Everything I know about camping I learned from literature. I’m talking about Jake Barnes’s fishing trip in The Sun Also Rises, or the opening scene in Of Mice and Men or the adventures of Nick Adams. This is all to say that my notion of camping is based on a literary fantasy constructed by mid-twentieth century novelists.
But as I prepared for my weekend in the wilderness (flush toilets, showers, and firewood delivered by truck included), I acquired a leather wine flask for sipping by the river. I stocked up on canned beans and canned peaches. I debated a can of Spam.
But camping in the not all that wild area at the intersection of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania with two dozen twenty-something friends has much less to do with romantic notions of camping than it has to do with drinking beer and cooking meat. We cooked a lot of meat.
Our site was on the banks of the Delaware River. The campground staff delivered a load of firewood. And then we fired up a gas grill. Most of us left late in the afternoon on a Friday and endured three to four hours of traffic. We started drinking immediately upon arrival.
We cooked gourmet cheeseburgers stuffed with blue cheese and grilled vegetables. We were no longer part of a coming of age narrative; we were already the bourgeois.
We were not alone. The campground that weekend was overrun with first generation Russian immigrants celebrating Russian culture and music in the great outdoors. Some five hundred Russians filled the surrounding campsites. They erected a stage and played Russian rock and roll, Russian folk music, and provided, so the rumor goes, topless Russian dancers.
The first night, after plenty of beer, a small group of us wandered into the Russian camp to check out the festival (and of course, to debunk the rumor of topless women). A Russian confronted us at the entrance to the camp, “Where are you going?”
Apparently, secrets of the Russian people are not for outsiders. When we explained we were camping across the street, he begrudgingly acknowledged we could enter the festival but warned us, “Russians are crazy drunks. They drink a lot of vodka.”
I drink a lot of vodka. I have Russian friends, including one of our campers. I was not dissuaded. However, the frosty Soviet style greeting had spooked the female members of our exploratory committee and we returned to camp without experiencing little Russia. I learned long ago to stay with the women.
I was a Boy Scout for less than eighteen months. During my tenure in their organization, the troop went camping three times. Each camping trip took place less than five miles of my house; I grew up in the rural hills and there was little drama in traveling to our ‘destinations.’
The first camping trip took place in the dead of winter. We were staying in a cabin with bunks. Everything was bitter cold. Patches of snow covered shady areas and the was mostly frozen over. By the end of the trip I could only smell wood smoke from the fire.
I learned an important lesson during that winter camping trip. I learned that in life, sometimes you get punished for other people’s faults. The Boy Scouts require that scouts pass a safety certification program before they are allowed to carry knives or work with saws and axes. The Totin’ Chip card was awarded to scouts who passed the certification, but the certification could be revoked. For each safety violation, the scout leader clipped a corner of the certification card; lose four corners and the scout lost his certification. During this winter camping trip, one of the older boys in my squad had left an axe lying around. All of us in the squad were deducted a corner from our cards.
On the second camping trip later that spring, we ascended a local mountain top and pitched our tents. That night the older boys showed off their skills with fire. While knives and axes require certification, anyone could play with matches. They lit a plastic bag on fire and watched it drip into liquid fire. They sprayed lighter fluid on a concrete slab, drawing their names and then lighting it on fire. The adults all knew we were playing with fire, but as long as they didn’t catch us burning anything, they didn’t seem to care. The lesson? Plausible deniability.
The third and final camping trip I attended was literally in my home town. My parents’ house bordered the state park we were camping in. The campsite was in a giant field adjacent to a convent. This camping trip was a large gathering of the northern new Jersey Boy Scout troops, and there were hundreds of boys running around in their uniforms. I ended up covered in poison ivy.
As one of the low ranked members of the troop, I was sent to get water over an over again. I found a spigot attached to a building and filled up the water jugs. I learned to make myself scarce during that trip to avoid water duty. However, on one of the several trips, a nun came out of the building and asked what I was doing. “That spigot feeds from the lake,” she said. “The potable water comes from over there.” She was pointing to facilities several hundred yards further from the campsite. The water buckets were heavy. On the next water trip I filled the jugs at the pond spigot just as before. I learned another important lesson: doing something wrong is just as good as doing it right if no one ever knows the difference.
When I arrived along the Delaware River, my first task was assembling my newly purchased tent. Fifteen years after the Boy Scout camping trips, all I really remembered about camping was that sleeping on a rock is painful.
My tent, prior to erection
I chose a relatively flat surface and set about assembling my tent. I was drinking a beer. I was racing the clock, not wanting to be struggling to set up the tent in the darkness. This was camping. In twelve minutes, with the assistance of two pretty girls, I erected the tent overlooking the river.
In the morning, I woke without the usual effects of over indulgent beer consumption; something about nature and the great outdoors had attenuated my hangover. I started a fire and cooked a can of beans on the embers. The fire cooked the beans slowly. I thought of George and Lennie.
The river was unusually warm, and I spent most of the afternoon lounging about between the rocks in the water as it flowed ever southward. I was drinking beer. We cooked more meat. I filled my leather bota bag with cheap wine. After darkness fell, we wandered into the Russian camp. I sipped wine. The Russians seemed subdued. That night, I fell asleep amidst a spinning, drunken world.
In the morning I cooked eggs and sausage on a cast iron skillet atop hot coals on the campfire. Before packing up, piling into cars and returning to the city, I breathed in the fresh air and for a brief moment felt as if I were Jake Barnes, George Milton or Nick Adams.