By Brian M. Howle
There’s nothing quite like getting away from it all, when one gets back to nature and trades all of the stresses of work and life for a relaxing retreat into the wilds of the woods.
That’s the theory, anyway.
Many years ago – in those cherished “single days” – my friends and I made sojourns into the forests and parks of the region, chucking civilization for the fresh air and solitude of camping. On occasion, we indulged in the spirits of libation – and other various goodies – to help us achieve our goal of complete spiritual nirvana.
I could tell you all about those trips, but, ummm … well, some things are best left unrecounted.
Like so many of us, the day came when I completely lost all bearings on the concept of sanity and common sense … and I went off and got myself married. All in all, I guess it wasn’t really all that terrible – except for the getting divorced part. Now that I reflect on it, that actually turned out to be the best part.
Before that happened, though, there were some good times; heck, there were some great times. And along the way, I picked up some stories to tell.
I had a small group of friends that essentially engaged in all things recreational as a pack. Customized vans were the rage, and everyone went out and bought themselves a rolling “sin palace” – you know, the vans with the great big bed in the back. The ones that fathers of potential dates just loved to see cruise up into their driveways, as you smiled politely and whisked their daughters away into the dark and hormonally-charged night.
But, doggone it, I missed out on that particular bit of fun, since I was already married when I bought my van.
And so, the two of us set about the task of customizing and personalizing our steed. The first thing in was, of course, the framing platform for the bed, along with the interior walls and flooring. Next came the obligatory deep-pile shag, encompassing the entire interior – floor, walls, and ceiling. Then, an overhead console for the stereo, lights, and an array of switches for things that didn’t exist finished up the interior makeover. Finally, a bitchin’ set of Keystone mags and fat, white-lettered tires made the transformation complete.
Our other “vanning” friends did the same (most of whom pumped far
more time and money into their chariots than us), and it only made sense that we should round up the wagons and set off for adventure in the big, bad world.
There were many organized events created exclusively for vanners, and we did our dead-level best to attend them all. At the time, I referred to the folks who attended these gatherings as “sophisticated bikers.” In later years, as I became educated in the ways of today’s bikers, it was obvious that there wasn’t anything sophisticated about them. But it sounded good at the time.
At the vast majority of organized van-ins, most folks spent the nights inside their gleaming creations. Which made sense, due to the aforementioned great big beds. Those who had stuffed every state-of-the-art toy or newfangled gadget on the market into their vans usually pitched a tent and stayed close by their investment, never straying far away. Heck, I think there were some who never left the confines of their beloved wagons.
But when we took off for the Blue Ridge mountains for a weekend of camping and fun, there wasn’t much point in staying inside the vans. Shunning the established campgrounds – which were inhabited by rowdy, noisy and aggravating young’uns, or stuffy, glaring, nosy old-timers (with their screeching calls of “Turn that crap down!”) – we took the road less traveled and set up camp, far off the beaten path.
Of course, when you take your big, shiny van into the woods, you don’t really want to drive it too far off the beaten path
As a result, the vans were left in relatively secure parking spots, within sight of the chosen campsite, but still far enough away to require the setting up of tents. Besides, the roaring campfire was definitely something you didn’t want too close to the van.
One one such trip, a group of around eight of us made the trek up to one of our favorite haunts, Pisgah National Forest, just across the SC/NC border. On the outskirts of Brevard and Tryon, it was just a quick jaunt away from the Blue Ridge Parkway, yet seemed eons from civilization. A labyrinth of gurgling mountain streams weaved their way throughout the park, enabling us to pick quiet venues for our weekend stays.
Now, I’m sorry if you think this was chauvinistic behavior, but the guys always left the domestic chores to the ladies of the group. Wives or girlfriends, it didn’t matter; those of the female gender were in charge of preparing the meals, while the macho guys stomped around the wilderness doing macho guy stuff. You know, things like finding the coldest stream in the forest in which to submerge the cases of beer. Or finding the best secluded spot to engage in power hurling, as a result of downing too many of those ice-cold beers.
I guess it was the fact that we arrived in our vans that led me to ignore my years of scouting experience in the wild. I knew all the rules of camping, and in fact, did manage to remember to have everyone ditch along their tents to prevent rainwater from cascading through them.
Somehow, I overlooked the extremely important protocol of food placement while camping in a forest.
After a big day of hiking, tubing on the river, and consuming large quantities of alcohol, we complimented the ladies on another fine suppertime feast. Then we all paired off and set about meandering off to our respective tents to rest up for the next day’s busy itinerary of hiking, tubing on the river, and consuming large quantities of alcohol.
