Friday night at 8 we pitch the tent, build the fire, roast the potatoes, grill the steaks, pour the wine and, as the moon comes over the mountain, decide that if you put Carter, Brezhnev, Begin, Sadat, Schmidt and Thatcher in canoes and cutoffs and sent them paddling down the Shenandoah at dusk, the world, overnight, would be a calmer place.
Saturday morning at 10 we decide: forget it. Forget canoeing, forget communing with nature, forget leisurely contemplating the future of man. Because the mellow that comes with the rising moon, the breeze in the trees, the lapping river and the fish slapping at its surface is blown out of the water by the arhythmic clunk/clunk/ca-ca-ca-chunk of paddles banging against gunwales. The day-trippers' long zigzag downriver has begun.
My uncle grew up in Maine in the company of an old Indian who thrashed him if so much as a drip/drip/drip was heard on his paddle stroke. A drip is a singing sound compared with the percussion these people play.
They're friendly enough.
"What's for breakfast?" they want to know.
Get out of our kitchen.
"Like your tent!" they bellowed.
Go back to your desks.
"Got one just like it, up in South Jersey."
So go home and pitch it.
The tent, actually, is the excuse for this trip: A backpackers' tent, the green of uncooked asparagus, with detachable fly and mesh window, it is free-standing -- one person can put it up in under 15 minutes and two can stretch out inside. Goodbye to the tarp that took 18 ropes snaked around 19 trees to form the crudest of lean-tos; the tarp that sheltered us from not one bug, not one drop of rain; the tarp that sagged with the soggy, soggy dew.
We like this tent as much as the spectators do. But we didn't anticipate spectators. Our mistake. We could have made a deal with the store: You give us a tent and we'll pitch a sign right next to it: DO WE HAVE THE TENT FOR YOU! GOES UP IN A JIFFY, COMES DOWN IN A FLASH, BUT ONLY WHEN YOU WANT TO. Inquire within.
Is that what it's coming to? Day-Glo ads reflecting moonlight through the trees? Day-trippers with Vanderbilt on their fannies and Adidas on their fronts floating past oak and birch and locust tacked with the neon update of the Burma-Shave routine? YOU TOO CAN OWN A CANOE NEED A TENT? WE RENT Paddlers, Inc. Route 340
We can see it coming: lanes marked off on the Shenandoah, the 495 of rivers. Cops in canoes directing traffic at Compton's Ford. We can see it coming because over a 15-minute breakfast we count 30 canoes bearing assorted two-somes and threesomes of varying degrees of skill and fervor.
There's Papa in the stern, Baby in the middle, Mama in the bow. Or Papa in the stern, Mama in the middle (Mama's never in the stern; Papa says she can't steer), Baby in the bow, taking a whack at paddling. After 14 whacks, Baby gets tired and lets go the paddle. Papa retrieves, Mama paddles and Baby settles back to catch dragonflies.
Or boyfriend in back, girlfriend in front, he showing off his paddling prowess, she showing off her new halter top, as they grind to a halt on a cluster of rocks and dump in the shallows.
Or buddy sprawled in the stern -- so laid back only his nose shows -- begging a match from buddy up front. "Matches?" he drawls. "This is the no-smoking section." Paddles at the unready, they go with the flow -- sideways.
This is canoeing?
We should, I suppose, be more gracious, we seasoned canoeists, we river rats -- we who own a respectably tattered copy of Randy Carter's White Water Canoeing River GUIDE. We who not too long ago were rescued from two boulders by a couple of kayakers and a passing woodsman; we who once finished a 45-minute course on the Dan River in 2 hours 20 minutes; we who are piloted by that same coxswain who on his maiden voyage put his foot through the tender hull of a racing shell, who once steered his crew into the Three Sisters on the Upper Potomac; we who capsized in flat water on the Rappahannock because one of us was scared witless when a stray daddy-longlegs crawled across her foot.
We, too, were once day-trippers. So when the river's low and there's no white water, when it's crowded and there is no peace, we'll leave the Shenandoah to their meanderings. It's not a bad way to spend the day. But it isn't canoeing.