Camping Alone

At the campgrounds I would see people setting up their sites. They would string clotheslines between the trees. They would make a place for food and a place for supplies. Vehicles were parked specifically and purposely. There were special items, too. A table cloth for the picnic table and a cooler for the beer. A camp stove to heat meals, or a pan to put over the fire.

2013-06-03 17.43.09A lot of family camping seems to be about creating a new space to live in. It brings with it all the fun and challenge of moving into a new home, without a lot of the expensive downsides. You get to rearrange your limited furniture in the most pleasing way. You get to discover the best way to cook in your new kitchen, assign chores to family members for taking out the trash and doing the dishes. You get to make yourself a comfortable bed from scratch.

Unlike a typical home or apartment that is filled with walls and floors and pipes that you can’t fully see or understand, your campground home is one you build yourself. You take a rolled up collection of tent fabric and make it into a bedroom. You find a path to the outhouse and make it into your hallway. An ordinary wooden picnic table transforms into a kitchen. A piles of logs and matches becomes a stove. Setting up a campsite is like being your own fairy godmother, taking a pumpkin and making a carriage.

There is accomplishment clearly, but there is also control.

Every piece of your camp-home is something you created, and is therefore something you can remove. At home you may not like your kitchen sink, but a replacement is costly and time-consuming and requires a professional. At the campsite your sink is a rubber tub. If you don’t like your rubber tub, you can go to the home department of any number of stores and pick up a different one. Problem solved. The sink has been replaced.

But it’s not like that when you’re camping alone and camping for convenience. When I was camping on the road, I was never trying to build a home. I was barely building a hotel room. I didn’t want to set out a clothes line or table cloth. I wanted to do as little as was required to have a comfortable evening, then pack it all up again as fast as possible in the morning. Camping wasn’t an adventure, it was a nuisance.

Fire - postedI didn’t have the typical social aspect to my camping either. There were plenty of times when I was alone or mostly alone in a campground. I didn’t sit around a campfire with a group of friends trading stories. When I did bother to make a fire I was always trying to time it to burn out around sunset anyway, since I would much rather get into my tent early than stay up late waiting for the coals to die down.

I’m sure it would have been different had I planned to stay in any one spot for longer. Perhaps I would have set up shop and made more friends. But almost all of my camping stops were one night only. And when I really stop to think about it, I didn’t want to set up a home because I already had one. My car had become my home. That’s where I kept my things and spent my time. It’s what stayed the same whether I was camping or couchsurfing. My vehicle was the one unchanging part of my journey. The campsite was just some dirt to pitch a tent on.

______________________

The Tiny Town of Ten Sleep

I stop for the night at Ten Sleep, a tiny town about halfway between where I’ve been (Devil’s Tower) and where I want to go (Yellowstone). The first motel I spot is made up of cabins, but there’s no office to check in to. I call the number on the sign but no one answers. I pull my car out of the lot and go two hundred yards over to the only other motel in town. This place has a front desk, but no one is sitting at it. I’m looking around wondering how obnoxious I’m willing to be when an older woman appears. I book my room and ask if she has a recommendation for where to get dinner.

Carter Inn“What day is it?” she asks, looking at the calendar on the wall.

“Tuesday,” I say.

“Well then you only have one option, so I recommend it.”

The Ten Sleep Saloon, like all of Ten Sleep, is only a few blocks away. She’s tells me I can walk to it. I casually mention what a nice night it is for a walk.

“They’re saying we got a big storm coming tonight,” she warns. I decide I better take a coat and umbrella.

I spend an hour or so in my room before heading to dinner, and on my way out I see that rain has fallen on my car. I hadn’t been paying much attention and I start to wonder if the storm has already come and gone.

I cozy up to the bar and order the Ten Sleep Saloon Burger, since I’m a sucker for anything that’s named after the establishment. My burger is pretty good considering it’s just bacon, cheese, and BBQ sauce. FOX News is on the TV and the two young people beside me laugh at the caption “A New Axis of Evil?” when it comes on the screen. I start to wonder how much the ideals of FOX News match the political climate in Ten Sleep when a man asks the bartender to change the channel. Two men play pool behind me. One of them seems to be a shoo-in for the win, until he scratches on the eight ball. A man smokes at the counter. Credit cards are not accepted.

