Mar 042015

I’ve only been camping a few times in my life. By “camping” I mean staying overnight outdoors, rather than just hiking and returning to sleep comfortably indoors. My first excursion camping was not the joyous adventure I’d hoped it would be.

I must have been about 11 or so at the time, probably in the 6th grade. My family was out of step with the popularity of outdoors culture in Montana. My father taught law, and spent his free time reading at home. My mother had once owned a cabin on Seeley Lake but had sold it, probably due to disinterest on the part of my father once they were married. My friend “R” had extended an offer to me to go camping with his father. R came from a “broken home” as his parents were divorced, and that situation carried significantly more guilt and shame than it does now. I was rather oblivious to his circumstance as a child, but in retrospect his parents seemed utterly absent in his life. At the time I knew R he was living with his grandmother and was largely unsupervised.

The offer of overnight camping was made to me during the winter. My parents allowed me to go. As I recall, there was little or no snow on the ground in the city of Missoula, but it was still cold and the days were short. I had a polyester filled sleeping bag; an older style that had square corners. I don’t recall its temperature rating, but I’m doubtful it was zero degrees F. My mother, to her credit, was insistent that I augment this sleeping bag with a down comforter. At the time I thought this superfluous.

So we disembark from Missoula. R’s father arrived in a pickup truck, whose bed I assume we loaded our gear into. Included in the journey was R’s half brother who must have been about 4 or 5 years old. R’s father made a strange comment, suggesting that we keep one of the rolled-up sleeping bags on our laps during the journey, in case of a collision. I still remember thinking to myself that the chance of that happening was utterly minute, perhaps one in a billion. I sat shotgun, with R to my left, so R and I would share this ad hoc air bag.

We drove out of town and proceeded up a winding mountain road. At this point the road is covered in compacted snow, and snow is covering the ground in the woods. I begin to become fearful of this man’s driving, which I perceived as WAY too fast for conditions. I began to slowly move the sleeping bag into my lap away from R. At one point we turned left, on a banked roadway. In front of us, parked on the opposite side of the road was a sedan. This vehicle did not create an obstruction to the truck’s path, as it was parked as close to the inside of the turn as it could be.

Instead of simply driving around, R’s father hit the brake. This caused the truck to skid, and gravity pulled the truck down the banked turn into the opposite lane. We were skidding directly toward the other car. We collided with the car, and upon impact R’s father exclaimed “God Bless America.” I think R went forward, and I believe he hit his face on the dashboard and bloodied his nose. I was not injured, as I assume I was wearing my seat belt and I had the sleeping bag in front of me. We all got out, surveyed the mutual damage and the adults exchanged insurance information. Thankfully the truck was still running and operable.

We continued on our journey. We parked the truck in what I recall was a sort of parking lot, probably just a wide spot in the road. We hiked into the woods, not very far though, probably only a couple hundred yards. We found a suitable spot to camp for the night. R’s father announced that we would be building an igloo to stay in for the evening. This sounded exciting, and fairly creative, and made me reconsider my initially unfavorable impression of the man. The forest had many lodgepole pines, and we set about cutting and gathering them in sufficient quantity to create a conical tipi sort of structure. It was not pleasant work, as I recall the snow being deep enough to impede movement. We didn’t have snow shoes. Eventually we built the structure, and we finished it by putting snow on top. By this time it was getting dark, and I was really looking forward to what I’d been imagining, which was eating a delicious hot dinner over a raging hot campfire, then retiring to sleep in this groovy igloo.

We did build a fire, but it wasn’t very good at warming us, and “dinner” was a quick snack of granola or granola bars, as I recall. But the bummer was only beginning.

At some point R’s father gave his announcement, rather casually; “OK Matt, you and R pitch that ripstop nylon tent and my son and I will sleep in the igloo.” WTF!! We had just worked all fucking afternoon building this cool thing and asshole was not going to let us enjoy it!

So we pitched the tent and got inside. As I recall, the temperature was around freezing. Thank goodness I had the down comforter, as I have a legitimate fear that I might have otherwise experienced hypothermia. I couldn’t sleep but for a moment or two, if it was sleep at all. It was a night of shivering misery. I was glad to leave the next morning, after a long series of gratuitous and unnecessary hardships.

I continued to associate with R in high school eventually parted ways with him when I went to college. The only other time I recall interacting with R’s father was when he gave me a ride home in his pickup truck on a different occasion. He took a left turn, and the passenger’s side door flew open! He had the presence of mind to say something like “I’ll turn right, and let centrifugal force close the door.” Thankfully the door closed. I was a buckled seat belt sort of kid, and perhaps I was responsible for not closing the door properly.

I was totally gun shy about camping for many years afterwards. It’s a demanding activity, in that a great deal of thoughtful preparation needs to go into it to achieve an enjoyable outcome. In an environment like Montana, and especially in the winter, camping can be legitimately dangerous. It’s an activity that can turn into a giant bummer, especially if the leader of your excursion is a complete douchebag.

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