they won’t attack you. They’re afraid of humans.”

            “Not all are,” Nettle said, standing up on two legs. “Lilly, Willow, nice to see you again. And thank you so much for bringing your parents.”

            Mom grabbed Lilly’s arm. “You know these creatures?” she asked.

            Lily attempted a weak smile. “Of course, Mom. But they’re not really foxes. They’re faeries.”

            “You can’t see what they really look like until you eat some of their food,” Willow added. “We met them last night. They’re super cool.”

            Thorn came forward and handed two graham crackers to Lilly. “Give these to your parents. Then they will believe.”

            Lilly realized this was a lot easier than trying to argue with her parents. She handed a cracker to each parent, which they ate with a lot of doubt. As soon as they swallowed them, their eyes were opened.

            “My, my! You ARE faeries!” Dad said.

            “Arnie, are they dangerous?” Mom asked, rubbing her eyes.

            “We’d love you to join us for an early luncheon,” Thorn said. “We’ve prepared something special for you.”

            Before Lilly could protest that they were in the middle of a family hike, Nettle grabbed her around the waist and threw her over his shoulder like a bag of potatoes.

            Several things happened at once.

Thorn pulled Dad into the woods. Rudy took Willow’s arm and pulled him behind her. Mom shrieked and ran after them. What did the faeries want with them?

Did faeries eat humans?

Whoosh! Twisting around, she could see a whirlpool in the air, framed by the ancient branches of two oak trees. The portal. Next thing she knew, Nettle passed through it, making her ears pop. The rest of the faeries and her family followed.

Nettle set her gently down into a bed of soft pine needles. She couldn’t see anything because on this side of the portal, it was night. But it smelled tangy like a forest. She thought she could also smell grilled chicken and corn.

Then she felt the thump of her brother and parents falling next to her. The faeries stood over them, their green eyes reflecting the pale moonlight.

“What do you want from us?” Lilly said in a half-sobbing voice.

“You’d better let us go,” Dad said. “I’ve got a knife.”

“Arnie, it’s only a pocketknife,” Mom argued.

“You weren’t supposed to tell them that. It’s iron after all. Doesn’t iron hurt them?” he said.

A few whispered words produced a flame which Thorn used to light a lantern. Her beautiful face looked haunting in its light.

“We are sorry to distress you in any way. You are very important to us. Because the four of you passed through the portal, now we can bring four of our friends out to your world for a camping trip,” Thorn said in a soothing voice.

“Our children play with theirs,” Nettle said. “They love to play in the woods. It gives us adults plenty of time to sit around the campfire.”

Lily’s mind whirred. “So, you need humans to go through this portal into your garden so that you can take faeries back to our world for a camping trip? What about our camping trip?”

Dad stood up, looking around. “Where are we? Send us back immediately!”
            Thorn sighed like a patient mother. “I’m so sorry. It’s time for you to rest now. When you awaken, luncheon will be served.” She waved her hand and a thick purple mist covered Lily and her family, sending them into dreamless sleep.

The singing campground: Part 2

“Let go! Got to get a video of this!” Willow tried to pull his arm and phone out of Lilly’s grip

“Shush! They’ll hear us.” She dragged him back into the surrounding trees. The clearing in front of them was a large circle, too perfect to have been formed by nature. But it wasn’t the clearing that raised the goosebumps on her arms.

They both stood there staring like mannequins in a store window. From the singing, Lilly had expected to see real people, sitting around a campfire. But this wasn’t a regular campsite. And the fire was not in a campground fire pit. She was certain that was against the rules. Mom always read the rules to them when they stayed at a new place.

Willow, his head full of stories about the campers lost in a wildfire years ago, expected to have his first glimpse of ghosts.

Neither twin saw what they expected.

Furry, red foxes with white faces, holding sticks in their hands (paws) and roasting marshmallows over a blue fire. Lilly knew fires were not usually blue, except natural gas flames under a stove. This was a blue fire coming out of a huge stack of logs piled in log cabin style.

And the foxes must have heard them arguing, because they stopped singing, and looked toward the trees where they crouched.

“Awesome!” Willow whisper-shouted. “They’re foxes!”

