MAD DOG: Roughing It

This past weekend I went on my first camping trip in more years than I care to think about and I'm happy to report that I not only survived but had a good time. It might have been the fresh air. It might have been the good company. It could be the lingering effects of the tequila-drenched campfire sing-along that covered every song K-tel ever put on a compilation as well as a Flemish version of "The Itsy Bitsy Spider." But deep down inside I suspect it had a lot to do with the fact that there were bathrooms 50 yards away.A group of us went to Santa Cruz, California and camped at a state park near the beach. This isn't the type of camping where you carry a knapsack weighing more than you do while hiking to the middle of nowhere in search of a spot no human has seen since the Pleistocene days, usually for good reason. No, in our case it meant hauling our things 50 feet from the car to a numbered, reserved campsite. On the downside, it also meant we had people all around us, making it more of a camping commune than a chance to commune with nature.You've probably detected that I'm not a camping person. It's not that I'm a priss or anything, I just figure that if we were meant to live in tents god wouldn't have given us roofing shingles. Or toilets that flush. But if I'm nothing, I'm a good sport. And I'm willing to try and experience most anything that doesn't leave permanent scars, especially emotional ones.Thus, I borrowed a sleeping bag and a tent, packed up my small city-boy knapsack, and put myself in the hands of people who have done quite a bit of camping. You could tell because they didn't have to borrow their tents and sleeping bags. Plus they had good stories to tell.One talked about spending a year traveling and camping through India. I recounted childhood tales of setting up a tent in our backyard in New Jersey, then coming inside to use the bathroom in the middle of the night and miraculously waking up in the comfort of my own bed. Another regaled us with stories of sleeping in fields in North Africa. I rattled off a list of my favorite Motel 6s. I can only hope they got as much out of my stories as I did theirs.We didn't exactly rough it. We got there late the first night and set up our tents in the dark -- okay, so one of us needed help, I said it wasn't my tent -- then decided to go into town and get a pizza. The next day after our hike we stopped at a Safeway and bought ice, Oreos, and a pot so we could boil water without borrowing one because, well, even experienced campers can't be expected to remember everything. But we did rough it in our own way. I'm proud to say I didn't bring my laptop and no one brought a cell phone. Of course if we had we wouldn't have had to break camp to go into town for that pizza -- we could have had it delivered in 30 minutes or less.But we were far from winning the Lap of Luxury Camping Award. One group of campers showed up with five coolers, eight plastic lawn chairs, a four-room tent complete with a full kitchen and a rec room (with a pretty nice pool table, I might add), and a portable generator for their Play Station. Then they had the nerve to get upset because they couldn't leave their car at the campsite. I mean, what's the use of having a satellite dish mounted on the roof of your SUV if you can't use it? Maybe next time they'll remember to bring a longer coaxial cable.We did most of the things you do when camping. We sang, we talked, we walked along the beach, we ate, we made S'mores, we remembered how disgusting they really are, and we went hiking.I like hiking. It's a good way to get exercise, see the great outdoors, commune with nature, and push yourself to the limit by actually trying to finish an energy bar. In case you haven't eaten one of them, energy bars are nutritional supplements disguised as candy bars that are heavier than lead, have a longer shelf life than Styrofoam, and have a digestive half-life that makes uranium look like a piker. They contain everything your body needs for a burst of energy and increased stamina but not the first thing your taste buds need to keep you from gagging on them. To say they taste like petrified bear crap would be an understatement. And a big opening for you to wonder how I know that. Don't worry, I have a good imagination.We had a good hike through a redwood forest. True, we had to drive to get there, but as I mentioned, this was far from a purist camping weekend. The hike was about five miles, the scenery was beautiful, and we got a decent bit of exercise. This is the way a hike should be, unlike taking one with my brother and his wife, who think no hike is a good hike unless you wear the treads off your brand new hiking boots, collapse at the end while convincing yourself that exhaustion equals invigoration, and you've covered more miles than the Mir space station. Preferably in half the time.I once went on a hike with them, and once is the imperative word. This re-creation of the Bataan Death March was supposed to be eight miles and moderately strenuous because all I had to wear was sneakers. Take it from me, you should always have the proper gear when you do something like this -- hiking in sneakers is like playing football wearing a ski cap. Which is why we picked a short and easy one. And it was until we took the wrong trail and ended up on a 7-hour, 14-mile hike crawling up gully washes, clambering over old rockslides that were just itching to act up again, and walking cliffside paths so narrow the mountain goats were taking out insurance policies on our lives. Let's just say that even now I break out in a cold sweat if they ask me to walk to the grocery store with them.But now, thanks to this past weekend, I can safely call myself a camper. That isn't to say I'm ready to go out and buy my own tent and sleeping bag, or get a subscription to (ital)Happy Camper Magazine(ital). But it would be fun to do it again sometime. Especially if the bathrooms are close, the neighboring campers have plenty of utensils to loan us, and the tequila and Hits of the 80's don't run out.

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