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One summer long ago, four city lads got behind the wheel of a big honking Ford and went "camping", with a fortress made of beer cases.   No doubt kids are still doing it today.

Around this time of year, when I was 19, three friends and I embarked on a “camping trip.” It was my first such adventure as an adult. I use the word loosely.

When I was a boy, my father would haul an unwilling family to southern climes – Pennsylvania or southern New York State, to camp. We had a trailer hitch on the car, a device that fascinated me and which felt very important somehow, onto which Dad would connect a tent trailer. I loved the tent trailer, simply because of its design – it was a box which, at the campground, unfolded like a Jiffy Pop on the stove. This sort of thing “folding up stuff” delights me; I’m not sure now if that was true before the trailer, or is true because of it.

Family camping consisted of funny-smelling Coleman stoves, bug spray that made my skin turn green and a considerable amount of wandering around in the woods, pretending to be something or someone. For my dad, I think it was pretending to be a camper. For my mother, it was pretending to be happy. For me, it was pretending to be a secret agent, or a hunter, or a soldier, or whatever.

My secret agent days were long behind me when my buddies and I decided to spend some free summer time at a provincial park in southern Ontario. The details of the weekend are largely lost to my memory not in the fog of time, but in a fog of alcohol.

We departed in the morning. It had to have been a long weekend because my buddies had summer jobs that occupied them weekdays (I had already quit school and was working shifts in the steel mill – I have no idea how I got a weekend off that summer, it must have been a scheduling mistake). Somebody had camping gear, certainly none came with me – who had money for that?

What I had money for was The Car. The LTD, or “Land Yacht” as I affectionately described it, got a good 7 miles per gallon and featured a very decent sound system. The interior was vast and luxurious, like a private box in an opera house (as I imagined one). You could readily stow the bodies of several cast members from The Godfather in the trunk, if so inclined, although on this trip it was stacked high with beer cases.

Beer has certain advantages as a drink: it is relatively mild on the taste buds. As a consequence of that, it is almost universally popular – just about anyone will have a beer: even a girl who normally doesn’t drink, can walk around with one for hours and look like she’s drinking. When cold, beer offers great refreshment during the heat; it is sold in small handheld units (bottles or cans) clustered into varying case sizes, so you can plan ahead to be spontaneous. Beer is comparatively cheap, too. And its final great advantage is that you can drink a lot of it over a long period of time and only slowly, build up the buzz that will later fell you.

As I said, it is hard to dredge up many memories of the excursion. I know we had tents. We had, I think, one of those little propane stoves that allow you to heat up frying pans and cook bacon outdoors – one of life’s highest order pleasures. There was junk food. Bathrooms were situated somewhere on site, requiring a hike that we simply did not take, most of the time when nature called. And we had the beer, which of course proved to be the great pre-occupier of our time at the campground.

True campers feel disdain for the kind of soft, padded, convenient “camping” people do in Southern Ontario. The activity is perhaps unworthy even of the word camping. This is a fair judgment. Edward Abbey, the late American “agrarian anarchist” writer I revere, held similar views of how U.S. National Parks were tailored to parking, baby strollers and “industrial tourists.” Of these types of camper, Abbey wrote:

They work hard, these people. They roll up incredible mileages on their odometers, rack up state after state in two-week transcontinental motor marathons, knock off one national park after another, take millions of square yards of photographs, and endure patiently the most prolonged discomforts: the tedious traffic jams, the awful food of park cafeterias and roadside eateries, the nocturnal search for a place to sleep or camp, the dreary routine of One-Stop Service, the endless lines of creeping traffic, the smell of exhaust fumes, the ever-proliferating Rules & Regulations, the fees and the bills and the service charges, the boiling radiator and the flat tire and the vapor lock, the surly retorts of room clerks and traffic cops, the incessant jostling of the anxious crowds, the irritation and restlessness of their children, the worry of their wives, and the long drive home at night in a stream of racing cars against the lights of another stream racing in the opposite direction, passing now and then the obscure tangle, the shattered glass, the patrolman’s lurid blinker light, of one more wreck.