Storm over the RoadIt’s still a nice night when I walk back to my room, though the wind is picking up. By the time I’ve crossed all three blocks, it’s strong enough to fight against. I’m in my room for only a few minutes when the lighting starts, then the rain. The Red Cross alarm app on my phone goes off, warning me that I’m about to experience severe thunderstorms. I peek out the window at the rain and wind, and I start to worry we’ll lose power.

I’m trying to go to sleep when I hear an incredible, loud bass noise. It’s a fast vibration, like someone running a jackhammer outside my door. I hop out of bed immediately, terrified of what’s going on. It’s the door to my room. The wind is so strong that it’s pushing against the door and causing it to shake ferociously against the frame. For the first time since I was seven I worry that the room I’m in can’t withstand the storm.

I take a wash cloth from the bathroom and shove it between the door and the frame. The noise stops and I can hear only the wind. I take a moment to settle back down. My worry serves no purpose. I’m in Ten Sleep, there’s no changing that. The storm is strong, and there’s no changing that either. I just have to get back to bed and hope nothing smashes through the window. I pull the covers over my head just in case, and fall asleep to the sound of howling.

The next morning the sky is clear and the ground is dry. I’ve become unaccustomed to the sudden changes in weather the rest of the country gets on a regular basis. On my way out of town I stop at the local bakery and order a breakfast sandwich. The bakery was recommended to me the night before by the hotel clerk. It is, after all, the only place that’s open for breakfast on Wednesdays.

Scenes from Ithaca

Cool Aunt JennySun on the Water

“So where will you be staying when you’re in upstate New York?” my boyfriend asked.

“I don’t know,” I told him, “probably Ithaca or Binghamton?”

“You could stay with my Aunt Jenny, she’s cool,” Rob said.

“Would you describe her as Cool Aunt Jenny?”

“Yes,” he said, “but all my aunts are cool.”

Mai An

Libra and Orion’s Belt

It is baffling to me that dogs aren’t always jumping off of boats. I guess because it seems like they’re constantly going off in whatever direction they choose and chasing after whatever looks interesting. Jenny and Daryl’s excitable black lab, Libra, was quite happy on their boat. She walked along the open edges without fear, never needing the stability of the metal hand rails like us humans. Personally, I always feel like I’m about to fall off of boats. Maybe not huge ferries, but anything small enough to be recreational seems like an invitation to go head first into the water.

Sometimes when I’m on private boats I imagine a life of living on a boat exclusively. I remember a woman I learned about a few years back who’s been living on a sailboat with her cat for years. She travels the world, making friends along the way. As I sat on the bow of the boat, watching the sun bounce off the water, I pictured my possible life on a boat. I would give away all my possessions – save for the ones that could fit inside. I would travel from port to port. I would stay where it was sunny and warm all year round. Jenny told me it’s possible to take a boat from the Finger Lakes in Ithaca all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. That would be a real trip.

Provided, of course, that I didn’t fall off.

The Dock

The Best Compliment I Received the Entire Trip

The five of us were sitting on the dock in the sunshine.

“I’m driving across the country,” I told Mai An, a friend of Jenny and Daryl’s.

“Not just across the country,” her husband Kevin interjected. He had been looking at the route on my business card.

“Well,” I said, “I guess technically the term would be circumnavigating.”

“Damn right, Magellan,” Kevin added, taking a swig of his beer and smiling. I grinned from ear to ear.

Little Friends

As we were getting ready to leave for dinner, Jenny became suddenly preoccupied with the selection of tiny stuffed animals. She pulled out a few Beanie Baby-sized creatures and set them up in a line. She chose a small pair of bees and said they would be joining us for dinner. No explanation was given. At the restaurant Jenny pulled the bees out of her bag and set them on the table. When I asked her later what they were all about she smiled and said, “Oh they’re just our little friends. They go places with us.” And that was that.