“What should we do?” Lilly asked, being the more practical twin.

At that moment, one of the larger foxes set its stick down on a rock, making sure that the partially browned marshmallow didn’t touch the ground. It walked on its back legs a few steps towards them.

“Come out from the trees, human kits,” it said in a low-pitched, deep voice. Lilly’s mouth dropped open. The voice was so human that if she wasn’t watching the words come out of the fox’s snout, she would be certain it was an adult man.

“Run!” Lilly grabbed her brother’s arm.

“Not only can they roast marshmallows, but they can talk!” Willow said, his smile ear to ear. “I want to meet them.”

“We should go. Mom said not to talk to strangers.”

“Strangers are human, silly. These are foxes. That can talk.”

“Come into the clearing,” the fox said. “We are eager to meet you. Did you hear our song?”

“Yes, we heard it,” Willow said. “It was awesome. We wanted to see who was singing it. Are you ghosts?”

The small foxes laughed, and it sounded like water tinkling on glass. Another large fox came near, standing by the first one.

“No, we are quite alive,” the second fox said in a high feminine voice. “But our true natures are concealed by glamour. Those who don’t hear our song, see only normal foxes in the woods.”

“If you’re not foxes, what, or who, are you?” Lilly asked.

The female fox gestured toward the campfire. “See for yourselves. We intend no harm toward you.”

Willow and Lilly looked at each other. When Mom had gone over all the rules about camping, she had not told them what to do when encountering magical talking foxes who ate marshmallows.

“Don’t be a baby, Lilly,” Willow said, making the decision for them both. He pushed her into the clearing where they took seats on large fallen logs around the roaring campfire. One of the smaller foxes handed each of them a carved stick with two marshmallows stuck on top.

“If this is one of those faerie tales, we really shouldn’t eat any food they offer us,” Lilly whispered to her brother.

“It’s only marshmallows,” Willow said. He thrust his stick into the fire. His marshmallows were a burning torch in seconds.

“That’s not the way to roast them,” Lilly said. She carefully dangled her stick at the edge of the fire, avoiding the strange blue flames. After a few minutes, she turned her stick. The side of her marshmallows facing the fire had turned golden brown.

“That’s the proper way to do it,” the largest of the small foxes said. “You can call me Rudy. What do you call yourselves?” The fox licked the gooey white from his claws. The other small foxes huddled together, staring at them with unblinking black eyes.

“I’m Willow, and this is Lilly,” her brother said. “We’re twins.”

“How delightful!” the older female fox said. She shared a knowing glance with the male fox, and then handed Willow two graham crackers and a piece of chocolate. After putting it together like a sandwich, he ate it quickly.

“Mmmm. This is delicious,” he mumbled with his mouth full.

Lilly was still not sure whether she should eat her perfectly roasted treat. She watched her brother, holding her breath. If something went wrong, she would grab him and run back to their campsite.

Willow jumped up from the log. “I can see you!” he shouted to Rudy. “You’re not a fox. You’re a boy!”

Lilly stared at her brother in horror. Did the food do something to him?

“Don’t worry. Your brother was not poisoned by our s’mores. When a visitor eats with us, they can see who we really are,” Rudy said. “Go ahead, eat it. You’ll see.”

She slowly pulled the marshmallow off the stick. Its crunchy gooey sweetness exploded in her mouth. It was the best roasted marshmallow she had ever tasted. As she swallowed it, her eyes were opened.

The foxes around the campfire were replaced by slender people dressed in various shades of brown and green. Two of them looked like adults and the rest were children of various ages from around four to twelve. Rudy looked like the oldest. They could have passed for survivalists living in the woods except for their long pointed ears that poked out from their silky dark brown hair.

“You’re faeries!” Lilly gasped.

“Summer Court, to be exact,” the father said. “You can call me Nettle. This is my wife, Thorn. You’ve already met Rudy. The others are Loden, Sunny, Tawny, and Golden.” The faeries nodded as Nettle named them.

Willow frowned. “What are you doing out here? Don’t faeries live in a different realm?”

Thorn smiled. Her glowing emerald green eyes framed by waves of shimmering dark brown hair were so lovely that Lilly and Willow’s hearts felt like they would break. “We’re camping. Like you and your family are,” she said.

