Okay, this wasn’t my first camping trip. My family took a trip back when I was fourteen; we borrowed a neighbor’s tent and joined one of my sets of aunt/uncle/cousins for a week in Maine, where we got rained on and my uncle rallied us to a mountain hike that was well beyond my own family’s physical ability; he lured us up the mountain by promising we’d see a magnificent waterfall, one which he’d seen himself in early May, but forgot that it was now the middle of July and that the water had dried down to what my father described as “an old man peeing off a rock”. I was all for another attempt, but the rest of the family, not so much (at least, not at first; my brother later went on to backpack around the world twice in his 20s).
Everyone told me that I could go on a solo trip, but I’ve always wanted a practice run – I was very aware that I was really more or less along for the ride on my first trip. My aunt and uncle did most of the cooking and my parents set up the tent while my cousins and brother and I just poked around at the edge of the lake. I wanted at least one supervised hands-on trip before trying to go on my own, and have been quietly hinting to people for years that I’d like to try (albeit, possibly too quietly because no one realized I was asking). Then a couple years ago I met J in a kayak club, and after a couple years of comparing notes on boats and hikes and other adventures, I bit the bullet and asked him if he would be my camping Yoda.
And thus this weekend we jumped into a rented car with two tents, a cooler, and some clandestine alcohol (shh) and head north, to a campground in the Catskills. J tried to always explain why he was doing what he was doing, showing me the tips and tricks he’d learned from a lot of camping – everything from how he picked the tent site (“someplace flat not close to a tree”) to how to carry dish soap (in a bottle with an eyedropper), and even mentioned some of the differences between car camping, like we were doing, and backcountry camping, which he prefers. And I did learn a lot, including:
- That even when you purchase firewood from a general store it may be a little too wet.
- That lentil stew cooked over an open flame cooks way faster than you think – but also tastes way better than you’d imagine.
- That roasting corn over an open flame takes longer than you’d think.
- What tequila does when you splash a tiny bit onto a campfire.
- How to drive a tent stake into the ground when the ground is about 98% solid rock and 1.5% cement.
- That if you were an idiot and forgot to bring cooking oil to saute the onion, a little of the liquid from a can of chick peas actually works as a substitute.
- That the soot from the bottom of your cooking pans will get everywhere.
- That some people will come all the way out to a campground in the middle of a beautiful site and then never do anything but sit in a circle around the fire pit and talk and drink.
- That if you need to get up and yell at those same neighbors because they have moved on from just talking to blasting Country Grammar at midnight, you should bring a flashlight.
- That if you need to get up and pee at 4 am, you actually don’t need a flashlight.
- That you can make serviceable coffee with a tea ball strainer, especially if you’re tired enough after having yelled at your camping neighbors for blasting Country Grammar at midnight.
- That sometimes when the hiking trail guide describes a trip as “easy” with a “gentle slope”, they may be lying to encourage you, and you actually may be doing some ambitious climbing.
- That you will encounter icky things in the bathrooms, like spiders and waterbugs, and you simply won’t care.
- That lengthy conversations around a campfire are mesmerizing, and the fire can lull you into relaxing and talking more freely than usual.
- That if your friend J surprises you with a trip to go zip lining, you should say yes because it’s awesome.
- That chewing gum can help when a sinus headache has jumped out and attacked you at the very beginning of the zip line course.
- That I’m better at zip lining than I thought.
- That if you don’t actually have ice on hand for your feet, dunking your foot in the lake works just as well. Especially if you get to watch a man teach his three-year-old daughter how to swim as you do.
- That mist rising off a Catskills lake at dusk is incredibly beautiful.
- That it’s possible to forget that waterfalls dry up in summer, and so the falls you’ve just hiked to today are a lot like the “old man peeing off a rock” you saw when you were fourteen.
- That the view from the next peak makes up for that.
- That if you need a break mid-hike, it is perfectly fine to sit on a flat rock next to a tiny pond and look for frogs.
- That rain on your tent roof can lull you to sleep.
- That it is possible to strike two tents and pack up an entire two-person campsite in only five minutes when you wake up to discover one of your tents is leaking.
- That diner waitresses are very tolerant of muddy and faintly odoriferous customers at 7:30 am.
- That apartment stairwell railings are perfect places to hang muddy tents that need to dry out.
I think I’m ready for more.