My wife is descended from a camping family. When she was a little girl the family went from tent camping to a pop up camper. All their vacations were taken this way. She has told me that until she became an adult she cannot recall ever staying in a hotel. My family was not a camping family. It was not that we considered ourselves above camping we just never got around to doing it. We never really had camping stuff. We did go out once. We didn’t go to a campground mind you; we just drove my dad’s truck down into the middle of the woods on a friend’s farm and started a fire. We ate raw hamburger that had been warmed on a hibachi to optimum microbiological incubation temperature. Then we slept in the back of the truck on a cheap air mattress. The dew fell on us and we nearly froze. It was great!
A little later when I was in middle school I began to form an interest in camping. The thought of hiking across the hills and dales and then pitching a little tent seemed heavenly. I didn’t realize until later that it wouldn’t be that idyllic. For my 11th birthday I got a backpack. A year later I got a sleeping bag. I still have the sleeping bag and it has held up quite well. However it is not the type of sleeping bag that one ties to a backpack. If one rolls it really tight one will end up with a bundle roughly the diameter of a nuclear submarine. I could not tie my sleeping bag to the backpack strings so I stuffed it, with much pounding and effort, inside the backpack.
This stretched the seams on the backpack to their max and completely filled all storage areas. The tops of the pockets on the pack were stretched so tight that nothing would go in them. I was just able to slide a toothbrush into one pocket and with that added tension I was barely able to get a single strand of dental floss into the other. I might not have all the camping amenities but by golly I was determined to maintain good oral hygiene.
I had saved my allowance and purchased an army mess kit and canteen from an army surplus store nearby. The mess kit was neat because the knife spoon and fork all locked together. At least they were locked together when I bought them. After insisting my Mama serve my supper in the mess kit the night I brought it home, I never did get the utensils back together. They made a considerable racket inside the metal kit which I carried in a brown grocery bag as there was no room in the pack. The canteen, which oddly smelled like feet, was strapped to my belt. With the gargantuan backpack strapped to my skinny frame and the full canteen I was attempting to lift my body weight squared. This made the process of forward motion quite a challenge. On several occasions downhill momentum carried me forward so rapidly that I did a little summersault. Nevertheless I felt I was ready to go camping.
Enter my Dad. Dad is a horse lover. And being a horse lover he feels that every recreational activity must include a horse. This often became a major issue when the family went to the movies but that is another story. Dad wanted to take me camping as long as he could ride the horse to do it. He had not camped since his days in the National Guard but he did know more about it than me. He threw a can of beef stew and some other items into his saddle bags and away we went. I was ambivalent about the inclusion of the horse but, for the sake of practicality, I rode behind my Dad the first part of the trip.
And boy was it ever a trip. My Dad took us across mountains and through valleys we forded streams and crossed ravines. He was looking for a certain spot near a creek he had once ridden past. He wasn’t exactly sure where it was but he knew if we rode far enough we would find it. As we approached the area where he thought the creek was, I asked to get down from the horse. I wanted to strap on my pack and hike like a camper should. It took some doing to get me all strapped in but I was soon scurrying along beside Dad and the horse. If anyone had seen me, it might have looked like I was starting a new exercise craze. Walk walk run run shuffle shuffle somersault. Walk walk run run shuffle shuffle somersault.
We finally arrived at the creek after dark. We had yet to find the exact spot on the creek where Dad wanted to camp and had no fire and nothing to eat. It was somewhere in here that it occurred to us that we did not have an important item. We had no flashlight. It rapidly got too dark for Dad to ride. By now we were in deep woods and there was the problem of riding under branches and shrubbery. Dad got off and began leading the horse. Every few yards he would strike a match for light. The creek was to our left and as we continued to walk we would go farther and farther between matches. After walking awhile in the pitch black woods you weren’t sure what you would see when the match was struck. This made for a quite exciting midnight hike.
I was walking behind the horse as Dad led him. It was during one of the match lightings that I saw the horse look to his left and down. He gathered all four of his feet together as if he were trying to stand on a bucket and his eyes got very big. The three of us were walking about 2 inches from the edge of a 25 foot drop off. Upon realizing this we came to the mutual decision that this seemed like a good spot to set up camp.
After playing a vigorous game of tug of war to separate the sleeping bag and backpack, we finally got a fire going. Now we discovered that we also had no can opener for the beef stew. Ahh I can close my eyes and still hear the melodic sound of a Dinty Moore can being beaten against a rock. We finally did get to eat. Then we both squeezed into the sleeping bag, exhausted. We had located a nice smooth sandy spot for our sleeping bag. It wasn’t until the rainstorm came that we realized we were in the bed of a wet weather stream. About 3 AM water came rushing into the top of our sleeping bag like a tidal wave. The trip ended with us back out at the road at 5 AM riding for the barn in a driving rain. My mom was waiting for us when we arrived worried that we had been washed away.
Despite my initial exposures to camping, I was willing to try it again when my wife and I were dating. We went on camping trips to the beach a couple of times with her parents. They had a pop-up camper and those trips with them were pretty pleasant overall. So after we got married and wanted to go on our first vacation we decided to make it a camping vacation.
Actually we didn’t decide any such thing. Economics decided for us. We could buy a two-man (excuse me, two-person) tent and rent campsites for a fraction of what it would cost for a couple nights in a motel. So even though my wife was six months pregnant, we bought a tent and decided we would see the gorgeous state of Virginia. We braved oppressive heat in Williamsburgh. On that evening we even managed to survive the thermonuclear combustion of a Coleman lantern. This was a lantern handed down to us from my in-laws. The instructions my father in law gave me for lighting it went something like this.