Lilly pushed out of her mind the faery’s radiating bliss. From the books she’d read, she knew faeries were tricky and not usually nice to humans. Leaving right now would be the reasonable thing to do.

“Nice to meet all of you. Willow and I have to go now. Dad needs us to help with dinner.” She tried to pull her brother away, but he shook her off.

“Is there a portal around here?” he said, looking around. The surrounding woods, other than the perfect campfire clearing, looked like normal trees. There was no hint of magic.

“Sit down,” the mother said. “It is a long tale, but I would tell it to you.”

Willow sat back down on the log. Lilly sighed but joined him anyway. Her brother had no common sense whatsoever. She felt like she was born as his twin so that she could keep him out of trouble.

Sometimes it worked.

The Singing Campground: Part One

When her dad finally turned their motorhome into the campground, Lily had no reason to believe it was haunted. After all, she had just turned twelve years old, and she considered herself very grown up. She didn’t believe in nonsense like ghosts. Not like her brother, Willow, who still tied a beach towel around his neck and called himself Super Twin.

The sign at the campground entrance said William Heise County Park. It had taken them over two hours of twisty roads to get here. That seemed like a long time to drive somewhere just for the weekend, but Dad was set on eating apple pie at nearby Julian. He had towed our Jeep behind the motorhome so that we could ride top down into the historic mining town on Saturday.

“When we get to our site, everyone helps set up camp,” Dad said. “Willow, that means no taking off into the forest.”

“Come on, Dad!” her brother said. “We’ve been stuck in this RV forever!”

“No whining,” Mom said. “Camping is a team activity. Everyone works together.”

Lily gave her twin her best Mom glare. He took a deep chug of his soda and belched in her face.

“Mom, Willow’s being rude!” she said.

“Willow, settle down,” Mom said. “Be nice to your sister for once.”

Willow stuck out his tongue at Lily who had already decided to ignore him.

After he unhooked the Jeep, Dad followed the signs to their site. Mom followed behind us driving the Jeep. Lily had studied the camp map before they left. This camp had three loops for motorhomes and one just for tents. He turned right at the first loop and drove slowly.

“We’re in site 12. Keep your eyes open so we don’t miss it,” he said.

“There it is,” Lily cried. A small wooden post at the side of the paved pad had the number 12 written on it.

Dad passed the site. Mom jumped out to guide him back into the spot.

“Lily, check the level,” he said when he was in.

Lily grabbed the small plastic leveler and set it on the kitchen counter, in the middle of the small motorhome. She looked at the small bubbles inside. One bubble was for front to back level and the other was for side to side. The side to side one was inside the lines. Level. But the front to back one was not.

“Dad, it looks like we need blocks on the back tires,” she said. She was pretty good at checking levels. She was exact in everything she did.

After the motorhome was set, Lily and Willow helped their mom set up the outdoor rug, table, and chairs. Dad plugged in the electricity and hooked up the water. Then he took down their bikes from the rack on the back of the motorhome.

“Let’s go explore,” Willow said, hopping on his bike.

“Wait! Here’s your helmet,” Lily called after him. He zoomed past her, snagging his helmet out of her hand. She rubbed some sunscreen on her nose. Then she pulled on her mini backpack with drinks and snacks. She buckled on her helmet over her blonde hair swept back in a ponytail. Finally, she was ready to catch up with her brother.

“Bye, Mom! Bye, Dad!” she cried over her shoulder.

“Be back by dark,” Mom called after her.

Lily pedaled hard before she saw Willow cruising down the hill toward another loop of campsites. “Wait for me!” she said, although she didn’t have much hope that he would slow down. Suddenly, she raced past him as he stopped at the bottom of the hill.

She slowed down and turned around to join him. Willow stood with his feet down on either side of his bike, staring into a deep green thicket of forest.

“What do you see? Is it a deer?” Lily said, putting her feet down.

He turned to face her. “Wait. Do you hear that?”

Lily listened carefully. Chirping birds, droning insects, faint laughter from a campsite. “What exactly should I be hearing?”

