Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Happy Campers with Mad Skills

(The following pompous quote and source should be read by a quiet, solemn, disembodied voice offstage.)

“What a waste it is to lose one’s mind.  —Vice President, Dan Qualye

As Eric and I left Asheville for Pisgah National Forest near Brevard, NC, the sky was perfectly blue. Nearing Brevard a half hour later, though, the sky began to darken and the National Weather Service put out a Severe Weather Alert that I picked up on the Bluegrass station I was listening to.
This trip was self-medication for me. My psychiatrist’s diagnosis had been PTSD. Post Traumatic Sports-induced Dementia. It runs in my family, passed down for generations.
The people in the small town of Dawson Springs, KY where I grew up knew about it. My friends’ parents would grab them by the arm and pull them away when we approached them on the street.
 “Stay away from that family during basketball season,” I’d hear them whisper. “They’re nuts.”
My wife nodded grimly at the doctor as the diagnosis slowly set in and she muttered, “March Madness.”
I had promised myself that, win or lose, I was heading for the mountains with a fly rod and a tent the morning after the NCAA championship game. (We won, in case you’ve been living under a rock for the past three weeks, but the anxiety had taken its toll.) I picked up my son, Eric, in Asheville on the way.
We turned right, past Hawg-Wild Barbecue and the Davidson River Fly Shop, and entered the National Forest. We had driven maybe three miles when the rains hit so hard that we could barely see the road in front of us. Then the hail came and sounded like someone shooting our car with automatic weapons.
I turned the car around and headed back toward town, but a tree had fallen across the road. At three in the afternoon the forest was dark as night.
Eric asked if there was another way to get back to town. I said I didn’t know. It was only three miles, but national forests don’t have a lot of paved roads.
I tapped the GPS a couple of times and it calculated an alternate route. It was 49 miles and nearly two hours. I think it went through Atlanta. We decided to wait.
A few minutes later, four men in ponchos and hardhats arrived in an NFS pickup truck and began removing the tree. One held a large chainsaw in his left hand and started it with a single pull of his right. They worked in the rain, hail and lightning and had the road cleared in minutes. We honked and waved to thank them.
We sat at the Brevard Taco Bell for an hour waiting for the rain to stop. Eric had two Dorito Tacos. I had a Diet Coke. (I’m well past the age when I could survive Dorito Tacos.)
When the rains stopped, we headed for the campground. The Davidson had become too high and muddy to fish that evening. We found a campsite with hardly anyone around. Early spring and a mid-week trip had assured us all the privacy we could want.  There was a bathroom with showers just a few empty campsites down the road and we could see a few other tents through the trees.
We built a fire from wet kindling. It took a while, but Eric and I both have mad camping skills and before long it was roaring.
I fried onions and sliced potatoes in olive oil and doused them heavily with salt and pepper while I cooked two rib-eyes that I had encrusted in spicy Montreal Steak seasoning. A couple of iced teas and some ciabbata rolls and Eric was telling me it was far and away the greatest meal he had ever eaten in the woods (more mad camping skills).
I’m almost certain that was intended to be a compliment, given the speed with which it disappeared just a few hours after two Dorito Tacos.
It started to rain again, hard, just as I finished cleaning up and stowing the cooking gear. I set up our tent, no mean feat in the pouring rain and now dark, but I have. . . well, you know.
We climbed inside the tent, turned on a lantern and decided to read for a while. We talked a lot more than we read. We looked forward to sleeping with the sound of the rain hitting the fly.
I read Hunger Games, but soon couldn’t hold my head up, let alone the book. I put on my rain jacket and shoes and headed for the bathroom. Eric needed the lantern, so I took a small flashlight, a little job with two AA batteries.
It was pitch dark and raining so hard that I could barely see well enough with the small flashlight to stay on the road. I moved slowly. I could see the lights of the bathroom ahead of me through the trees. I looked around and noticed that our little dome tent with the lantern inside glowed behind me like a nightlight that someone had plugged into the ground. It was the only light I could see in the campsites.
Twice lightning lit the entire area for a split second and I could see the road and the woods lit up like daytime. Five or six seconds later I would hear the rumbling of thunder.
Two twin fluorescent lights lit the bathrooms from inside. One on the women’s side of the building flickered its unearthly bluish light wildly against the trees just outside. There were no sounds except the rain. No people. No cars. Not the whippoorwill or the owl we would hear later after the rain stopped.
Just rain.
I reached the building and stepped off the paved road and onto a pea-gravel walk. I looked down at my feet when I heard my shoes crunch on the tiny, gray pebbles, both feet barely visible within the small circle of light my flashlight provided, and thought I noticed a shadow moving through the flickering fluorescent light.
It was then that it hit me:
I have watched way too many episodes of Criminal Minds.

“You all look like happy campers to me. Happy campers you are, happy campers you have been, and, as far as I am concerned, happy campers you will always be. —Vice President Dan Qualye”

(Disembodied voice banks Gulfstream G4 into the sunset.)

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