Copyright 1998 W. Bruce Cameron — Please do not remove the copyright from this essay
Well, it had to happen eventually, though when it came, I wasn't ready for it. My son, only ten years old—they grow up so quickly, don't they?—finally approached me and asked, you know, THE QUESTION. He caught me off guard—but then, is a father ever really ready to have his once innocent boy come up to him, eyes solemn and full of trust, and so very bluntly ask, "Dad? Why can't we ever go camping?"
Normally I handle his requests for information with a very patient and caring, "Ask your mother." Somehow I know, though, that this is one of those questions only a dad can answer. Summoning up my most erudite expression, I place a warm hand on his shoulder and reply, "My son, camping was made obsolete with the invention of the condominium."
"But Dad," he protests, "The Johnson's camp all the time!"
Johnson! That rat. You know the kind. His Christmas decorations are never up past the middle of January. Every weekend he is out hammering, weeding, mowing, and painting, always whistling as he walks around with the damn list his wife prepared for him, producing such a racket I can barely nap! Johnson, who deviously loads his two boys into his polished truck to go to the woods for days at a time, probably living on nothing but fungus scraped off of bugs or something.
"Johnson is a psychopath," I say reasonably.
You'd think that would be the end of it, but, as it turns out, my son has already arranged for Johnson's wife to call my ex-wife and invite the two of us out for a "guy's weekend" camping with her fruitcake husband.
"I had already planned a guy's weekend!" I protest.
"Doing what, sitting on the couch watching baseball?" my son's mother demands.
"Which is played by GUYS," I shout in exasperation. Is this so difficult to understand?
"Your son will be heartbroken if you don't go," she advises. Faced with this, I take the only manly course available.
"Son, I know you want to go camping," I say. "How about instead I buy you a computer game."
"I want to go camping!"
"I'll buy you a Corvette."
The following Saturday my son yanks me out of bed so early my alarm clock stares at me in amazement. I shuffle over in the dark to Johnson's truck, which is gleaming like a chariot from hell. "This is going to be great, Bruce!" Johnson trumpets, scurrying around securing grommets or something.
"Shut up, Fred," I snarl.
He frowns. "My name's Doug."
We drive for hours --- why are there roads out so far? Doesn't the government know when they build the things that the miles of flat pavement will just lure sick individuals like Fred to drop their window washers and steer their trucks toward the horizon? "Guess where we are!" Johnson hoots at me.
I peer out the window. "Nicaragua?"
"The National Forest, everybody! Isn't it beautiful?"
"No Fred," I tell him. "A Burger King is beautiful. My television is beautiful." At that moment I miss my VCR so much my throat catches in a half sob. "This is the jungle. Animals live here."
He frowns. "My name's Doug."
The beautiful National Forest in which we find ourselves was clearly designed for thinner people. The trees are so tightly packed together I can barely squeeze between them. We haven't gone five minutes and I've slipped over a rock and fallen in thick mud. "Oh my God, quicksand!" I gasp. "Help me Fred!"
My son leans over to take a picture of me sinking to my death.
"You're fine," Johnson claims. "Hey, what kind of shoes are those? Loafers? You wore loafers to hike in?"
"No, I wore loafers to CAMP in," I point out. "Nobody said anything about hiking. Why couldn't we have stayed by the car?"
"That was a parking lot."
"And wouldn't you agree that a parking lot is a perfect place for LOAFERS," I snap, deftly demolishing his argument.
They pull me out of the swamp's deadly clutches and we move on, everyone stubbornly ignoring my pathetic limp which if they'd had a shred of humanity would have brought tears to their eyes. I can tell already that this camping trip is going to give me post traumatic stress disorder. "This pack is getting heavy," I warn. Nobody replies, they are frozen into a hypnotic state by the endless plodding through the wilderness. Isn't this how lemmings got started? "I may have to drop it!" I wheeze.
"Don't you dare drop it," Fred snaps, finally appearing a little flustered.
"Why, are you afraid it might damage the piano you've packed in here?" I sneer, giving my son a "see what kind of jerks we're with?" look. I hate for him to witness how petty people can be sometimes.
We trek, I don't know, maybe fifty or six hundred miles into the woods, going places not seen since the time of Jerry Lewis and Dick Clark. My son keeps grinning, afflicted by hiking induced dementia. Predatory trees, man eaters, are reaching out and slashing at my arms, and when I finally make the manly suggestion that we stop and have a beer, Johnson reveals his sick sense of humor and pretends we didn't bring any. Like you can have a "guy's weekend" without beer.
