Since the time when I was a young boy I have loved camping, and that is probably because my camping experience got off to a wonderful start. Summer or winter my father would load up our family car and we would drive the forty six miles to the campground of Green Valley Falls in the Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, where he would pay for a space and park where our home would be for a day and a night, or perhaps several days and nights. The road in those days was U.S. Highway 80, a winding two lane road which climbed into the Laguna Mountains and eventually wound and twisted down the east side of those mountains through canyons and around boulders the size of a house, down to the floor of the desert which stretched all the way to central Texas.
After forty miles or so California Route 79 branched off of the highway and led north towards the old mining town of Julian. This road was more narrow and more serpentine even than was Highway 80, and I was almost certain to get carsick on this stretch of road if I hadn’t already. We would pass by Descanso Junction, which was only a small country store, and shortly cross over the boundary of the State Park. By the time we pulled into the parking space next to our camp site it felt like we had been driving for hours, and depending upon the traffic in which it was almost impossible to pass slower vehicles, we might have actually been driving for nearly two hours.
Unloading the car and setting up the camp was an ordeal for two boys who wanted nothing more than to break away and go create our own fantasy world down by, and in the summer in the middle of, the Sweetwater River, which could hardly be called even a creek by a generous description. Mom would begin stocking our canned and packaged food into a wooden pantry provided at every campsite. Brad, my brother, would carry boxes of grocery items to Mom and she would arrange what was to be her kitchen. Dad would haul out the big, heavy canvas umbrella tent that he ‘requisitioned’ from the Navy. He and I would lay the tent out in a big square and fasten the corners to the ground with big, steel railroad spikes. I have no idea where the spikes came from. After securing the corners I would enter the tent and hold it up as high as I could while Dad brought in a two inch thick wooden pole which was the center support. Four steel arms radiated from this pole and were slipped into metal-ringed eyelets in the four corners of the roof of the tent. When fully extended theses arms held the corners taut while the six foot wooden pole held the center of the tent up. Four more spikes, one in the middle of each side of the tent, were pounded into the ground and our home away from home was ready for occupation.
The remaining details of setting up our camp were trifling and our father soon cut us boys loose to go play, accompanied by a menacing order to ‘Stay out of that river and don’t get wet.” Of course he knew that we would make a beeline into that river so straight that it would astound even an ancient Greek geometrician. We would play in that water and around the beaver dams and on the slippery rocks near the falls which tumbled down a dangerous height over smooth boulders under jagged rock promontories. Mom was certain that we would get killed playing in that creek. Dad probably thought that it was a possibility, but that the odds were low enough that the glory of the freedom we enjoyed outweighed the risk.
Upon returning to our camp, usually after Dad came looking for us, we could smell the dinner which Mom was cooking on the stone camp stove which was part of the campsite, or on the Coleman stove which Dad had surprisingly bought legitimately at a store, or on the contraption which Dad had cobbled together out of bits of scrap metal which he called his ‘charcoal broiler’. Dad was a welder in the Navy and came up with all manner of wondrous inventions which we used around the house. Food always tastes better when it is cooked and eaten outside, and these meals were unforgettable. After dinner we would clean up and frequently walk down to where a ring of logs were secured to the ground in a semicircle which was centered on a fire pit. We would sit on those logs in the evening as it began to get dark and a ranger would light a large fire and give a nature talk that would address the fauna and flora and geology and history of the State Park. Afterwards we returned to our campsite to bed down for the night; Mom and Dad in the big brown tent while Brad and I would curl up on wood and canvas cots, also courtesy of the U.S. Navy, and under thick olive drab Navy blankets. Those were some of the finest nights’ sleep that I can remember.
Whether we camped in summer or winter, the first hours of the day were my favorites. I was a controlled pyromaniac as a child, never causing damage but always fascinated with being around fire. Like a moth I was drawn to flames. Every summer there would be fires in the brush choked canyons of San Diego and when one would be close to my house I would quickly mount my bicycle and follow the sound of the sirens until I reached the site of the blaze. In later years I would even descend into the canyons to help drag the firemen’s hoses, but that is a different story.
