Fear and Loathing on the Camping Trail

by Seth Rogovoy

(WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., Sept. 18, 1997) — We go camping every summer — one or two short weekend trips nearby, and one, big, weeklong camping vacation, usually a two-day drive away. We sleep in tents on the ground, and cook most of our meals on an old, portable propane camp stove my parents bought when I was still a kid. Camping is fun, economical, and allows us to explore strange new worlds and new civilizations that otherwise we could not afford to visit.

I hate camping. I hated it when I was a kid and I hate it even more as an adult, when you think you should no longer have to do things you hate to do except for the fact that your parents make you. But now I have to go camping because I AM a parent, and am therefore obliged to supply my children with many happy memories of family camping trips like the ones I lack. I only go along with it grudgingly, because the other three-quarters of my family likes camping so much, and the last thing I want to be is a party-pooper. So I grit my teeth, fake a smile, and psych myself up for a totally unpleasant “vacation” each summer.

How do I hate camping? Let me count the ways. Look at it this way. Thousands of years of human evolution and development — also known as “progress” or “civilization” — have led mankind expressly in a direction AWAY from everything that characterizes camping: sleeping outdoors, having close encounters with wildlife, living in a constant state of dirtiness, eating uncooked or badly cooked food, existing at the mercy of the elements, and not caring about any of the above.

So call me insufferably civilized. Cast me as a killjoy. Am I to be condemned because I prefer a roof over my head in a domicile limited to one species? Because given the choice I prefer clean hands, face and clothes? Food without dirt and bugs in it? And clean, private bathroom facilities?

As it turned out, leaving on our camping trip this year was made easier when, on the day before we were to take off, our plumbing failed.

On the Sunday before Labor Day, I am in the basement doing one of the final loads of laundry before our trip, when I discover that our sewer pipe is backed up. Stuff is draining right out onto our basement floor. I’m going to make a long, messy story short and neat. I can’t unclog the pipe with my handy plumber’s snake. When I call my regular plumber, I get only his answering machine — like most normal Americans, he is apparently on vacation on Labor Day Weekend.

The trusty folks at Roto-Rooter never sleep or vacation, and they come as soon as they’re called, but they can’t unclog the pipe, either. Their inventive diagnosis is that the foundation of my house has settled on the sewer pipe, crushing it under the weight of the house, which now needs to be jacked up so the foundation can be rebuilt before a new sewer pipe is laid.

So what to do? Stay at home and live in a house that’s collapsing and that lacks working, sanitary drainage, or continue with our plans for our camping trip? Since our house, at this point, offers only marginal advantages over camping, and in some cases worse conditions, we decide to proceed with our plans. I leave a message on my plumber’s answering machine asking him to see what he can do about the problem while I’m away, and I try not to think about the vast scope of the repair job — and repair bill — that awaits me when I return from “vacation.”

So bright and early Monday morning, after reading the extended forecast for Maine calling for nothing but torrential rains and cold nights the entire week of our vacation, we hit the road in our rented family van. The van is a minor concession on our part. It’s not that our Saab cannot hold everything we want to take. It’s just that, as much as we love our 10-year-old, ultra-safe, Swedish automobile, with 155,000 miles behind it, reliability is not one of its strong points. When on the day before our trip — Sunday before Labor Day, remember — one of the tires on the Saab goes totally flat, deciding to rent a van suddenly seems not only to have been wise but downright clairvoyant.

The youthful, peppy Dodge Caravan takes some getting used to. For one thing, it instills in me the inexplicable feeling that I am Chevy Chase. Every so often I open the window and shout out to no one in particular, “Hi! We’re on vacation!” My wife asks, “How many times did you see that movie?” “What movie?” I reply. Driving the van gives me that sort of sense of humor.

Our destination the first day is a state park near Portland, but not more than a half-hour into our trip, on Route 9 in Vermont heading toward New Hampshire, we begin noticing a strange, sickening noise every time I turn the van or accelerate. My wife looks at me, I smile back, and suppress the urge to vomit. In my head I run through the laundry list of possible things that could be wrong: dying transmission, loose exhaust pipe, worn bushings or bearings, or the dreaded McPherson Strut. (Oh, no, not the McPherson Strut!) I don’t even know if a van HAS a McPherson Strut. I don’t even know what a McPherson Strut IS. I don’t even know how to SPELL McPherson Strut. It sounds more like a square dance than a car part. All I know is it’s bad news, whatever it is, so I do the only thing you can do in these situations: I ignore the noise and keep driving.

As we cross New Hampshire, I am on the lookout for gun-toting maniacs speeding down the highway against traffic screaming out “Live free or die!” We stop in Conway to visit a railway museum (a recurring motif of our trip), and while the wife and kids are marveling over a genuine working turntable and antique engines and caboose (that’s plural, like moose, which we didn’t see any of the whole week), with one eye on the dreary weather forecast and the other on the gathering cloud formations overhead, I go in search of rain gear.

I spot two promising locations across the street. One seems to be a genuine, New England five-and-dime — its says so right on the sign. The other touts itself as a general store. Both are locally-owned businesses. I’m in business, I think.