Willow’s curly blonde hair almost hung into his eyes, but she could still see that he was freaked out about something. His mouth scrunched up in annoyance. “Come on, Lily! Can’t you hear it? It’s singing! And a guitar. Some campfire song I kinda remember from summer camp.”

Lily listened again. This time she faintly heard voices singing along with a guitar. It did sound like an old song they’d heard at camp:

Mr. Moon, Mr. Moon, you’re out too soon,

The sun is still in the sky.

Go back to your bed and cover up your head,

And wait til the day is night.

            She would have expected to hear this song coming from a campsite at night. Instead, she heard it coming from the forest somewhere beyond them.

            “I want to go see who’s singing,” Willow said, pushing down the kickstand on his bike and setting it up on the side of the road. “Wanna come with me?”

            Lily looked around. Their bikes would be safely out of the way. There was still plenty of daylight left for them to explore. Besides she was curious about the song, too. “Okay,” she said. She left her bike and followed her brother into the woods.

            There was no trail, so Willow had to beat down the underbrush with his sneakers and push branches aside to make progress. Lily defended herself against the branches when they snapped back in her face.

            “Who do you think they are?” Lily asked. She had already decided the mysterious song came from some campers roughing it outside the regular campsites. There was something haunting about the way they sang though.

            “Ghosts, of course,” Willow said over his shoulder.

            “Seriously? How do you get ghosts from a group of campers singing a song?” Lily said with a chuckle. “You are so weird sometimes.”

            Willow stopped and held back a branch so he could see her face. “Did you hear Dad talking about it the other night? The reason we were able to get last minute reservations was because campers say this place is haunted.”

            “A haunted campground?” Lily said. “Dad must have been trying to scare you.”

            “I thought so, too. But then I researched it on the internet. Ten years ago, there was a huge wildfire up here. Almost took out the town of Julian. All the campgrounds were evacuated. Except there were some campers that went out into the woods to get away from other people. They didn’t realize the fire was that close. The wind blew up and none of them escaped alive.”

            “Wow! That’s terrible,” Lily said.

            Willow nodded. “Yeah, it was. The camp was closed for the rest of the summer, until they could make repairs. The next year when campers came back, they started to complain about hearing strange sounds. Singing in the woods. Some people said they were the ghosts of the campers who got caught in the wildfire.”

            “There’s no such thing as ghosts,” Lily said. “Maybe someone is playing a prank.”

            “Let’s find out,” Willow said. He pulled out his phone from his pocket. “I’m going to take pictures of the ghosts or pranksters. Whatever. When I post this on Instagram, I’ll get thousands of new followers.” He turned and continued toward the music.

            Lily followed behind him, wondering how she allowed her brother to get her involved in another one of his ridiculous schemes. The singing was getting louder, and now she could tell that there was at least one adult and more than one kid singing. It sounded like only one acoustic guitar. She suppressed a shiver. It was chilly in the shade here, compared to riding in the sun. She was glad they were both wearing jeans since it was hard to tell whether they were walking through poison ivy.

            They were surrounded by young trees growing close together, the canopy of leaves overhead not yet thick enough to block patchy sunlight from filtering through. Blackened stumps and fallen black limbs poking out through the undergrowth were the only reminders that a wildfire had destroyed this area years ago.

            The singing went on, song after song. It was getting louder. Now Lily could also hear the crackling and popping of a campfire. They kept walking toward the sounds.

            Willow pulled aside more branches, and a clearing opened before them. A large fire was burning in the middle, contained by a ring of rocks. The singing stopped.

            Lily gasped and grabbed Willow’s arm, pulling down his phone.  

The Unreached Mountain

After our first Jeep trip to the Salton Sea, I thought our Wrangler was invincible. My husband, Frank, and I rode through sand, rocks, ditches, and narrow squeezes as easy as driving the freeways of Southern California. Sometimes even at the same slow speed.

The next trip we camped near Anza-Borrego State Park. The other four-wheelers with us had brand new Broncos and a 2003 tricked-out Rubicon. We were a little outclassed. Our 2004 Wrangler had 32” tires but otherwise was stock. However, we weren’t too concerned. The trails we planned were considered “easy” and “moderate.”

A few hours into the ride, Frank and I sat eating sandwiches inside our Jeep looking up with regret at our crew perched on the mountain.

