‘Come pick up your camper’


By Marsha Sutton

The first call came at 7 p.m. Monday night.

It was an automated announcement saying everything was fine and the fire was not affecting any camp activities.

Fire? What fire?

We had dropped off our son at his favorite camp in Idyllwild last Sunday, July 14, for a 12-day stay. This was his last year there before he aged out.

After hours of planning and map-gazing – debating possible destinations, travel times, sights along the way – my husband and I decided to use those 12 days to take a driving trip throughout the Southwest, something we’ve always wanted to do.

The number of hours spent planning the trip – booking and re-booking hotels, and solidifying the final itinerary – was mind-boggling. But once done, we were more than ready to hit the road.

Driving along the highways through the wide open spaces is something I grew up with in the Midwest. That was the era of “See the USA in your Chevrolet” – although we always traveled in Oldsmobiles.

I still find it the most relaxing way to travel and love the freedom from inconvenient airline departure times, crowded airports, ridiculous security checks, claustrophobic planes and costly rental cars.

That was then, last week. Today, if I ever see the inside of that car for more than 15 minutes, I’ll go crazy.

All was well until two hours after leaving camp in Idyllwild, when the left rear bumper on our two-year-old Lexus popped loose, rattling enough to cause worry. We persevered until the banging got so loud that we became apprehensive that the piece of bumper might rip off and crash through another car’s windshield.

In retrospect, we should have regarded this setback as an omen and returned home at once.

A second inspection on the side of the freeway, as vehicles sped along inches from us at 80 miles per hour, revealed that the bumper was flapping hard enough to begin to tear. So my husband just ripped the damn thing off and threw it in the back seat where it stayed for the duration of our Southwest adventure.

Problem solved, although the car looked ready for the junkyard, with a gaping hole where the bumper used to be.

Our first night was a stop-over in Sedona, just a place to sleep before heading the next day to Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the next four days and nights. Never having been to Santa Fe, I considered it the highlight of the trip, and two full days of driving was going to be worth it.

After settling into our hotel quarters (upgraded to a suite when the room we booked was unavailable), bliss over our spacious surroundings was interrupted by the call from camp.

Quick check on the Internet revealed a growing fire out of control near Idyllwild that began less than 24 hours after camp got underway. The Mountain Fire was moving away from camp, so not to worry, the recording said.

So we didn’t.

The next day, although overcast with scattered showers, we plotted out a walking tour of Santa Fe that covered all the high points of this charming town.

Some unexpected intestinal distress about an hour into our walk gave me the unwelcome opportunity to visit some of the nicest bathrooms in Santa Fe – La Posada Resort, Loretto Inn and Spa, La Fonda, and my favorite (or at least most frequented) – the Eldorado Hotel.

Popping Imodium like M&Ms, I lasted until mid-afternoon when Santa Fe lost its charm and we called it a day.

After staggering back to our luscious suite, we retreated, rested and nibbled on carrots and crackers for dinner (forget all that refined, delectable cuisine at renowned restaurants for which Santa Fe is famous).

Later that night, we tried to ignore the gnawing feeling of dread after receiving another update from camp which advised us not to worry, even though the fire was spreading.

Again overcast and chilly despite the promised 90-degree weather, the next day we decided to drive to Taos, explore the town and tour the famous Taos Pueblo. Although it was an all-day affair to drive there, spend several hours, and drive back the long scenic route, the Taos Pueblo was fascinating and memorable.

It is about 1,000 years old and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960. In 1992 it was named a World Heritage Site and is a living monument to what is considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited community in the country.

The Taos Pueblo community is known for being one of the most private in existence. The people’s religion, language, practices, traditions and culture are kept secret.

With no running water or electricity, the people of Taos Pueblo live simple lives and can trace their ancestry back to a time before the arrival of the Spanish conquerors.

About 150 people live in the historic complex full-time. Friendly but somewhat guarded, residents of the pueblo go on about their lives as tours are conducted around them.

Upon our return to Santa Fe later that evening, after being booted out of our suite and moved (forcibly, almost) to a regular room, another update came from camp. This time it was the same chipper voice saying everything was still fine.

But then this piece of news: “The Riverside Fire Department has ordered a mandatory evacuation of camp.”

Hmmm … a sense of foreboding. Again, forget the nice dinner. We hung by the phone.

At 10 p.m., the next call was a stunner: “We have arrived safely at the Hemet Red Cross shelter. We would love for you to come pick up your camper.”

Come pick up your camper?!?!?

These were five dreaded words that no parent ever wants to hear, especially parents who were four days into a 12-day vacation and two days’ drive from the pick-up site.

Home now under cloudy skies at the beach, I’m trying not to think about how we were supposed to be white-water rafting today in Durango, Colorado, after leaving Santa Fe. Then there was to be a much anticipated visit to Mesa Verde National Park, then three days in Moab, Utah, and Arches and Canyonlands National Parks for hiking and more river rafting, capped by two nights in Palm Springs at a five-star resort with fantastic mid-week summer rates.

But as John Lennon famously said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Two more days of driving back home, cancelling hotel reservations along the way, translated into five of six days sitting in a car. Naturally, the day we left Santa Fe was gloriously sunny and warm at last.

Meanwhile, our intrepid camper spent the first night of his evacuation in a hotel with the rest of the campers whose parents couldn’t drop everything at 10 p.m. and drive to Hemet to pick them up. This included kids from New York and one from Russia.

The second night he was rescued by a friend who kept him safe in Los Angeles until we could come retrieve him.

We just got the news of the official all-clear for evacuees to return to Idyllwild, six days after the fire had started. However, the decision had been made earlier to cancel camp permanently. So after two smoky days, camp was over for the summer.

Conflicted about who to feel more sorry for – us for an aborted vacation or our son for a disappointingly shortened camp experience – we got word that a dear friend had just been diagnosed with glioblastoma and was recovering from emergency brain surgery.


Our son is fine, no one was injured at camp, we made it back safely, rear bumper and all, and we live in beautiful and politically torrid San Diego – where the steamy news almost makes up for the chilly weather.

Meanwhile, if anyone wants a ready-made, thoroughly researched 12-day driving trip through the Southwest, I can make some recommendations.

— Marsha Sutton can be reached at SuttComm@san.rr.com.