I try the five and dime first. No go. Too bad I’m not in the market for scented candles. They come in all colors and flavors. I walk down to the general store. No go. More scented candles, and plenty of expensive fudge. So much for genuine, small-town New England retail stores.

I cross back over to the rail yard, singing that old Warren Zevon tune made famous by Linda Ronstadt: “I lay myself on the railroad tracks, waiting for the double E/But the railroad don’t run no more, poor poor pitiful me.” I buy the kids ice cream — my strategic attempt to keep them pacified and in a constant state of sugar shock — and we make tracks for Sebago Lake State Park in Maine.

On the way, exhausted from a day full of driving and stopping to ride bikes and more fun than you can shake a stick at, my four-year-old son says the nicest thing anyone could possibly say to me in this situation. “I want to go home now,” he says, secretly voicing my own inner wish, my feeling that this whole trip is one enormous mistake and that it’s not too late to rectify it and head back home. My son has unknowingly given me one, small spiritual victory. A great, happy calm overtakes me with this newfound knowledge that common sense is in fact genetic, and that my son shares my strong, unshakable sense of rootedness, undoubtedly a reaction against the thousands of years of wandering and exile inflicted upon my people. I try my best not to gloat, but reading my mind, my every last thought, as only a dearly beloved spouse can, my wife pokes me, as if to say, “Don’t you poison the children with your bad attitude.” I wipe the smirk off my face and drive.

As soon as we cross the New Hampshire-Maine border, we notice a preponderance of pine trees. Unbenownst to my family, I have secretly done some reading about Maine before our trip. As you can imagine, reading up on Maine doesn’t take long. The plot of the book I read consists primarily of calling Maine “the Pine State.” My wife and kids are therefore duly impressed when I point out to them the proliferation of pines, and note what an amazing coincidence this is, given the state’s official moniker.

At the entrance to the state park, as we are checking in, my attention is drawn to a couple of items tacked to the informational bulletin board. One warns about an epidemic of deer ticks spreading Lyme disease in interior and coastal Maine. Another is a police artist’s sketch of a creepy-looking guy wanted for kidnapping. Needless to say, for the rest of our vacation I never let the kids out of my sight and they are subject to periodic nit-pickings.

As it turns out, Sebago Lake State Park is a wonderful place. The bathrooms are brand new, with freshly painted stalls of concrete cinder block, automatic-flush toilets and running hot water. You can even buy the local newspaper at a vending machine located right outside the bathroom. It’s like someone designed this place with all my wants and needs in mind. I’m in heaven. I shall return. For the record, there is also a lake there, and a sandy beach and ducks. It is very pretty, for those who actually give credence to such tertiary considerations.

“You’ll be wanting to eat lobster while you’re in Maine,” everyone told us before we left. As it turns out, Maine is basically a lobster theme park. The license plates spell it out plainly: “Vacationland,” with a picture of a lobster. When you cross the border, signs greet you with the motif: “Maine: The way it’s supposed to be.” Apparently Mainers themselves no longer feel that way; in Maine, everyone’s house has a “For Sale” sign posted on the front lawn. If you are Century 21, I suppose that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

On the way to our ultimate destination, Mt.. Desert Island and Acadia National Park, we pass a place called Tanglewood and restaurants called Dos Amigos and Country Charm. I wonder if I made a wrong turn somewhere and wound up back in the Berkshires. After driving to the end of the earth, we reach Mt. Desert Island. Mind you, I am not complaining. My favorite parts of our vacation are all the times we spent driving in the van, with its nice comfortable seats, climate control, music on cassette, snacks, and no interaction with wildlife. One man’s version of heaven.

I’m not going to bore you to tears with testimonials about the natural beauty of Mt. Desert Island. This is not a travel piece. I paid for my vacation, and paid dearly. If the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce feels like subsidizing my next trip Downeast (that’s what they call it, those geographically-challenged Mainiacs), I’ll happily wax eloquent about the scenic vistas and natural wonders.

I am, however, going to warn you about a different, highly socialized and sophisticated breed of raccoon growing in Maine. Our first night at Acadia, with kids tucked neatly in their tent, wifey and I are sitting in our lawn chairs, reading and occasionally jawing, when all of a sudden, on the periphery of the campsite, out poke Abbott and Costello.

Abbott steers clear of us, but Costello is hungry and smart, so he makes a beeline for underneath the picnic table, where he finds a few stray pieces of macaroni left over from dinner. The only thing is, I happen to be sitting right next to the picnic table, and before I can say “scat!” I’m looking down at Costello, not two feet away from my chair, digging around in the dirt in search of more pasta.

My wife and I look at each other, sort of smiling, unsure if we should a) try to scare him away b) remain totally calm c) run like hell. Surprisingly enough (probably because we’re scared witless), we choose option b), and after Costello makes a final pass right beneath my chair (I have at this point raised my legs up into the air — I’ve been meaning to start practicing leg lifts), he meets up with Abbott on the other side of the van and they scurry along.

There’s more.

