When I was a child, my love of the outdoors knew no bounds. This wasn’t always an easy feat given the extremes in the weather in the Canadian prairies. On the coldest winter days the mercury dips to temperatures colder than Mars. In late July it can get as hot as Dubai. There is an eighty-degree swing in temperature between the hottest and coldest days of the year.
In spring when you leave for work in the morning you have to pack for the four distinct ecosystems reflected in the weather throughout the day. Fall is spectacular and brilliant, but comes and goes in the blink of an eye. Summer and winter are typically the heroes and villains of the year.
Essentially, it’s a challenge to be an avid outdoorsman where I live. Yet, I rarely complained about the weather as a child – except when my mother forbade me to go outdoors because of conditions that were too extreme. The outdoors and I, and all the whimsical seasons she brought into my life, had a mad love affair. We were inseparable.
That love affair sent my mates and I to the woods to go camping, year after year. In my late teens a campsite for the weekend was an ideal escape from our young adult prisons. A tent in the woods was the venue for treacherous feats of binge drinking, chain smoking, setting forest-endangering bonfires to keep us warm, and making as many beasts with bare backs as our whiskey-dicks would allow. After all the debauchery, one needed only to crawl five feet to get home, and didn’t have to navigate dangerous stairs or nosey parents before crashing into bed.
Back then, a moisture-retaining, mildew-infused, heat amplifying canvas tent was the best hotel money could buy for the summer. There were no deluxe, three feet thick air mattresses upon which to sleep. We slept on the ground, toughed up bruised ribs or lacerated hips, the affliction heightened by our drunken dead weight pressing up against tree roots, logs, stones, or other objects poking through the tent floor. These went unnoticed as the tent was erected in haste, as an afterthought, when several alcoholic beverages had already been consumed and the urgency to resume drinking rushed the job.
Never was there a sense of anxiety before a planned camping trip about the weather, bugs, or the sufficiency of suitable food to sustain us. The unabashed joy expected of the great outdoors was never undone by unforeseen natural disasters. Running out of beer and cigarettes in the middle of an evening, when nobody would be sober enough to drive to the nearest one-horse town to stock up, was the worst of all disasters any of us could imagine.
No showers? No modern flush toilets? No food? No cooking utensils? No problem. The lake, the bush, hot dogs and buns, and a stick, respectively, in that order.
Camping afforded countless opportunities to go to the woods, drink like a fish, not worry about a DUI, and smell like ass without social repercussions. A tent was a house to call your own, even if it leaked in the rain, was pointless in the cold, and a sauna in the heat. The experience was the epitome of independence and hedonistic bliss.
Well, I’m not a young man anymore. I can binge-drink at home if I want to, which I don’t because I have people who depend on me to not be hungover the next day. Being cold to the bone feels worse at my age – bonfires notwithstanding. I prefer real saunas to sauna-like conditions created by poorly ventilated tents and gasping, flatulent adults. Smelling like ass bothers me, even if there are no repercussions. Sleeping on the hard ground leaves me with injuries that last for days and make me angry. Having to see and smell the bodily waste left by the hundred people who used the toilet before me is horrifying. I hate cooking without the proper utensils and can’t stand doing dishes without running water and a proper sink. Ideal weather, a modern bathroom, and a shower within at least a hundred-metre radius of where I sleep matters.
I’ve gone soft, basically, which means more often than not camping sucks.
I spent years living in Vancouver, a petit-bourgeois urban jungle where locals wear lululemon yoga pants and Starbucks is the main source of hydration. People smell good in Vancouver. They don’t go camping in tents for leisure, they go skiing in Whistler or take a lap around English Bay in a thirty-foot yacht. They care about the poor but don’t wish to live like them, even if it is in the woods. Plus, there are grizzly bears and cougars which fabric walls does nothing to discourage.
I’ve also travelled the world on business, having jetted off countless times to exotic lands on business class. I drank too much champagne on a jaunt to Shanghai, gorged on smoked salmon on a sixteen-hour flight to Hong Kong, and slurped coquilles St Jacques en route to Kuala Lumpur. I complained about the in-flight entertainment from Frankfurt to Amman and sat beside a movie star from Beirut to Britain. I’ve stayed in hotels where the pillows are as soft as I imagine the ground is in heaven. Just like in heaven, they put chocolates on your pillow at night, and turn your bed because you might be too exhausted after a long day to do it yourself.
It was grand, travelling in style, without a tent. And you know what? I liked it.
It’s hard to fathom. I’m the guy who, when he was a young teenager, did canoe trips for days on end paddling deep into the woods, year after year. In those summers of my adolescence I lived like a fur trader, and loved it.
We ate “trail lunches” not wanting to stop as we had miles and miles to paddle each day. We didn’t see civilization for several days. There was no toilet paper. Lake water was the main ingredient in our dehydrated rations. There were no gadgets to make roughing it a little less rough. Getting a signal was furthest from our minds. There was no need of Wi-Fi to post boastful selfies on social media. The experience was imprinted in our memories because we were present to actually live it as it was happening. The idea of sharing it with others who weren’t there and whose hollow judgments would rob the moments of their pure bliss was never a consideration.
There is a vociferous element of that youthful fur-trader who keeps telling me I still love the outdoors. But his voice has been muted by the fleeting luxuries enjoyed by the city-slicker adult. The fur-trader and the city-slicker eventually had to arrive at a suitable compromise if camping was to figure prominently in my summer plans.
The city-slicker bought a top of the line tent on-line and shipped it to Canada from Europe. It has multiple rooms, windows, and can withstand a hurricane. Essentially, it’s a cabin in a bag. There are few public campsites meant for tents that can accommodate its size. I had to buy a trailer hitch and a rack to cart it to the woods because it took up too much room in my car.