Abbey might have been following my father’s station wagon down the highway to Alleghany State Park. And years later, in my own young adulthood, I too was an industrial tourist pretending to camp. Which may be why my only one true, sharp memory of the weekend is a genuine “camping” memory: we had built a campfire. It was burning. It was a good and useful thing, to sit around it, watch the sparks fly, shove our hands into bags of potato chips or whatnot, and swig beer. The classic city kid camping activity.

But there was a problem: we didn’t have enough fire wood.I am unsure now, here in the next century, whether we were supposed to bring our own firewood (probably) and if so, where we might have found it (a store?) or for that matter, how we could possibly have transported it in a vehicle so heavily burdened with beer. In retrospect it is clear that the beer-to-other-supplies ratio of our packing was perilously skewed. I say “perilously” because if you have a large supply of one thing and little else, you may consume too much of what you have and then be, shall we say, limited in your capacity to find other things when you need them.

So it was for us in that provincial park, stuck in some spot that seemed to my city bones to be the middle of freaking nowhere but which was, most likely, really close to everywhere. But under a black summer night sky lit by stars and being heavily soaked in hops, I was transported back to boyhood in the woods: I was an explorer. I would go exploring for wood. “We need firewood” some genius or other must have said. “Let’s go find some”. Off we went.

Again, as I say the details are murky but for the clear memory of not finding any damned firewood anywhere, becoming conscious of the fact that our “camp” was somewhere out there in the dark behind us (someone else would have found our way back, I sure couldn’t) and thinking that our glorious beery commune with nature would be stunted if we didn’t find something that would burn. And so we did.

I am not a vandal and in fact, it is my sincere belief that but for this camping trip, I never once in my life committed an act that might be described as the theft or abuse of someone else’s property. That does not excuse my crime (provincial offense, actually, and we are several decades past the statute of limitations on this) but I feel compelled to defend my reputation. One might plead the defence of necessity – our fire was going out, after all – or perhaps temporary mental defect.

What we discovered, there in the desperate dark of night, was that there was wood in the provincial park: wood in the form of thick squared logs, jutting four feet out of the ground, marking each campground. Most likely some number had been painted on them to help arrivals locate their own little patch of heaven. We had wandered into unoccupied territory in the park and decided, wrongly I will admit, that the province’s woody resources should be put to better use than standing guard over empty camping spots.

One of the interesting aspects of crimes committed by groups, is tracing the mental element: whose mental element exactly was it that realized “hey, these things are made of wood” and when did he communicate it? I don’t know. I am reluctant to take credit for the idea, not to avoid blame but simply because it seems more inventive than I could possibly have been, in the condition that I was in.What I will take credit for, because my memory of it is good, is wrestling the damned post out of the ground. Not alone, of course – we were four strong lads after all. But I clearly remember wrapping my arms around the damned thing and shoving it backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, like a car in the snow, loosening the soil around the stump. Eventually it came free and we dragged our prize back in the dark, like a moose illegally gunned down, through the woods.It went on the fire.

Now, if you have ever built a fire, you may have opinions on just how useful an eight-inch square, four foot long wooden beam might be, plunked on top of a dying camp fire. If it burned at all, it would certainly have been a slow procedure of charring. The level of stupidity induced by the beer (I blame the beer) must have blinded us to this elementary defect in the plan. Another defect in the plan was that, if it didn’t burn, we would greet daylight with a big honking piece of evidence in our campfire, proving our crime (provincial offence).

I wish that I could tell you the denouement of this tale. But I can’t – sometime after the stolen beam went into the flames, my brain shut down. My next memory is of a grey, hazy and unwelcome morning – a mouth tasting like ash and a head splitting like an ax had dropped onto it (it is probably lucky that we did not have an ax, come to think of it). As for “the beam” it had either burned sufficiently to be unrecognizable or one of my compatriots had disposed of the body.

