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Happy Campers We Shall Always Be

Essay by Lou Bendrick

Outdoor Life – August 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

EVERY SUMMER, my husband and I head for the woods, flushed with optimism and giddy with anticipation. The maps are crisp, the Coleman fuel cans are full, and the road is open.

And every summer, I forget that the reality of camping is different than that pictured in Dodge Dakota commercials and my mind.

I imagine vigorous, seamless hikes. In truth, my walks entail a ream of moleskin, a wheel of duct tape, numerous applications of sun block, the removal of several layers of high-tech clothing quickly followed by re-application of clothing, incessant adjustments to pack, boots, shoelaces and attitude, five to 10 pee breaks (due to zealous obeisance to the “copious and clear” rule), two to fifteen Kodak moments, and several instances of feigning interest in wildflowers when I am really just catching my breath.

My husband has his own ways of fiddling. He’s a cartophile extraordinaire. He doesn’t just like maps, he loves them. Camping starts with the Rand McNally Road Atlas, which he has highlighted. His backpack holds a library of road maps, folded like origami. (I remember the first time I refolded one of his maps wrong. He looked as shocked and horrified as someone who was watching his house burn.) At every trail junction, he spreads the maps out like a mad general, smoothes his hands over them, then points and says, “Look! We’re right here.”

Far from an honest and simple experience, camping in tandem is based on complex and well-calculated lies. Consider the following common camp statements:

“Really, you have the last Mint Milano.”

“I’m really not that cold, I just need some calories.”

“I’ve never been to this area with another woman/man.”

“We’re almost there.”

“Just a quarter mile now.”

“Your hair is not so bad.”

“You don’t smell too bad.”

“My back feels better when I sleep on the ground.”

“Mocha Powerbars are pretty good.”

“As long as you don’t surprise ’em, yer fine.”

Every year, too, I fall victim to the fantasy that I will meet nature on its own terms. I hope I will be blessed to hear the bugle of an elk or catch a glimpse of an eagle. In most cases, my encounters with nature, “red in tooth and claw,” involve fat campsite animals.

These creatures, tame and ruined by the flotsam and jetsam of campers, include corpulent, aggressive marmots; cue ball-shaped whiskyjacks and obese squirrels that appear with the first crinkle of a dehydrated meal bag.

THE HEARTY, NOURISHING MEALS I had envisioned (venison stew with spring vegetables baked in a Dutch oven), are, in reality, low-brow: Tuna Helper followed by two packets of blisteringly hot cocoa served in an insulated cup that still tastes like Lipton’s tomato soup. After two days of packet meals, I start to indulge in incessant food fantasies.

“When I get back, I’m having mashed potatoes and brownies,” I’ll say, while swigging out of a Nalgene bottle wrapped with duct tape.

My husband will try to trump me. “I’m having surf and turf with a baked potato with sour cream and fresh chives,” he’ll say, cutting a bruised apple with a dirty Swiss Army knife.

We continue this culinary masochism until we are resentful of our couscous and gorp. Depressed, we usually switch topics and begin picking on philistine RV-ers who happen to be eating a lot better than we are.

On the last day of camping, one of us inevitably spills fuel in the back of the Subaru or rubs peppermint Dr. Bronner’s soap into an eyeball.

Nevertheless, last year I slipped out of my sticky down bag at 3 a.m. to answer nature’s least romantic call. I had forgotten my head lamp, so I slammed into the campsite picnic table. I sat down to massage the throbbing knee and looked up. Above me was the Milky Way as I had not seen it in years. An owl hoo-hooed somewhere in the blackness.

In the morning I wrapped my cold, pink fingers around a cup of coffee as the sun came up. Camp coffee is always better than I remember.

Lou Bendrick is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, based in Paonia, Colorado . She lives in Telluride, and can pitch a tent in just under a half-hour.