Nothing to Do Today But Smile

Sunset at the Marina

Back in the boat I sat on the couch as Jenny got ready for bed and Daryl turned on some music. The light in the cabin was warm and dim, and outside the stars were shining in the sky. Daryl put on “The Only Living Boy in New York.” I laughed and explained to him that I had heard that same song only three days earlier. The singer/songwriter who performed at The Skinny Pancake in Burlington had played it during his set. Sometimes it felt like certain songs were following me around. Daryl asked if I liked the song and I told him I couldn’t think of a more perfect tune to play in that moment. Listening to Simon & Garfunkel, rocking on a boat in the Ithaca marina – upstate New York was like I was living in a low-budget independent film.

Ithaca from the Lake

Cool Aunt Maggie

Jenny’s sister Maggie drove me to and from Syracuse to meet their mother. Maggie and I ended up having one of the most interesting and involved conversations I’d had with anyone on my trip. We talked about politics and religion and agnosticism and the need to constantly question one’s own stance. We talked about how people view the world and how our own systems for viewing have evolved overtime. Maggie and I did not always agree on specifics, but we were certainly on the same page when it came to method. We both seek out people with whom we disagree, in hopes that we might ward off personal fundamentalism.

Lunch in Syracuse

Ducks

As soon as I walked through the sliding glass door of June’s ground floor apartment, she stood up to embrace me. “I’m hugging you like we’re old friends,” she said apologetically, “but that’s how I feel because I’ve been following you on your blog.”

Maggie, June, and I talked about our respective travels. When the subject of rock formations in the Grand Canyon came up, Maggie’s mother told me it was always something that interested her. “Maybe I’ll be a geologist when I grow up,” she said. June is 87 years old.

When we arrived at the restaurant for lunch I got out to help June, carrying her purse and offering a steady hand as we made our way inside. We stopped in the lobby to give her a chance to sit down and catch her breath before the walk to our table. June wears a nasal cannula at all times and her mobility is limited. There’s a frustration I’ve become familiar with that I think all of us are destined to experience. It happens when we get older and we stop being able to do things that used to be so easy. I’ve seen it in my grandparents, even in my parents. Sometimes I get a flash of it myself, when I see the way little kids run and jump in the park across the street from my work. The frustration within us grows as the tasks get simpler. It’s one thing to long for a time when you could cross the monkey bars, it’s another to wish you could still make it all the way to your table without stopping.

June offered to buy us lunch, and when the check came she produced a plain, white, envelope full of twenty dollar bills. She pulled out a number of bills and insisted to the waitress that she didn’t need any change. When I’m an old lady I hope this is exactly how I treat all my business interactions: with an envelope full of twenties and a tipping strategy that assumes personal abundance.

On the way back to Syracuse I asked Maggie if she knew how closely her mother had been following my travels online. Maggie had no idea. None of them did. I’m so happy we decided to make the drive.

Lucifer Falls copyParting Gifts

Back at their home in Binghamton, Jenny and Daryl cooked up the most gigantic clams I’d ever seen. As I wandered through their house, I couldn’t help but notice the shelves full of huge, identical mason jars. Each jar was filled with a mysterious dark liquid.

“What’s in the jars?” I asked Jenny.

“Maple syrup,” she said. “We make it ourselves every year.” She grabbed a jar off the wall and handed it to me.

“Wait, really?” I said, holding the syrup. “I get a whole jar?”

“We have plenty of it,” she replied. Normally I avoid souvenirs, especially large glass ones, but there was no way I could turn down a jar of homemade maple syrup. I don’t think anyone could, or should.

Buttermilk FallsIthaca is Gorges

There aren’t many cities in the U.S. that can boast a ten-minute drive between downtown and multiple natural waterfalls. Jenny and Maggie gave me a lot of suggestions, and I managed to visit both Buttermilk Falls and Lucifer Falls on my way out of town. There’s not much to say about waterfalls. They are beautiful. They are serene. They are the good kind of isolating. Sort of like the City of Ithaca, which claims the title of being “Centrally Isolated.” Sometimes it’s nice to feel like you’re in a city while still being miles from a freeway.

The first time I sat down to write about Ithaca, I ended up with a 2,500+ word monster. I edited and re-edited, but it just didn’t work. There was no central theme to grab on to. All I had was a collection of scenes – fantastic in their own right but disconnected from everything else. I guess some places aren’t about swooping changes to your life. Some places are about boats and lasagna and tiny stuffed bees. They’re about good people and good times. Some places are about being in the center of everything, and in the middle of no where. Some places are waterfalls.