Not in my trunk, I hope.

P.S. I suppose that I owe the Province of Ontario the price of a wooden post, plus interest. I’m willing to pay but if the authorities give me immunity, I will gladly rat out the other three guys instead.

Originally posted to samsoneyes on Thu Jul 10, 2014 at 08:22 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I camped for a week by Lake Superior (10+ / 0-)

    in Ontario back in 1983.

    I have been a hardcore camper for decades, until I married a woman who is terrified to stay in our house alone overnight. So I can never go camping. She won't go because she's 125% girl. Camping is 'dirty' and 'I will get bored'.

    I prefer the wilderness and backpacking in a few miles, to keep the wussies at a distance and curtail the potential to even see another person: I live in a city and see people all the time - NOT seeing people is a treat.

    Legal means "good".
    [41984 | Feb 4, 2005]

    by xxdr zombiexx on Thu Jul 10, 2014 at 09:27:34 AM PDT

    •  In 1983 I camped in a 1978 Datsun 510 (8+ / 0-)

      I had a tent but the 510 was the transport.

      Legal means "good".
      [41984 | Feb 4, 2005]

      by xxdr zombiexx on Thu Jul 10, 2014 at 09:31:21 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  i have also slept in a Datsun (210) (5+ / 0-)

        and discovered that the Japanese had studied Ergonomics!.. and that it was designed to be comfortable with seat reclined... kind of my own acceleration couch... for an 'average-sized' person. (I have also slept in a Ford Galaxie, which was designed for short-waisted people over 6'7" with large feet.)

        For highway comfort, though, the 1951 Nash Airflyte- which made into a double bed- was pure automotive Gold.  ^..^

        PEACE... the Affordable alternative
    •  Go alone? (8+ / 0-)

      I often backpacked alone in National Parks and with my furry hiking partners most everywhere else.

      Solitude is good for the soul. Yes, there are risks. There are always risks. But the reward? Ah, the reward of being able to sit for hours to get the perfect photo  or watch the sun go down, until there is not a bit of color left in the sky. Or take a "death march" day hike, or stand in the river all day pretending to be fishing for dinner. Whatever you want -- and no buddies to complain. I've seen far more wildlife when backpacking alone than with another person.

      (And I assure anyone who plans to lecture about the risks: my parents covered all that material often and more passionately than you could.)

      I married someone who loves the outdoors AND we give each other space to do what we want when we're in nature. Truth he told, that's part of the reason I married him.

      The best trip I ever took, we only human we saw a back country ranger on a 14 day trip. We chatted with him for about 20 minutes and then he disappeared into the brush. We decided back country rangers don't really count as "humans." They're pleasant, friendly, leave no trace and disappear long before you get tired of them.


      © grover

      So if you get hit by a bus tonight, would you be satisfied with how you spent today, your last day on earth? Live like tomorrow is never guaranteed, because it's not. -- Me.

      by grover on Thu Jul 10, 2014 at 12:59:00 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Where did you camp on Lake Superior? (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RiveroftheWest, blueyedace2
  •  Haha here's my Datsun 210 story... A year long ... (6+ / 0-)

    Haha here's my Datsun 210 story... A year long peyote and mushroom road trip in a car called DIABLITO. Not spamming, just perusing the news and saw this Datsun post!

    If you went camping in 1973 in a Datsun 510 it was probably a life highlight. Mine was!

  •  I used to go camping up in Ontario crossing the (3+ / 0-)

    border used to be fun. Not anymore.

  •  I think Edward Abbey was unduly snobbish (8+ / 0-)

    And his comment is incredibly dated.

    I think humans should get out into nature as much as possible . A lot of people aren't equipped to go into the back country: they're elderly, disabled, out of shape, have young children and are afraid to; are terrified of wildlife, can't sleep on hard surfaces, and/or can't afford to invest on back country gear which is more expensive than standard Camping gear that you can buy at Target (ultralight backpacking is possible and cheaper, but it's not for noobs or unhealthy people).

