July 4, 2018. A cookie-cutter sizzling scorcher of a day. Everybody’s out to beat the heat. The beach? A pool? Not for me. I’m a man of the earth. Give me the solitude of a mountain lake; the tranquility of a primordial forest. I’m going camping! My mind traveled back to younger days: sleeping bag, backpack, and a spot on a cool rippling stream.
But that was younger days. Today’s camping involves a bit more effort. I’m not talking 40-foot hotels on wheels with more amenities than Mar-a-Lago. No sir! You can’t watch that brook trout circling around the seams of an eddy and binge-watch Breaking Bad at the same time. I need to gaze up at the stars, pretending to know which one is the North. I need to catch the fireflies, smell the honeysuckle. It just takes more preparation than I recall.
Inventory: Tent – check! Sleeping bag – check! Two fluffy pillows, a battery-operated fan, propane lantern, full cord of firewood check, check, check, and half a check! Two large coolers; one for food and one for drinks. Twenty pounds of ice to fill the two large coolers. Bug spray. Plastic cups, plates, forks and knives, and garbage bags. You can’t adequately commune with nature without large quantities of plastic. Grilling grate and coffee pot. Lounge chair. More bug spray. Shovel, ax, rope, knife, Aim-n-flame. Fishing pole, worms. Bug spray and back-up Aim-n-Flame because the first one won’t work. Late-model pick-up truck to transport necessary items to get back to nature. Check!
The days of hiking into the woods and “setting up camp” no longer exist. Maybe in Montana, but not in New Jersey. Every square inch is “posted” and an indictment for trespassing would probably (since everything else does) affect my credit rating. Besides a night behind county bars is not the same as “sleeping out”. So I made a three-night reservation for a campsite at Spruce Run Campground up in Lebanon NJ. They have a “tents only” area. No behemoth RV’s to intrude on my bonding with the possum and beaver. I registered at the camp office, got my four-page fold out of attractions and rules and regulations, and a map to my site. I enthusiastically hurried off to site 65 which turned out to be a cleared patch of ground the size of a carpet remnant. My neighbor to the left was a giant green garbage dumpster.
My spacious four-man tent was plenty roomy but the other three men necessary for its construction were not on my list. Still I managed. I had barely finished setting things up when the campers on the other side arrived. A nice enough family with two young kids. I settled down in my lounge chair; glass of wine, nice cigar, fire glowing, and today’s Asbury Park Press (what else?). I marvel at the energy of children playing, making so much of each simple activity. That they were Latino and spoke Spanish didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the moment. When the boy’s ball rolled over to my feet, I greeted him with half the Spanish that I knew. “Buenos dias!” I tendered. He just gazed at me and pointed to the ball. So I hit him with the other half of my bilingual skills. “Felice Navidad”. He looked at me like I had two heads, took his ball, and scampered back to Mom, presumably to ask what Santa was bringing for Christmas.
Camp rules specify one tent to a site. I was glad that my neighbors were such a lovely family. But that was before they opened the borders on Route 31. Friends and family started arriving in mass. A sedan and an SUV with assorted adults and children that filled up the bulk of the space. But no tent! Then a minivan with four men brandishing two cases of Corona and four pizzas. They actually parked in the roadway because they couldn’t fit in the campsite. But no tent! This would surely not be the serenity I had planned for.
Their fire-building skills were suspect. They didn’t use wood. Just rolls of newspaper. Endless rolls of newspaper that sent smoldering erratic embers in all directions. I don’t know -maybe that’s how they keep the bears away. The closest they came to a sustainable fire was when they burnt the pizza boxes.
As the night wore on, the volume of their revelry and music rose in proportion to the beer consumption. My Daddy taught me never to pick a confrontation with four Spanish men with two cases of beer. Well, maybe he didn’t exactly say that but he did say, “Don’t be stupid!”. I called the camp office to register a complaint. I explained how it was now past midnight and the rules plainly say no noise after ten. I explained how they obstructed the road and the rules plainly say no parking in the roadway. I explained that there were way too many people there for one site. If that wasn’t a written rule, it should have been.
I knew my dilemma would go unattended when the voice on the other end of the phone said, “Dude, I’m on it!” Experience dictates that the utterance of the word “dude” meant that the big fatty he just smoked kicked in and I was in for a long night of mariachi. The festivities went on into the early morning hours when everyone passed out in their vehicles. As the sun rose, I tried to rub the sleep dirt out of my eyes but I hadn’t slept long enough to even build up a dusting. They were just itchy and red and Visine had not been on my packing list. Maybe a good strong cup of camp coffee would get me going. I have one of those blue metallic camp coffee pots. Unfortunately someone in the last twenty years broke into my attic and stole the guts out of it. I was left with coffee grounds simmering in the bottom of boiling water. Cowboy coffee is what they call it.
I’m not much for cowboying. In fact, I’m not much for camping anymore. I spent the morning breaking camp, packed my fluffy pillows, and stopped at Dunkin’ Donuts on my way back to my air conditioning and Yankee Doodle Dandy on Demand.