June 03, 2005

Be prepared.

My friends and I were talking the other night of maybe taking our kids camping together this summer. Just the moms and the kids. We all thought this sounded like a great idea. We'd tire the kids out during the day and then enjoy margaritas around the fire once the kids were down for the night. While we were talking, I remembered my most memorable camping trip ever, which I fondly call The Camping Trip From Hell. One weekened, a couple of friends from work, one of the coworker's two-year-old and dog, my brother and I decided to go camping in Shenandoah National Park, which is a great place, by the way. Anyway, we all decided it would be lots of fun to go hiking and camping for the weekend. We get to the campground, pitch our tents and decide to go on a hike before it gets dark. My friend with the daughter, who is a very experienced outdoorswoman, whips out her map and picks out a nice five-mile circuit that should only take a couple of hours. Cool, we pack a couple of snacks and some water and all head out.

After a couple of hours we realize we're not really close to the end of the hike. My friend looks at her map again and realizes that she's miscalculated the length of the circuit and really it's about a ten-mile hike when it's all said and done. Needless to say, we comprehend we are not prepared for a ten-mile hike. We've finished off our water, we've gone through our few paltry snacks, and we're all starving because none of us has really eaten since breakfast. Luckily we encounter a couple spickets along the way with pottable water, so at least we're not worried about dehydration, but we are worried about how long it will take to get back to camp since it was already late-afternoon when we took off on our little expedition. Another couple of hours pass and my brother realizes he has a small bag of Del Monte trail mix in his backsack. I'm talking something that's meant to be a kid's snack in a lunchbox. It's small, but it's the only food we have. My brother pours the contents into his hand and the rest of us crowd around his outstreched palm to pick as quickly as possible at this unexpected bounty. Did I mention that there are four adults and a child to feed? So we polish off the trail mix in about a second, look at at the map and see that's there's about another two and a half miles back to camp. We finally get there and we are STARVING, STARVING. The kind of starving where you feel like you could eat your own foot if you had to. We had packed a lot of food: hotdogs, hamburgers, that kind of stuff. So my brother and I go to get the Coleman stove so we can commence with the grilling of the meat. I pull the stove out from the box and realize there's no fuel tank attached to it. "Where's the fuel tank?" I ask my brother.

"It's in the box, " he answers.

"No it's not," I say.

"Yes it is," he responds. "It's always in the box with the stove." He goes to the box and looks into it. "Where's the damn tank?" he asks.

The only stove we have is a small one-burner that one of my friends had thought to pack. We can't cook hotdogs or hamburgers on it, but at least we can cook the bag of Lipton's noodles over it. (This is again the friend--Rose--who spends many, many, many hours in the wilderness with her husband and child.) She takes out the burner and fills it with the fuel her husband has packed for her. She attempts to light the burner and is confused when it doesn't take. She, my brother and I make repeated attempts to get the thing lit with no success.

"What the fuck?" she says. "Why isn't this thing lighting?"

"Are you sure you've got the right fuel?" my brother finally asks.

"Yes, my husband knows it uses white fuel."

"Let me see the container," my brother says. Rose hands him the canister and my brother expertly sniffs it and says, "This is kerosene, not white fuel."

"Shit," Rose says. "It won't work with kerosene."

"Don't worry," I say. "I've got a whole canister of white fuel in the car." I go get the canister, we dump out the kerosene and fill it with white fuel. However, it takes awhile to burn off the residual kerosene in the burner before the white fuel takes the flame. Did I mention we're really, really starving?

While Rose and my other friend Lanette are busying themselves cooking the bag of Lipton's, my brother says, "I'm going to start a fire. We'll be able to roast the hotdogs, at least." He goes around and starts collecting some wood to start a fire, but there are only small twigs lying around. Nothing that will fuel a fire for very long. In addition, he realizes that the wood feels a little damp. "This wood feels a liitle damp," he says.

"It doesn't look wet," I say.

"But it feels wet," he says. My brother (who was a boy scout for about ten years) walks over to the closest group of campers to us and asked if it rained anytime recently, and they tell him it had rained pretty good that morning. So all the wood is wet. It's starting to get dark and cold. We had already eaten the bag of Lipton's by this point, but it didn't do anything to curb our hunger because it was just the one bag and there were five of us.

"We need more wood," my brother decides and asks if anyone packed an ax or a saw. We all look around at each other, shrugging shoulders and understand that, no, no one has thought to pack an ax or saw.

My brother goes out to the periphery of our campsite where a couple of small trees are down, gets another log for leverage and starts bouncing on branches to snap them off. He manages to get quite a few branches this way. All us womenfolk are mightily impressed by his abilities. But there is no luck when it comes to lighting the damn things. They're just too wet.

"Dammit!" my brother yells. We're all pretty desolate by this time. We've resigned ourselves to the fact that we are going to bed hungry, tired and cold. "I'm finding something to start a fire," he says determinedly and stalks off to find something to burn. About ten minutes later, he comes back with a shit-eating grin on his face, dragging a huge-ass cardboard box behind him. It's like a refridgerator box. That's how big it is.

"Where the hell did you find that?" I ask.

"It was propped up against a soda machine down by the showers," he answers. He bends and rips the box until it can fit within the stone circle for the fire then says, "Bring me that leftover kerosene."

Rose hands him the canister and he dumps the entire amount on the box. "Stand back," he instructs us before he tosses a lit match onto the drenched box. Basically, the box exploded in flame and fire. It was almost beautiful, I have to say. We moved some of the logs and branches close to the fire so they could dry out, which they did pretty quickly. The box was big enough to burn for quite awhile. We had our fire. We all found sticks for our hotdogs, roasted those babies and had a couple of beers. We even made smores. So in the end, it all turned out pretty well. We laugh about it now because we really did feel like we survived the elements that day. Man against nature, the endless stuggle that never fails to motivate and inspire. We had won. For the day, we had won and all was good in the world.

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