Camping out near home

April 11, 2007

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It was the 5th anniversary of the Peace Fire this past weekend so it seemed important to honour this through all night meditations, cups of tea and quiet conversation while the moon inched slowly across the sky. There was even a tented swag set-up to crawl into when weariness overtook the body in the wee hours of the morning.

Beyond the seriousness of the occasion itself, the best part of “camping out “ was that it all happened in my backyard. It was just plain fun to be able to spend the night camping around a campfire so close to the house. Just like us kids did when we were young and a little fearful of ghosts and other things that moved in the dark.

Knowing a quick cookie run into the house is possible, a little courage (along with the crumbs) finds its way into many a brave seven year old’s sleeping bag.

Now, as I think about kids and backyard camping, I am reminded of a time thirty years ago where there wasn’t a backyard with a safe house within reach.

In the lightly forested area of Roan Mountain on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee and at the end of a mile long spur off the main Appalachian Trail, my buddy, Dan, and I, along with two others, set up camp after a day walk of easy hiking, kite flying and playing with the gods. At sunset, while taking in the beauty of a pollen enhanced red sky (hence, “smokey mountains”), we could faintly hear boisterous chatter coming from enthused boys setting up their own camp back down the trail from us. Most likely they were young scouts on a first camping adventure. Most likely, being off the main trail they were unaware of anyone else camping nearby
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Later, being a bit curious about who they might be, Dan and I set off towards their camp in the dark using only the light of the moon to guide us. Our intention was to just sneak a peek at their camp set-up and then walk back to ours.

Carefully darting from tree to shrub to tree so as not to reveal ourselves, we got, if not exactly on top of the tents, fairly close; enough to hear the many peppered conversations between the 20 or so boys.

Occasionally, one of the adult “leaders” would belt out: “Quiet down.” “Shut up.” “It’s time to go to sleep”.  Following these commands, there would be a few seconds of silence. Then, the first murmuring would begin and within the time it would take a marshmallow to burn, every tent would erupt in giggles and the rapid fire chatter of boy energy all accompanied with any number of flashlights wildly piercing the canvas of the tents not too unlike the search lights of antiaircraft gunners frantically looking for enemy planes.

Then, for whatever reason, possibly because of a boyish nature still resident in the two of us, Dan and I started to howl like wolves.

Big, ferocious wolves. Big enough to eat several boys at once.

Well, a star’s twinkle could be heard in the silence that instantly dropped down upon the tents.

Not one word. From them or us.

Little boy imaginations began to stir.

One minute passed, then two. A total silence with not a single flashlight piercing the dark.

Then came one very soft, yet audible cry from one very scared boy. Then, from a second tent came another cry. Then another. Before long the whole camp and every tent was flooded in teary, fearful crying. Between sobs were the words: “I want to go home.”

Dan and I didn’t know what to do. Reveal it was all a joke? But then the boys might become even more fearful knowing there were two crazy humans out there.
We slunk guiltily back to our tent promising to return to the scout camp in the morning to apologise. But when dawn arrived and we summoned up the courage to face the wrath of the little boys, when we got to the camp it was no longer there. At what hour did they pack up and leave? If it was in the night, there would have been no home to go to just 100 metres from the campsite. This was no one’s backyard.

To this day, I wonder whether or not I so ruined someone’s first camping experience that they never again have ventured outside the confines of their home on a summer’s evening to seek out the peaceful beauty that could be there for them on a mountain top somewhere along the Appalachian Trail.

Then again, maybe there is an ecologist or two with Ph.D.’s still searching the hidden caves of Roan Mountain looking for that elusive creature who is said to be half wolf, half man and who survives solely upon the blood of young boys.

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