Later that night, three melatonins later to be precise, I’m lying awake in the tent, when all of a sudden I hear a scratching sound on the outside of the tent, and then something bumps me on the head! I figure it’s Costello wanting me to get up and cook him up some more cheese macs, and sure enough, next thing I see — courtesy of the late-night arrival at the neighboring campsite who is shining his headlights toward our site, illuminating the side of our tent — is the unmistakable silhouette of a raccoon walking outside our tent.

Having spent the rest of the night on sentry duty, I’m up at the crack of dawn, getting things organized, boiling the bottled water for guaranteed purity, laying out the varieties of granolas, mueslis and other healthy cereals we’ve brought along in plastic zipper bags for breakfast. My wife comes out of the tent and spies a little squirrel on the picnic table sniffing around the muesli. “Hi!” she says to the critter. “GIT!” I say. And therein in a nutshell is a perfect illustration of the eternal and irrevocable difference between the sexes. Woman are from Venus; they want to befriend the squirrel. Men are from Mars; they want to kill it.

Same scene, the next night. Kids are sleeping. Wife and I are sitting in our chairs. I hear a noise coming from the front of the van. I grab a flashlight and just as I get to the far side of the van, out jumps Costello’s fat mother from the front passenger seat with a cookie wrapper in her mouth. My wife feels bad — we had eaten all the cookies, which meant Mrs. Costello only got a few crumbs. Plus there’s so much better food in the van she could have stolen — bags of peanuts, raisins, crackers.

Meanwhile, I’m doing my best to remind myself why I married my wife (or, to be more precise, I’m asking myself why she married me, a man who hates camping) while I check the van to see if Abbott, Costello or any other members of the species PROCYON LOTOR — or any other members of ANY species — are still lurking in the van. Of course, I don’t REALLY want to come face to face with a raccoon hiding beneath a car seat, or even a mouse, for that matter. But neither do I want to lock some overgrown rodent or undergrown bear in the van overnight and then find the entire contents trashed in the morning, so I comb through it pretty thoroughly until I’m convinced that it’s cool to close the doors.

All this while, an undercurrent of dread has been haunting me. Remember, I left behind a collapsing house with no plumbing. The best part about returning home from camping — other than the part about the camping trip being over — is, of course, taking a bath. But at this point, the anticipation of that pleasure has been replaced by a vision of overflowing toilets, sponge baths, and days or even weeks of phone calls, contractors, backhoes, stone masons, new sewer lines, and a final bill far in excess of our entire vacation budget.

As it turns out, I suffer dread needlessly two days too long. On Thursday night I finally call my plumber from a phone booth, uncertain I even want to hear the bad news. The first words out of his mouth, bless his heart, are, “How much money you got in the bank?” Did I tell you my plumber doubles as a comedian for no extra charge? The truth is, he later reveals, he went by my house first thing Tuesday morning and unclogged the sewer pipe with a hand snake. The crushed pipe was a myth; my house is not collapsing; when I return home I can flush and bathe to my heart’s content.

I have the greatest plumber in the world. Call me for his name and number.

Back in Maine, we finally go out for lobster the last night we’re there, mostly just to avoid the looks of disbelief that will greet us when we’re home and people find out we went to Maine and didn’t have lobster. The lobster is good, but the dish of melted butter that comes with it is the best part about it. In fact, from now on at home we’re going to have a side dish of melted butter with all meals.

But lobster was NOT the culinary highlight of our trip to Maine. THAT would have to be Perry’s Kosher Grill, a sidewalk hot dog cart in downtown Portland. Located right by the waterfront on the corner of Commercial and Moulton streets by the old port, Perry’s is a rigorously kosher, Old World affair, boasting the best-tasting, quarter-pound, all- beef hot dogs you ever had, with an array of relishes and mustards and other toppings. He also has the best knishes I’ve ever encountered outside of New York, and a wide choice of beverages including cream soda.

Perry “Kosher Kid” Mogul is himself a piece of work, bringing to the pushcart business the sort of flair for the hard-sell usually reserved for those pushing furs or electronics. But judging from the standup business he seemed to be doing, the locals appreciate him. And he’s a mensch where it counts — my son dropped his hot dog, and Mogul gave him a replacement model free-of-charge. And since you apparently can’t go anywhere in Maine without going right through downtown Portland (we did it three times, don’t ask), you might as well stop by and visit with him and try one of his hot dogs. Be sure to tell him I sent you, and tip him well.

The funniest thing I heard a Mainer say on my vacation: I’m leaving a convenience store and the owner’s wife is sitting on the front steps and says to me, “Is that your van leaking something?”

The most jarring juxtaposition: Crates of lobsters being loaded onto a FedEx truck right off the lobster boat at the harbor.

Maine’s apparent top industry: Selling $3 bundles of firewood (six logs) to out-of-state campers.

This is what I did on my summer vacation. The weather was great. The kids had a wonderful time. They learned all about lobsters and old- fashioned trains. I ate the world’s best hot dog and never went swimming. Except for at Sebago Lake State Park, I hardly ever went to the bathroom. I got really dirty and didn’t bathe for a week. It was a great vacation. If you like camping.

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on Sept. 18, 1997. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 1997. All rights reserved.]



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