Normalize Being Bad at Camping
For our second date, Duncan and I went on a hike. We have not hiked since.
Just over a year ago, I was an avid backpacker. I still love camping, but no longer being paid by my college to take doe-eyed freshmen into the woods combined with my current tax bracket, I am not in the position to go on the types of camping trips I used to.
Not to mention, there is not one single thing that would make me drag myself outside in the Atlanta summer. I mean that from the bottom of my heart.
All of this combined, I haven't been spending much time in nature, which would have horrified my younger granola self. But Duncan had spring break, and we had gotten entrenched in routine that we wanted to get out of.
He's also an Eagle Scout. And supposedly not the kind you can hear from a mile away because all their pots, pans, and mandatory hatchets are strapped to the outside of their packs.
So this is how a recently expired Wilderness First Responder and a hardy Mainer Boy Scout went on the most ill-prepared car camping trip. Maybe not ever, but at least for us.
The first small mishap was the fact that I had been unemployed for two months. I had a job offer, but no start date in sight. Se we planned on taking a long weekend. On short notice, I started the Wednesday before our trip, so we ended up losing a day.
The second, slightly larger mishap, was that a while ago, I got this beautiful, yellow, three-person tent for my birthday. I thought I took it to Atlanta when I made the move down. I was so confident I had all my camping gear with me, I neglected to check whether or not that was in fact the case.
It was not.
I only checked a week before we left. The tent, and all my other high-end camping gear was back in Michigan.
So we tried to rent gear with Georgia Tech a couple days before our trip. They told us, first, that we were too late, and then that we weren't to late but because the office was closed for spring break we would have to rent it for the entire week even though we would only be gone for two nights.
So two nights before, we were scrounging the internet for in-store pickup tents costing less than $60 dollars. We found one at REI. It was a violently neon green tent with not quite forest accents that made everything look sickly while inside during the day.
I picked up the tent on my way home from work on Thursday. I felt like a poser walking through the store. When the greeter in their vest covered in pins and patches asked if I needed any help, I wanted to say "I know what I'm doing. At least I used to."
The next day, we got in the car and were off on our grand adventure. Our first stop, Walmart. We still didn't have food, or sleeping bags, or sleeping mats, or pillows, or flashlights, or toothpaste, or toothbrushes, or self-restraint. So we had to do some shopping.
A purposefully undisclosed amount of money later, we were back in the car and driving to Red Top Mountain State Park. We arrived around 11:00PM, drove the winding roads to our semi-secluded campsite, and set up tent in the light of our 99¢ headlamps that shone with the diameter of a half dollar coin.
We then unpacked our gear and clothes from my suitcase, Duncan's duffle, and fifty Walmart grocery bags. It surprised us how roomy the tent was. I could almost stand up in the middle.
We contemplated starting a fire, but ultimately decided that the equivalent of one matches worth of light strapped to our head was not enough to collect firewood. So we ate the now soupy Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream we were going to eat in the car on the concrete picnic bench.
After cleaning the chocolate off our lips in the bathroom and brushing our teeth with brand new toothbrushes and toothpaste, we snuggled into our cheap sleeping bags and our tent that was still somehow glowing in the cold Georgia spring night.
The week before it was highs of 70s and lows of 60s. This weekend it got down to the 20s at night. And if you know anything about tent thermodynamics, you know that the rainfly keeps the heat trapped in your tent. If you scroll up, you'll see that our rainfly was the equivalent of hiding under your jacket while you bolt to your car to get out of the rain. It did not keep us warm.
And I'm sure you'd be surprised to hear that our sleeping bags weren't the warmest either. To make the night even better, the pillows gave the same amount of neck support as a one-ply roll of toilet paper. The sleeping pads at least did a good job elevating you above the ground if you managed to keep it under you. I did not.
I was missing my insulated tent, my zero-degree synthetic sleeping bag, my inflatable pillow and sleeping pad. Instead I was stuck asking Duncan to zip my sleeping bag up every time I moved because the zipper believed that every time I shifted it was me leaping forth to punch an incoming bear in the face. I was not. I was just trying to skootch the sleeping pad back under my butt.
We eventually fell asleep, both somehow woke up at 6:00AM, then fell back asleep for another two hours.
When we finally woke up for the second time, shivering inside our highlighter home, we slowly got ourselves out and into the open. We slowly munched on our off-brand Pop Tarts as we decided on a place to hike.
We packed up and headed to the visitors center where we picked up some firewood and a map. We decided on a 5.5 mile trail described as "Compacted Soil Surface | Moderate". For the first third, I was doing great. It was brisk, but nice out. The trail was beautiful. But the second and last third, my mood started to shift.
