Thursday, June 16, 2011

Camping in Teddy Bear Country

When the Cool Couple, Edd and Ashley, asked David and I to go backpacking on the Appalachian trail with them, we knew we needed to be prepared. We made a running schedule to improve our endurance, planned daily push-ups and sit-ups for upper body strength, and called in our faithful outdoors know-how man, Adventure John, to help us plan the trip. In three weeks, we were sure to be the most able backpackers to set foot in bear country.

To cut a long montage short (and to end what would have been a full three weeks of regular exercise), Adventure John sat us down and gave it to us straight.

He did not have much faith in our ability to survive.

Stubborn adventurers that we were, we persisted in our goal. The four of us, young dreamers all, would pack the essentials of life on our backs and pick up and move from scenic outcrop to scenic streamside as the day progressed. At night, we would skillfully prepare camp, probably next to a waterfall, and sleep under the stars. I had bought a machete from Walmart for $6 and David would bring the police baton his mother gave him for Christmas. We were ready for anything.

Somehow he managed to convince us to rent a campsite instead.

Three weeks later we set off to the Shenandoah parkway, armed with lunchables, apples, and hotdogs.
I got the Cool Couple to myself since David drove separately. We discussed relevant things, like what to do in the event of a bear attack (it involves the rope and pocket knife), and how many hotdogs we could go through in a night. Edd fell asleep in the backseat and eventually Ashley and I fell into a meditative silence.

When Edd woke up, he remembered something very important from his childhood in the Bronx.

The song echoing in our heads and dusk fast approaching, we entered the park.

David found us and we did camping things, like set up the tents and cook hotdogs. The cold lurked at our backs like a chilly black army and gathered reinforcements each passing hour. David and I had a plan. He had brought his family’s four-person tent, an arching affair large enough to frolic in, an air mattress, and several sleeping bags. We would pump the air mattress to insulate us from the ground, and then cuddle into one sleeping bag and use body warmth to see us through the night.

We couldn’t wait for bedtime.

At 11, the Cool Couple left for their cozy two-person backpacking tent, airmattressless. Feeling sorry for them, we dove into David’s tent mansion, unwrapped the air mattress from the box, and dug through David’s bags for the pump.

Despite our best searches, we soon realized the pump was nowhere to be found. Likely it sat unused and hankering for an air mattress to pump in his garage. Still, we had the shared sleeping bag to look forward to.
The first few minutes were bliss. We hugged and cuddled and found immense comfort in human body warmth with the freezing cold just outside the bag. But as we got sleepy, the confined space made it impossible to lie flat. As I mentioned earlier, David is about the size of Abraham Lincoln and his hat. I popped in my earplugs and turned on my side, but as I lay the cold gnawed at my skull until I had to duck under the bag. David’s carbon dioxide ate all the oxygen down there, so I scooted back up to breathe.

David said something, I think to admonish my squirming, but the earplugs saved me from having to feel guilty. The warm arms I’d snuggled up to a moment ago became an unforgiving obstacle. I took a gulp of air, put on a hat, and dove back under the covers. The arm I lay on started to grow numb, so inch by inch, sleeping bag like saran wrap against my body, I rolled over. Only now my whole face was exposed to the cold, so I needed to scoot down to warm it up.

Through the night, I had to remind myself people survived in colder. If it still hurts, I thought, I don’t have frostbite yet. Each time one of us sought warmth under the covers, it wedged the other one’s head out. It was like fighting with a malfunctioning heater. Around 4 AM my plan was to wait for dawn and build a fire. Macabre survival tips from Jack London went through my mind. Kill him so you can warm your hands and survive, my primal instinct said. Selflessly, I fought it. And morning found us alive, if resentful.

Their smaller tent had warmed up to their body heat in about five minutes. They greeted us as perky as if they slept in a cottage. We looked more like the grainy substance at the bottom of Edd's pseudo-percolated coffee.

After breakfast (deep fried hotdog slices and eggs), we decided to hike Waterfall Mountain (actual name replaced by one I can remember). A beautiful, winding hike that follows a stream through seven glorious waterfalls.

We set out with our hearts full, whistles around our necks like Adventure John suggested, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in our pack. 

We had failed to realize that 3 miles downmountain was not the same as 3 miles upmountain. By the end of the hike, my legs transformed into wooden sticks ending in nubs. We shuffled to the car and slumped inside. I could smell my own stench as vividly as I could smell everyone else’s. We were rank. David rolled the car windows down, so we left a noxious trail that probably stunned wildlife for miles.

We ate at the Mountain Diner near our camp so we could sit instead of having to do strenuous things, like walking back and forth from the fireside to the table.

After lunch, we visited the Mountain Museum. David called his job while we were in a service zone, and I joined the Cool Couple in educational videos. One, about the majestic black bear, caught our eye.

We left, traumatized by education. David hadn't seen the video, so our unprecedented paranoia of sudden sounds and shuffling footsteps did not affect him. 

Deep fried hot dogs and kielbasa later, we piled into our tents. Edd and Ashley had spotted a skunk sniffing around the bear locker earlier, so we carefully removed everything from toothpaste to chips from our tents. Then we lay the limp rubber airmattress over our feet. In a separate sleeping bag this time, David drifted off as smoothly as the Cool Couple did, unphased by educational horror movies. I stayed awake, listening. A song tickled the corners of my brain, and played over and over in my head as the wild started infiltrating our camp.

I heard scuffling outside our tent, and sillhouttes of deer against the moonlight walked past. Something munched not a foot from my ear, low to the ground. I lay rigid. I heard human footsteps, regular, cross the dead leaves near our tent. I woke David. He grabbed the police baton and I clung to my Walmart machete. We breathed short, quiet breaths, listening until our ears rang. The human footsteps crossed back and forth as a late night camper carried supplies from his car. A baby started wailing, a thin warble too similar to the creepy Voldemort baby for my comfort. I imagined the Voldemort baby made the footsteps fluttering past the cloth walls. Cloven feet passed on either side of us, and a bear locker clanged in the distance.

 The next morning dawned as terribly bright as the first. And the Cool Couple slept without fear of wildlife.

I managed to exaggerate a good portion of this, and tweaked some incidents to protect privacy. But I believe in freedom of speech, and I feel I shouldn't have to hide my experiences. So I have included an illustration of what actually happened while camping.