Friday, May 18, 2012

True Camping Part II: "The Swarm"

By request, and because I'm procrastinating on other things today:

Not too shabby, eh?

True Camping Part Deux

When we were young, fresh, and full of hope my wife and I used to see signs that we were Meant to Be everywhere. Sundogs, coincidences--pretty much anything. We weren't reaching, it just seemed that the Silly Lovesongs were written for us. This was a stark contrast to the signs I had been born under, and the day-to-day bullshit Fate prepared for others' amusement at my expense.

Sound crazy? Resentful? My high-school classmates coined the phrase "L____ Luck" after my last name, since they had no other words for what they were seeing, day in and day out. It got so that they would encourage me to take risks just to witness the incredibly unlikely fallout. I got used to watching my own back and shrugging off most of the humiliation, particularly as it never seemed likely to kill me.

This is why I dream of a quiet life.

It was a giddy relief to feel like the Universe had taken another look at me and thought:
"He's not really a Dick, just wound up a bit--and who wouldn't be, after the royal screwing we give him? Right? Hey, we should really give him a break, maybe even his own stake in some action."
And The Woman came into my life, and I threw my brain out the window, and for a while it was Very Good.

During that time we spent a lot of time together. Outdoors was her preference, slow walks and quiet places, and camping when we vacationed. We took notes from the family camping we had witnessed, and bought some equipment, and put other stuff on our wedding registry. We ended up with a really decent set of gear to make a roughing it nearly as comfortable as home. 

The wife would delight in picking a new campground twice or more a year, and we would arrive, lay out our stuff, check out the amenities, shop, and eat tons of camp food and drink like fish in front of a roaring fire.
"My God, it's full of stars!" The night sky out there, but also Life.

Oh, to be that young: cast-iron stomachs, high metabolisms and no real need to sleep. Good skin and all the fitness of the Olympic Mambo Team. We invented Short-Island Iced Tea; which was vodka, coke and iced-tea powder. Foul, but you didn't care after half a glass.

Like this, only in a plastic cup without ice, served outdoors.
Sometimes, that is actually The Life.

Unfortunately, all that had to end, and the beginning of the fall was in The Signs. They began to change, first in small ways that we no doubt ignored, but then the weather turned against us. Hard to deny, if you still intend to really read meaningful shit into other random shit. But my only talent for denial was that temporary self-serving optimism.
Call it sublimated desperation.

We did not acknowledge that after a while we could not manage to pick a dry weekend. But were we deterred? No no, we had so much history stored up as stubborn stamina that we went on for years, ignoring what was happening. These events stood out in that time:

1. Ready for Adventure?

This was really the warning shot that we ignored. We paid to reserve a spot in the swankiest campground in the province. This was the first one to take reservations, and it was because retirees would have fist-fights for spots there, and they wouldn't leave. It was sad to see the park attendants using their trucks to slowly herd them out.

Flush toilets throughout, built on the side of Lake Okanagan in a series of steppes, so that every site had a breathtaking view of the whole valley. Carefully landscaped with ornamental trees, Olive, Cedar, some kind of Russian Dwarf Spruce, and Arbutus. Lastly, and truly the crown jewels of the place were the hot showers. Tiled, spotless bathrooms, with toilet paper provided.

Decent toilet paper.

It cost three times the average of all the other campgrounds and had a reservation list that filled up in the first hour it was available, six months in advance. The European spa of campgrounds. This time we were treating ourselves.
This beautiful picture is still too cold and wet to be the "Palm Springs North" that we were going to.

It was our fist visit, but we had heard all about it. The family wouldn't pay the price to camp there, and it was just as well. The place was clean and open, and there was no place for your kids to go while you drank all day. Streaking was frowned upon. It was quiet. That's what we inferred from their dismissal of it.

Well, they had never had our patronage, either.

It was raining pretty hard as we left the coast. That kind of thing is expected, all through the summer sometimes. You take a jacket everywhere and take your chances wearing shorts. We packed the minivan and took to the highway, and it was like escaping to another country. Hot and beautiful and summer the way you imagine it.

Two hours in we stopped for lunch at Skinny's Musical Grill & Pancake House, as always on these vacations. By the time we finished lunch it was overcast, but not too bad. Still warm. Kind of dark towards home, though. What those poor suckers were dealing with was no skin off our noses.

By the time we were four hours on the road it was clear that we were running from something. A roiling, black horizon followed us, and every time we slowed it sprinkled us with light rain. We drove faster and faster, and to hell with the Law.
Drive! DRIVE! Don't look back!

Rain was not allowed where we were going. Somewhere there would be a weather barrier, a chain of hills, an updraft, a big fucking wall we had never noticed. It was near-desert where we were going. Literally--the next town over was Osoyoos, Canada's desert. Rattlesnakes and sagebrush and terrible brush-fires.

No kidding. Recorded for decades as only hot and bone dry, 355 days a year, including all summer.

We lost the weather behind us in the last half hour before we arrived, thanking fate and my crazy driving for the chance to relax for the week. The campsite was EVERYTHING they said it was. Clean, gorgeous, quiet, warm, and the view was spectacular. Even a gentle breeze to cool things just a bit.