Both of my jobs in Georgia have been very stationary. I'm not on my feet very much during the day. I stay active with marital arts, but that's only a couple days a week.
Unsurprisingly, I started to loose stamina fast. I was constantly taking layers off and putting them back on as my tempature swung wildly. My feet were hurting in my ratty tennis shoes. I missed my hiking boots. I missed my arsenals of dry wick shirts. I was thoroughly uncomfortable.
Duncan was a trouper listening to me grumble. He was doing much better. He walks a couple miles each day from his apartment to campus so he doesn't have to pay the outrageous parking fee at Georgia Tech.
We took a break near an inlet in the water where there was a bench that some eagle scout made. Duncan said his project was much better. I agree. It was a wonky bench.
I broke out my camera that Duncan was carrying. I snapped some pictures on my digital and polaroid. We ate some clementines, Slim Jims, and Flavor Blast Goldfish. I put all my layers back on.
We sat on the rocks together and enjoyed the gentle sound of the waves lapping the shore.
We finished the hike after mistakenly being on the last mile multiple times. I put my crocs on, bought a patch and a sticker, and we settled down on the picnic table to eat our lunch of sandwiches, Cheetos, and trail mix.
We laid in the sun, dozing and reading with full bellies. We threw around a rubber football we got from Walmart, and decided that we had done enough hiking for the trip.
It was a little hard not to feel guilty about this decision. I had once hike one-hundred miles in Glacier National Park in a week with 50+ pounds on my back. And I was calling it quits not even walking six miles without a pack.
Nevertheless, we went back to camp. We read for a little while in the tent, and Duncan eventually started a fire that even my pyromaniac father would appreciate. We ate hot dogs for dinner with no ketchup. Duncan even gave me his last one because mine fell into the flames. They were really good hot dogs, too.
We also had smores once it grew dark. The fire kept us warm, but because we were only separated from the ground by a gas station blanket, we got a little chilly.
After once again cleaning the chocolate from our mouths, we crawled into the tent, and prepared for another poorly insulated night. After waking up to the sounds of adults engaging in adult activities in a nearby campsite, I asked if Duncan if he he could hear them. He thinks I am talking about someone standing in our campsite and starts loudly discussing the knife he has, which greatly confused me. I was annoyed but not ready for murder. He eventually understood what I was trying to say, and heard them too.
As I shifted to look at him, my sleeping bag unzipped. "I just want to go home," I say.
He graciously offers to drive back at three in the morning, but I declined. Mostly because that would require getting out of the tent and breaking it down in the freezing cold and inevitably getting into a sleepy car crash.
I eventually fell back into a tentative sleep, and we both woke up at the same time the next morning. We broke down the tent and ate our breakfast in the car. Tired, smoky, and a little smelly, we stopped at a the Marietta Diner.
It was an extravagant 1950s style building with the décor to match. The first thing I saw when I walked in were cartoon worthy cakes in a glass display case. The menu had advertisements for their other restaurants including Pasta Bella, Marietta Fish Market, and Cherokee Cattle Co.
Our friend later told us half joking, half serious that this place was run by the mafia. For what it's worth, it's number 4 on the "Top 10 Best Mafia Restaurants in Atlanta." We did not know going into this. Duncan just needed coffee.
Also Guy Fieri had been there.
Duncan drove for another forty-five minutes, and when we hit Atlanta traffic, we knew we were home. When we got to my apartment, I pet my cat, then promptly fell asleep on the couch. I won't include the video of me snoring like a kid pretending to be asleep, but know that it's there.
I went into this trip thinking that we would be hiking all the trails and driving back on Sunday late at night. We ended up hiking one and getting home in the late afternoon. I tried not being hard on myself, but I was a little disappointed to see the disparity between what I was once capable of and what I can do now.
But when I take I step back, I remember I don't have to be good at camping. What does it even mean to be a good camper?
I enjoyed myself. I moved my body in a way that brought me joy. I spent time in nature. I picked up some trash that wasn't mine. I think that's what good campers do.
I've been in the in-group. I've been apart of the ultra-fit, Patagonia clad, cut-your-toothbrush-in-half-to-save-weight community. There's nothing wrong with that. I hope to one day go out again on a more rugged and intense camping trip and feel good doing it. But from where I am in life now, that's just not me.
It's okay to not fit in with the somehow glamorously grungy people in dream places. Being a good camper, a good lover of nature, is about feeling the sun on your face. It's about doing what makes your body feel good. It's about making sure you leave the earth a little bit better than when you got there.
So I write this somewhat embarrassing story to normalize being bad at camping because there really is no such thing.
Unless you litter. Then you suck.