I’ve been working on my coming of age novel. In it the boys do a lot of camping and fishing. Our family doesn’t camp, but I know if we did my wife would enjoy it. I don’t mean the wilderness camping where you actually camp and go out and commune with nature when you have to go to the bathroom. She’d like the modern day camping where you get away from it All by packing everything into a huge camping trailer and taking it All with you. She’s a very gregarious person. Staying in a campground, going from camper to camper visiting—often without ever having to touch the ground in between campers—would be perfect for her, as long as she has a clean dry place to pee and put on her makeup. To me that is not camping. To me camping is more of a self-inflicted torture.
My wife didn’t camp much when she was young whereas I camped a lot. I started out when I was little sleeping out in the backyard in refrigerator boxes or under the clothesline with a couple of bedspreads pinned to it to make a tent. But that’s not really camping, because if it rains you can just go in the house and finish the night in your warm dry bed. When I got older, my friends and I did real camping. We would go out in the Woods to camp. (The Woods was anyplace that had more than ten trees and wasn’t someone’s backyard.) The next morning we’d come home tired, smelly, hungry and our faces and ankles swollen to twice their normal size from chigger and mosquito bites. When I went camping I knew for the next week I’d been camping, right up until my body had replaced the couple pints of blood the mosquitoes had sucked out. Every time I got home I’d always swear I’d never camp out again, but then I’d forget about it and a few weeks later I’d be camping again–I think it had something to do with being low on blood that erased the memories of the horrors I endured.
We didn’t have a tent so we made do with whatever structure we could find. We once built a lean-to out of blown down branches and then covered the top with leaves, weeds and mud. The night we slept out in it, a summer thunder storm came through. After the wind had blown all the coverings off the roof, the rain finished us off by washing any residual mud down on us. And that is one of my better camping experiences.
When we camped out, cooking over an open fire was a requirement. A cooking fire is supposed to be small and controlled, but when you’re twelve, bigger is always better. We’d pile logs and dead trees on the fire until we had a bon fire that singed the feathers on migrating geese as they flew over. I’m sure some of our fires could have been seen from space and several planets, a few of them outside our solar system. The book says to cook on a fire you are supposed to let it die down to an even bed of coals, but none of us had read the book. We cooked when the fire looked like something Satan would be afraid to have in Hell. The biggest problem we had was finding a stick long enough to get the food to the fire without singing all the hair off our arms and faces and having our clothes start to smoke. Usually our choices for food doneness were cold and raw or black and crispy, and that was the pork and beans. Any meat usually burst into flames when it was three feet from the fire. The stick holding it would burn through in a matter of seconds, and it would fall on the ground. By the time we managed to fish it away from the fire, it looked like something that came out of a crematorium. We ate it anyway–with a little ketchup it wasn’t too bad.
I had a friend, Mike, whose family actually camped. They had a pop-up camper and all kinds of camping equipment. A couple times we slept out in his backyard in the camper. Even then it didn’t feel like camping: there was no pain or suffering. A couple times I talked him into going out into the Woods to camp. It was different camping with Mike. He had a pup tent, a hatchet, a camp stove, bug repellant and even a sleeping bag; I always slept in an old quilt I rolled up and dragged along. We could actually cook things on his stove. Once we had pumped the tank seven million times and the helium balloon sized ball of fire had died down to a blue flame, we could cook eggs in a frying pan and hot dogs that didn’t snap like a dried stick if you dropped them. Camping with Mike was almost like staying in a five-star hotel—if the hotel had ants, dirt and creepy-crawly things running around making noise out in the darkness.
Once we camped out in a cow pasture. I noticed on the walk out that Mike hadn’t brought his sleeping bag. I didn’t mention it because I figured when he realized it and had to walk back to town to get it, I could eat all the food that was left. Finally it came time to turn in for the night. Mike grinned at me and produced a package that looked like a folded up piece of aluminum foil.
“Tonight I’m sleeping in this,” he said. “It’s a Space Blanket. The astronauts use them to stay warm in space.”
He explained how the shiny surface reflected your body heat back to you and kept you warm by multiplying the heat. I was jealous. Here he had the highest technology while I had to limp by with an old heavy quilt. I went to sleep with the envy still sticking in my throat.
A few hours later I was awaken by a racket that sounded like someone shaking a coffee can full of rocks. It took me a few seconds to realize the sound was Mike’s teeth chattering.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“I-I-I th-th-think th- th-is th-th-thing i-i-is de-de-de-fec-t-t-tive,” he stuttered out.
I knew I wasn’t going to get any sleep like this because his bones were now making noises that sounded like boulders in a cement mixer. I thought about offering to let him share my quilt, but a fourteen-year-old boy would rather have a rabid wolverine in his bedroll with him than another fourteen-year-old boy.
“Why don’t we switch,” I said. “Let me try the Space Blanket and you can use the quilt.”
So we switched, and soon Mike was sleeping soundly in the warmth of the thick quilt, while I froze shivering and shaking through the night. But I was happy, because now I was really camping.