“Do you own a tent?”
I stared at the text in abject horror. It was from my editor, Steve, who’d pitched me this crazy idea just a few weeks earlier. He wanted to plan an entire weekend — a micro-adventure, as he called it — for me and my girlfriend, Sara. He would make all the reservations, plan all the activities, and then send an email with all of the important information about where we were going just minutes before we left. It’s a Romantic idea, and one I bought into quickly, without considering that Steve might send us camping.
It may come as a shock, but, traditionally speaking, I hate camping. In fact, I haven’t been in almost a decade, due in part to one disastrous weekend in college near the Ocoee River in east Tennessee. My friends and I spent the first night around the fire, drinking cold beers and eating grilled sausages, telling stories, laughing, and drinking some more. It wasn’t until the early morning, when one of my friends threw up in our only tent, that we realized no one had packed water.
We scrambled together at sunrise, fiercely hungover, as another friend brought out his skillet to make pancakes over the fire. He fashioned the batter by pouring the melted ice from our cooler into a plastic baggie of mysterious pancake mix. Of course, he forgot to bring any utensils, and was forced to flip the pancakes with a replica broadsword that he brought “in case of bears.”
“I don’t have a tent, but I think I can borrow one…” I texted Steve, reluctantly, and with more than a little annoyance.
He responded with a thumbs up emoji and, with that, my fate was sealed. Moments later, my phone buzzed with a notification. Steve’s email had arrived. I sat down on the edge of my bed with Sara and hesitantly clicked “open.”
The directions were simple. Steve was sending us to a campground about two hours east of my apartment in Oakland. His email included a short story to print off and read, directions to a campground, information on local attractions, and a short list of rules — mostly light hearted things, like “have fun,” and “be adventurous” — but at the bottom of the list was the one rule that I’d feared most. It filled me with dread.
“Oh no,” I whispered.
“What is it?” Sara asked.
“Steve wants me to turn my phone off for the entire weekend.”
“I feel like a pilgrim,” I said, tracing my index finger over a real, tangible, not-on-a-screen map. I was amazed at how quickly the tall buildings of the Bay Area were replaced with trees and mountains and open sky, and how easy it was to navigate without the use of GPS. We were only thirty minutes into our drive and already it felt like we were in another world.
A world I desperately wanted to live-tweet.
“You should read the story that Steve sent us,” Sara suggested, as I longingly stared at the black mirror of my switched-off phone.
I pulled the printed pages from my backpack. The story was called “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” written by Mark Twain. I’d never read the story — in fact I’ve not read much of Twain since I was in high school — but I knew Steve was excited about it. In fact, his email had asked that we read it before we go, which is something that I’d obviously forgotten to do. I cleared my throat and began to read.
“Wait,” Sara said. “Maybe you should do voices. You know, like an audiobook.”
“Well giddy up, lil darlin’!” I yelled in my best Southern accent. “There was a feller here once by the name of Jim Smiley, in the winter of ’49 or may be it was the spring of ’50. I don’t recollect, exactly. Thish-yer Smiley had a mare, the boys called her the fifteen-minute nag, but that was only in fun, you know, because, of course, she was faster than that and he used to win money on that horse, for all she was so slow and always had the asthma, or the distemper, or the consumption, or something of that kind.”
Sara was laughing hysterically, and for good reason: I sounded like a buffoon. The story is largely written in a bumpkin-esque vernacular that played well with my hammed-up Southern accent. This would make a great SnapChat, I thought.
“He ketched a frog one day, and took him home, and said he cal’klated to edercate him; and so he never done nothing for three months but set in his back yard and learn that frog to jump. And you bet you he did learn him, too. He’d give him a little punch behind, and the next minute you’d see that frog whirling in the air like a doughnut, see him turn one summerset, or may be a couple, if he got a good start, and come down flat-footed and all right, like a cat!”
“Is this story seriously about a guy teaching a frog how to jump?” Sara asked.
“I think it is,” I laughed. “Why would Steve want us to read a story about a man teaching a frog how to jump?”
It was dark by the time we made it to Angel’s Camp, a town just outside of the campground that Steve had sent us to. The town was old and antiquated, obviously maintained as such for tourists and travelers. All of the buildings were white with big windows and, at ten o’clock at night, absolutely every business was closed.
“Oh my god,” Sara muttered. “Is that Mark Twain?”
She pointed to a mural on the side of a building that was, in fact, of Mark Twain. He was standing inside of a mine in his trademark white suit, holding a frog.
“What in the hell,” I said, bewildered. It was then that we noticed that banner hanging over the main road. It read, in large green letters, “Calaveras County Frog-Town Fair.”
You guessed it. Steve had sent us to frogtown.
“Weeeeeeeell maybe we can ketched a frog fer the jumpin’ race!” I yelled, and the two of us laughed.
Sara and I set up our tent in no time, and not long after we arrived at the campsite, we found ourselves tucked away in our borrowed sleeping bags. I lay silent for the first few minutes, listening to the chorus of bugs, night creatures, and wind-in-the-trees that had replaced the traffic and sirens that I’m used to. I thought about Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. I thought about all of the feeds that I check and recheck on a daily basis and the connectivity that has defined the majority of my life. I thought about the Internet, and my waiting emails and I decided — at least for a moment — that I didn’t care.