Anger in the Adirondacks

I didn’t have much of a plan for the Adirondacks other than camping. A campground near Rollins Pond had been recommended, and I bought some wood at the local grocery store in anticipation of building a fire. By the time I got to Rollins the rain was coming down hard. I figured as long as it was too wet to camp I might as well keep driving and get a few more miles in. Ninety minutes later the rain had stopped and I found myself at a secluded campground on Brown Tract Pond. I managed to snag the last open site next to the water, and had plenty of time left in the day to enjoy it. Unfortunately, right after the ranger ran my credit card the rain began to pour so bad I could barely make it the four feet from the ranger booth to my car without getting soaked. I pulled into my spot and looked out onto the pond. It was beautiful. Or rather, it would have been.

Brown Tract PondI sat in my car and wrote for awhile. When the rain finally stopped I took a look at the sky. It was clear. And it was daylight. I still had time to make that campfire. I pulled the logs out of my car and got the flames going. I’d been practicing using a flint and steel to start a fire, but I wasn’t about to bother this time. Just as the fire was almost going strong the rain returned and the flames died. There were still coals burning so I couldn’t put the logs back in my car. If I left them out they were sure to get soaked and become unusable.  I shoved the wood towards the corner of the cement pit. I had recently realized the umbrella I brought was on the verge of worthlessness, and I made the executive decision that I would not feel bad if I accidentally set it on fire. I propped the umbrella up over the wood, but the sorry little bumbershoot wasn’t going to be enough. I grabbed the map of Portland, Maine from my back seat. The paper was a bit glossy and I figured water would be more inclined to bead off of it rather than soak through. I covered the whole pile with the map, repositioned the umbrella, and hopped back in my car.

I blasted the hot air to dry off, then got back to writing. More time passed – maybe a half hour – and the rain stopped again. I got out and looked at the sky. It seemed clearer than before, like this time it was really over. It was like those times in dreams when you start to question if the place you’re in is real, but then convince yourself it is. Only when you wake up do you realize how foolish you were before. That was a dream. NOW the world is real.

That was just a break. NOW the sky was clear.

I pulled the umbrella and map off of the wood and tried my fire again. It lit up instantly – much faster than I’d gotten a fire going all summer. By covering the hot coals I had inadvertently smoked the wood for 30 minutes. The logs were hot and dry on the inside even if the ground and bark were wet. I enjoyed my little fire, cooked my dinner, and started getting ready for bed. The rain never came back.

Once the fire was low enough to leave unattended I walked to the nearby bathroom to brush my teeth. When I returned, a large fifth wheel RV was pulled in directly behind me, and two people were pointing flashlights into my car.

“Can I help you?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said a woman, “You can you move your car, you’re in our spot.”

I was flustered, not sure what to say. “I’m sorry,” I finally managed, “but I paid for this spot.”

“So did we,” said a gruff man’s voice, “We reserved it months ago.”

There was some mumbling back and forth between the three of us. They had a big black dog who sniffed at me. I don’t like being around strange dogs. I couldn’t see much of the two of them, but I could tell she was a large woman with an imposing gait. Her and I shared a few more stunned words with each other before I quietly eked out, “Well, where am I supposed to go?” It had been dark for more than an hour. It was late. We were in the middle of the woods.
The man crossed around in front of their truck and walked back over to us. “I can’t move it anyway,” he told his wife. They were parked directly behind my car, blocking me in. Even if either party were willing to leave, neither of us could. I told them that I was heading out in the morning anyway. He noted that obviously there’d been a misunderstanding and we should all just go to sleep.

Brown Tract Change in Weather

I went to bed furious, especially at that confrontational woman with the oversized clothes. Rude New Yorkers, I thought. I had to listen to them bang around and watch them shine their flashlights as they got ready for bed. I was positive that in the morning they’d be just as surly and entitled and I’d demand a refund from the park. I had already been rained out, I didn’t want to be kicked out, too.

