I love road trips. Always have. But before setting out on America's blue highways, before I make my first wrong turn or erupt in my first episode of road rage, I have to decide: Camping or hotels? The choice, of course, is critical. It will determine my budget, what clothes to pack, the sightseeing hours I'll lose to SpectraVision porno, the proportion of my diet that is "musical fruit" and whether a series of grisly bellboy murders will stymie several local police forces. This time out, recalling the requisite, room-delivered, complimentary copy of USA Today, I opt for camping.
Little known fact: Most state and national park campgrounds are segregated. That is, tent (or so-called "primitive") campers (like me) and RV/trailer campers have their own completely separate areas. And "Yah-hoo!" to that. Believe me, I've pitched my tent in "integrated" campgrounds before and I find it somewhat disconcerting and more than a little discouraging to be noshing trail mix by bug-flittering lantern light as my neighbors kick back in their massage recliners, bake lasagna in the Viking and loudly guess the killer on an 8-year-old Murder, She Wrote blaring away on the 32-inch Sony via satellite dish while waiting for the Orkin man to finish spraying around the perimeter of their screened-in porch.
By the time I roll into the tent campground, my choice of sites is decidedly limited. I wind up wedged between, on one side, a graying biker couple with a shared passion for sleeveless denim garments, clogged pores and fistfuls of Peanut Butter Combos, and, on the other, a crew of male twentysomethings whose combination of unrestrained beer guzzling and open-air urination threatens the lives of more trees than an entire season of wild fires.
There's a huge difference between pitching the tent I own now and pitching the first one I ever owned. Used to be, I'd have to prop up, stake out, line rig, circle-inspect-adjust, circle-inspect-tweak, ad nauseum, performing a ritual dance of perplexed machismo and fear of wind. Now, thanks to intelligent-design fiberglass connecting rods, NASA-developed four-season synthetic textiles plus state-of-the-art architectural engineering by MIT's Environmental Structures Lab, I have a tornado/blizzard-proof tent that goes up in two minutes flat. And has a 30-year mortgage. (I confess I still haven't figured out exactly how to set up the damn thing's basement.)
I whip up dinner on my miniature propane camp stove. Amazingly, it's able to miniaturize the taste of anything cooked on it.
Damn. After dinner I feel the need to use the bathroom. And here that means a (gasp!) pit toilet. I tell myself I will not join my neighbors en flagrante defecato, even if it means sitting on a piss-spattered seat above a dank underground caldron of E. coli fetidly percolating in 98-degree August heat. My own internal turn of phrase proves too vivid, however, and I'm moved to drive the 40-mile roundtrip to the McDonald's in town for relief.
As the moon climbs higher in the night sky, I stop adding wood to my campfire. The flames die, leaving a bed of vermilion embers. Time to turn in. The trick, I find, to getting a good night's sleep while camping is knowing what to expect. And I do. So when the perfect, level, leaf-cushioned plot where I've pitched my tent turns out to be a thin-sodded grid of spine-seeking, spine-jabbing roots and rocks that can be felt through tent floor, foam cushion, down sleeping bag and the axon-extinguishing effects of a spleef the size of Shaquille O'Neal's thumb, I'm ready. I move to the car. When a mosquito inevitably starts singing its song deep, deep, deep in the pit of my ear, no problem. I spray my ears full of Raid Yard Guard. And when the dead-of-night grumblings, rustlings and crunchings of wild critters wake me, I get no rush of city boy anxiety. I know just what to do. I lean forward and politely ask the biker couple to please get out of my front seat and go finish their Combos at their own campsite.
Breaking camp is always a wetter task than I remember, morning dew on everything. I shake the shakable, wipe the wipeable, sponge the spongeable, squeegee the squeegeeable, sun dry the wipes, sponge and squeegee. By 2 p.m., I'm on the road. Projecting to my next stop. A stop bound to test my ability to survive an uncivilized, untended, inhospitable environment: the nearest Motel 6. ©