    Besides, we are already loving some of our wilderness areas to death. There are quotas for popular (the most scenic) back country campgrounds in some of the most popular parks. Some of these areas are getting badly eroded and the vegetation has been permanently destoyed. vault toilets can only handle so much waste. When these areas closed for revegeration and restoration,  people scream.

    Why not have areas that have are permanently designated for easy access, with restrooms, running water, campfire rings, restrooms, and other services people are willing to pay more for?

    Those extra fees usually pay for more than just the campsite. And NPS, USPS, BLM, Reclamation, etc can use all the extra funds they can get.

    It also keeps a lot of people who don't have deep reverence for wilderness out if the back country.

    Yes, the 40 ft motorhome with big screen, satellite dish, video games and the people who never come out is a strange phenomenon I don't even begin to understand. Why leave home?

    But as long as those people pay their fees, are reasonably quiet, don't run their generators, and pick up their garbage (including dog poop), what the heck? They pay taxes too.

    © grover

    So if you get hit by a bus tonight, would you be satisfied with how you spent today, your last day on earth? Live like tomorrow is never guaranteed, because it's not. -- Me.

    by grover on Thu Jul 10, 2014 at 01:20:43 PM PDT

    •  We've got a teeny tiny camper trailer. (9+ / 0-)

      Bed and kitchenette.  Quite frankly, as a Scout mom, I've had my fill of bending over smoky campfires.  The spread of ash beetles now means that you can't bring your own firewood to a campsite anymore.  You're dependent upon the wood in the area, which might not be dry enough to burn.

      After a day of hiking and whatnot, we retire to a nice meal and a real mattress.  

      The 40ft motorhome dwellers often stop by to take a look at our 'cute' trailer.  "Don't have a toilet or shower."  Nope.  Don't want to drive my toilet or shower around.  I point to the facilities that are in every trailer park or campsite.  They're much better maintained.  Reliable hot water.  The only grey water we have to flush is from the sink and that's a cinch.

      They always look like they feel sorry we can't afford a 40ft trailer.  We can.  We just don't want the hassle of driving one around or the expense of all that gas.

      Before we were married we tent camped.  That's how we could take affordable vacations to New York and Boston.  Camp sites are a fraction of the price of a hotel room.  We'd still do it, but the camper trailer is really convenient, particularly when you come back and it's too late to find an open restaurant.  

      We can hook up to campsite power, but if that's not available, our fan, lights and heat (if we need it) run on a battery, which we could hook up to a solar panel, if we needed.  The stove runs on propane.  Very quiet, very clean.

    •  yes of course (5+ / 0-)

      it was over 40 years ago and Abbey was a total snob about it - that's part of his charm.

  •  Great diary, by the way. (3+ / 0-)
    In retrospect it is clear that the beer-to-other-supplies ratio of our packing was perilously skewed
    No, not great, hysterical.
    Now, if you have ever built a fire, you may have opinions on just how useful an eight-inch square, four foot long wooden beam might be, plunked on top of a dying camp fire. If it burned at all, it would certainly have been a slow procedure of charring. The level of stupidity induced by the beer (I blame the beer) must have blinded us to this elementary defect in the plan. Another defect in the plan was that, if it didn’t burn, we would greet daylight with a big honking piece of evidence in our campfire, proving our crime (provincial offence).
    I laughed. I've seen this often. We could probably build a mansion with all that lumber that I've seen unburned in fire rings.

    I don't really know if all those people were drinking beer.

    (They bring this stuff from home expecting to build fires with it.  Bless their little hearts.)

    I'm glad you're not still sitting in provincial prison for this crime.

    © grover

    So if you get hit by a bus tonight, would you be satisfied with how you spent today, your last day on earth? Live like tomorrow is never guaranteed, because it's not. -- Me.

    by grover on Thu Jul 10, 2014 at 01:31:37 PM PDT

    •  The wooden post reminds me of campfire chimneys (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      rat racer

      We'd get way back into the national park and set up camp along some river.  We'd "help" dad set up the plastic sheeting tent and then wander off fishing while he engineered a campsite complete with benches and a chimney.