“To light it you have to pump up the little plunger like this. Only the gasket in there is worn out so you have to pull down on the handle a little to form a seal. Then when the pressure builds up you lift this lever but first twist the plunger to lock it. Okay then lift up this lever then twist this valve over here about a quarter turn then. Do you hear that? That is the gas going through the mantles. Okay so now you stick your match in here and you have to hurry before you loose all the gas pressure and you just light it but don’t touch the mantles they break real easy and if you break them then they have to be replaced and that is a real pain. So it’s really simple as you can see.”
Yep not a thing could go wrong with this. I made it as far as light the match. The next 3 to 4 minutes are forever lost to memory. I must admit though when I came to the whole campsite was indeed illuminated.
Finally we arrived in the Shenandoah Valley. This area truly is one of God’s great creations. After touring Monticello we headed our little car up the Shenandoah Skyline Parkway. Our destination was a campground on the highest point in Virginny. This had been our first attempt to budget for a vacation and we were down to sixty seven dollars and thirteen cents. The way we had it figured after paying for a campsite and a tank of gas to get us home that would leave around twenty bucks for the next three meals. We stopped at a little store and bought bread and lunchmeat and a 2 liter coke. It is well known among people that have lived in a college dorm that one can subsist for weeks on a loaf of bread, a pack of lunchmeat, and a 2 liter coke.
As we approached the campground late at night, a huge summer thunderstorm blew into the area. This was quite disconcerting as we were driving along windy mountain roads. About every three seconds a lighting strike would light up the whole ridge well enough for us to read the signs warning of bear activity in the area. “Don’t feed the bears,” read one. “Handle trash with care this is bear country” read another. By the time we pulled up to the ranger station the lightning had ended but rain was coming down in buckets. There was a handwritten note on the ranger station door telling campers to go in and set up on the honor system. We could pay tomorrow.
Interestingly, we had no problem finding an empty campsite, go figure. I got out of the car with the tent, while my wife stayed in the car and gathered the food from the cooler in the back seat. I managed to get the tent up in spite of the elements and dashed back to the car to fetch my young bride. I held an umbrella over her as she clutched the sandwich fixins under her raincoat. We giggled at our silly old luck and kissed as we dashed merrily through the puddles. Our glee lasted about two minutes. As we got into the tent I turned on a small battery powered lamp. I also had my prized 3 cell aluminum flashlight.
Tracy began spreading mustard on bread when suddenly a claw scrapped down the side of the tent. Then we could clearly see the outline of a snout and ears as something pressed its face against the tent fabric. The impact from the snout knocked our little lamp over on its side. This caused the tent to go dark adding to our terror. Like Luke reaching for his light saber, I immediately reached out for my Mag Lite. Up till now my wife still sat in stunned silence, a slice of bread in one hand and a plastic butter knife in the other.
I knew I must spring into action to protect my bride and unborn child. The first order of business was to soothe my wife’s fears. With this in mind I said something like, “Oh my gosh honey you’d better get back we are being attacked by a rouge bear!!” This did not result in the calming influence I had hoped for. In fact it did just the opposite. My wife moved with lightning speed to the exact geographic center of the tent where she proceeded to sob uncontrollably. Oddly she continued to cling to the bread and plastic knife. I could only conclude that she intended these as some sort of last line of defense. Perhaps she would decoy the brute with the bread while she smothered him in mayonnaise.
But there was no time to evaluate her strategy now. As I tried to decide what to do the vicious beast clawed the side of the tent again. The only weapon I had was the aluminum flashlight. I actually took a moment to think out loud. As if my wife and I had formed an impromptu strategic planning committee.
“Let’s see,” I said. “We are in Virginia so it must be a black bear.” “There wouldn’t be any grizzly bears this far east would there honey?”
All I got from Tracy at this point was louder crying only now mixed with screams.
“Well if it’s a black bear there is a chance it won’t kill us.”
It wasn’t that I was that calm mind you. I guess this little conversation was just my form of hysteria. I decided I had a chance to put up a fight and scare the bear off. As I came to this conclusion the bear again stuck his head into the tent fabric. Now he was sniffing loudly at the sandwich stuff. I raised the flashlight and took an unsure half hearted swing at his massive skull. It dinged him but not that hard. I heard him grunt as he pulled his head away. A very long ten seconds went by. I hoped the bear had left. My wife, who now had her head between her knees and covered by her arms, began to pray. She was spewing a stream of words at the good Lord like an auctioneer at a cattle sale. But suddenly the outline of the bear’s head came back. This time the brute seemed to be pressing his ravenous jaws farther in toward the food and us.
I knew I had to quit pussyfooting around. I got up on my knees, held the flashlight high over my head and came down with all the force I could muster. TIIINNNGGGG!! The flashlight rang out! The bear grunted again only this time louder. Seconds went by then minutes. Finally I came up with the courage to unzip the tent door. As I prepared to peak out, images of a massive paw slamming me in the back of the head filled my mind. Instead of sticking my head out I shined the flashlight out and held my eye up to the partially opened zipper. That is when I got the first blood chilling look at my nemesis. There, staggering away from our tent, was a big, fat,….raccoon. He stopped as he was about to enter the woods and looked back over his shoulder at me. It was as if he was saying, “Geez all I wanted was a lousy piece of bread.” With this he turned and staggered into the darkness.
I immediately found this funny. Tracy on the other hand, refused to even crack a smile at my witty comments regarding the entire incident. In fact it was some time before I could get her to stop hugging herself and rocking long enough to make my sandwich.