He sets his alarm for 4am, but much like the 9-year-old still living deep inside him, he wakes up at 2:30, and can’t fall back to sleep. So rather than toss and turn, he slips quietly from his bed, and heads downstairs in the dark. After cruising the news sites for an hour, he deactivtes his Facebook page, and heads out at 5am. His journey will take him north, past Oneonta, to the woods just south of Cooperstown, to the land of baseball, Zack Miller, and Split Rock Road.
Every Memorial Day Weekend for the past 35 or so years, my childhood friends and I, a rotating cast of characters, have gone camping in a variety of places in NY and PA. We started out back in 1981 in the Poconos, and along the way have made our mark in Harriman State Park, Sterling Forest, Catskill Park, and now, find ourselves in Milford NY when the unofficial first weekend of summer rolls around. There was a time when we went on Labor day as well, but somewhere along the line that trip bit the dust. Memorial Day has been a constant, until last year.
Back in 1990, when I was young and flush with cash in early sobriety, I ventured up to Otsego County with a friend who wanted to look at some property. Five hours later, in what was the first and only spontaneous decision of my adult life, I placed $500 dollars down on a 16 acre parcel of land. I drove home and proceeded to vomit and cry myself to sleep. Buyer’s remorse had set in. A friend talked me out of cancelling my check, and I agreed to go through with the purchase. Resisting the feeling that I had been swindled into buying a piece of property on a toxic waste site, I agreed to a 17 thousand dollar mortgage in the hopes that someday it would pay off. The following year, I bought the adjoining 9-acre parcel. It’s not nearly as nice as Zack Miller’s ranch, but it’s mine and it’s as beautiful a place as I’ve ever been.
At 5am, after feeding the cats and kissing my sleeping wife, I picked up my buddy Steve and we headed north, up the Palisades, and up the Thruway into the rolling hills of the Leatherstocking Region. Steve has been one of the mainstays of our band of merry men. The other was my brother Keith, until last year. Last May, he followed his heart and moved west, settling in Dayton Ohio. For the first time since I was 15, there was no Memorial Day trip. This year, I vowed not to let that happen again.
When we arrived at the site shortly before 10am, we discovered that we were missed last year, as a welcoming party of gnats and mosquitoes celebrated our return. We took our time setting up camp, making sure to build a smoky fire to chase away some of the more irksome pests, and soon settled into camp life. In the past, this might have meant exploring the area, or checking for downed trees from the winter storms, but now, as middle-age advances, we are more inclined to sit around the fire pit and discuss the things of importance for over-50 men.
Not past sexual conquests, or battles won or lost. No, we speak of our cats and their exploits. Steve has two as do I, and on our last trip, Keith regaled us with the antics of his three.
– Middle aged men discussing their cats. And social security. We debated the merits of taking Social Security benefits at 62 instead of 67. Social Security and cats. Gone are the days of five mile hikes and braggadocio by the fire. That suits me just fine.
I was exhausted by the drive, and the lack of sleep from the night before, so I thought that a quick afternoon siesta was in order. Upon setting up the queen-sized Eddie Bauer air mattress with internal battery operated pump that my brother bequeathed me upon his departure for the heartland, I discovered that he forgot to remove the batteries, and the trusty Duracell’s has leaked into the motor rendering it useless. I angrily make the trek back to Wal-mart, and $34 dollars later, I was the proud owner of a new air-mattress.
By the time we retuned to camp, Steve convinced me that napping would be a terrible idea, so we set out to gather enough wood for the evening and made preparations for the evening meal. There is something special about a steak cooked over a open fire. Even though it can be raw in some spots, and char-broiled in others, it’s still delicious. The 20 minutes that we ate in silence was a slice of heaven.
After dinner, we retuned to our camping chairs for more stories of previous camping trips and cats, and the various ailments incurred by men in their 50’s who haven’t been camping in two years. By this time, I was completely bushed, so I crawled into my sleeping bag with the sun still setting behind the trees. It wasn’t yet 8pm, but within seconds, I was asleep. I slept nine hours straight through. I haven’t done that in years.
I woke at 5AM to the sound of birdsong and twigs snapping. I peered out the window of my tent to discover two deer in the middle of my camp, just as surprised to see me and I was them. I reached to grab my camera, but in a flash they were gone. I got up and sat in silence as the new day began. If you’ve never gotten up before dawn to watch and listen to the forest come alive, it’s an experience to behold. I try to do it at least once every time we go camping, and it never disappoints.
After a breakfast of pop-tarts and french toast, I headed into town to get fuel for my chainsaw. Along the way, I stopped by Zack Miller’s place to see if he wanted to go fishing, but he was nowhere to be found. Some of the locals said that he was in NYC recording a batch of new songs, but I’ve been hearing that fable for the last 20 years, so I’m not about to hold my breath.
When I got back, I busted out the trusty chainsaw to cut up a tree that was partially blocking my path to the creek. I filled it, and oiled it, and primped it, and primed it, and lubed it, until it was finally ready to go. 40 pulls on the cord later, and it still hadn’t started. I barely got it to sputter. I handed it to Steve, and three pulls later, the saw roared to life. Ok, so I’m no lumberjack.
We proceeded to cut up the log and the surrounding brush. 11 minutes later, I was exhausted, covered in sweat and ready to go back to bed. If I had to do a full days work at this stage of my life, I’d die before lunchtime, but we persevered, and after few stops and starts, we managed to cut enough wood for the next 72 camping trips. At this point, the camping trip can be considered a success. By 2 pm, it was back to our chairs for more discussion of cat toys and 401k’s and the Yankees starting rotation; things of which men speak when left alone to their own devices. Dinner consisted of chicken breasts and white rice and corn, another culinary tour de force. Even though I was exhausted by the back-breaking labor, I managed to make it to 9pm.
I woke at 5am again. This time, it wasn’t the sound of twigs snapping, but rather unpleasant sound of rain tapping against the top of my tent. And it wasn’t the sound of heavy rain, warning of the oncoming thunderstorm that would drops buckets of water, only to be replaced by the bright sun shortly after, this was the sound of annoying and depressing all-day spring rain. We had been discussing whether or not we were going to spend two nights or three, but within a hour the decision had been made; it was time to go.
There are few things in life more miserable that packing up a wet tent in the dripping rain, but that’s what the situation called for, and by 9am, we were packed up and ready to head back south. Back to civilization and crowded highways.
Back to my adoring wife and my over-sized mortgage. And of course, the cats.
Happy Memorial Days folks. See you next year.