Christmas 2017

It’s that time again. Here’s my ramblings for another season. Delivered on time, for a change.

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Dear Everyone,

It was Josh who gave me my first Nalgene bottle. Part of a care package he gave me before leaving for upstate New York and the Night’s Watch about one point five decades ago. I covered it with stickers and drank water from it. Fifteen or so years went by. Then I went camping.

Jack's Webelos den leader had planned a cold weather camping trip up in the Boston Mountains in early December. Weather originally looked to dip slightly below freezing, which we'd done before with no trouble.

The trees had gone to the bone weeks before we made camp. The wind was a gossip. We were down in a hollow and out of the worst of the breeze, but the sun left us to heap on clothes and hug the fire. We watched the night scratch and rattle its way down toward 20°, well below what we’d camped in before.

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The boy and I'd planned to string ourselves up in fancy hammock tents, but insulation is always a concern when you're dangling above ground. He asked if maybe he could go sleep in Alex's tent instead? Yes, of course, buddy. If you can't find me in the morning, go check the bench by the showers in the bathroom, okay?

Later that night I got him down and eventually debated myself away from the fire and over to my tent. I had a bunch of blankets, a sub-freezing sleeping bag, a fire-engine-red union suit and a whole lot of worry. Then some random neuron fired and I recalled Josh's Nalgene.

He'd extolled its many features and benefits in the attached note. "Once I was camping in cold weather," he wrote. "Before bed, I boiled some water, poured it in my bottle, wrapped a shirt around it and stuffed it in the bottom of my sleeping bag."

Aha.

Friends, I am here to spread the good news. My toes warmed instantly. I lay there, cozy as could be, and recited a very long gratitude list as I listened to the coyotes summon the moon.

I am grateful for my mummy bag.

I am grateful for my blankets.

I am grateful for my hat.

I am grateful for the lee side of the mountain.

I am grateful for the woman I watched playing with wolves yesterday.

I am grateful for the pot of veggie chili I had for supper.

I am grateful that I am packed into this nylon tube and suspended amid nature's annual death rattle, Dutch-ovening myself because of the chili, with no cell service.

I am grateful for a plastic bottle. A plastic bottle that has warmed me three times: Once when it was given, once when I recalled the gift and its attached advice, once with my toes nestled up against it.

I woke not long after dawn to a well-frosted tent. I made coffee. I dried and packed my gear. I came home. I kissed my wife and daughter and dog. I showered and shaved my head and eased myself back into civilization clothing and civilization eating and civilization life.

Checking out like this is a sheer luxury, I know that. But it helped. It helped with my fear and worry and frustration. But it wasn’t checking out that did it. It was yet again being dragged into the world of others.

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Watching the kids pointedly not swearing while rassling tent poles. Letting my boy show me every natural shelter outcropping he'd scouted out (three of them in total). Gathering with four other men and our children around a fire and sharing our stories. We communed in the death that is December, we passed candy and cocoa and opinions, and our species again seemed possible. Certainly worth fighting for.

I am grateful for this boy. For these friends. For this life. This life in which I got so damn lucky that I almost feel ashamed.

It's been too long since we’ve gathered around you. We need to get together. We need to remind each other. Maybe we'll cast our stories out into the cold, see what thaws.

My coat still smells of fire. I haven't washed it. I know I have to. But not yet.

Why We Camp

It's an hour past dark and we have a decent fire going. For which we are grateful, because the temperature's probably going to drop around forty. I am shod in a beatdown pair of Merrill slip-ons, which I have propped up on one of the rocks ringing the fire. I am so entranced by the flames that it's awhile before the nerve endings in my feet report that my soles are melting. I jerk my shoes away and some of them stays on the rock.

People with guitars at campfires are irritating. They only know old hits. Playing old hits around a campfire is like farting during a funeral.

It's September two (three? I am losing time) years ago and we are around a fire at Lake Ouachita. I am reading aloud to my children from my Father's Day gift. Its best story begins with a woman killing her stepson, tricking her daughter into thinking she had killed him, then cutting him up into stew meat and serving him to his father. From there the story builds into something lyrical and lovely and hopeful, and ends in happy tears. I feel grateful to read this while the smoke of the fire saturates everything. I note that my children don't so much as flinch at the horror of it.

The smoke. The smoke always gets in the hair on my hands, in the knees of my jeans. This is a dad thing to say, but the smoke smells honest to me, as do gasoline and lawn clippings and puppy breath. These things smell only of what they are, as if odors could be onomatopoeia.

It is two days ago and I am soaked through with rain and sweat. I am sick of the wet and squelch. I and my son have hung hammock tents between the trees and among the chiggers. We are using the reserved campsite tent, which has cots and a concrete floor, only to store gear. I have done this to pretend that I am still young, because thumbing my nose at the coming squall is surely going to make me feel young.

Instead I lose half a night's sleep to worrying about my boy every time the storm wakes me. This does not make me feel young. Is it bad enough yet to grab him and run for the cots? What if he's afraid to say that he's afraid? But we wake not long after dawn, bone dry and cozy. I let him sit in the shelter tent while I break his gear down in the rain as penance.

I have perfected my chigger bite remedy. It involves scratching the bites until they bleed, then swabbing them with alcohol and swearing. After that, clear fluid rises out of them, and I swab and swear some more.

It is over a quarter of a century ago and I am at a Church of Christ retreat. They are too polite to let me know that they think I am hellbound. I slide out of my top bunk in the middle of the night and land headfirst onto the concrete cabin floor. I vomit several times, am rushed to the ER and diagnosed with a concussion. They pray over my head. Two days later, I pull a groin muscle during capture the flag. They pray over my dick. It will be years before I realize how funny this is.

I do not remember the first time I felt wind on my dick. But I remember vividly how it felt.

It is early winter and we have gone on a campout with older scouts. We are a thirty-minute drive from the city, but we have gone down what feels like America's longest gravel road. We have pissed off the deer hunters by filling a prized spot with hollering children. We camp in freezing weather, our pack huddling around a log fire whose heat is reflected and amplified by a shallow cave wall. I keep my feet near the fire but remember my Merrills. I will be awakened several times by sore hips and cold and will go home rejuvenated.

It is sometime in the 1980s. I am sleeping on the front bench seat of a pontoon boat in the middle of Truman Lake. I fall onto the floor as I would do in that churchy cabin years later, but the fall is only hard enough to wake me. I sit up and watch the moonlight go hilltopping on the water. I imagine I am a sailor on my first of many nights at sea. Tomorrow we will get soft-serve at the Estes Drive-In on the way back.

It is 1991 and I am eating runny eggs and burned bacon on the side of a Colorado mountain at five in the morning. I am watching goats chase each other over the rocks. My horse has tried to bite me three times. I realize I will remember this meal on my deathbed and pour more gritty coffee into my mouth.

It is last spring and my daughter and I are hammock camping in the backyard. Dogs are barking. Some asshole neighbor is playing country music from a car stereo. The breeze is steady and it's cooling off. It is her first time solo in a tent and I am worried that she will get tangled up in her sleeping bag. I am worried that she will be cold or afraid. She shows me what she is made of.

Later I ask her if she and I could go on a real one sometime, just us, maybe to Pinnacle Mountain, and she jumps. She jumps.