Friday, August 14, 2009

Camping: A Meditation.

When I was young, my father took me on many a camping trip. Perhaps there were only 3 or 4, but they were formative and so, loom large in my memory. My father and I would strap on our packs with a week’s-worth of supplies and head out to the Adirondacks or Catskill Mountains. This was hiking. This was no joke. This was finding a clearing and pitching a tent and eating spam and ramen.
Our last outing was a canoe trip. We would canoe to land and carry our canoe and packs (usually in two separate trips, some times multiple miles each way) to the next bank and repeat. By the fourth day, it was pouring rain and I, being the whiny pre-teen that I was, complained until my father cut the trip short. I could tell he wasn’t happy about it. I’ve always felt bad about that.
When I was 14, I spent 2 weeks in the Northern Cascade Mountains with Outward Bound. Weighing 100 pounds (tops), I carried a 50 pound pack up some serious climbs. Much like The Little Engine that Could, Outward Bound’s goal is to teach you that you can, you just have to believe that you can. I survived and I learned that I could.
As I’ve aged, however, and my spine has come to resemble that of a 60 year-old’s, I have decided that I no longer can. And so, my hiking days are behind me. But being reared in the outdoors (in between weekends at Coney Island), I do still love to sleep in a tent, eat packaged food cooked on a single burner, propane stove and commune with that thing we call nature. So, finding myself with an unexpected free weekend, I loaded supplies and the dogs, Chicken and Sally into the car and headed to the San Bernardino National Forest.
Along the way, I realized I had forgotten a flashlight. Being, in truth, a city girl, I tend to be afraid of the dark (I slept with the hall light on until I was 21), so I made a mental note to pick one up before I reached camp. 18 miles up a winding mountain highway I turned onto the road leading to Green Valley Lake. (Side bar: What is it with people who insist on riding your ass on these roads? I will travel at a speed at which I feel relatively assured of my own safety. Either get yourself a helicopter or cool your jets and pass me when there’s a damned passing lane.) I stopped at a little convenient store and picked up a small bottle of olive oil, some t.p. and a 5th of whiskey. Turning then onto the road leading to the campsite, I stopped to read some confusing signs and went on my way. About 4 miles down a dirt road seeing only Jeeps and trucks (note to self: get wheels realigned) I got to a small creek and vaguely remembered reading something on the campgrounds’ website about not crossing the creek when the water is high. Having no idea what constitutes high water in a case like this, I got out of the car and stood at the edge of the water trying to figure out what to do. I picked up a rock and threw it in and then wondered what the hell I thought that would tell me. I climbed back in to the car, turned tail and headed back up the dirt road to town.
The town of Green Valley consists of a malt “shoppe”, a post office, a Realtor and a General Store. At the General Store I inquired about getting a permit (I didn’t need one), if I would be allowed to use my propane stove (yes) and if I was crazy to try to cross the creek in my Mazda sedan. The owner told me I’d be fine and to just take it very slow. I thanked him and headed, once more down the 4 mile dirt road (incidentally, I kept thinking I was passing a headless, skinned rabbit on the side of the road and I just couldn’t figure out why it was there like that until I realized it was a sun-bleached log). At the creek I came across two men who had both just crossed. They told me the best thing to do was to “get some speed and take it at 10 or 15 miles per hour.” Ignoring the advice of the General Store man, who most likely lived in the town, I rolled up my windows and backed up. When I hit the water it swooshed up higher than my windshield. I made it across with water dripping into the front seat from the undercarriage and my license plate bent up. My car squealed a few times and gave off a little smoke, but she kept on going.
I got to the Crab Flats campgrounds around 2:30 and picked an empty spot. To my left was a giant trailer with the words “” emblazoned on the back. To my right and behind me were RVs. I thought about the time my sister and I camped out at a packed campgrounds where someone blasted a Yankees game out of their truck and a few someones had generators going constantly. Really loud generators. As I stood there at Crab Flats, surveying my surroundings, I thought about finding another campgrounds, but with the dogs it was hard to know if another place would take me and I decided not to risk losing out on a spot all together. So, I fetched the Camp Host, paid the $18 fee and was told I had the best spot because it looked over a tree that a Golden Eagle liked to hang out in. I pitched my tent, unpacked my supplies, set up my little stove and cooked up some packaged food. As I ate my undercooked RiceARoni, I realized that I forgot (again) to get a flashlight. I got whiskey! But no flashlight.
It wasn’t until the sun started to set and a chill bit the air that I realized I had also failed to pack a long sleeved shirt. Being the slob that I am, though, I found one in my car. It was only a light cotton wrap thingy. I added “sweatshirt” to my shopping list for the next day.