I woke up at 7AM to the sound of the man unloading the canoes from their truck. Not wanting to make what I was sure would be an awful situation worse, I started getting ready. The man went back inside the rig, but I decided to keep packing up. I wanted to be ready to move at the first available opportunity. I had been planning on a slow morning, and being forced to get up early angered me even more.

The couple finally emerged. They were very nice, very kind, and I realized that she was a rather petite woman. They were smiling and clearly not angry anymore. It was hard to keep up my own anger with nothing to fight against. I realized that they were probably not even from New York, since their accents didn’t seem local. They mentioned my Washington license plate and asked if I was on a cross-country trip. We were talking about my travels when their black lab ran out of the rig and pooped immediately.

“Poor baby,” said the woman, turning to her husband, “I told you she needed to go. I’ll get a plastic bag.”

Two young boys popped out of the rig, still in their pajamas. They looked at me curiously. The man and I talked some more. He was sad that I didn’t get to see more of the area because of the rain. He told me they came every year, and recommended I come back if ever I get the chance. When I mentioned I was ready to leave, he happily got in the truck to move the rig out of my way.

On the somewhat long drive out to the ranger station I went back and forth about what I was going to do. I wanted to demand a refund of at least half of my money. I was angry at the park for making me angry at those people. And I was mad on their behalf. After what was probably a long, late day of driving with two kids and a dog they had to deal with me rather than their perfect, empty campsite.

When I got to the booth no one was inside. There was a small cabin next to it and two old men were sitting on the porch. They told me the ranger wouldn’t be out for another 10 minutes. I explained what happened, and my frustration. I said that I’d like to know how I ended up in someone else’s site. I had no idea who these men were or what exactly their job was, but one of them said I was welcome to wait for the ranger. I asked him what he thought that would solve and he shrugged. “Maybe you’ll get your questions answered.”

I decided that holding onto this anger AND waiting around for another 10 minutes was too big an investment. I drove off, trying to figure out if I was still mad or not. I considered writing to the state parks department and demanding a refund. I thought for awhile about what I’d say and when I would do this. Eventually I realized I shouldn’t bother. The campsite was $20, and getting that money back wouldn’t be worth the cost in frustration. Ultimately, I knew the money wouldn’t make up for the real cost – how much longer I’d have to stay angry to get it. I realized that I could simply stop being angry at that moment. That all harm that could be done had already been done, and that the only possible benefit left would be a lousy twenty bucks, assuming I could even get that. And I’d have to keep up that frustration and pain for so long – certainly for the rest of the day until I could write up my letter, but probably much longer until I could get online and look up the contact info for the parks department. Realistically I would probably have too much to do in the next few days anyway, and would have to put it off until later, maybe even until after I got home.

The prospect of staying mad about something for the rest of my trip sickened me. The choice was easy. And turning it into a choice made me feel better instantly. Neither the situation nor the anger were ultimately out of my control. I still had the power to make a decision about how I wanted this event to affect my trip, my life. And I decided that it was in my own best interest to consider my $20 an investment in personal growth. It was the price I had to pay to realize that I always have the power to control my response. And in the end, the things that are outside of my control – the rain, the rangers – are insignificant in the face of the unending power of my response.

A Little Flashy for Vermont

Farm StillAbout two weeks before I was supposed to land in Vermont I got in contact with Jake and Michelle. They were friends of Mark and Connie from New Orleans, who were friends of my parents. Jake said that they were about to set out on a long vacation, biking around New England with “no set itinerary.” Already I knew they were my kind of people. Jake told me I was welcome to stay at their house anyway, he’d just tell the house sitter when to expect me. About 24 hours before I was supposed to show up at their door to meet the sitter, Michelle emailed me with an idea. They were camping near Middlebury, what if I met them there instead? I thought it sounded like a terrific idea, and drove across New Hampshire and Vermont to end up in Branbury State Park.

When I arrived, Michelle had just hopped into the shower after a long bike ride the two of them had completed together. Jake and I began to set up dinner, including some veggies I had picked up at the local roadside produce stand at Jake’s request. Michelle got back from the shower and the three of us feasted on a wide array of chopped up fruits and veggies. She mourned over a handful of tomatoes she had left on the dashboard of their van in hopes that they’d ripen in the sun. Instead she ended up with mush under the skins. Each tomato squished in your hand like a water balloon.

