(Originally published in the Beach Reporter, in Manhattan Beach, CA on 8/27/92.)
It was with great trepidation that we set out for Camp Eucalyptus on a hot summer Saturday morning. My two co-leaders for Brownie Troop No. 569, and I, were to devote an entire day to learning basic camping skills so that we might pass that knowledge along to our little urban-dwelling Brownies.
I didn’t bother doing my nails the night before, and I certainly didn’t wear any makeup. I was there to get down and dirty – and down and dirty we got.
Camp Eucalyptus is a patch of urban wilderness set down smack-dab in the middle of El Segundo. After years of living in the area, I never even knew it was there.
It’s an official Girl Scout campground and is available for both for training leaders, and for actual camp-outs for troops. We wondered about the barbed wire running along the fence top, though, and would we really want to camp right under the holding pattern for planes at LAX?
Our instructor for the day was Anita, a no-nonsense woman who was the female equivalent of Indiana Jones. She even wore Indiana’s hat, although hers was more dusty. Anita turned out to have a very good sense of humor, which is a requirement for being a troop leader, because you need to laugh a lot or you will go crazy.
Lee and Deborah and I sat primly at the wooden picnic tables with about twenty other leaders, wondering if we were going to have to go to REI Co-op and get hats like Anita’s. I didn’t think I’d seen them at Nordstrom.
Like good Brownie leaders, we all had our required items that we had brought along for the training class: an egg carton, charcoal briquettes, a jackknife, a hatchet, and some paraffin.
I had practiced walking around my house the night before like Kathy Bates, saying, “By tomorrow night I’ll be an expert with this thing, so everybody better shape up.”
I had a cheapo jackknife, but some of the women had really cool knives that actually strapped to their waists and looked like you could skin a bear with them. I’d be lucky to skin an apple with mine.
I had, until that day, never held, much less used, a jackknife or hatchet. By the end of the day we could all chop kindling from a chunk of wood and shave tinder with our knives. We learned how to make overhand knots and a clove hitch. We melted paraffin over a Coleman stove and poured it over briquettes placed in egg cartons to make a safe fire-starter.
We sliced apples with our jackknives, put them in foil with brown sugar and butter, and put them in the fire to bake. They were delicious.
We practiced opening and carrying our knives. No one got injured. We also practiced passing our knives around the circle. Apparently we need to show the girls all of these safety skills or they will be slicing off fingers left and right.
We forgot we were in El Segundo and we stood around the campfire, twenty women ages thirty-something and up, and rubbed our hands together over the fire in the early morning fog, and drank instant coffee in mugs we had all brought along. A Girl Scout leader is nothing, if not prepared.
It will be up to us to impart a knowledge of safety in the outdoors to a group of girls who know more about Nintendo than they do about how to roll and tie a sleeping bag properly. We need to teach them good manners in the outdoors, first aid, how to dress properly (no halter-tops or thongs), how to choose a spot for a fire, how to build a fire and put it out, how to cook for themselves and their patrol, how to protect the natural world, and how to tie knots and lash things with rope.
We are supposed to help them learn about the stars, the moon, and the night sky. We will teach them how to build trail signs from rocks, pebbles, and bunches of grass and sticks.
Did I mention that my idea of roughing it is staying at a Best Western? That my idea of a field trip until Camp Skills 101 was a trip to Chez Melange for Sunday brunch?
But as we whittled our wood and sliced our apples, talked about our girls, melted our paraffin, practiced our clove hitches, got all smoky-smelling, and listened to Anita tell us about her twelve years as a leader for her daughter’s troop and how they have camped all over the U. S. together; I thought, maybe this won’t be so bad after all.
After all, from a room in the Ritz Carlton, you can’t see the Big Dipper, and you certainly can’t get s’mores. Not even from room service.