      The Olympics have an abundance of decaying old growth stumps where some fir or cedar shattered and fell.  Big slabs of wood jut out of the base, and an enterprising hiker can loosen a slab two feet wide and six feet tall, and implant it on the upwind side of the campfire.  It creates a draft that brings the smoke straight up overhead before it disperses.  Dad had a real genius for stuff like this.

      If atheism is a religion, then "off" is a TV channel.

      by DaveinBremerton on Thu Jul 10, 2014 at 10:43:58 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  They don't let you bring wood into most campsites (5+ / 0-)

    anymore because of the wood ash beetle.

    The biggest rookie mistake with starting a fire is not having enough kindling.  Look around and see if there are pine needles and cones.  They are perfect kindling.  If you're the "be prepared" sort, bring a bag of dryer lint from home.  

  •  It's odd . . . we go camping to experience (4+ / 0-)

    "nature" (or so we alleged) but then . . . avoiding insects, preferred campgrounds with showers and running water and never, ever, got more than 20 feet away from an asphalt road.

    I'm a fucking idiot.  I wasted all those opportunities to suffer the slings and arrows of . . . ancestral reality.

    "The opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”" -- Paul Dirac

    by Rikon Snow on Thu Jul 10, 2014 at 02:34:37 PM PDT

  •  Thanks for this amusing, campy story (5+ / 0-)

    It makes me deeply grateful that I'm too lazy and comfort-loving ever to do such a thing myself. I feel your insect bites.

    Not your beer, though! :)

    "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

    by Diana in NoVa on Thu Jul 10, 2014 at 04:43:25 PM PDT

  •  I do my "camping" in a cottage on an island (5+ / 0-)

    off the coast of Maine that we call "the camp". Cold running water, and outhouse and 19th Century pitchers and basins for washing up. It's as close to a tent as you can get. It smells of kerosene and the sea, about equally. Come any time.


    by commonmass on Thu Jul 10, 2014 at 06:20:29 PM PDT

  •  Camping (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ichibon, DaveinBremerton

    We went camping over 4th of July weekend. We're going camping at a state park in a couple weeks. There are three of us in a subcompact car, so we don't overpack - we find that the more space you have available, the more you think you "need". We have a bag strapped to the roof, much cheaper than a luggage rack.

    I don't care for packing, unpacking, setting up, tearing down repacking the car and getting the stuff unpacked at home, but the actual camping isn't bad.

    The wolfpack eats venison. The lone wolf eats mice.

    by A Citizen on Thu Jul 10, 2014 at 08:04:29 PM PDT

  •  In the past 10 years, (4+ / 0-)

    I have camped about 600 days.

    When my wife and I hit rock bottom, I took the pop-up and lived out of it at a nearby state park for about 3-1/2 months.

    It was the healthiest thing for me.

    Here in a Nebraska winter, we get January weekends (February too) with highs of 50 and overnight lows around 25... I take the pop-up and go live 2-1/2 days in vacant wilderness.

    There is something about a campfire... a lake to shimmer the moonlight, and fresh coffee on a crisp morning to rejuvenate me.

    I can understand if you do not relate. On the other hand...

    It's my psychotherapy and the leader is Ma Nature.

    I come home very grounded.

    Peace and love,

    I never read or REC a diary with an acronym in the title.

    by Nebraska68847Dem on Thu Jul 10, 2014 at 09:24:54 PM PDT

    •  I can relate... (0+ / 0-)

      In the last 19 years my husband and I have been homeless -- with or without a vehicle to sleep in -- seven times in three states.

      Camping is only fun when you don't have to do it.

