The Horrors of Camping

Your author as a mountain man. 1982 on Little Shepherd Trail in Harlan County.

I don’t camp.  That’s not particularly interesting, is it? I also don’t hunt or fish. Mind you now, I don’t have a problem with those who do these things.  I’ve done all three at various times.  As for hunting, it’s kind of fun to walk around with a gun and shoot at things.  I just don’t like dead animals.  They’re gross, especially if you skin them and pull their guts out.  I found that I had no more use for an animal I killed than for one I ran over with my car.  If you like to hunt, that’s cool.  I support you.  Fishing is  just plain boring, but I do understand the appeal.  Like bowling, it’s an activity where being stinking drunk is not a hindrance.  Unfortunately, you still have the whole skinning and gutting thing.  It’s just not for me.  But, this is about camping.

If I may digress for a moment, hiking–camping’s cousin–is okay.  I have hiked quite a bit.  I grew up on the side of a mountain, and my friends and I would often take treks into the woods.  There is a place above my hometown called Long Hollow.  It’s way back in the woods and kinda cool.  There were also old coal mine portals back there and related relics–trucks, picks, shovels, etc.  Occasionally, we would encounter feral dogs which scared the hell out of us.  I liked all that, but it’s not camping.

I grew up in Eastern Kentucky where it is assumed we’re all mountain men.  People assume that I’m a hiker, camper, hunter, fisherman, etc.  I’m not.  I was what was called “book smart.” If you ever call someone “book smart” or say that a person “doesn’t have common sense,”  what you’re really saying is:  “This person is infinitely more intelligent than I am.  I admit this and have no sensible way to counter it.”  Here is an actual discussion I had once with someone, who shall remain nameless for obvious reasons:

Him:  You ain’t got common sense.  You’re just book smart.

Me:  What do you mean?

Him:  All you know is what’s in books.

Me: If you mean I can read, I agree, but you can read, too.

Him:  But I don’t know nothing from no book.

Me:  I’m not following you.

Him:  How do you trap a bear?

Me:  Why would I trap a bear?

Him:  See?

Me: Why not kill the bear?  A trapped bear would be pissed off.

Him:  You don’t know how to set a bear trap.

Me:  I guess I could do that, but don’t you have to kill the bear after it’s trapped?  Seems like you should just shoot the bear and be done with it.

Him:  F*ck you!

That’s pretty much how it went in those days.  Anyway, I HAVE camped.  A few times, in fact.  We  had this huge tent my Dad bought somewhere.  We’d set it up in the backyard and sleep in it.  I liked that kind of camping.  If you get cold, you can go inside.  You get to use plumbing.  Otherwise, I’m not much of an outdoorsman for a number of reasons.

Plumbing:  Indoor plumbing separates us from the animals.  My ancestors didn’t come to this country on filthy, crowded ships just to have me wallow in my own filth for “fun.”  If you are comfortable relieving yourself outdoors, good for you, but that’s not a lifestyle choice I’m ready to make.

Electricity:  I am a HUGE fan of electricity.  Almost everything I do requires electricity.  Central heat and air conditioning requires tons of electricity.  Mother Nature doesn’t.  The result?  Constant discomfort.

TV:  I like television.  There are lots of good things on TV.  Sports, movies, reality TV, weather, news and many other things.  When you camp, you’re cut off from all that.  It sucks.

Filth: In addition to the obvious hygiene issues, I tend to get dirty when I camp, and I don’t like getting dirty.  I don’t mind sweating some and even smelling bad, but dirty isn’t good.  It leads to only one thing: germs.  The more germs you get, the more likely you are to contract some foul and loathsome condition.  For me, to camp is to eventually die.

Wildlife: I have nothing against animals, BUT they’re animals, and I’m not.  They live in their world, and I live in mine.  I don’t expect snakes in my house, so I try to stay off their turf, too.  You know what poses no problem for a snake?  Tents and sleeping bags.  Same goes for bears.

Plant life:  Aren’t the plants and flowers beautiful?  Of course they are.  Right up until you get into poison ivy or poison oak.  You can eat hemlock or belladonna or something else which will cause you a slow, agonizing death.  Before you die though, you’ll soil yourself, stripping you of your last shred of dignity.  Fun stuff.

My last camping excursion ended camping for me for good.  I was 14 years old and my friends, “Bobby” and “Steve” (These are there real names.  Read on, and you’ll see that they don’t deserve anonymity), asked me to go camping.  I didn’t really want to go, but I agreed.  How bad could it be?  Pretty damn bad, as it turns out.

It was the first Saturday in April, 1977.  We went to an area above Sukey Ridge in Harlan County.  Later, this area would become better known as the Blanton Forest, reputed to be the oldest old growth forest in  universe or some such distinction.  (By the way, the forest would be much larger if some of the Blanton descendants hadn’t logged it, but that’s for another time.)