Our day started out easy enough. Our group of four vehicles entered the windswept sandstone canyon and followed a creek bed. At first, we saw regular motorhomes and four-wheel drive trucks camped under the shade of the canyon walls. Other Jeep groups and single off-roaders passed by on this main part of the trail. I wouldn’t have camped there with all that billowing dust.

As the canyon walls closed in on us, we still saw a few Jeeps and trucks with popup tents on top of them. Full camping kitchens were balanced on rocks. People sat under EZ up canopies to block out the unrelenting sun. The trail became narrow with sharp rocks that poked out of the sand, waiting to pierce our tires.

We kept up with the rest of our group despite our lower stance. Jeff, our experienced leader, turned off the main trail and headed up a side wash. The rocks were a hand’s touch from the sides of our vehicles, especially the wider Broncos. We crawled over the boulders and inched past the protruding edges of the canyon walls.

The trail turned sharply to the left. A sandy trail led straight up the face of a cliff. There were many tire tracks showing the success of others before us. We all stopped and allowed each vehicle to climb the mountain alone in case they had to back down and try again.

Jeff in his Rubicon made it up there easily. Then one of the Broncos scaled it. It was our turn. Frank adjusted his gears and gave it some gas. I hung on and closed my eyes. We bounced up to the top. I turned toward our dogs in the back, and our border collie, Davey, had a wild look in his eyes. Our beagle, Harley, was buried in the seat.

Our group joined several Jeeps that were parked on a flat mesa overlooking the mountains and desert. We got out and took a break, talking about our next move. Should we go down and try another branch of the canyon? Above us was another trail that went up onto a sandstone ridge. I could see a few Jeeps parked up there. We decided that would be our lunch stop.

Jeff found the trail leading up and we followed slowly. The side of the cliff was deep soft sand with patches of rock. Frank and I got stuck a couple of times and had to drop back and try it again. One last section remained before the top.

Jeff parked and stood out on a rock with his radio so he could spot us. Our first Bronco went up and got stuck. Jeff gave him directions on the radio, and with a few adjustments he was up the hill. From our viewpoint, his wheels were all twisted different directions as he clung to the uneven surface.

It was our turn.

Starting on soft sand made it hard to get up the speed we would need. Frank threw it in low gear and we shot up. Near the lip there were several deep ditches close together. We hit the first one.

Clunk! Spin! We were stuck. Frank threw it in reverse and tried it again. Clunk! Spin! Jeff offered suggestions which we tried unsuccessfully.

We were too low to navigate the ditches.

Frank backed down and found a place out of the way of the other Jeeps coming behind us. The last Bronco in our group made it up the hill. I stepped outside to give the dogs a break, but heat radiated off the deep sand and the dogs were not interested. We decided to stay inside and eat our lunch.

After a while, Jeff radioed us that the group was coming back down. We joined them and completed the rest of the trip.

Were we disappointed? Yes. Were we embarrassed? Not really. Our friends are people we’ve ridden Harleys with for years. There was no condemnation. You ride your own ride.

Back at camp, we talked about our favorite parts of the day. Red rock sculptures and vast desert vistas unseen by regular roads. Old rusted minecart trestle covered in bright colored graffiti. Groups of people gathered to shoot their guns at a desolate mountain. A tiny bar filled with thirsty off-roaders.

Tomorrow we would go back to our regular lives, but for this weekend we were explorers and adventurers.

And I would have to complete a few more days of substitute teaching to pay for upgrades to our Jeep.

The dog beach

The shy March sun caressed my bare shoulders as we waded through dry sand. I held our beagle’s leash firmly even though we were on the dog beach. It was Harley’s first experience around other off-leash dogs. She stayed at my side, her brown eyes wide and her tail hooked down in the question mark position.

The shoreline was a flurry of activity. Dogs dashed past into frothing waves. Owners threw frisbees and balls. Tails wagged and rear ends were sniffed. My husband and I found a spot at the edge of the wet sand and set up our chairs. I held my breath and unhooked Harley’s leash, wondering if she would run off. She cowered behind my chair.