Deep in the midst of a great dream about finding someone else’s beer stash in the stream, I was awakened by a noise. I opened my eyes and listened; but whatever it was had stopped. In the grip of exhaustion and inebriation, I was about to drift back into my coma when I heard it again. When I opened my eyes in the darkness, I heard a distinctive, rustling sound. This time, I didn’t fall back asleep.
Whatever it was, it was inside our tent.
That macho thing sorta backfired when I realized:
Mistake #1: That my spouse had placed several paper grocery bags – brimming with a variety of odorous food – along the wall of the tent at our feet;
Mistake #2: Right in front of the unzipped entrance. An unholy torrent of scenarios – all bad – raced through my clouded mind, as I tried to assess the extent of our mistakes, along with the plausible strategies for dealing with the result.
I couldn’t establish the size or breed of our visitor by the sounds. One second, it sounded small; the next second, it felt like an elephant was in there with us.
Now, there was one thing that I didn’t overlook while setting up camp. I always – even to this day – place my Bowie knife directly under my ‘pillow”inside my sleeping bag. That was the good news.
The bad news was, my sleeping wife was laying on the arm that would wield it.
We were in the classic “spoon” position; both on our right sides, with me snuggled up behind her. Now I had to figure out how to put my escape plan into action.
I decided to quietly awaken her, which was in essence a form of oxymorons working in unison to achieve a quick and violent death. At least, that’s what was running through my mind.
I gently shook her shoulder, whispering her name, while at the same time trying not to alarm or agitate whatever was inside the tent with us. I still couldn’t determine its size, and that was my main concern above all else.
When she finally began to wake up, I softly reached over and put my hand over her mouth.
“Honey, I need you to listen very carefully to me, and whatever you do, don’t scream, OK?” I whispered. ‘Now, don’t get excited, and don’t move … there’s something in the tent with us.”
Yeah, that worked real good.
She immediately tensed her entire body, as she tried to bolt upright. A muffled attempt at screaming was being held at bay by my hand, and I continued to reassure her that there was a way out of this.
“Listen, I need you to lift up just a leetle bit – don’t sit up – but let me get my arm out from under you. I’m going to get my knife; then I’m going to count to three, and when I do, I’ll cut the wall beside our heads, and you just run like a bat out of hell towards the other tents. But whatever you do, don’t scream. You understand?”
Steadily trembling now, she nodded in the affirmative, as I slowly pulled my arm from underneath her and reached underneath my head to retrieve the knife. Suddenly, she became even more petrified and rigidly tried to pull herself into a ball.
“Oh God, Brian, I can see its head!” she whispered in a quiet scream that verged on tears. “It’s looking right at me!” She was truly terrified. Everything crashed inside my mind as I envisioned the parade of possible carnivores at our feet.
“Ohhhh God …. it’s right there, make it go away … ohhhh God!” she continued, fear running rampant in her voice.
“You can see it? What is it, honey? I need to know what it is.” I whispered back to her as I gripped the knife and prepared to sacrifice myself to the beast.
She took a deep breath, and then whispered, “It’s a snake.”
My comprehension absolutely exploded at this revelation. This was one talented snake, I tell ya. It sounded for all the world like a critter with feet – foraging around the goodies inside those grocery bags – up to that point.
Slowly, deliberately, I pulled myself over her just the slightest bit, turning to look in the direction in which her eyes were glued. There was just a bit of moonlight beaming through the open doorway, and in the murky light, I saw the silhouetted form. It was raised in the strike position, and my heart sank to depths unknown at the sight. And then something clicked in my cognizant awareness.
We had an airline carry-on in the tent, for use as a receptacle for wet or dirty clothes. In the shadows of the night, the long, arching handles gave the appearance – especially when viewed through terror-blurred eyes – of a poised Cobra.
“That’s not a snake, dufus!” I blurted in aggravation, forgetting the circumstances for a nano-second, deeply annoyed that anyone could make such an obvious mistake in observation.
Well, whatever it was, our visitor took exception to my remarks, and wildly bolted over our feet as it frantically searched for the doorway. The only thing I know for absolute sure is, it was bigger than a rat.
We didn’t stick around to debate any of these points, though. I sliced through the tent wall and pulled us into an upright and running position in world-record time, as we both screamed for dear life, bouncing off of any and every tree between us and the next tent.
The others came pouring out of their tents, at first just as scared as us; then, as the events were recounted, we became the official camp joke for the trip.
We removed the food from our tent and hung it from a tree as we should have in the first place. Then we just laughed it off and continued our weekend in embarrassed relief. There were many more camping trips, but none as eventful as this one.
Years later, we eventually split up, as we came to realize we didn’t have that much in common. It was tough at the time, but we’re still good friends. And every now and then, I think back to those years.
I really miss that tent.
The previous article was originally published in the July 27, 2006 issue of Alternatives NewsMagazine.