A family of four packed tight in a Plymouth Volare, we pulled a travel tent camper behind us through the byways of the South. Twenty one days of camping and playing, my dad planned it out and AAA mapped it for us. About a week into alligator farms and Disney festivities, well laid plans took a turn. My young mind forever scarred as the day unfolded.
KOA Campgrounds are highly recommended for the traveling camping family and that's where we stayed for the bulk of our trip. Most of these campgrounds had full amenities, pools and playgrounds, bathhouses and paddle boats. Camp stores with soap holders on ropes and security on golf carts. Clubhouses with pool tables and jukeboxes and pizza. This one wasn't different, it had all the aforementioned niceties. It even had a llama. What the brochure failed to advertise in this "tropical paradise" were the natural inhabitants.
My mother, always a little skeptical about campgrounds in general, would parade my sister and I around the property, checking to make sure there were proper toilets and safe slides, running water and pressure behind it. We followed her from place to place, watching her run through a checklist before my father paid for our stay. On this morning, however, her patience low, she mistakenly sent my father off to find the office before she made her rounds. To this very day, she will tell you how much she regrets it. What followed is not for the squeamish, the faint of heart or the extreme arachnophobe.
We walked from the car with my mother, straight towards the bathhouse located on the other side of the playground. The excitement at the sight of large metal swings and slides took over and my sister and I ran for the empty swings, the kind you sink into and pumping legs hard, soar high above the ground without feet touching. As fast as I made it to the set, I looked up at the great heights of the bars, a backdrop of sky and trees. There were black lumps against the clouds and as I looked closer, I could see that they were moving. As my eyes focused on the lumps, a panic gripped me and a tightness built in my throat. Grabbing my sister before she could sit down, we backed away from the temptation of the swings. My mom was peering up at the sky, too, with her hands shading her eyes from the hot Florida sun. An unforgettable facade of terror crept across my mother's face as she took in the sight of webs stretched across the treetops, a canopy over our heads. Running for the bathhouse, she called for us. Inside should be safe! Reaching for the door, I saw more of the same, webs and lumps dangling from gutters, crawling up the sides of the structure. Inside, the lumps dripped off the shower heads and intricate webs climbed from corner to corner. Even the toilets were inhabited by the lumps, various sizes, some as big as my head, others as small as the palms of my hands! The legs outstretched, always moving as if in tandem with one another. Spiders- green and black,big and hairy, everywhere!
The tightness in my chest growing, I clutched my sister. My body had frozen into one spot, unmoving, like those dreams where I try to scream and nothing comes out, shock settling in. Momentarily, my nurturing mother had become a woman trapped in a bad B-movie horror picture, screaming while gripping her face, forgetting her children standing next to her, expecting her to save us from this. Within seconds, she pulled out of it, snatching up my sister and hightailing us out of there, straight for the car, not looking back. My dad,hearing the screams, moved quickly across the gravel lot, growing concern spreading across his face. Lips pursed, he watched my mom pointing skyward, his eyes following her fingertips.
My father spent the bulk of his life being unafraid of things he was bigger than and this moment would prove to be no different. The huffy sigh escaped his lips, louder than I think he probably meant it to. Incredulously, he declared that a couple of little spiders shouldn't ruin our vacation and with that, he packed us up into the car to purvey our campsite. Wishing I could speak or run, I sat silent in the backseat, trembling, brushing away what felt like spiders climbing up and down my arms and legs. The 100 degree heat left me feeling faint and defeated. Wanting to fall asleep, my anxious mind filled with spiders. I dreamt....
A short range attack, unforgiving, under tree canopies and swingsets. The Florida sun shone hot and brilliant, radiating a thousand swaying webs and bodies. Green and black, covered in hair, a wide awake nightmare. Falling onto the tent, illuminated by a streetlight, filling my sleeping bag, carrying me off, a dinner snack, wrapped in silk, cocooned...
We watched from the car as my father set up our makeshift home, my mom refusing to help and us too scarred to come out. Before the spiders, I giddily thought of the ocean and dolphins. Now, I couldn't escape the fear gripping me. Eventually, my father coaxed us out, with promises of the beach and sand castles. The thick of the woods hid most of the webs and try as I might, I couldn't make out any spiders, and the ocean has a pull I am unable to resist. Reluctantly, I went into the camper and got ready for the beach. Still shaking, I tried not to focus on the horrific picture at the playground. That's when the cats came. Bigger than house cats, tabby striped and feral, I spotted at least four of them meandering around in the brush. One of them was batting around something that appeared to be a small ball of black yarn. A spider! Balled up and dead! That's why the campsite wasn't spider infested. The beastly little cats were hunting them! Safety swelled in my thinking and thankful for the cats courage, I applauded them. I may be safe after all!
A short path through jungle forest emptied onto a rock beach with a man made inlet separated from the bigness of the ocean by a wall. Black concrete paved the top of it in a semi-circle. There were no dolphins, only seaweed and murky green water. Small shells beaten into chunks by waves made up the "sand". Disappointment understates the dark cloud hovering over my family. As we tried to forget the day, my dad agreed to take us to a hotel the next day. We were expected to survive one night here in Spiderland first.
I want to say it wasn't a big deal, all of those spiders and cats and such. I want to tell you that we laugh about that vacation now and that seeing lighthouses and white sand beaches and dolphins and Mickey Mouse diminished the impact of that day, but I am prone to honesty in my older age. My mom confirms the size and horror of the events, my sister doesn't like speaking about it, my dad shakes his head, still in disbelief that spiders instill fear. Me, I have journals and poems, lyrics, paintings and a hefty amount of therapy to show for that day. Arachnophobia can not even begin to cover the anxiousness that possesses my body at the mere sight of a web, much less one of the many parsons, wolf and garden spiders living within the walls of my home. Many attempts at "facing the fear" have resulted in me sweaty, clammy, faint hearted and quivering. None of these efforts have cured me and I am done trying. For now, I will spray industrial strength spider spray throughout my house and leave the attic and the basement to other, more understanding members of my family. Try as I may, the little buggers have burrowed deep in my thoughts and fueled many a creative urge, a great source for fear induced writing. I'll keep you posted for the next one...