The sky was brilliant blue and clear of clouds, although helicopters made regular appearances as they monitored the coastline. The sand and breeze were cool, balancing out the relentless rays of the sun. Not quite swimsuit weather for me, although some of the other beach goers didn’t shy away from them.

A white Lab trotted over to check us out. His friendly face convinced us to allow him to approach Harley. Our beagle froze in place while the dog sniffed her. Whew! We made it through one encounter.

To our left, someone had left their towel and bad in the sand while they were at the water. Two dogs came up to sniff around it. One raised his leg. A woman in a bikini shouted at them and they scattered. Harley watched intently.

Another group of dogs flew past us and circled around to that same towel and bag. Barking madly, Harley jumped up and raced over there to chase them off. I called her and she returned, proud of herself.

It was a pleasant morning watching dogs enjoy themselves. Smiling and panting, soaked with sea water, they raced up and down the water line. The owners actively supervised their dog children to prevent fights. Harley didn’t join in, but she watched.

After a few hours, our pink skin convinced us we’d had enough sun for the day. As I clipped on Harley’s leash, she held me with her sad eyes. We walked toward the Jeep, half-dragging her with us.

Maybe next time she’ll be ready to join the fun.

Two Wheels to Four-Wheel Drive

When my husband was forced to sell his Harley, it seemed like the end of the world. The Harley world had been family to us. Our access to adventure and fellowship were suddenly taken away like a thief breaking into our garage. But this thief was chronic illness, cruel and relentless. Slowly over the years, my husband lost the strength and energy to safely ride a motorcycle. Our riding days were over.

How could we replace roaring down back roads viewing God’s art galleries of nature? Swapping stories with other riders in tiny diners only bikers know about?

We bought a 2004 Jeep Wrangler, bright yellow, that we named Digger.

Some of our Harley friends also had off road vehicles so we planned a weekend trip to the Salton Sea. They invited other Jeep friends and suddenly we had a new group to ride with. Following their motorhome down to the desert felt a little like the HOG rides we’d taken in the past.

The first day we set up at the campground and met the others who would ride with us the next day. In the morning, my husband let out enough air out of Digger’s tires so that we could travel the sand without getting stuck. When it was time, we lined up behind the other Jeeps. One of the experienced Jeepers rode “sweep” like on a Harley group ride. We turned off the main road and hit the dirt.

Slowly. Definitely not at the pace of a Harley.

It’s a different world when you leave the asphalt. Tire tracks in the sand were our only street signs. Instead of cars and trucks competing for highway space, we had to share the dry riverbeds with Razors and ATVs.

The incredible scenery rivaled a Harley ride.

I snapped photos of bat caves, abandoned railroad trestles, and even a palm tree oasis. I held my breath as we climbed a steep hill to reach raised railroad tracks. Our beagle in the back seat covered her eyes, unlike our border collie who watched the road eagerly. The wood and iron from the railroad tracks had been cleared away, leaving the flat gravel surface. The trail was only as wide as a train, with steep drop-offs on either side. It reminded me of a Utah highway we rode with our Harley.

As we followed the railbed, I snapped pictures from our elevated position over the desert. After a while, we encountered mounds of soft dirt piled up on the tracks to prevent off road vehicles from going any further. That didn’t stop our leader. His Jeep was lifted much higher than ours, and for a moment my heart fluttered. Would we get stuck on the top of the dirt pile?

Of course that was an incentive for my husband. As we reached the top of the dirt, I heard a soft swushing under our Jeep, but we made it back down the other side. I started breathing again.

Riding off road can be jarring especially on some of well-traveled trails that have been worn down into washboard ruts. Our Jeep jerked back and forth so much I had to brace myself against the center console and the door. Riding on our Ultra Limited had been much smoother. We dipped down into ravines so deep I was positive we were going to end up planted headfirst in the bottom. But our trusty Jeep climbed in and out of them like it was a regular road.

One thing I learned—the desert is not flat.

On the way back to the campground, we traveled down a canal access road that was gravel but well maintained. That was welcome relief.

When we reached our motorhomes, my friend and I headed to the mineral springs at the resort. We soothed our tight muscles as the sun set into the desert night. My brain appreciated not being jiggled for a while.