Dad recognized my enjoyment of a good blaze and harnessed it constructively. I was put in charge of getting the fire started in the big stone and iron camp stove upon which Mom would cook most of our meals. At night before we went to bed Dad would give me one match and tell me to use it wisely. The next morning I would use that one match and have a good bed of coals over which Mom would cook; that is, if I used that match well as Dad advised. It was a game between Dad and me but it was also a point of pride.
Summer presented no obstacle to producing a good breakfast fire, but winter was another matter entirely. If we cooked our first evening meal on the Coleman stove and/or the charcoal broiler there was a better than even chance that the camp stove was caked in snow and ice. This would require that I use a hatchet to hack enough ice away from the ten inch square steel door which dropped open to expose the fire chamber of the stove. After that I would remove as much ice as I could from the steel grate which was set in the stone above the fire chamber so that the melting ice would not extinguish my precious fire. I could never get it all, but usually I scraped enough away to give my one match a fighting chance.
Then came the all-important preparation of the fuel. With increasingly freezing fingers I would use a large knife to shave slivers of wood from assorted sticks and other small bits of lumber which Dad brought to fuel our cooking fires. First came the tiny slivers which would catch fire quickly and then even larger shavings until I could add small sticks and would then be on my way. By the time I was ready to strike my one match my fingers would be numb and body shaking from the cold, and with the scratch of that one match across the abrasive surface of a match box or paper match book, depending upon which type of match Dad had given to me, the bright flare of the initial ignition followed by the small, pure flame of the burning match lit my hope for a continued status of master fire starter just as surely as it ignited the layered pile of kindling which I had so carefully arranged in the fire chamber.
Nearly always the fire caught on quickly, beginning in the very fine shavings and then growing as larger splinters ignited. I would keep my hands close to the fire, shifting my kindling and adding more and larger pieces while enjoying the warmth which my aching fingers craved. As the fire grew to a point where the remaining ice on the grill overhead began to melt I would brush it over the side with hatchet and hands, which further froze my frigid digits, but with this last maneuver the fire was free to grow and pour warmth and cheer out of the stove and return my hands to a pain-free state in a very short time.
All of this scraping and chopping and carrying on produced a good deal of noise and my parents, being light sleepers, would awaken in the tent and wait until the sounds died down, which indicated that I was sitting smugly in front of a roaring fire. Mom would then arise and emerge from the tent to get the coffee started and begin breakfast. Dad came out shortly after Mom, inspected the fire, and gave me a pat on the back and an ‘attaboy’. That meant everything in the world to me.
One thing which I took for granted in those times was the honesty of the other campers. We would go on family hikes and leave our stove and icebox and sleeping gear and everything else right where they sat or lay and be gone for hours at a time. Always, things were exactly where we had left them when we returned. Brad and I would go straight to the icebox fter a long, hot hike and retrieve a twelve ounce glass bottle of Coca Cola. The icebox was another metal contraption cobbled together by my father in the repair shop where he worked in the Navy, and we would fill it with ice and bacon and eggs and Cokes and everything else which we wanted to keep cold. Brad and I got to drink two Cokes per day each and in the warm summertimes it was a treat indeed. I cannot now imagine expecting such a level of trust in other campers in most public campgrounds.
Finally the time would come to break camp and return to the city. Dad would extract the wooden pole from the big tent and after loosening and withdrawing the steel spikes, we would fold up the tent and stuff it into the deep trunk of the car. Icebox and Coleman stove and lantern and any remaining food and empty Coke bottles, which we could return for three cents each, filled out the trunk and the space between Brad and I in the back seat. All of the trash went into cans chained to wood posts near the campsite and we left the space as clean as we found it, and sometimes cleaner.
Many other features of my camping trips I have described elsewhere already; the hiking, the precautions against stumbling onto a rattlesnake, the climbing of trees and sliding on our fannies across wet, slippery rocks near the waterfall area. When I was a little bit older I would fish for trout which were stocked in the tiny ‘river’ and on one trip met a couple of girls from the Los Angeles area with whom I connected and wrote letters to and visited for several years to come. That campground will always be a magical place in my memories of childhood. I don’t know if places as wonderful as that exist in our country anymore, and in truth I don’t really know if that place even then was as wonderful as it remains in my mind. What I can confidently say is that Green Valley Falls campground in the 1950’s was as close to heaven on earth as this writer has experienced in six decades of life.