I reached for my phone to set an alarm, only to realize that I’d left my phone in the car.
“Is everything okay?” Sara asked.
“Everything is perfect,” I said.
“Am I going to die?” I asked Sara, almost certain that the answer would be “yes.”
Sara and I had spent the morning hiking down a steep and rocky trail — one that our map had described as “moderate” — in search of a local swimming hole. Our waitress at breakfast swore that it was the most beautiful swimming hole she’d ever been to, and well worth the hike. She described the area as a cool mountain stream that went all the way through a dark cave. I asked her what was on the other side, and she told us that she’d never made it all the way through.
Standing in the cave, knee deep in the stream’s water, I understood why. The water was cold. Not just chilly, but that special “die in a warm bed, Rose” kind of cold that one experiences the moment before they breathe their last breath.
“Maybe we just have to stop thinking about it,” Sara said bravely. “Maybe we should just count to three and dive in and then swim as hard as we can to the other side.”
“I’m not a strong swimmer,” I said. “What if I go into shock? Or hyperventilate? Or just drown?”
A man waded next to us and asked if we had gone in yet. “No way,” I said, with my arms wrapped around my torso like a dying child. The man winked at Sara and dove in, head first, before surfacing just a few feet ahead of us, crying. He raced back to the shallows as fast as he could. This was sign enough for me that the task was impossible.
Just then, Sara took my hand and smiled. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll be with you.”
For a moment, I was invincible. I took several deep breaths and puffed up my shoulders. “Okay,” I said. “But you’ve got to let me go first.” I inched forward into the water, falling off a rock shelf, up to my waist, before screaming a definitive “FUUUUUUCK THIIIIIIIS!” and turning back.
The invincibility was gone. This water was ice cold.
I left the cave immediately and found a large rock to sprawl out on. I soaked up as much sun as possible so that my core body temperature could rise to normal levels. Sara plopped down beside me and said, “Well, it’s not like we’ve seen anyone else make it all the way through the cave.”
It was then that I noticed a little boy not far from us, floating around on a big frog-shaped pool toy. Most of his body was out of the water and he seemed fine — leisurely, even — almost as if he were having fun.
“A-ha!” I boomed. “The pool toy!”
Sara, in her infinite wisdom, had packed our one inflatable pool toy at the last-minute. I’d chided her at the time (I mean, who brings a pool toy hiking?), but when I saw the little boy lounging on his blow-up frog, I knew we were going to make it through the cave.
“Let’s use that pool toy you brought as a raft to get through the cave,” I said.
“Are you sure?” Sara replied. “There are a lot of people here…”
“Steve will never let me live it down if we don’t make it through the cave.”
Sara smiled and nodded and reached into her bag. She pulled out what was, in that moment, the most beautiful inflatable pool toy I’d ever seen. We took turns blowing it up, and before long, we had a fully-inflated gigantic slice of pepperoni pizza.
That’s right, my fat, pasty ass rode a gigantic inflatable piece of pepperoni pizza through an underwater cave…and it was amazing. Sara and I screamed our way through the first grotto, kicking and flailing as hard as we could towards the other side. When we rounded a corner, the cave opened up into a pristine wilderness. The side of the cave we’d just left was filled with other hikers and families and tourists, but this side of the cave was just for us. The brave Pizza Pirates of Calaveras County.
Sara and I spent the rest of the day exploring the small towns that surrounded Calaveras County — Angel’s Camp, Columbia, and Stockton — meeting the locals who lived there and asking for suggestions on the best places to eat and drink. Everyone had their own opinions on this diner or that one, or between the bar down the street or the pub around the corner.
We listened for the spots that came up again and again, eventually finding our way to the ones that sounded the most appealing. Eat your heart out, Yelp.
By nightfall we were exhausted, with barely enough energy to build a fire next to our tent. Sara’s hand fell gently into mine somewhere between my second and third beer. “I’ve had a really great time… just, I don’t know, talking with you,” she said. “You haven’t been distracted by your phone, it’s like I get every minute with you.”
I smiled, partly out of shame, but mostly out of pride. Yes, I am far too connected to my phone and the internet. So much so that sometimes I miss the important things in life, like making silly jokes with my girlfriend or finding the strength to swim in insanely cold waters. But what I realized then — and what I hope to never forget — is that adventure is a state of mind. It doesn’t have to involve grand travel or heroic deeds. Adventure only requires a willingness to be uncomfortable. The adventure that Sara and I had didn’t begin when we set up camp, or when when we hiked into a cave, or even when we plunged into an icy stream. The adventure started the moment we turned off our phones.
That night I slept deeply and had dreams that stretched on for a long, long time. I dreamt of emails and feeds; retweets and likes and shares; comments and hyperlinks and animated GIFs. I dreamt about followers, and hashtags, and Internet fame. And then, sometime in the night, the screens flickered off.