Later by the propane campfire, we devoured steaks, potatoes, and corn roasted on the grill. We shared stories and learned more about the new Jeep people we had met. My husband was tired, but it was well worth it.

We may have lost Harley adventures, but we had gained a new world to explore off the paved road.

Rush Around and Relax

As I glance at clothes draped over the chair, bags on the kitchen table, and my long list on the counter, I consider that it takes a great deal of energy to relax.

Camping is my reset button.

My husband and I get out every month in our C-class motorhome to spend some time at the beach or in the mountains. Sometimes we set up at campgrounds that have full hookups (electricity, water, sewer) and sometimes we use state or federal campgrounds that only provide a picnic table and a campfire ring. Either works for us, as we don’t watch TV or use electronics very much when we are away.

We love to walk our dogs, Harley and Davidson, around the camp or into the woods. Other times, we kick back on our zero gravity chairs at our campsite and talk. I have outlined a novel and a few plays during those conversations. We’ve also brainstormed two names for motorcycles. No chores, no errands.

As relaxing as camping can be, it takes a lot to get there. Cleaning and prepping the motorhome. Packing it with groceries, water, clothes, dog supplies, and medications.

Every camping trip we usually forget something, so it’s my job to make sure the forgotten item is not essential. We have forgotten pillows, toothbrushes, shirts, flip flops, and bread. My all-inclusive packing list, which seems to grow longer with each excursion, attempts to prevent these mistakes.

Packing the motorhome can take up to a week, sometimes longer than the camping trip itself. Fortunately, our rig is parking in our backyard which allows us access at any time. Several times a day, I carry armfuls of essential items into the rig and find places to stash them. Surprising how much stuff we can fit into it.

The day finally arrives. The dogs are crated on the motorhome couch, we have drinks and snacks in the cab, and we pull out into the alley behind our home. We’re on the road.

When we arrive at our destination and back the motorhome into our campsite, it is all worth it. We escaped the responsibilities at home and can relax and enjoy being out in nature.

And usually at that point, I’m ready for a nap.

How I survive in the heat

Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

Inland Southern California has an inverse winter. In less temperate areas, like the Midwest where I grew up, you have to spend a lot of time indoors for at least four months a year due to freezing temperatures and snow. In a similar way, inland So Cal has three months in the summer where triple digit days force us into the safety of our airconditioned homes.

For Californians, who consider being outside our “family room” and “dining room,” this can seem very confining. Fortunately, we can escape to the beach or the mountains. But braving the traffic on the freeways is not always appealing.

My escape is our swimming pool. As an elementary teacher, I have summers off and can enjoy it daily. Our pool is a refuge after errands and housework. A planning room for my husband and me. A playground for our grandkids. A hangout for friends and relatives. When my kids were young, we would roll out our big screen TV outside the back door and watch movies from the pool in the evening.

When we get a string of days over 100 degrees, you’ll find me floating on my lounge chair, ice tea in the cupholder, and my waterproof Kindle in my hand. That’s how I spend my “winter.”

West Coast Thunder Weekend

 

Image may contain: 1 person, standing, crowd, text and outdoor

In the teachers’ lounge, someone asked, “What are you doing over Memorial Day Weekend?”

“Riding in a parade with 8000 other motorcycles,” I said.

Each Memorial Day, West Coast Thunder sponsors a motorcycle ride that goes through Riverside, California, past the Riverside National Cemetery, and to a concert destination (this year Lake Elsinore Storm Stadium). It is a charity event that supports the Riverside National Cemetery.

Riverside Harley-Davidson sponsors the starting point, and our HOG chapter is there to help. Some will flip burgers at the dealership Saturday and Sunday, while others will man the stops for the Annual Poker Run.

But Monday is the main event. My husband and I plan to meet other HOG members at 3:30 a.m. to secure our place in the bike lineup. There are so many different kinds of motorcycles, not just Harleys, that show up for the parade. Walking down the rows of bikes staged between k-rails helps pass the time until the 9:11 a.m. KSU (kick stands up).

So don’t call me Sunday night. My phone will be on “Do Not Disturb.” And maybe I’ll wave to you as you sit with your beach chairs and flags along the route.

 

 

 

 

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