Campers take indoors to the great outdoors

August 07, 2003|by TIM ROWLAND

CALEDONIA STATE PARK, Pa. - For a certified nature nut and a card-carrying member of every tree-hugger society this side of the Sierra Nevadas, I have an atypically uneasy relationship with camping.

I like the idea of camping - woods, streams, mountains, Bigfoot. But there are certain elements and logistics and traditions of camping that I consider to be hideous abominations that no man should have to bear. For instance, a campfire is a wondrous and magnificent thing. Why anyone would want to sully it up with singing and that atrocity the marshmallow is beyond my understanding.

No matter, the John Jay Audubon in High Heels informed me that she had arranged for a couple of days of "rest and relaxation" that was "away from it all," just her, me, Alexa, her friend Katie - and about 2,000 obese, bow-legged, motorhome-dwelling, Hungry Howloons who judge a campsite by its proximity to the bathhouse and whose idea of communing with nature is leveling their trailer.


I said that sounded swell - it is of no use to say otherwise - and packed up my stuff, which basically consisted of a bedroll, spare T-shirt and toothbrush thrown into a plastic grocery bag.

Then I walked into the kitchen to find it half full of every cooler, every Rubbermaid sea-container-sized box, every duffel bag, every piece of camping gear imaginable. Prepared for anything? Humph. We made the Boy Scouts look like Gray Davis. I'm certain there were pioneers that set out for the Oregon Trail with less baggage.

"But we're only going to be gone 48 hours," I protested, in one of the greatest wastes of breath that ever was.

"I feel like I'm forgetting something," Andrea mused.

I frowned. "I don't see a welding kit and cutting torch."

I've learned that everyone else just ignores my existence when I get into one of these contrarian moods, so there was nothing to do but pack up the truck (we needed two vehicles to carry everything) and speed up I-81 into Pennsylvania.

Caledonia is a lovely park that has rebounded nicely from the mid-1800s, when colliers chopped down every tree for miles to burn into the charcoal that fired the great iron furnaces that helped build industrial America.

Presumably blessed with dry wood, these ancient colliers had the advantage on us. A bevy of downpours had left every stick of wood sodden and completely unburnable. It was so humid, even newspapers I'd brought turned limp and didn't want to ignite.

There is perhaps no more pitiable site on Earth than that of a man who cannot build a campfire, as the rest of your family stands around watching intently and offering "constructive criticism," while the people in the neighboring campsite consider you plaintively as they listen to one of those Eminem songs in which he is apparently dissatisfied about something.

Finally, we had to go out and buy $12 worth of future ashes, which I tried to conserve - opening me up to an evening filled with young voices saying "Oh, look over there, their fire's bigger."

On balance though, I did have a good time, partly because I have this horrored fascination with other people's ideas of camping. Turns out, with all our gear, we carried the lightest load on the block. We still believe that proper camping involves tents, but we are in the minority. It seems most people will drive hundreds of miles to find nature, then spend the rest of the weekend walling themselves off from it. The array of corrugated tin, tarps, awnings and screened gazebos was pretty impressive, and people would spend their whole day in them - sound asleep as a general thing.

The thought occurred to me that if I could only find a hiking trail with a serious uphill pitch to it, that it might be totally devoid of the portable TV watching crowds. I did, and it was.

A nice climb gained the ridgeline and from there it was a lovely stroll through rhododendron, oak forests and blueberry cobbles. Scraps of red iron ore still litter the trail, and every so often there was an old, overgrown charcoal hearth and wagon trail to lend historical perspective.

It just shows that anywhere in this world you can find peace, nature and tranquility. Even if you go camping.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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