      “Sin lies only in hurting other people unnecessarily. All other "sins" are invented nonsense. (Hurting yourself is not sinful -- just stupid.)” ― Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

      by midgebaker on Fri Jul 11, 2014 at 07:37:24 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I'm a fanatic hiker turned reluctant camper (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    WakeUpNeo, rat racer, pickandshovel

    I'd been hiking with my dad since I was about 4 years old.  We were so poor we carried hand-made backpacks dad built from sawn plywood frames with nylon rope webbing and canvas pack sacks.  Our tents were usually made from sheets of Visqueen plastic, held up with ropes, steel rings, and these little rubber balls that allowed the steel rings to grip the plastic sheets.  Food was canned goods, eggs, spuds, Krusteaz pancake mix, bacon.  We'd hike 5-10 miles into the Olympics & set up camp for a few days.

    Later when I had my own money I upgraded my gear and started hiking solo--my longest trip being about 100 miles from Lake Cushman in the southeast Olympics to Heart O' The Hills campground near Port Angeles.

    One of my shorter trips started at Lake Cushman and ended in Graves Creek campground along the Quinault, by way of Six Ridge and Lake Sundown.  I had 3 beautiful days traversing this remote part of the Olympics, did a little fishing in Lake Sundown, then headed down the Quinault with a giant sack of someone else's trash that I picked up from around the old trail shelter.

    My pickup was meeting me at Graves Creek but I'd come out a day early so I had to hang out in the campground, the kind of place I normally detest.  I set up my little 1-person tent, stowed my gear, and got ready for the thoroughly depressing evening to come.

    I was saved by a couple in their mid-fifties, who offered to cook me dinner if I'd tell them about my hike.  Eager to not eat yet another bag of dehydrated chili mac, I happily agreed.  Turns out they were former hikers who, due to disability, were stuck with camping instead of hiking.  They were probably the most rapt audience I've ever had.  I told them about various recent hikes while they grilled bacon-garlic-cheeseburgers over the wood fire.  The burgers were, hands down, the best campfire food I've ever eaten, if I remember right they were washed down with a couple semi-cold Rainier beers that still tasted pretty damn good.  I will never forget those two wonderful people.

    Now I'm in my early fifties, disabled, and looking at the prospect of my hiking career reaching its end.  This weekend I'm taking my wife and kids to Deception Pass State Park.  With a little luck, the trout or the king salmon will cooperate enough for some campfire fish.  We'll swim, we'll eat s'mores even though I secretly detest the damn things, and for a day I'll be a little closer to wild and a little further from Tacoma.

    Problem is, I won't meet any hikers.  Karma dictates that I repay that hospitality of 25 years ago.  Somewhere, someday, will be a solo hiker in need of a decent meal at the end of a long trip.  As for me, I'd love to hear what they saw and what they did, and to know that those wild places are still there, waiting.

    If atheism is a religion, then "off" is a TV channel.

    by DaveinBremerton on Thu Jul 10, 2014 at 10:31:02 PM PDT

    •  I can relate - (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      DaveinBremerton, pickandshovel

      Dave. I'm still solo hiking, but not as adventurous as in my youth. And laying in a hammock alone is getting is getting spooky. Had "something" with its glowing eyes about 3 feet off the ground slowly walk by me while hanging in my "man-taco" about 4 in the A.M. Even when I shouted at "it", it took its sweet time strutting by.
      My wife used to go, but she no longer "does nature", as she puts it!
      I hope your disabilities improve, (((( vibes ))))

  •  My idea of camping (0+ / 0-)

    is a hotel without room service.

  •  I'm too beat up to camp any more. (2+ / 0-)

    But I did enjoy it , when I did it.

    My sons are now the ones who go camping, and enjoy it a lot.

    For me, the hotel and, by preference, the motor home. Reduces carrying, packing and unpacking, and the number of occasions where I can leave something behind elsewhere. And given our conditions...I feel better with my own toilet available whenever necessary, and clean clothing, too.

    Help me get my utilities on! I can't eat this elephant by myself.

    by Alexandra Lynch on Sat Jul 12, 2014 at 07:15:17 AM PDT

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