This was the end of their camping trip – the three of us would be spending the following night at their apartment in Burlington. So it seemed like the perfect opportunity to add their leftovers to our veggie feast, including some extra Indian food and scraps of delicious cheese. Jake kept offering me things – drinks, extra food, utensils – and joking about how he wanted to make sure he got credit in my blog for being nice. “I just want it to be known that I offered her a paper towel when you were in the shower,” he told Michelle.

As we finished dinner, Michelle began throwing all the dishes together in a cooler, insisting that nothing really needed to be cleaned since this was their last night of camping. I set up my little tent and the three of us wasted the night away staring at the campfire. It was nice to finally share a fire with someone.

The next day Jake and Michelle planned out their bike route. The two of them are avid cyclists, and they couldn’t fathom getting through the final day of their trip without at least a few miles of riding. I helped them clean up the camp and they gave me tips on how to spend my day. Michelle scribbled her suggestions for me for Burlington on a small sheet of paper, and they were off on their bikes.

Church FlowersIt was only about an hour drive between Branbury and Burlington, so I had plenty of time to kill. I began with Jake and Michelle’s recommendation for breakfast – the Three Squares Cafe in the nearby town of Vergennes. I feasted on french toast covered in fresh fruit, cinnamon whipped cream, and a healthy serving of Vermont’s famous maple syrup. I walked down the three blocks of interesting town that made up Vergennes and began to realize how disgusting I felt. When every night is a new bed, it’s easy to lose track of how often you should shower. I had clearly gone too long, and there was enough grease in my hair to prove it. I started to wonder if I would be able to make it all the way to the evening, when I would have the chance to shower at Jake and Michelle’s apartment in Burlington.

Undaunted by my personal feelings of yuck, I continued with my list of recommendations. After a lengthy stop in one of the most interesting museums I’d ever seen (more on that in the next post), I had made it to Burlington. Michelle had listed off several places to visit and things to do. I drove down to the waterfront, hoping to find a public beach where I would be able to jump right into the lake. If I couldn’t take a shower, at least I could get soaking wet. But I couldn’t find a parking lot, much less a nice stretch of lake access. I took another look at my scrap of paper listing the fun ways to pass one’s time in Burlington. I flipped it over to the back and realized that Michelle had written the words “No. Beach for Swimming.” No beach? Numbered beach? I pulled out my phone and started searching the map of the city.

North Beach!

Town MuralI raced up to the north end of town with renewed enthusiasm and had no regrets about paying eight dollars for parking when I got there. I changed into my swimsuit and piled my belongings near someone else’s empty beach towels. I always try to leave my things near other people in the hopes that it will deter any potential thieves. I don’t know how well it works but I didn’t care at that point. It was hot and I was sweating. I practically ran to the shore and dunked my head into the cooling waters of Lake Champlain. It was wonderful.

I floated along, watching the other beach-goers and excited children. I scratched at my head to push the water between the individual hairs. It had been hours since I first realized how much I wanted to jump into a lake, and it was well worth the wait. After a few minutes of floating and soaking, I went back to the shore. I spread my towel out on the sand and laid in the sun, occasionally getting too hot and jumping back in the water. What a beautiful day it was, what a much needed rest. Being covered in lake water never felt so cleansing.

Church StreetAfter changing back into dry clothes I realized I was famished. I had been so focused on getting clean that I had skipped lunch. I still hadn’t heard from Jake and Michelle, who were planning on going paddle boarding after their ride. I figured we wouldn’t be getting together for dinner, and turned to my list for suggestions. The first choice was a burger joint called The Spot. When I arrived I found a sign on the door indicating that while they are normally open on Wednesdays, they would be closed early on this specific Wednesday. I didn’t think it was a big deal and I moved onto the second option, a pizza place called Bite Me. When I arrived I found out that they were only just starting their pizzas for dinner service, and weren’t officially open for another hour. My last possibility was El Cortijo, a Mexican restaurant just off of Church Street (the local pedestrian drag). I found a decent parking spot and walked towards El Cortijo with trepidation. It’s not often one must turn to their Plan C just to find a decent meal. Fortunately for me, they were open and happily taking customers.

