When I was a kid I read a lot of outdoor novels. I read everything our library had by Jim Kjelgaard and Jack London’s White Fang and The Call of the Wild. I always saw myself as that loner out in the wilds by himself with just his trusty dog to keep him company. One day I came across Jean Craighead George’s book, My Side of the Mountain, and it changed my life. The book is about a kid who runs away and lives in the mountains by himself. That is what I wanted to do. I often told people I had read the book and would like to do that myself. Usually people looked at me with shock and surprise. “You can read?” they’d ask in amazement.
Immediately I started preparing for a life of self-sufficiency in the mountains. I taught myself the ancient skill of building fire with just two sticks, half a bottle of lighter fluid and a book of matches. Learning to procure food became essential. I developed my fishing skills to the legendary proportions they are today. I’d gather grasshoppers, crickets and worms for bait and take them to the river. After only a few hours of fishing, I’d have a sizzling skillet full of fried grasshoppers, crickets and worms. I found mushrooms and learned the difference between the good ones and the poisonous ones. The internet did not exist at the time, and no books on the subject were available to me. My mushroom education was simply trial and error. Of course, I was not so stupid as to eat the mushrooms; instead I fed them to my little brother and gauged his reactions. No reactions = good mushrooms. Stomachache, foaming at the mouth and/or uncontrollable muscle spasms = bad mushrooms.
My younger years were filled with daydreams of living in the wild. Many times it saved me from the horrors of learning anything constructive in algebra class. While the teacher droned on about integers, variables and coefficients that I knew I’d never use, in my head I would be tucked safely away in my mountain cave feasting on fried grasshoppers and mushrooms.
As with all dreams the day comes when dreaming is not enough. That day for me came when I filled my oldest sister’s (the mean one’s) jewelry box with Cheez Whiz. At the time I thought it would be a good prank—one we could have a hearty laugh about. The more I thought about it, the more I came to believe my sister would not see the subtle humor and social commentary on rich versus poor. She was more likely to just beat the snot out of me. I tried to clean it up, but once you put Cheez Whiz in a wicker jewelry box it is there for eternity. You can remove some of it, but it will never be clean again. My best option was to finally fulfill my dream and go off into the wilds until she cooled down or became too old and feeble to do any major damage.
Originally my dream called for it to be me and my trusty dog. A dog is always useful. It provides companionship, guards the campsite, assists in hunting and, if things got really bad, I could always eat it—or it could eat me, depending on how big of dog I had. As luck would have it, I happened to be between dogs at the time, so instead I asked my friend Weiner to come along. The choice of Weiner for a partner was not made at random. I put much thought into it and considered all my friends. I chose him because we got along well, we had often camped out together and, most importantly, he was smaller and looked more tender and tasty than any of my other friends.
When we started out I could tell right away that Weiner didn’t grasp the concept that we were leaving forever. I knew this because I didn’t tell him for fear he wouldn’t go. What I said was “Let’s go do some self-sufficiency camping for awhile.” After a couple months he’d figure out the rest on his own. Weiner also had trouble with the term self-sufficiency. I carried a folding knife in my pocket and a belt axe on my waist. What Weiner had strapped to his back looked like a silver-back gorilla covered with a canvas tarp.
Since neither of us drove and there are few mountains in Iowa and even less wilderness areas, we chose a big hill outside town. It wasn’t exactly wilderness, but it was almost two miles from my house, so I was sure no one would ever find us. We set up on the side of a hill and started our campfire. I scrounged up some grasshoppers for supper. When I got back to the campsite, Weiner was digging a can of beef stew out of his pack.
“So how come you decided to do this camping trip all of a sudden?” Weiner asked. “Usually you spend weeks planning these things.”
Guilt-ridden, I confessed about the jewelry box and a mean sister who would beat the tar out of me when she found out.
“So why don’t you just throw the jewelry box away?” Weiner asked still rummaging through his pack. “She’ll just think she lost it or someone took it.” He threw the flap on his pack closed. “You know what? I think I left the can opener at home.”
“You did?” I said in shock. “How are we going to go camping without a can opener? I guess we’ll just have to pack up and go home.”