This is the lake. Note the sand, all the way up the hillside.
Did I mention the nearby wineries? Decent ones, too.

But there was no attendant, and there were no sites unoccupied. We hadn't received a number, just an assurance that we had a spot. There was no notice board. After a few minutes, someone left one of the one-day spots. We decided to go there, as we had paid, and talk to someone if they came to try to move us out the next day.

No problem. But I had the feeling that the tent should go up, like now. We couldn't see over the ridge too far behind us, but just to be safe, we started to get settled. Tarp on the ground, edges rolled inward underneath, so that water wouldn't roll over it, just under.
As if!

Tent over top, awkward, but do-able. Everything adjusted just so, and staked down well.
But I wanted to arrange a tarp over the tent, just to keep the sun off. OK, it was a feeling I had.

Silly, though it was, we draped the tarp and measured the poles. That breeze was picking up, and we had a little trouble keeping the tarp down. Nothing we couldn't handle.

We worked at it a few more minutes until the tarp was really pulling away. We grabbed the poles and planted them, started to tie them off, just as the mother of all storms crested the ridge and eclipsed the sun.

Water poured out of the sky like, like Niagra Falls, Frankie Angel. When the wind began to howl and shear, it was like being in a car wash, water veering off the ground to soak you UP from your socks to your chin.
But being who I am it was not until we saw the lightning that we decided to drop the aluminum poles we were holding up and retreat to the car. We were dripping from head to toe, and there was heavy gravel packed up into our shorts. I had a leather belt that left a brown dye-band around my waist from being so wet.

That storm broke records. It tore the roof off a local stadium, and three cities around lost power for a day. It left us in half an hour, but it lasted three hours, ripping up the area with 60-mile-an-hour winds and folks talked about it for years.

I can finally confess that it was our fault.

I'm not saying we knew, but if we had given up and stayed home I am confident that no one else would have been blasted by it. History is a motherfucker, and it points the finger at us every time. We could do this again to your town, if we chose to bring our sorry, cursed asses anywhere. All we would need is a blithe attitude and camping gear.

I have to say, though, it cleared up pretty quickly, and an attendant showed up to remove someone out of our actual spot. We dragged our sodden gear to where a mammoth RV had sheltered the ground and left us a campfire burning and some extra firewood, somehow dry. We had a very nice week after that. So it was worth it, if you ignore the massive civic damage.

2. The Swarm:

We invited my Mother-In-Law to come camping with us. My wife was finally getting over her lifelong resentment of her mother, particularly after her father had passed away so early on in our time together.
She wanted to spend more time with her. I wasn't the kind of guy to resent sharing, although this woman kind of always creeped me out. She still does, so many years later:

Four feet tall, piping high-yet-gravelly voice that always spoke to men in baby-talk. Laughed and scoffed a lot at them while fawning all over them condescendingly, including me. Spoke very bitterly about most people: men in general, people below the age of 50 and most of her family. Endlessly. Loudly.

Smoked like a chimney. On a burning cracker factory.

But she was game to come, for some reason.

The campground that we chose was wooded and very green, surrounding a beautiful lake. That weekend was a stellar prospect of swimming, hiking, reading, careful drinking and relaxation under a 100% sunny sky. Maybe not so much hiking, but we could swim, right? Well ...

Turns out that "Beaver Fever" is not just something the local junior-league hockey team hopes to inspire*, it's a horrible disease that afflicts freshwater lakes. That lake, that weekend.

No big deal, we'd stay closer to camp. Our site had been picked to be within easy walking distance of the washrooms, at least the map indicated that it was; unfortunately the flush toilets were on the other side of camp, and what we were downwind of was not one of them.

Easy mistake to make, the map was unclear. Next time we'd know.

The area around us was silent and nearly deserted the whole morning. We could really unwind in Nature, as long as we didn't inhale too deeply. By noon a carload of ten-year-old girls arrived, and set up just within sight of us. They seemed a pretty large family, or maybe one with a few cousins staying, too. There was a mother not really keeping track of them. Pleasant to hear them goofing around and squealing from that distance.

Then another carload arrived, just like them. And again. We did not get it until there were four full sites of them, right next to us, louder and louder, and they kept on arriving.

By evening our half of the campground was literally teeming with little girls; the noise was deafening and they were everywhere. The washroom lineups were so long you had to queue up right after lunch and bring your dinner with you. My wife and Mother-in-law are also about four feet tall each, so finding my way back to our campsite in the middle of that boiling swarm of freckles and barrettes required mounting a flag there.

It began to make some kind of sense when they all disappeared into their tents and RVs and came back out in uniform. My wife informed me that they were all some kind of Scout, or Brownie, or Cookie-Corps or Army-Ants or something. We had stumbled into a Jamboree, or whatever they called this pre-teen nightmare that threatened to blot out the sun.

This is South Korea, where it happened once before on a slightly smaller scale.

That evening was Hell. Too stinky to eat, too loud to talk, and there was no way we were going to drink much. The campfire picked out a hundred little eyes just beyond the circle of light, aimed right at us. As it got late, the shrieking stopped, and the terrible, ceaseless whispering began. Giggles in the Dark.
Rattling in the night, our tent shaking and soft noises of tiny footsteps all around us.

