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, five or six 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.