Sometimes camping seems like the cheapest way to go when traveling. When camping is good, it’s really good – relaxing, inexpensive, and convenient. But when it’s bad, it can be really bad reminding you of why paying $90 for a night indoors is almost always worth it. Here’s a few of my favorite tales from our camping adventures over the past few years.
Muncie Endurathon 2002
It was mid-July and we had traveled to the Muncie Endurathon in Indiana. A year earlier, we had a pleasant experience at the campground adjacent to the reservoir where the race was held. In 2002, we did not fare as well. It was about 10:30 pm, and we were tucked in for sleep. A Boy Scout camporee gone wild was taking place a few sites down but they eventually got all scouted out and settled down. Soon after, we thought the night was ours and sleep was soon to come. And then a pick-up truck pulled into the site across from ours. Out stepped 4 fairly innocuous looking Indiana campers. An hour later, innocuous turned into inept as all 4 were still trying to set-up their tent, pounding the stakes into the ground with a ball-peen hammer. Realizing that pounding the 4 campers into the ground with their own hammer was not an option, I tried relocating with my sleeping bag to the back of our car. When the sound of pounding traveled through the window, I gave up and retreated back to the tent. Finally, around midnight they must have put their 4 brains together and figured out how to set-up what was starting to seem like a tent city rather than one simple tent because the pounding ceased. And then the talking began. It wasn’t your normal low-key conversation. This was the most absurdly loud chatter about, of all things, what they had brought in their cooler – including a pound of crab salad, a tub of cole slaw, a package of Kraft cheese singles, some potato salad, white sliced bread, and assorted other things that I was ready to pull out of their cooler and violently throw item by item (following their itemized list) across their campsite all while threatening to pound them not only with their hammer but their pound of creamy crab salad.
The Next Night – Caesar Creek 2002
The next night, hoping to have left the Muncie crab salad incident over 100 miles behind us, we camped in Caesar Creek, Ohio. But alas we were not that lucky. In the campsite across from us, there camped a couple. And that night they just were not feeling the love. They argued, they yelled, they just didn’t get along. They kept this up into the late hours of the night until we finally fell asleep, their arguing almost like a white noise we had by this point gotten used to. The next morning, we woke up to find that the argument didn’t stop – the woman just won, claiming her victory as she had clearly banned her husband from the tent, sending him to the proverbial couch of the campground – we noticed there slept a man, snug in his mummy bag, on the ground outside of the tent door.
Perhaps 2002 just wasn’t a good year for camping. But how could camping go wrong when you are in beautiful northern California surrounded by the surf, the sun, and the sea lions? We found a cozy little campsite in Veteran’s Park while passing through Monterey, California. We pulled in late and hoped to sleep in just as late the next morning. But even the best formed plans can get foiled when camping. Seems that sea lions are actually quite social critters who, like most young mammals, enjoy socializing into the wee hours of the night. They barked and arfed in the bay until after midnight. Finally, sea lion party patrol must have rolled through the bay because barking ceased and we were able to rest. What seemed like only a few hours later, promptly at 6 am, a beacon blared into the dark of early morning. Either a sea lion chorus had gone sorely off-key or they were playing Revelry in the middle of this campsite over a set of loud speakers. Sure enough, as I made out the notes of the familiar bugle line, I realized that indeed we had camped at a veteran’s park and indeed this would be our militantly-charged wake up call.
Deer Creek Pineman 2003
Nothing more to say about this experience other than it poured and poured and poured rain. And when you’re in a tent, in a valley in Ohio, that’s not a good place to be.
Memphis in May 2004
We pulled into state park near Millington, Tennessee around 11 pm. After choosing a campsite, we set about to quickly set-up our tent. With the darkness, we put our headlamps on which proved to be a not-so-good choice. Big bugs, little bugs, mammoth southern-sized bugs swarmed around us and into us, sounding the like the blades of a helicopter, unable to resist the light of our headlamps. The bug troubles didn’t stop there. I filled a water bottle under the spigot at our site. Trying to brush his teeth, Chris used this water to wet his toothbrush and rinse his mouth. But this simple task of hygiene soon turned into a creepy hell. He exclaimed something about ants – ants were in his mouth, on his toothbrush, something to the effect of “Why does it feel like I am brushing my teeth with ants, Liz?” We stuck the water bottle into our car headlights only to realize that indeed he was brushing his teeth with ants – the water bottle I had filled was clearly filled with hundreds of ants that were trying to escape out of the mouth of the bottle and into Chris’ mouth.
