In early October, I drove to a friend’s wedding in Missouri, requiring fifteen hours behind the wheel. When I was young, I would have made that trip with only two fuel stops, and perhaps twice that many fast food stops. Leave before breakfast and arrive before midnight. No problem. Sadly, in my “advanced years” I can’t drive more than five hours at a time without standing up to give my brains a rest. What I now lack in stamina required me to compensate with strategy, planning three five-hour drives to get there. That worked out well in both directions, and the wedding was huge success.
During my many hours on the road, I found myself traveling down two lane highways that connect almost-forgotten small towns. These are the kinds of roads my family traveled every summer as my parents took us on vacation. The vast freeway system you take for granted hadn’t even been built yet. That’s how old I am. Eventually we camped in all forty-eight of the continental United States. I spent much of my drive time remembering experiences that haven’t crossed my mind in decades. And because much of the territory I crossed was rural, it was not uncommon to smell smoke from a wood fire burning nearby. I began to ache for the good old days.
That’s when I got a phone call from a friend, inviting me to spend the weekend on his rural property ninety minutes west of Austin. Several people had been invited, and I was told that I could bunk for the night in another friend’s RV if I wanted. As you probably know, I was a Boy Scout for twelve years, and a Scoutmaster for an additional ten years. Sleeping under the stars is something I take for granted. In my prime, I was a clone of Burt Reynolds’ character in Deliverance. Rugged and as tough as they come. As my brothers and I went our separate ways, I eventually inherited the family tent that my parents bought from Sears when I was five years old. Stop and reflect for a moment that this tent is older than most of the people reading this post.
Anyway, I began to wonder if I still had what it takes to commune with nature. I told my friend that wouldn’t be needing the RV bunk, because I planned to set up the family tent, and sleep on an air mattress again. I became very excited about this new adventure, and I planned my menu and equipment needs for several days in advance. The weather had been cold in Texas, but the forecast was for warmer weather over the weekend. I arrived Saturday morning and was greeted by warm weather and several friendly faces. We spent the day exchanging personal stories of past adventures. Then as the sun went down it started to get cooler – as expected. Chatting around the campfire was precisely the kind of experience I had been longing for. But eventually it was time for bed.
I had prepared to keep myself warm overnight, however I never anticipated that the temperature would drop to near freezing. As a Scout, I had camped out in the snow more than once. One experience required us to shovel snow just to find the ground, and then we had to build fires where our tent was going to be, just to thaw the ground enough for us to pound the tent stakes in. However, my aging body doesn’t generate the heat that it used to, and I began to regret my decision to rough it. I have often said that success is defined by not getting yourself into trouble that you’re not smart enough to get yourself out of. So rather than suffer miserably all night, I reluctantly admitted my mistake, and I drove to town and rented a motel room. A motel room with a heater, of course. It took almost 30 minutes for the room to get warm enough to grow African violets, but only five more minutes for me to fall asleep.
So, unfortunately, the answer is, I do not have what it takes to commune with nature anymore. Because of my unfortunate heart condition, I just don’t have the energy and stamina required to defend myself against the forces of nature. It is difficult to admit that I am in the winter of my life, and that all of my best days are far behind me. However, “Don’t cry for me, Argentina.” Just think of me whenever you hear Frank Sinatra’s classic, “I did it MY way!”
Yet ANOTHER great story from my beloved Michael!! We used to have a tent just like that and I can recall the excitement I felt as a kid being the first one in to set up my spot! I was envious of your solo drive through the rural areas of our country and hope to mimic you soon. It’s a beautiful Fall day in Colorado, one more cup of coffee, and I’m gonna call my buddy in Texas!!
Your storytelling continues to be so engaging. With a recent respite from the earliest snow in years or temperatures in Minnesota have peeked nearly to the 60s. Finally early enough and a final chance to plant some bulbs.
In the same way that weather can change, Indian summer can peek through, I wish for my friend to continue to take more of these adventures as the memories are wonderful and you are so good in the way you share them. Be well and cannot wait for our next chance to chat.
Even though I have more years behind than in front of me, I will make the years to come as memorable! Our childhood travels sound very much alike! Camping, old two-lane roads, and tents!
Thanks for the memories Mike, kudos for trying my friend!
Brings back memories of our family camping all over North America, one trip in particular to Colorado in a tent similar to yours, all 7 of us (mom, dad and 5 kids) were looking forward to moms home made chili except when we woke up the raccoons (or so dad said, might have been bears) demolished every ounce of that 5 gallon pot! Fun times!
As a kid my parents were always traveling, even on weekends. I miss those days. Now my idea on going on a trip is to go to San Antonio once a month to visit them. My dad is 87 and my mother is 82. I still regret the time we went on a Sunday drive with my dad’s friend John. We were about 20 kilometers from Paris. My mother and I wanted to go into Paris, but John & my dad opted to turn around go back to Germany where we were stationed. I still have not made it to Paris and probably never will.
Darling Michael. You tell your stories so well. I surely can identify with you. I had to give up backpacking after my first bout with cancer. It was hard but my boys were grown and for the first two years after I tired too quickly. My new husband and I went camping once after we got married but two years later we decided that we just couldn’t handle it anymore and got rid of our camping gear. Now, at 75 with heart and asthma issues and overcoming another bout with breast cancer (take the darn thing off, I’m not gonna need it anymore!) my idea of camping is a Holiday Inn! Just don’t want to be that far from good medical care if there’s an emergency. Oh, we have had some adventures and they were fun. I will not forget the Boy Scout camporee that you helped me with. That was fun dear friend. Love you much and my husband still wants to meet you. He likes you already and you are both Alpha Males!
[mjb: Thank you for that! Alpha Males are generally misunderstood these days. Sean Connery was a fine example. I will miss him dearly. (Bond. James Bond.)]
It was a very nice story, Michael! Thanks for sharing.
My ex-husband used to like to go camping a lot and of course, that meant pulling me along just for the fun of it. Well it wasn’t really much fun involved. I never did like that lifestyle.
The last time I went camping and slept in a tent and a sleeping bag, I was about six months pregnant. Whoa! I cannot even describe how miserable it was. It was permanently etched in my mind that it was something I would never do again!
I remain grateful that I have not had to.
I would definitely go to the motel or hotel route myself! I do love nature. I just don’t want to sleep in it!
Really nice to hear from you…great story of days gone by. I helps me recall my days of youth really ‘roughing it’, in the backyard, with dad, with a long extension cord, and radio, and light, and snacks, etc., etc. ! Thanks for sharing this memory with us. I wish you well sir. Take care.