My friend Sydney and I tried to figure out when we should have known the river trip was a bad idea. Sign #1 may have been when we pulled up and waited for 15 minutes while a backwoodsy dude in a pickup chatted up the lady giving parking passes, while the line to enter the park coiled behind him to infinity. Or it could have been when a family came to their cars and we asked “Are you leaving?” to see if we could have their parking spot, and a rotund chimney of a man snarled “eventually”, hopping up into the flatbed to grab a Miller Lite from the cooler. But in time we got the space, and waited for Olive to wake up so we could get down to the water.
The station wagon baked with heat, and beads of sweat formed on her little face, yet she slept on. Hideously hot, Syd and I began calling this “The Nap to End All Naps”, as Olive’s trip to Dreamworld stretched on. We decided the only thing to make the experience better was opening the bottle of champagne we had purchased from a teenager named Takara with a face full of makeup at Andronico’s in Santa Barbara, so we pulled out the lovely bottle, excited to toast our ability to pack up and get out into the wild for a day, even with a 10-month-old in tow.
But we quickly learned why this gorgeous bottle of Italian sparkling wine was on sale — it was designed for form and not function, and was seemingly impossible to open. Sydney and I are strong people, and it took us literally 20 minutes of effort to get just the outside cap off, and then a good 5 more to twist off the inner one. At this point we were both thinking this needed to be pretty good effing champagne for all that work, but alas, we were foiled again. Sickeningly sweet, the pretty container yielded a disgusting liquid that can only be described as raspberry schnapps. I figured that was the end of that, but Syd insisted on bringing it with us to the river, after all the work we put into opening it, so she recapped it and put it in the bag with all our stuff. Olive finally woke up, and we headed out, picking our way over rocks and brambles to find a slighter cooler spot than the oven of a car we’d spent the last hour in.
However, when we reached the water’s edge, we found it wall to wall with people, one of them with blaring synthesizer music, taking us back to a time when “bwah buh buh bown bown bown buh-bwwwaaah bown!” was a common phrase. I didn’t know whether to dance or cry. Wading out into the murky water was painful on the feet, and thinking I was giving Olive a little treat in the heat, I dipped her feet in. She instantly started her mantra of unhappiness, reserved for when she sees cats, dogs, or is in any way separated from me “Ma ma ma ma ma ma ma ma ma MAMA mama ma ma MAma!” So I lifted her up, a little bummed that she apparently hated this experience we’d gone to so much trouble to have, wondering why I was so excited to teach her the word “Mama” in the first place. But maybe the girl was on to something.
As we tried to find a place to set up camp, we heard a deafening “POP!” and Syd turned to me with an expression of disbelief. From the vibe of the families around us, for some reason I thought someone had thrown a water balloon at us, but she quickly set me straight,”The gross champagne… just burst in the bag!” All of our stuff — towels, extra baby clothes, magazines, food — was totally covered in the saccharine stink of liqueur. So much for kicking back with a disgusting yet slightly refreshing cocktail!
To get away from the people that I will tactfully call “folksy”, I took Olive further down the river, to a little ledge on the edge of the forest. Syd leapt in the water to beat the heat, and Olive tolerated being held by her, as long as she was able to gnaw on a carrot whilst being near the water. For a moment, I thought we’d done it. I’d escaped my incredibly stressful life, and we were enjoying a day in the sun, by the water, despite all the inconveniences the trip had had. When Olive proved done with being held in the water, Syd handed her over and I snuggled up to her, so happy for the time with her. I thought about how this week was the first since my maternity leave that I had spent day-in day-out with Olive, and how much I was loving this special time with her.
Undoubtedly, parenting her without my husband for a whole week was really difficult. The intensity of parenting solo is something incredible to behold. When a baby is only really comfortable with you and one other person, and that other person is absent for an extended period of time, the attachment solidifies into a desperate need, and Olive never let me get more than 5 feet away from her the whole week without letting me know that it was 100% not okay with her. But in that moment on the ledge, watching my old friend swim the river, holding my little baby girl, I felt content, and like maybe I could pull this whole thing off!
Syd snapped a picture of this moment, and you can see the peace on my face. Olive looks less sure. I think this girl is very perceptive, because moments later I saw the snake. If you look closely in the picture, you can see what looks like a snake hole to the left of us. Whether it crawled out of there or not, all I knew is one moment I was feeling all grateful and accomplished — I was a city girl in nature and I was doing just fine! — and the next I was looking down and seeing the hugest black and orange snake I have ever seen slither right next to my baby daughter and I. Instantly I got to my feet, hauling Olive and myself out of there, leaving all our stuff and my friend behind, simply saying to Syd, “There’s a snake, there’s a snake, there’s a snake.” Sydney screamed, jumped out of the water and followed suit. She was terrified, and once we were at a safe distance she told me that when I got up, the snake reared up on itself and waved its creepy little head around, looking to attack! Then it plunked into the water, right where she was swimming. So, she jumped out and made her way to me, with two thoughts in her mind “I need to get away from that scary snake” and “I’m pissed that these weirdo people are seeing me in nothing but a bathing suit.” The girls I was standing next to marveled at my calm, and I was reminded of that part of Cedric the Entertainer’s sketch in The Original Kings of Comedy about how when the shit goes down, you just run, and find out later what you were running for.
Syd was brave and went back for her clothes. She was followed by a man and his teenage son, who, naturally, wanted to find the snake. They shouted out that they had found several snakes in a snake den, even bigger than the one that had attacked us, and they were coming this way. Syd turned to me, “We have to leave.” “Oh yes”, I replied, already getting out of there. She was kind and got our girly-drink soaked belongings, and we gave up the ghost for home, laughing all the way. On the ride back to civilization, I was sure there was a snake in the bag in the back, and was slightly terrified that any moment it would make its presence known. But mostly I was concerned with not having had my relaxing summer experience that I so wanted. Living in a city where summer almost never graces its presence, a big part of this vacation was wanting to give Olive a slice of summer fun, and to have that for myself as well. So I suggested we hit up a beach on the way back, if the fog had finally rolled out of Santa Barbara.
Not willing to chance another wildlife experiment, Syd took me to the swankiest beach I have ever encountered. The sand was fine and clear, the sky was California Blue, and, most importantly, there was a bar right by the ocean. We went straight there, ordered margaritas, and I renewed my vow to eschew nature for another year. We ended up having a beautiful time, even though we only had one hour left before we had to be back home. Olive brightened right up, digging her hands into the sand, rocking back and forth as she dug deeper into the earth. Then I took her down to the water and she squealed with delight as her feet hit the surf. There were no snakes in sight.