I took the dogs for a walk and gathered wood for a fire, keeping a keen eye out for the rattlesnakes I’d been warned were “all over the place.” Properly wooded, I went back to camp where I was joined by Nick, the Camp Host’s 20 something-year-old son. Nick sat and chewed my ear off for an hour or so, complete with sound effects (the eagle catching the raccoon, the dog getting bitten by a rattlesnake, the bobcat outside his tent, the dog getting bitten by an iguana). I couldn’t understand about half of what he said (he spoke very quickly and rather mush mouthed-ly) and I remembered the day, 8 years earlier, when I arrived in Edinburgh, Scotland and took myself to a pub for lunch where I was joined by a local who yammered on for 2 hours saying God only knows what. I knew he was speaking English but I understood not a word of it. I just laughed when he did and said, “Oh, yeah,” where it seemed appropriate. It was fantastic. Nick finally left and I built a little fire, made some hot chocolate and sat down with Mr. Jim Beam to do some thinking.
The wood that I had only lasted a couple of hours, so after the last log burned down, I climbed into the tent for the night. The sun had not yet completely sunk, which was just as well because I hear the werewolves come out after dark and I’d just as soon be asleep for that part.
I awoke at some point in the night and peeked out to see that the moon was so full and bright that I couldn’t see a single star. The words “Heaven’s nightlight” floated into my head. I quickly dismissed them. Far too sentimental for a cynical old bitch like me.
I woke up again around 5 a.m. to pee and considered staying awake to watch the world wake up, but crawled back into the sleeping bag instead. When the ATVs roared to life at 8 a.m. I instantly regretted my decision. I could have had 3 whole hours with out hearing a single human sound but that of my own breath. I made a breakfast of Taster’s Choice mixed with hot chocolate and headed up to Big Bear.
I wonder if there is a single beautiful place left on Earth that humans haven’t found a way to make money off of.
With my fantasies of moving there firmly squashed, I got myself a cooking pot, a sweatshirt and a cheap dog bed and headed back down the dirt road and across the creek, this time very slowly, crossing without incident. It wasn’t until I got all the way back to camp that I remembered that I was supposed to have gotten myself a flashlight. I resigned myself to the fact that whatever was going to happen in the dark was going to happen in the dark. The ATVers were off somewhere else for the most part and I only heard about 3 or 4 an hour. Nick came back and talked my ear off for another couple of hours (prison, Meth, crazy ex-girlfriends, the Grand Prix) until I excused myself for and early evening nap.
It was somewhere in here that I realized I had been narrating the entire trip in my head. Trying to find the best way to describe everything. Clearly, I thought, I need to write this down.
That evening, the campsite next to mine, empty the night before, was taken by a couple and their 4 month old baby. Those who know me know that I tend to not like people very much. I like children even less. Perhaps that’s not entirely true; I don’t like loud, obnoxious children which they all seem to be more and more. But the baby was quiet and the couple only fought once, as they set up their tent, and then they were fairly quiet. Nick came back and monologued some more. I cooked up some ramen and built myself another fire. I offered the man in the campsite next to mine some kindling and he said, “You know, I camp a lot, and I’m sure you do, too, and I’ve realized I’m usually so tired by the time I get to camp that I don’t want to have to bother with building a fire, so I always bring a Dura-Log. Much quicker. Much easier.” In the two minutes it took me to build my fire and get it going with one match, the man had gone through 4 or 5 matches and still hadn’t gotten the Dura-Log lit.
The sun headed for China, Chicken curled up in my lap and I laid back to watch the Earth spin. It was the weekend before the great Perseids meteor shower and I was hoping I might get a preview. As the stars moved on across the sky I found myself concentrating so hard on seeing a shooting star that I was missing the beauty of what was in front me. But isn’t that always the way? We’re always looking for something better, failing to realize that what we already have is beautiful and worth paying attention to.
The next morning, as my dogs panted pathetically as if to say, “Are you kidding us,” I packed up camp and loaded up the car. As I went, I made a list of some of the things I had learned on my trip.
1. If you see ATVs parked at any of the sites at your campground, find another campground.
2. When you wake up at 5:00am to pee, make yourself a cup of coffee and stay awake for a while. I wish I had.
3. Chicken and Sally are not good camping buddies.
4. A Shamwow would probably be an excellent camping tool.
5. Baby wipes are very handy but don’t wipe off your fork with one.
6. Don’t forget to give your dogs their flea and tick medication before you go. . .
7. Best to drive through the creek slowly. Following some random guy’s advice and “gunning it” will get your across, but is not the way to go. Take it slow.
8. Bring a book or two, a notebook and a pen. Don’t bother bringing your math workbooks. You won’t touch them.
9. That tan you think you’ve developed is actually a thick layer of dirt.
10. Taster’s Choice instant coffee is undrinkable unless mixed with hot chocolate.
I pulled away from my camp site, leaving a twenty and the whiskey bottle, still 2/3 full for Nick and his mom. I saw a truck with inner tubes and bikes strapped to the top and a bumper sticker that read, “Hey Sierra Club! Kiss my axle!” I wondered if the owner of the bumper sticker understood the inherent irony in that. I doubted it. And I headed back down the mountain for home with a guy riding my tail the whole way down.