Anyway, we hiked back into the woods, a couple of miles maybe.  I had a Vietnam War issue rucksack which must have been made of cast iron.  It felt like it was filled with bowling balls.  I assume it was designed to make our soldiers as miserable as possible.  My cousin was a Green Beret and brought it to me straight from Nam.  He also gave me a big, 10 inch knife.  I carried that, too, along with a pilot’s survival knife.

“Lightweight” tropical rucksack used in Vietnam. Full loaded it weighed more than I did.

We hiked way back in the woods.  I have to say, it was beautiful.  Big, old trees and a creek running through the woods.  Very nice–for a while.

First, the rednecks showed up.  Just as we found us a nice cave to stay in for the night, we heard the roar of motorcycles.  Three guys, probably in their twenties, came roaring into our campsite.  They were there to party.  Fortunately, there was another cave down below ours and they settled into that.  Other than the constant stench of marijuana emanating from their camp, they seemed harmless enough.  The leader of the pack told me that he wouldn’t give us any pot, because he had a brother our age and he wouldn’t want him to be “smoking dope.”  Fair enough.  He was a man of some honor evidently.

The bikers would have been okay.  They seemed content to keep to themselves, except for one of them who visited us late in the night to see if we had a gun.  That was a little creepy.  I had seen this guy before.  Sometimes, he rode his bike behind our school bus and flipped the bird to the kids in the back.  Nevertheless, the bikers weren’t the problem.  The rain was the problem.

Nowadays, I suppose the Weather Channel and sophisticated radar would prevent three teenage boys from heading 2 or 3 miles into the woods into the teeth of the heaviest rainfall since Noah was trying to figure what the hell a cubit was. We had no such luck.

Late in the day it started raining.  This was a rain like I’d never seen.  It poured, sheets of rain.   Of course,we needed a fire to stay warm, but we couldn’t build one outside.  So, we started one in our cave.  (Honestly, it was more of an overhang than a cave).

Steve was a damn Boy Scout, and he was supposed to know this stuff.  He camped all the time.  If I had thought about it, I would have realized that the cave did not have a flue.  With the knowledge I have today of underground coal mining, I would now immediately recognize that we had inadequate ventilation and that the air would reverse on us.  All we needed was a strong fan and a few ventilation curtains. Alas, I had no skills to prevent what happened next.

Funny thing about thick smoke, it’s very difficult to breath.  You’ve heard of people dying of smoke inhalation?  By God, they do.  And it doesn’t take very long, either.  The good thing is that if you are asphyxiating from a fire right next to a driving rain storm, it’s pretty easy to put out.

After we put out the fire,  it took a little time to get the smoke out, but we did it.  My eyes were watering, and I smelled really bad–like a stinky cave fire.

Since we were stuck in the cave with nothing to do, it didn’t take long for us to eat what little food we brought.  I’m not sure why I didn’t have more food–maybe I planned to forage off the land.  In any event, I was down to two Payday bars.  It started to get cold, too.  Did I mention the rain?  If you had to pee, you could just stand there and pee in your pants.  It wouldn’t make any difference.  You were soaked regardless.

The cave was also dirty, what with it being a cave and all.  The soot from the fire didn’t help things.  Sleeping there was like just lying in a fireplace.  I lay there, nibbling on a Payday, planning to kill and eat one of my companions if it came down to it.

My lips got chapped, too.  I mean damn chapped.  Cracking chapped.   Bleeding chapped. Hurting like hell chapped.  Did I mention the rain?

Well, it rained all night.  When we woke up it was still raining.  At some point, we headed out.  I recall that Bobby’s dad was meeting us somewhere to give us a ride.  As we hiked out, it rained on and off.  I didn’t care anymore.  I had no more dignity.  I was tired, hungry, filthy.  Oh, and my lips were really chapped.  Bad ass chapped.

It kept raining and raining and raining.  It rained nonstop all Sunday and into Monday.  By Monday afternoon, Harlan County was almost completely underwater.  My hometown looked like a lake.  My fantasies of being back in a warm home were scotched by the biggest flood in the history of our county.  No electricity.  No water.  Back to roughing it, but it could have been much worse.  At least our house was high and dry.  Many of our friends weren’t so lucky.

Ironically, as an adult I love to watch survival shows on TV.  Man vs. Wild, Dual Survival, Survivor Man, Man Woman Wild–you name it–and I’ll watch it.  I learn how to distill urine into drinking water, start fires with sticks, kill porcupines, purify water and many other valuable life saving skills, none of which are likely to be necessary sitting in my chair at home.  You want to teach me a skill I could use?  How about fashioning a satellite dish out of a pile of sticks and rocks so I can watch Sports Center?   THAT could come in handy.

Oh, to this day I’m addicted to chapstick.  It’s a constant reminder of that weekend.  It took me many years to eat another Payday.  When I do, I taken back in time to the cave.

My idea of roughing it today is no HD TV or poor cellphone reception.  I never did learn how to trap a bear, although I’m still confident that shooting a bear is a much better approach.  So, don’t ask me to go camping.  I won’t do it.  I’ve served my time as an outdoorsman.  Now, what’s on TV tonight?

© 2012