Just after I had finished up my meal I got a call from Jake. They were at the apartment, showering and generally getting their act together. I ended up joining them and a friend of theirs for a second dinner to celebrate Michelle’s birthday. After dinner the four of us walked down to a place called The Skinny Pancake, known for its delicious crepes and live music. Jake was excited to see tonight’s act “Joshua Panda and the Hot Damned.” Joshua Panda is a young singer-songwriter with a nice smile and the sort of tousled hair that only attractive musicians can pull off. The Hot Damned appeared to be just one other guy, and both he and Joshua sat in chairs with their guitars on the outdoor patio of the restaurant. Jake is clearly a huge fan of Joshua Panda, and he stopped talking the moment we sat down so he could listen to the music. Michelle kept poking fun at him for being such a fanboy, and the best Jake could muster in response was an embarrassed blush.

Not long after we’d sat down an older woman handed each of us a flier for Joshua Panda. She wore a long, white, see-through lace dress over a hot pink tank top and matching shorts. On her finger was a large ring with a flashing light on it.

Joshua Panda

“Are you his mother?” Michelle asked, taking a flier from the woman.

The old woman laughed. “No, it’s funny, many people ask me that. I’m his devoted fan and . . . spiritual connection.”

I looked at the flier, which was a hand-drawn depiction of the singer that honestly didn’t look anything like him.

“This is how I see him,” the woman told Michelle, indicating she had drawn it herself.

She wandered off, passing fliers out to everyone in the restaurant and being sure to snag people as soon as they sat down. As I sat there enjoying the music, I casually examined the flier. I realized it contained no actual information other than his name. When the woman returned to our table later, we got to talking. I told her I was leaving for New York state the next day.

“Oh! Take me with you!” she said with a smile, placing both hands on my arm.

“You don’t like Vermont?” I asked.

“Look at me,” she said, stepping back and holding her lace dress out to one side, “I’m a little flashy for Vermont.”

Endangered HallwayMichelle and her friend opted to head out early to get some ice cream, leaving Jake and me to watch the rest of the show and split a crepe. Near the end of the night I got up to go to the bathroom, and as I was leaving Jake said, “Wait until you see the hallway.” The long and zigzagging hallway to the bathroom was decorated with the sights – and sounds – of endangered species. The whole thing was painted floor to ceiling with tigers and birds and rhinos, and the sounds of the jungle played over hidden speakers.

When the show ended, Jake told me he wanted to go up to talk to Joshua. Jake runs a nearby ski resort and was planning on putting together a partnership with The Skinny Pancake where musicians like Joshua would play a gig at the restaurant followed by a gig at the resort the next night. Of course Jake adored Joshua so much that he suddenly became shy and couldn’t work up the courage to talk to the man. We left and Jake assured me that he thought it was better for him to talk directly with Joshua’s management.

Limited BenchThat night at the apartment Jake and Michelle set up the futon couch for me and I got to take that much needed shower. I never got to see their house up near the resort, but I had much more fun hanging out with them than I would have were I left to my own devices. And it was nice to experience the people side of Vermont. The northeast has a way of being so liberal it’s conservative about it. There was public art on the streets, but it was very precise, very intentional – never chaotic. I came across a bench that instructed me not to sit for too long, since other people might want to use the bench. It was a piece of public service so concerned with serving the public that it was asking the public not to use it. I think I may head up to the area again someday to see the famous turning of the fall leaves and re-visit my new friends. Until then, it’s probably best that my time in Vermont was so short. I may be a little flashy for Vermont, too.

The Circus Loft

I  knew the drive from the redwoods to San Francisco was one of my longer ones, and I wanted to make good time. I would be staying with Andrew, an old college friend, and I knew he and his Lady Friend (his term) typically had their date night on Wednesdays.

IMG_0764While I know several people in the San Francisco area, I chose to stay with Andrew because of the description of his home. He said he shared a loft with several circus performers. Andrew does what’s often referred to as a Blockhead act, where he performs feats like hammering nails into his nose and eating glass. He originally came down to the Bay Area to participate in a Burning Man Opera, and found what turned out to be a huge circus community in San Francisco. He said in addition to his loft, there are others in the same part of town that go so far as to specialize: a loft for jugglers, another for fire-spinners,  one for aerialists, etc.