For three to four times every summer the city-slicker, fur trader and his two kids pack up the car until the rear bumper is nearly dragging on the ground and head to the woods. We are going camping, by golly, because the fur-trader has convinced the city-slicker we’re going to love it. The city-slicker can’t help but be wistful there will be no flight attendants to rouse him awake two-thirds into the drive and serve him filet mignon, garlic mashed potatoes, and cabernet sauvignon.
When we get to the campsite it’s dusk because it took longer to pack up the car than I thought it would – as it always does – and it’s raining, or there’s an electrical storm, or the mosquitoes are swarming as we erect the tent which, because it’s a cabin in a bag, is not easy to erect and takes longer than the brochure said, so my morale is in tatters as one of my teenaged kids stands there not knowing what to do, making me mad, making me get testy with him, so he says “Dad, you’re doing it again” and I’m, “Jesus! What am I doing!!” and he says “Remember when you told me to tell you when you’re being impatient?” which makes me want to shove a tent peg up his ass, so I say “sorry kiddo, dad’s frustrated” with gritted teeth and think ‘screw it I’m having a beer, or maybe five,’ then notice I’ve got eight hundred mosquito bites on the five square inches of flesh I have exposed so I yell to my other son “Hand me the fucking insect repellent!” and realize it’s almost ten and we’ve only eaten Doritos since late this afternoon when I said “We’ll eat when we get there” and drove past seven McDonald’s on the way out of town, so now we’re all hungry but the tent isn’t up, the air mattresses haven’t been filled, the cooler is still packed deep in the car and I can’t have a beer, we need to get the tent up to flee the mosquitoes, I’m exhausted, it’s not even the first hour of camping, and I want a fucking hotel room with a chocolate on my pillow.
It didn’t used to be this way. The fur-trader never had to constantly ward off a reproachful inner dialogue at every minor annoyance while camping. The fur-trader was rarely annoyed by camping. The fur-trader understood the glory of being outdoors and wouldn’t demean it with bourgeois complaints like “the cooler doesn’t keep the wine well-chilled.”
When outdoors, the city-slicker is aggravated by that which falls short of ideal, which is everything. The bugs, the weather, the blaring, shitty, out-dated music blasting out of the truck with the eight track player in the adjacent site. Or the witless paroxysms of the drunken armchair philosopher three sites over, which continue unimpeded until he topples over in his lawn chair at three in the morning, sadly, not into the fire so I can avoid hearing him the next night. Or the ice melting precipitously in the cooler, bathing all my food in water, making for soggy cheese, soggy steak, and soggy lettuce.
Instead of offering moral support, all the smug city-slicker can say is, “You should have rented a cottage.” Christ, I hate that guy sometimes.
Because the city-slicker weaselled his way into my life, my basic needs for comfort require more energy and planning if a camping excursion stands a chance of being slightly enjoyable. Eating hot dogs for breakfast, lunch and dinner, which I did as a teenager, is out of the question. My colon is way too old for that shit. The other aging pipes in my body don’t much like it either.
My body demands lettuce, yogurt, and fillets of salmon to run at its usual state of sub-optimality. After years of being subjected to outright contempt, my body would surely exact revenge were I to assault it with toxic food and booze. It would do so, not by way of a hangover or vomiting, as it did when I was a young fur-trader, but with cancer or heart disease.
In the throes of January I am pondering these issues as I decide on upcoming summer plans. The endeavour is daunted by memories of last summer, which produced the most dreadful conditions for camping. On one of our camping trips we had to move a tree that had fallen across the campsite before setting up our cabin-tent. There was a terrible storm the night before we arrived, and it returned the next two nights. I slept with one eye open, my ears trained to every sound in the surrounding trees. I didn’t sleep a wink for the better part of three nights. On the fourth night, I was so surly the bears didn’t dream of scavenging on my site.
What is also pertinent to this decision is the fact I live in a prairie swampland. Even when the weather is ideal for camping, there are other natural phenomena to spoil the party; mosquitoes being the most insidious. For a mosquito, my hometown and its surroundings are like Vegas for a mobster; like Florida in winter for obnoxious French Canadians; like the Republican Party for rich douche-bags looking to screw the poor and middle class. When a mosquito wins the lottery, or wins the World Series, or has a dying relative with a bucket list, the place they all want to be is the place I call home.
Despite the mosquitoes, summer usually boasts at least a few months of dry, sunny conditions, which provides countless opportunities for outdoor enjoyment. In a place where winter can last up to five months, the summer reprieve is a psychological imperative upon which one comes to depend. Certainly, we expect winter to be abominable, and as payment for having survived winter’s gauntlet, we expect the weather from June to mid-September to make amends. It’s essential to displace the torment of winters that last as long as a geological era.
The foundations of our collective self-delusion crumble when summer doesn’t do what is expected. For the past few years, summer hasn’t stuck to the script. Last summer’s dreadful performance had me facing this winter not having fully displaced memories of the fresh hell of last winter.
The fur trader is telling me to change my tune, to get a new attitude, and get back into the woods this summer. He’s tapping into my faint memories of the carefree, happy-go-lucky child he represents.
The city-slicker is looking out the window at the third blizzard of the winter – incredulous because it’s only January – castigating me for moving back to the god-forsaken arctic tundra that is my hometown. He’s resigned to the fact that, because he convinced me to blow a wad of cash on a high-end tent, we’re going to be camping again, but works tirelessly to convince me that my Hyundai sucks and should be traded up for a BMW. That way, we can at least pretend we’re back in Vancouver when the mosquitoes start arriving by the billions for their dream vacation.