"We're here!" He announces, gesturing to a dirty smudge on the ground.
I stare in bewilderment. "This is it? This is the campsite?"
"Sure," Johnson replies. "What were you expecting?"
"Well, showers, for one thing," I retort.
"Ha ha," Johnson says, "you're going to love this, Bruce."
"Ha ha, Fred, the only part I love is that we've finally ended the death march portion of the program. Give me the flare gun, I'm going to summon the rangers. We're obviously lost."
"I was here just last weekend!" He protests.
"See! You're wandering in circles."
Only the look on my son's face persuades me that I'm actually going to spend the night in this place, so, with a sigh, I set down my pack and go over to help Johnson set up the tent. It smells like the sheets from an elephant's bed. The struts are made of battered aluminum, the fabric is made of mildew. Once it is erect, I peer inside and realize the only way we're all going to fit is if I sleep on top of Fred. The boys have stripped down to their shorts and are splashing around in the small stream so they'll be sufficiently muddy when it's time for bed. Insects circle my face like people gathering around a buffet.
"Wiener dogs and beans for dinner!" Fred announces in a tone which indicates that flatulence gives him jubilation.
It's going to be an interesting night.
Apparently there is a rule that when you're camping you must suffer for every biological function you perform. Walking is called "hiking," and instead of being performed on carpeting and with the aid of escalators, is forced on the campers over rocks and dirt and other unnatural materials. I won't tell you what you're supposed to use for toilet paper, except to note that I'll bet my neighbor Fred knew I was in a grove of poison ivy, but he never said a word.
Then there's eating: dinner this evening is a special treat of hot dog pieces swimming in beans and served up in what appear to be dented bedpans. It's a meal designed to straighten out the curves in anyone's small intestines, but the forced march through the woods has made me so ravenous I can't help but wolf down a couple helpings of the stuff. Every bite crunches with sand--once this slop hits my stomach it will turn to cement.
Fred had told me earlier that he hadn't brought any beer. When this turns out to be the truth I shrug it off as inconsequential, sobbing uncontrollably for less than an hour.
"Isn't this great, Dad?" My son marvels. I gaze upon him expressionlessly. He has spent the evening playing in the creek, fishing for trout, and catching fire flies. If only he were hanging out with Satan worshippers or some other harmless group—I'm afraid I've lost him forever.
"Evolution, son. We must deal with it." I gesture subtly with my fork at Fred, who blinks in the sudden spray of wiener juice. "If man had been meant to camp, we would have been born with four wheel drive."
Night falls hard in the American wilderness. I call my son's attention to the croak of various small animals being eaten by lions, though Fred insists they are crickets. "Like a cricket would be way out here in the woods!" I hoot. Fred may be an experienced camper, but he is no biologist.
"What are you, Fred, a soft banker or something, can't deal with the realities of nature?"
He frowns. "No, I'm a biologist."
The kids grow sleepy, and we agree it is time for bed. This leads to a quandary, because it turns out that there isn't a television in the tent. "So we're just supposed to crawl in there and sleep?" I demand indignantly. "What are you, some kind of communist?"
No one else seems troubled by this blatant anti-Americanism, so for the sake of getting the whole wretched experience over with as soon as possible, I climb in among the bodies and try to relax. Immediately Fred offers us impressive evidence that it is possible to breathe with a kazoo up one's nose, his snoring sawing the air with such force that it upsets my circadian rhythm. Then the beans hit the last bend in the kids' gastrointestinal system, and they add a horn section to the symphony. Sleep, another biological function, is impossible.
I am cocooned in a sleeping bag. There are too settings in a sleeping bag: too hot, and too cold. Fully wrapped, and the heat is enough to cause brain damage, which might explain why people agree to camp. Unzip the thing and fling it off your sweating body, and you are exposed to a chill factor worthy of a Minnesota wind. Metal, subjected to extremes of heat and cold, will eventually become brittle and break, so it is no small wonder that within the hour I find myself on the point of shattering.
Then there is the matter of my bladder. The gurgle of the small creek outside the tent walls speaks to my internal waters like a pack of wild dogs calling to a domesticated cousin. "Join us. Run with us. Be free…" Within ten minutes of achieving hypothermia through sleeping bag, my brain receives a message indicating impending urinary explosion. I lie there and calculate the odds of being able to discharge out the front of the tent from my current position. I'm untroubled by the idea that I might drench Fred, but my son also lies in the path of my considered trajectory, and I don't suppose it will improve my relationship with him if I pee on his feet.
