Sunset bison

Sunset bison
Sundogs

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Night without end, amen (Part 6)

I’ve enjoyed camping since I was knee-high to a collard lizard, and I’ve done just about every kind a person can imagine short of tent camping in winter. Which is exactly what we’ve preparing for, a fact that gives me pause. But I learned long ago that enduring cold weather is as much psychological as it is physical. If you want to do something bad enough, the cold will have little effect. The physical part can be dealt with by layering. I’ve taken long walks in white-outs and sub-zero temperatures and barely felt discomforted, so this should be a piece of cake. No worries here.

Our tents pitched, Chod turns to his duties as head chef. Ham and beans is the menu but I eschew it in favor of burned Wranglers, not because of any lack of trust in Chod’s culinary arts but because beans pose frightful consequences for me. A layer of yellowed pine needles, another of small twigs, crisscrossed by larger sticks, two matches and in short order the hotdogs are turning black.

The smirk on Chod’s face lets me know how he feels about that second match. Self-righteous Boy Scout leaders anyway. I’m suddenly reminded of my older brother, who could light a fire with a single match but only after adding copious quantities of combustible liquids. Orbiting satellites could witness his handiwork.

Under the disapproving stares of my companions I slit each Wrangler lengthwise and lay down a thick bead of habanero mustard. A cold beer and scalding coffee wash them down. Excellent.

At dusk Chod lights a small fire. Ever the show-off, he uses only one match. Canadas sound from the lake, preparing for night. The late-October sun is down far too soon. What does that leave for us to do, talk? We’ve talked all day. Jim slips off to his tent, and shortly after Chod and I retire to our own nylon domiciles. I’m developing a new appreciation for my camper, with its lights, oven, four-burner stove and, best of all, forced-air furnace.

It’s ironic that for months I’ve said that if I ever had another vacation I’d sleep straight through. Here’s my chance and I’m not pleased. It goes to show that some people are never happy. A sentiment essential to the codgernaut manifesto: find fault, complain often, bicker without end.

***

Lori asked, Will I hear from you every day, and I said, I don’t think so. I’ll call from motels, otherwise we’ll be in the boonies. But if some night you hear the echo of an agonized bellow, it’ll be me crawling into my sleeping bag.

My screams are confined to my mind, I believe. (Neither Chod nor Jim hear anything, or if they do nothing is mentioned the next morning, and they’re the type that go for the jugular at the first hint of weakness.) Though I’m layered with polypro long johns, cotton sweats and a fleece hat, it’s still like being mummified in a freezer. I stuff my pillow in the bag’s opening and dunk my head like a turtle in its shell. It’ll warm quickly, I promise myself. The bag, narrow at the feet and shoulders to prevent cold spots, is rated to 15 degrees, which should be plenty warm enough.

Nor am I concerned about things that go bump in the night. Being buried so deeply precludes hearing anything other than the chattering of my teeth.

The pillow pops out. I wrestle it back, bunching up my clothes and skewing my hat. The bag’s narrowness makes straightening them impossible. Turning over is an exercise in futility and knocks the bag off the mattress. In spite of these thrashings I eventually doze off. I think.

A frigid stream of air down my spine wakes me. Wrestling the pillow back into place twists my clothes into more knots and shoves the hat over my eyes. Again I slide off the mattress. Silently cursing, I duck my head back into the bag and try to relax. I’m freezing.

Why hasn’t the bag warmed up? In the past Lori and I always had our bags zipped together, and the warmth of two bodies was more than adequate. Now I feel like a boa constrictor is squeezing me to death.

I can do this if I set my mind to it. We have a full week ahead of us with camping every night. It’s simply a matter of psychology.

I’ve lost feeling in my extremities. Psychology, my ass.

***

Later, in the darkness, comes the subtle murmur that inevitably croons me awake, either sooner or later depending on the amount of liquids consumed and the ambient temperature, one which is high and the other very low.

Go away, I say.

No. It’s time.

It can wait.

Ah, but for how long? Remember, you have to crawl out of your bag, get dressed, unzip the door and crawl out. That’s a lot of contortion on a full bladder.

Beat it.

I’ll be back.

And so it is. Though it pains me to reach an arm out of the bag, I check my watch. No way can I make it through the night.

Outside I hear a zipper and the pad of footsteps. One of the others had the same argument and lost.

I finally roll out of my bag. The cold is unbearable. My boots are like ice packs, my jacket stiff with frost. Opening the door unleashes a deeper wave of Arctic air. I debouch into sandy soil and straighten to the stupefying display of the night sky, the millions of stars etched diamond-sharp against a velvet black, the spiral galaxies, supernovas, red giants and yellow dwarfs, the double stars in the crook of the Big Dipper, the fuzzy Seven Sisters, each momentarily obscured by billowing plumes of exhalation. For a moment I feel nothing but awe.

The emotion is short-lived. Back in the tent, zip the door shut, burrow into the bag, stuff the pillow into the opening, hunker down. The pillow pops out. Tent camping sucks.

(To be continued)

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