Little known fact: Most state and national park campgrounds are segregated. That is, tent (or so-called "primitive") campers (like me) and RV/trailer campers have their own completely separate areas. And "Yah-hoo!" to that. Believe me, I've pitched my tent in "integrated" campgrounds before and I find it somewhat disconcerting and more than a little discouraging to be noshing trail mix by bug-flittering lantern light as my neighbors kick back in their massage recliners, bake lasagna in the Viking and loudly guess the killer on an 8-year-old Murder, She Wrote blaring away on the 32-inch Sony via satellite dish while waiting for the Orkin man to finish spraying around the perimeter of their screened-in porch.
By the time I roll into the tent campground, my choice of site is decidedly limited. I wind up wedged between, on one side, a graying biker couple with a shared passion for sleeveless denim garments, clogged pores and fistfuls of Peanut Butter Combos and, on the other, a crew of male twentysomethings whose combination of unrestrained beer guzzling and open-air urination threatens the lives of more trees than an entire season of wild fires
There's a huge difference between pitching the tent I own now and pitching the first one I ever owned. Used to be, I'd have to prop up, stake out, line rig, circle-inspect-adjust, circle-inspect-tweak, ad nauseum, performing a ritual dance of perplexed machismo and fear of wind. Now, thanks to intelligent-design fiberglas connecting rods, NASA-developed four-season synthetic textiles and state-of-the-art architectural engineering by MIT's Environmental Structures Lab, I have a tornado/blizzard-proof tent that goes up in two minutes flat. And has a 30-year mortgage. (I confess I still haven't figured out exactly how to set up the damn thing's basement.)
I whip up dinner on my miniature propane camp stove. Amazingly, it's able to miniaturize the taste of anything cooked on it.
Damn. After dinner I feel the need to use the bathroom. And here that means a (gasp!) pit toilet. I tell myself I will not join my neighbors en flagrante defecato, even if it means sitting on a piss-spattered seat above a dank underground caldron of E. coli. My own internal turn of phrase proves too vivid, however, and I'm moved to drive the 40-mile roundtrip to the McDonald's in town for relief.
As the moon climbs higher in the night sky, I stop adding wood to my campfire. The flames die, leaving a bed of vermilion embers. Time to turn in. The trick, I find, to a getting a good night's sleep while camping is knowing what to expect. And I do. So when the perfect, level, leaf-cushioned plot where I've pitched my tent turns out to be a thin-sodded grid of spine-seeking, spine-jabbing roots and rocks that can be felt through tent floor, foam cushion, down sleeping bag and the axon-extinguishing effects of a spleef the size of Shaquille O'Neal's thumb, I'm ready. I move to the car. And when the dead-of-night grumblings, rustlings and crunchings of wild critters wake me, I get no rush of city boy anxiety. I know just what to do. I lean forward and politely ask the biker couple to please get out of my front seat and go finish their Combos at their own campsite.
Breaking camp is always a wetter task than I remember, morning dew on everything. I shake the shakable, wipe the wipeable, sponge the spongeable, squeegee the squeegeeable, sun dry the wipes, sponge and squeegee. By 2 p.m., I'm on the road. Projecting to my next stop. A stop bound to test my ability to survive an uncivilized, untended, inhospitable environment: the nearest Motel 6. ©