Brrrrr. W-w-we w-w-went ca-ca-camping not l-l-long ago. We went f-f-flying without parachutes, s-s-sailing without life preservers, m-m-motorcycling without helmets. We went to the m-m-mountains without a h-h-heater. We went to a hotel.
O Camping. O Great Outdoors. O Campfire. O God, was it cold. The notice in the ranger station said Shenandoah National Park had been bear-proofed. It said nothing about being fool-proofed.
Omens are everywhere. Maybe it's the celery stalks, stacked neatly in a Tupperware dish dutifully laid to rest on a bed of ice in the cooler. The Other Reporter brings celery stalks. For the Bloody Marys. The night before she bought 20 pounds of ice -- twice what the cooler can swallow -- and sat on her kitchen floor beating the cubes into submission with a wooden spoon. The Other Reporter had never been camping.
Or maybe it's the heater. It wasn't going to be used, you understand, this was living close to nature, roughing it. Maybe that's why it is left behind. The first law of camping: something's always left behind. About two blocks from the house the brain flashes HEATER in bright lights. Should we go back for it? We say no. Little did we know.
Mountains! Out of the Charlottesville, up and over I-64 they come into view, and we wind slowly into thinner air. At the ranger station the wind blows right through the shirt that had felt just right a few hours before. In the hastily packed suitcase is more optimism: jeans, T-shirts, everyday socks. No gloves, no scarf, no hat, no sense.
On the wall of the ranger station hangs a picture of a convertible's top badly mauled by a hungry bear in 1975. The bears have since been escorted to remote areas of the park, they say. Still, they're out there, and the Other Reporter, who roots for helmeted Bears in Chicago, sees pairs of black eyes behind every bush.
The campsite is ours for two days, the German shepherd along for the ride is literally itching to jump out the door. We eat first. Mountain air stirs the stomach, opens the bottomless pit. We may not have mittens, but we've enough food for Armageddon. Slip on the lone sweater, haul out the campstove, pump it, build that pressure, tote that bale. The Other Reporter is working the car radio. Beef stew is up, so are the car windows, the wind whistles and so do we: we're camping!
Not yet. The car's still packed. Out comes the tent, the stakes, all the heavy clothing. The dog wanders off, so does the Other Reporter to gather firewood after pounding one stake to pulp. The tent is up! No it's lopsided. The whole contraption comes down and we are bedraggled Bedouins, the roof of the tent flapping around out ears. Careful now, tighten up, tie down and step back. It stands, straight and proud, a home in the wilderness. We're camping!
Not yet. No fire. Shove newspaper, twigs, bits of charred wood into the grill. The newspapers turn ashen pale but need help. Off to the camp store in search of firewood and lost dog. The dog we find, standing stiff-legged and scared in a clearing, ears perked, nose in the wind. He cries in the car, yelping" "How could you?" Over and over. We do the same at the store -- no wood and none at the woodshed up the hill.
It's dark now, the cold is everywhere, but we stick to the plan, roast hot dogs, shove them hurriedly between dry buns, eat them quickly, as if calories will do what the meager fire can't. Finally, the wind. The cold breaks the ice. Let's go, she says. We head for the Hilton, or the Holiday Inn, or wherever will have us.
Good morning. It's Waynesboro, it's warm, and we're still camping, sort of, at the General Wayne Hotel. The wind is asleep, exhausted after yesterday's tree-swaying tantrum. The hotel window is open and the teamperature of the air tells the story: today will be better.
It is. On top of Loft Mountain, on top of the world. We eat lunch first, buy wood at the store and roar around the fire, laughing at yesterday's follies. And after a walk along the Appalachian Trail we break camp and head down the defrosted mountain, stopping to stare at fragile deer staring at us from the roadside, startling them with the campers' flash. Stop the car, we've got to get out here, now. The sun is a lumpy pink pillow on the horizon, the view breathtaking and for a long moment the mountain is ours.
Not for long enough. The mountain has the last laugh. We leave the tent stakes on top of Loft Mountain. Something's always left behind.