Ragbrai – perhaps the most perfect week-long combination of pie, pedals, and pork around. Find yourself smack in the middle of small town Iowa, fully fed on pork after pedaling your bike all day long and nothing sounds better than a slice of cherry pie. Or, for some, an entire pie. Earlier in the evening, our friend Bert had bought an entire cherry pie, sampling just one piece and saving the rest for another night. He left the pie in the front seat of our van and headed off to bed. A short while later, after everyone had headed off to sleep, Chris and I heard the van door open, ever so slowly, and then quietly shut. Light, quick footsteps made their way from the van and parked gently in front of our tent. Chris and I looked at each other, puzzled by the sounds, and only further puzzled by what we heard next. It was almost animal in nature with a ravenous round of slurping, chomping, snorting, and chewing. What had possibly settled in front of our tent? Was it animal? Human? Corn-fed? Fearing it was the elusive yet often talked about corn bear, I provoked Chris to bravely unzip our tent and see what wildly undomesticated creature was about to make a snack shop out of our tent and possibly the contents inside. He grabbed a headlamp and cautiously unzipped the tent door. Unsure of what we would find, we peeked outside only to see something so large that surely it had to be animal as it stood over 6 foot tall, with the arms of a gorilla and the long hairy legs of horse. Scared, but course curious, we noticed its shadow slowly chewing and scooping something into its cavernous mouth, teeth oozing with a blood-like red substance. In an effort to blind, and perhaps startle, this animal with vicious appetite, Chris flipped on the powerfully bright headlamp, shining it directly into its eyes. The screaming light revealed the animal that possibly we should have feared most – one of our own. Not an animal, not a corn bear, just a very drunk Alfie - instantly frozen, like a raccoon in headlights, clenching a crusty fork in one hand and a half eaten cherry pie in the other. He looked at us, and it was as if we had startled the pie right out of him as he then, in a wave of drunken and over-pied delight, yakked up the cherry pie right outside our tent door. Shortly after, we asked him to leave our team – because touching another man’s pie is quite a serious infraction in Iowa and if someone can't be trusted with pie, what can they be trusted with?
US Half Iron Championship 2005
En route to Kansas City, we camped around Des Moines. I was driving and having some difficulty finding the campground. It was late, we were tired, and we were zipping up and down a dark road trying to locate the campground entrance. Suddenly, a raccoon scurried out from the grasses along the side of the road. I slammed on the brakes, giving him a chance and he darted back towards the grasses and as I picked up speed he changed his mind and bit it under our front wheel. With one raccoon down, we thought it couldn’t get much worse that night. But it did. We were excited to try a new tent but less excited when we couldn’t figure out how to assemble it. After 30 minutes, in the dark, we constructed something that surely was not architecturally correct or sound but would do for the night. Frustrated with the tent, we finally got to bed and hoped the raccoon, the tent, all of it was behind us and we could just sleep. But wouldn’t you know that we had put our tent directly under a pin oak tree and late September just happened to be right around the time when the tree was dropping its acorns. All night long it rained acorns on top of us. In the morning, we looked at our tent and laughed at what we had thought was probably wrong but looked more along the lines of overtly wrong and ridiculous. That tent went back to Target.
Ragbrai – Year Not Disclosed
Again, the raucous camping and riding adventure also known as Ragbrai. We were camped around some park in some random, small Iowa town. The week had been long and the night had be fun and filled with far too many beers for some of our team. The small houses surrounding the park were cute and well-kept. And filled with an attractive assortment of lawn decor – tiny gnomes, windmills, plastic deer, and other critters all looking curiousily ready to be kidnapped by an unassuming team of tipsy cyclists. Devious plot in mind, we spotted the gold standard of lawn decor – something so incredible that I dare not mention it here – but can only say that if you’re going to borrow someone’s lawn decor, this would be the jackpot. Moments later, a teammate triumphantly displayed the item at our campsite, declaring a victory of sorts in capturing what could quite possibly be the most memorable of totally unnecessary, but somehow totally necessary, of acquisitions for the team – a new mascot, if you will – a find so great that the entire event became known as Operation Echo November – something so covert that we would only speak of it in code. Our celebration, however, was short-lived. An hour later, it was already missing. ‘Where is it’ we asked a suspicious team member who had earlier in the evening spent significant time getting friendly with a man named Jack Daniels in the back of his pocket. ‘In a body bag, down by the van’, he slurred – confused, but also oddly amused, we went over to the back of the van only to find a black garbage bag filled with the contents of Operation Echo November - which we found even more amusing and rolled over laughing at the recognition of our own immaturity, innane recklessness and how perfectly free and careless this moment felt, in the middle of Iowa on a warm summer night with nothing to do the next day but ride our bikes. And on this night, it was not another campsite that was keeping us up. It was our own campsite chuckling uproariuosly loud about the event otherwise know as Operation Echo November.
Camping may not always go as planned but sometimes the adventures you find when you get diverted from your plan are worth more than any $90 stay in a hotel.
So head out this weekend, bring your tent, a headlamp, and see what lays out there in the water, in the woods, or perhaps even outside of your own tent at night. But a bit of advice – you might want to leave the pie behind.