Nature Boy

Posted by jdg | Friday, June 11, 2010

I never went camping as a kid.  My dad had a saying: "Until somebody can explain to me why I would want to pay a fee to sleep on the ground, get bit by mosquitoes all night, pee in the dark, and eat lousy food in front of a fire when I could get a hotel room for $40 and eat dinner in a booth at an actual restaurant, we're not going camping." The thing is, you never could explain it to him, because halfway through any paean to the simple joys of a campfire and a can of beans or the stars above and the sounds of the forest in the middle of the night, his mind was already wandering to what was on HBO at the nearest Red Roof Inn and what the nightly special was at the Sizzler.

When I got to college, I'd still never been camping so I signed up for a one-credit recreation class that required a weekend backpacking trip to a remote Lake Michigan island. Most college freshmen quickly find some novel infatuation fueled by new-found freedom. For some it's extravagant skull-shaped bongs. For others it's that expanding collection of empty Goldschläger bottles on the dorm windowsill. For me it was paying a fee to sleep on the ground, get bit by mosquitoes all night, pee in the dark, and eat lousy food in front of a fire. When my class arrived at that remote Lake Michigan island we hiked until we reached a tree-lined bluff that overlooked the rusty hulk of a shipwrecked ore freighter and there we pitched our tents. I found myself sharing a tent with two experienced campers: one a bona fide hippie who currently lives in a log cabin built by the Amish; the other a former Eagle Scout who currently lives in the Pacific Northwest catching owls and other birds of prey with his bare hands for the U.S. Forestry Service. Spending your first night in a tent between those two was kind of like losing your virginity to Ron Jeremy and Peter North. They were both consummate professionals and very gentle with me.

In time, I became an insufferable environmentalist. I memorized long passages of Whitman and recited them to myself on long hikes. I began learning the names and uses of all the plants I encountered. I practiced building survival shelters and making fire without matches and reading books about how to turn piss into safe drinking water. I was making up for missing all those years in the Boy Scouts because mom yanked me out of Tiger Cubs after I told her our den leader was a secret Nazi with a shrine to Hitler in his basement. I think I could have put up with one fascist role model if it meant I would get to spend my freshman year getting laid and wasted like everybody else instead of cooking wild edible stew and sleeping in a mud-covered hogan I'd built at a nearby nature preserve.

Now that's surely an exaggeration, because later that year I was able to meet the girl I'd one day marry and make a few babies with. When I eventually met the woman who would become my mother-in-law, she asked me a bunch of pointed questions she must have asked all her daughter's suitors, and the one I remember most was, "Where do you see yourself in ten years?" and I said something like, I'll be living in a cabin I built myself off the grid somewhere in the mountains as far as I can get from this unsustainable society built on unnecessary consumption and waste. Then I popped the collar on my Schott Perfecto, ordered her daughter on the back of my Triumph Thunderbird and left her aghast in a cloud of petrol smoke. If only the poor woman could have gazed into a crystal ball and seen my domesticated ass sherpa-ing her grandchildren around; we might not have even had to deal with that unreasonable curfew all summer.

That June I took a job as a counselor at a nature center day camp; at the end of each week, the underprivileged inner-city kids in my charge were supposed to spend their last night of camp in tents somewhere on the property. It was my duty to make this as painless and fun for them as possible. One week, we camped not far from where I'd shown them how to filter rainwater (or urine!) using a bottle, a tarp, and some sand. I built myself a nice little shelter on top of an overgrown knoll the middle of my kids' tents. "Aren't ya gonna set up a tent, Mister?" one of the grubby little urchins asked.

"Tent?" I asked. "Why, tents are for amateurs who can't build a primitive shelter that would blow even Tom Brown Jr.'s wool socks off!"

I woke up itching everywhere. Some fat kid in a basketball jersey stood between me and the rising sun. "You built your primitive shelter in the middle of a patch of poison ivy, dumbass," he said. And he was totally right.

* * * * *

My daughter isn't that much younger than the kids I once introduced to camping, but we still have never taken her into the backcountry. We tell ourselves when they're a little older, but every time we find ourselves in a position to pitch a tent, my father's stubborn wisdom prevails. Still, I'm considering going on a week-long camping trip with some college friends later this summer and I'm taking the kids hiking at least once a week. The other day we were at a state park and I was showing them all the plants and talking about why they grow where they do, summoning what I could of that inner-19-year-old nature boy. At some point along the trail I touched my lips and soon after felt them burning. I've been nursing the most serious case of poison ivy I've had since that summer fifteen years ago, and this time it's all over my face. I look like W.C. Fields with leprosy. I look like Edgar Allen Poe's bloated, syphilitic corpse. I've been spending my days in seclusion like a mysterious character in an ancient novel, receiving visitors only in our velvet-curtained parlor, wearing a long hooded cloak.

I don't remember touching any suspicious three-leafed plants; I suspect the dog ran through a patch and transferred the oil to my hands. Still, I have no doubt that nature gave me exactly what I deserved.

I left my darkened sanctuary of shame briefly to take the kids strawberry picking. You should read about it here