Day Two.

After a sleepless night we emerged under overcast skies to find that they had all gone somewhere for the day. In future we learned never to be relieved when this happened in a campground. We managed to finally get at the washrooms and spent the morning lying around the site exhausted and shaken, jumping at every small noise, dreading that they would all be back at any moment. Which did not happen.

Instead, the sky broke open like the wrath of God and tried to kill us. We spent the day in our tents, shouting at each other through the sheets of rain, hail and briefly even snow. I still don't believe it myself, but I am not making this up.
More snow, and a very grumpy mother-in-law would complete this picture.
The campground lost a layer of pine-needles and topsoil that day; there was nothing but asphalt and gravel left anywhere, even between the trees. All the firewood we had paid an arm and a leg for was under the wooden picnic table, which was covered in a plastic tablecloth; it was soaked through in no time anyway.
It was all over by the evening, when the girls came back.

It was their last night, and they sang and sang, and cried, and laughed while we sat in our soaking tents hating the whos. My mother-in-law was no longer speaking to us--she had gone deaf and had withdrawn into a better place where her kids left her at home for all their vacations. We took the hint and returned her early the next morning to her townhouse in the suburbs, and went back to our apartment in the city, cowed, but unfortunately not any wiser, as it turned out.

Next time: Part III: It All Comes Together--What's The Worst That Could Happen?

* Yes, yes. Get it out of your system.

What was your worst vacation experience overall?  Post a comment or link to a full article. 


  1. This happens to be the very subject of next week's official "Simian Idiot is Going on Vacation" post, so I won't talk about it yet, except that it involves broken bones and Kool and the Gang.

    I love camping. My camping days are over for the short term, but I'll be happy to pick it up again once my circumstances allow for it.

    1. We have a full set of camping gear, including barbecue, stove, standing lanterns, water filters, sleeping bags, folding picnic table and a queen-sized air-mattress, as well as one never-used 10-person tent.

      I might try to get the last part out more quickly than the others to coordinate with the season and your post, but there are still details coming back to me.

      It will mostly explains why it will all never be used again.

      At least by us.

    2. I'll happily go camping for you in the mean time. I loves me some camping.

      Out here in America's furnace, we can escape the 116 temps in the summer by heading north 90 minutes to the Mogollon rim. And so camping is more than just getting out in nature and drinking in the woods, it is R-E-L-I-E-F and the ability to wear jeans for the first time in months.

    3. @Dogs: That "Mogollon rim" area looks terrible. So hot and bright, and scenic. And big.

      Looks like you'd probably end up sleeping more than 20 feet from the exhaust of an idling RV.

      Without the threat of drowning or carbon-monoxide poisoning you're hardly camping at all. And how far would you be from highly irritating strangers?
      Beyond punching distance?
      Beyond hearing them blast out dub-step as the twilight falls?

      Too far, it seems.

      No offence, but one of us here is just doing it wrong.

    4. Yeah, you've got to like camping in pine forests miles away from anyone or anything. On the plus side, with me manning the fire, there is always the ever-present threat of instant incineration. That, along with ungodly amounts of alcohol, keeps everyone on their toes.

  2. I'm only on part one right now but so far this is my favorite thing ever. Your writing is BEAUTIFUL!! Wow!!

    And will you guys PLEASE come camp in my town so that you can destroy it? It needs a good destroying. Oh how I'd love to move away and know it was wrecked behind me. It'd make my choice clearer.

    1. You're so nice to me. I really appreciate it.

      There are a few of reasons why we will probably never camp again. Some are coming up in Part 3. I'll work on it soon.

  3. Cracker factory?

    The Whos. Haha.

    I waited for this post and you did not disappoint. I love your description of the girls taking over. Were you the only male in the campground?

    I can't wait til Part the Third!! Well actually I can because I have to, but I don't want to. Hurry! I will share my worst vacation when you do :) It will also include the worst things I saw while working at a campground...

    1. You're right! I believe I was the only male. Certainly the only one I saw that terrible, terrible weekend.

      I kept the lowest profile possible, believe me.

  4. Oh my. Torrential rains and swarming girl scouts? Sounds like end times to me. And yet...there's a part three? You braved camping again?

    You are a strong man.

    1. There is indeed more. If I confirm nothing else about life or the Human Condition with this blog, it will certainly be that I am too stubborn to know when to say "when".

      Thanks for your kind attention. Stay tuned!

  5. I despise camping, especially tent camping, much to the chagrin of my camping loving husband. I'd love an air-conditioned cabin in that swanky campground, though. It's gorgeous.

    "...hating the Whos." That's a great line.

    1. Thanks so much. We were really hating everything, but those cheery girls kind of drew our focus at a bad time. It was highly uncomfortable, but we might have gotten over it.

      However, chapter three was the living end.
      It killed camping for us all.

      I'm steeling myself to write it out in order, and in detail.

  6. Oh, my. That sounds miserable. Funny because it's not me, but miserable!