Friday, June 03, 2016

Happy Campers

I saw an article on Bloomberg the other day on all sorts of fancy-dancy camping gear. (E.g., a tent with “solar panels that connect to USB charging stations.”) I came away from reading the article with two things: a desire to get me a pair of Versitrail light-weight hiking boots, and a stroll down memory lane.

I didn’t grow up camping.

I did have a couple of friends whose families camped, but crowding into a damp tent with 5 kids was not my parents’ idea of the way to spend an hour, let alone a weekend, let alone a vacation week. And, in truth, it’s safe to say that their offspring felt pretty much the same way. It’s not as if we were going on lavish trips (hah!). But we were better off crowded into a car heading to a crowded rental cottage on the Cape or heading to Chicago, where we crowded into my grandmother’s lake house, where 15-20 people shared a single bathroom. But wherever we were spending our vacation – at the Cape, in Chicago, or staying at home and taking day trips – we knew we’d be sleeping under a roof and in a bed (even if that bed was shared with a sib or cousin).

But somewhere along the line, I decided to become a camper. Sort of.

My first foray was an overnight at Tuckerman’s Ravine on Mt. Washington. It was the summer before my senior year in college. Internships didn’t exist back in the day – at least for the likes of me – and my roommate, Joyce and I, were waitressing. We had a couple of days off and decided to head up north. To say that we didn’t know what we were doing is to understate the situation. Between the two of us we had a Boy Scout knapsack, another cheesy backpack, a WW II canteen, and two really lumpy sleepy bags (which someone we met on the trail kindly roped to our backpacks: we were carrying them in our arms). Forget Versitrail hikers: we wore our waitress shoes, the sturdiest footwear either of us owned. Our supplies included two ham sandwiches and two Table Talk cherry pies.

We slept quasi-out in lean-twos at the base of Tuckerman’s, and headed back down the mountain early the next morning, after Joyce was bitten in the eye by something flying, and had her eye blow up to the size of a grapefruit.

Despite our complete and utter lack of experience and competence, and Joyce’s unfortunate bug bit, we enjoyed the experience enough to decide that, at some point, we’d go real camping.

Which we did two years later when we spent a couple of months driving around the country in a Karmann Ghia stuffed to the gills with camping gear.

We had definitely upgraded from our Mt. Washington outing. We had a decent-enough L.L. Bean two-person nylon tent, with a fly to keep out the rain; warm and unlumpy sleeping bags; egg-crate foam sleeping pads; a high-end (for the time) Burgess lantern that my brother Tom managed to lose a couple of years later; a Coleman two burner stove; a Coleman cooler; cookware and water bottles; and a hatchet – still around here somewhere – used to pound in the tent stakes. Instead of my waitress shoes, I had Raichle boots that I hung onto for years. Up until I decided that they were as heavy as cement blocks, and I wasn’t going to be hiking anywhere in them.

Cross country, we camped at state parks. We camped in national parks. We camped in private campgrounds (as a last resort). One night – was it in Sequoia or Grand Teton? – we ended up sleeping in the car after we saw a couple of black bear cubs playing in the well of our tent when we got back to our campsite after hanging out with the folks “next door.” One night in Georgia, we were flooded out by the remnants of some hurricane or another. And in the Blue Mountains, Joyce and I held hands and our breaths while we heard something sniffing around our tent. We were in bear territory, and had done the usual: keep all the food away from the tent, don’t use hand cream, etc. We were both thinking that this was it. We were going to die, mauled by a bear. And then the clouds parted and in the moonlight we could see, shadowed against the tent, that it was not a bear, but a skunk sniffing around.

The next spring, Joyce and I upped stakes and took some of our camping gear to Europe with us. The tent made the cut. Sleeping bags, foam pads. We couldn’t lug the Coleman stove with us, so we got a GAZ backpacking stove, and a set of collapsible cookware. We both invested in top-of-the-line Kelty backpacks.

Camping in Europe was different than camping in the States. Not much by way of gorgeous state and national parks (at least not in our experience), but most cities had some municipal campground, and we camped along the Seine in Paris and on a hill overlooking Rome. We camped on the beach in Spain, and on a couple of Greek islands. It wasn’t all camping. We did plenty of hosteling. But the camping was plenty fun, including the night of the midnight sun we spent at a Norwegian campground where, as it turned out, we were among the only civilians camping amidst the Norwegian Army, on some type of citizen-soldier maneuvers.

It is highly unlikely that I will ever spend another night of my life camping. I just can’t imagine the circumstances under which it would happen. So – other than a new pair of lightweight hiking shoes – I’m not in the market for any camping gear. But it was fun thinking back to the good old days, when I was a more than happy camper.

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