I was hanging out with an old friend a few weeks ago and he started telling me about a canoeing/backpacking trip he was planning with a bunch of our college friends. "I wish I could go," I sighed with the resignation of a browbeaten steer.
"Why can't you?" my wife snapped later.
I sputtered something about the kids but she brushed it off. Her mother was off for the summer and would be more than happy to watch them during the day. Other than a brief trip to Virginia last February, I hadn't been away from the kids for more than a night since my son was born. I'd like to believe that they can't survive without me, but I thought about those babies that survived years living with wolves in India and figured my kids could survive a week with their beloved Nana. Whether she would survive a week with my feral children was another matter, but I was already starting to look forward to the liberation of a trip where any incidents of outdoor urination would be due to a lack of proper toilet facilities and not my toddler son's inability to hold it. Having spent so many years as a baby roadie/beast of burden I quickly decided I was going to bring as little as possible on this trip. I had just finished rereading some old Hemingway books and decided I didn't want to bring any of that modern camping crap. None of those $9 titanium sporks or LED-flashlights attached to Lycra headbands. This was my big chance to return to the great outdoors, and I've always been dumbfounded by all the equipment they sell to make the great outdoors as comfortable as your own living room. What's the point? I wanted to bring stuff made out of natural materials and none of that REI/Moosejaw crap. Yeah, I'm basically that Luddite jerk who sees your 4-oz poly-down mummy sleeping bag and says, I liked things better when they sucked. The night before I left, I set out everything I planned to take with me for a week in the woods of North Carolina:
Top row, from the left: my beloved Wolverine 1000 mile boots, old-fashioned waxed-canvas bedroll, Filson tin-cloth packer hat, Spanish goatskin bota bag. Middle row: 6'x8' plastic tarp with two tent stakes and 30 feet of para cord, old wool Hudson Bay point blanket, Archival Clothing rucksack, Laguiole pocket knife (juniper-wood handle), vintage boy scout shorts, four bandannas (two were made by my wife from chambray remnants), J.Crew Irish linen camp shirt, blue jeans; Bottom row: Filson lightweight wool socks, my grandfather's WWII mess kit (marked with the names of the African and European cities where he saw action), moleskin notebook, mini canvas sack full of hunter's sausage, Zingerman's salami, sardines, Heinz beans (the British kind), Greenfield Village hobo bread, three hard cheeses from Zingerman's, garlic-chipotle sprouted pumpkin seeds from the zen monks in Hamtramck, lighter, toilet paper, three tea candles. Packed into the rucksack, it all looked like this:
You'll notice there's no tent or sleeping pad. When we first arrived in darkness at our campsite on the southern shore of Lake Fontana, the friends we were meeting from southern states had already set up camp, and I just threw the bedroll on the ground and slept right there under the stars. I woke to find my Japanese friend had abandoned his tent and was sleeping in the back seat of his Volkswagen Jetta. The ground was too uncomfortable, he said. "Didn't you grow up sleeping on a grass mat every night?" I asked him. America: apparently it turns you into a total wuss.
In the morning we decided to abandon that first campsite (and our cars) and canoe across the lake to a more isolated backcountry campsite in the national park. Supposedly the campsite was in the middle of an old ghost town. It quickly became apparent that my whole "pack as little as possible" theory was something I'd built up in some isolated castle of smugness. We were loading the canoes and my friend Ryan pulled three gigantic plastic tubs out of the trunk of his car and started loading them into the canoes. "What the fuck, Ryan?" I asked, and he (rightfully) got pissed after I basically ordered him to consolidate his three massive plastic tubs down to two massive plastic tubs.
He had enough giant pots in there to cook more than enough gruel for the annual Knoxville Orphanage camping trip. As he petulantly shifted his belongings from tub to tub, I felt like Janeane Garofalo ordering Paul Rudd to pick up a plate he tossed on the floor:
After canoeing all morning, we arrived at the boat landing where Hazel Creek turns into shallow white water and learned that our campsite was half a mile up the trail that followed the stream. That meant we had to lug those massive plastic tubs and all our other stuff half a mile up the trail. Instead, we foolishly decided to keep the gear in the canoes and row them through the shallow water upstream, requiring us to get out of the canoes and drag them pretty much the whole way.
You'll notice there are no sandals or water shoes in that photo of my gear up above, so that meant I had to stumble through the razor-sharp algae-covered rocks on my unusually-tender bare feet. After getting attacked by a massive wolf spider and falling on my ass in a foot of water, I finally got my comeuppance while begging one of my friends to throw me his mandals from the shore so I could get out of the river.
"Are you sure?" he asked. "I'm pretty sure they didn't have mandals in 1923."
I decided not to point out that the mandals would not have been necessary if everyone had just packed their gear in expensive waxed-cotton-twill rucksacks rather than massive plastic tubs, because as my feet sank into the squishy wet layer of leather between them and the rocks, I suddenly knew what heaven felt like.
At camp, a sign said that the next couple sites upriver were closed because of "aggressive bear activity." I set up my tarp and took this picture:
Notice the protective "bear wall" and casually-placed bottle of rye. "You're going to blog about this, aren't you?" my friend asked. He forgot to add: "Douchebag." We spent two nights there on the shore of Hazel Creek. Several times I watched a 4-inch beetle scoot deftly across my bedroll and when I got home I found dog ticks in my skin. The experience was everything I wanted it to be, and then some.