I grab a flashlight, an inadequate instrument which demonstrates the pure folly of man's quest to invent a machine that doesn't need to be plugged in. The beam blinds me as it reflects off the wholly unsatisfactory visage of Fred, and it fails utterly to illuminate the lurking dangers of the forest when I beam its narrow light out of the tent flap and into the wilderness.
Shivering, I step outside. It strikes me that this must have been how early man met his nocturnal urges: alone in the forest, no magazines, no catalogues. I'm not altogether sure I'll be able to go under such circumstances.
It is then that I hear the bear.
This is the third and final installment in a gruesome story of punishment inflicted on me by my conniving child, wherein I find myself stuck in the jungle with my psycho, hedge-clipping neighbor Fred, his two genetic-hrowback children, and my own son. The ordeal is called "camping" in a lame attempt to fool the unwary. I must warn you the whole sordid tale is so full of unfairness you may find yourself sobbing out loud.
At this point in the narrative, I have proven myself hardy and brave in the face of nearly insurmountable challenge (there is no television), but now I'm in mortal danger, facing a fierce man-eating bear outside the tent.
I must admit I am somewhat ignorant in the matter of bears. They must originally come from somewhere up around Chicago, I suppose, and I know from having been to the circus that some of them are smart enough to ride bicycles. Now I curse my lack of education, for as I swing my flashlight around and catch the fierce creature facing me in the feeble beam, its eyes glow with a luminescent red that I find as perplexing as it is terrifying. Could this be a sign of anger? Demonic possession? Even more bizarre, its eyes glow only when I fix it in the shaft of light from the flashlight.
No sign of a bicycle anywhere—great, I've got one of the stupid ones. He stares at me, his furry face as horrifying to look upon as Mick Jagger's. Most ominous is his silence--I've read somewhere that a barking bear is much less likely to attack than a quiet one. I try to remember what to do: stop, drop, and roll? Make a sound like a bear trap? Other than my honeymoon, I have never been this frightened in my life.
"Fred!" I hiss. I glance at the tent, where my son lies sleeping, sprawled among the Johnsons. The walls are so infected with mildew, mold, and gangrene that I am pretty sure the bear can't smell them. "Fred!" I shout more loudly.
"What?" Fred answers irritably. "I said we didn't have any beer."
"There's a bear out here! Get your gun!" I whisper urgently.
"A bear?" he demands incredulously. There is a flurry of sound from within the tent, the boys whispering excitedly.
"You getting your gun?" I plead.
"I don't have a gun. I'm getting my camera," Fred responds.
"Fred! Would you listen to me? He looks like he is going to attack!" Well, actually, the bear has now turned its attention to the cooler and is sniffing at the lid, probably unable to believe that all we brought is beans and hot dogs. But I'm afraid that once I move I'll become Bruce Mignon.
"Okay, okay, let's be calm. Everything is going to be all right," Fred says softly.
"Why are you talking like a psychotherapist? I need help!"
"All you have to do is work your way over to a tree and climb it," Fred assures me. "You'll be safe there."
I look over at the trees, none of which appear any friendlier than the bear. "Have you got a ladder?"
"Dad, how big is the bear?" my son asks worriedly.
I don't want to frighten him. "Big enough to eat all of us," I answer.
The bear suddenly gives up on the cooler and lifts itself up on its hind legs, holding its nose to the air. The only food within sniffing distance is me, and as it fixes me with a cold, unwinking stare I realize it is getting ready to charge. "Fred, you'd better come up with something fast!" I shriek.
"Okay. Okay. I'm going to distract him and you run for the trees," Fred blurts. I hear the tent unzip, and the beam from Fred's flashlight dances out wildly. "Where is it?" he demands.
"There, right there!" The bear is still preparing for his assault. Finally Fred's beam illuminates it. I get ready to sprint.
"What? That's not a bear, that's a raccoon," Fred sputters. "Do they eat people?"
"No, they don't -- how could it eat people, the thing is the size of a cat!"
Offended by this unfair comparison, the animal huffs off, disappearing into the undergrowth. There's a bright flash of light from the direction of the tent. "Did you get a picture of the bear?" I ask my son.
"No, I was getting you standing there in your underwear and black socks," he tells me.
"I can't believe you don't know the difference between a raccoon and a bear," Fred seethes.
"I think what's more important is that you left the cooler out," I respond archly. "We're just fortunate that I discovered your oversight before a fleet of wild raccoons, more dangerous than any bear, descended out of the night like locusts and stripped us to the bones."
"Cool," the kids breathe.
It's a lesson they'll never forget.