Which brings me to the part of town Andrew lives in. If I were to make a Hollywood movie about a young kid who moves to the big city and can only afford an apartment in the “bad part” of town, I would dress the set to look exactly like Andrew’s neighborhood in Oakland. There’s graffiti on every wall, trash on the street, eight auto chop shops but no pharmacy, and it’s right next to the railroad tracks. From the upstairs window of his place, you have a perfect view of the subway train going by every few minutes.

My concerns about the neighborhood were not assuaged when I first arrived and right after our hug hello Andrew told me we should take everything out of my car. “Everything?” I asked, knowing I had an awful lot of stuff. “Anything you don’t want to get stolen,” he said.

Dinosaur SinkThe loft itself is part of a community of building that used to be an old factory or mill of some kind, and was rezoned to allow both commercial and residential units. Luckily for me and my car full of stuff, they have plenty of room in their building as a result. They also have free reign over what they do with it. Andrew showed me around, pointing out the extra bedrooms they built, the studio dance floor, the aerial hangs, and a few projects in the works. My favorite was the second bathroom, which didn’t have room for a sink. Instead, when you flush the toilet, clean water automatically pours out of the mouth of a plastic dinosaur to allow you to wash your hands. The used water drains directly into a shiny metal drain dish to fill up the toilet tank in preparation for the next flush. Andrew indicated that using the dirty hand washing water to fill the toilet appeals to their hippie sentiments. I think it’s brilliant.

Neither of us had eaten, so Andrew took me to a different building in the complex that hosts a Thai Restaurant. The restaurant in also the home for the family who runs it, so when we walked in, their 8-year-old son was playing in the dinning area. The place was empty and had a TV running “How I Met Your Mother” on mute. We ordered at the counter and sat down. Andrew told me about his life these days, living completely off his freelance work. While he still does circus performance, he gets the bulk of his money by dressing up as a superhero and going to the birthday parties of young, rich children. His Lady Friend does something similar as a Princess. Midway through our meal the young boy asked us in his most official sounding voice, “Is the food delicious?” He has a promising future ahead of him.

Andrew went to a movie with his Lady Friend, and I set up shop in my area, which was the DJ loft that overlooked the dance floor. I was told I could sleep on the couch there, or I could sleep on one of the Crash Pads. In this instance the term Crash Pad is both literal and figurative, as the large cushions are used for aerial practice safety as well as out of town guests.

I loved staying in the circus loft. My car was fine the entire time, I got to watch a man get his mohawk touched up, we talked about The Singularity and the sexual appeal of Peter Dinklage, and I woke up to the sound of juggling pins hitting the floor and a baby crying. No babies live in the loft, so I’m not sure why that baby was there.

Be Yourself, Camp Yourself

Depending on your measurement criteria, I have come close to solo-camping twice before. Once was a few weeks ago in preparation for this trip. However it was on my parents’ lawn, I had plenty of company (though by my request I had no help), and I didn’t have to start a fire. There was one other time when I went to Mt Rainier with my sister and her boyfriend, but they arrived much later than I did, so most of the camp setup and fire-starting fell to me. Still, I had other people eventually. So as far as I’m concerned my first true solo-camping experience was at Humbug Mountain State Park.

View From the Road

Humbug Mountain sits right on the edge of the Oregon coast. The campground for the park is in the shadow of the mountain, just a few minutes walk from the beach. As far as I could tell, the campground offered the only access to this particular beach. It was, of course, quite windy out by the water.

Being my first night camping, I was anxious to try my fire-starting skills. I have started and maintained my fair share of fires in the past of course, but usually not alone and usually using a match. A few years ago I started to get very interested in survival skills (though often more in thought than in practice), and I felt a summer full of solo-camping would be an excellent chance to practice starting a fire using a flint and steel.

I purchased some firewood from the camp host and took it back to my site. I was never officially taught or trained on how to start a fire. I learned by watching my father do it, and by observing how campfires work. I’d always heard the terms “tepee” and “log cabin” used to describe ways in which a person should start a fire, and generally understood the concepts. However I’d never used either setup. My method was more freeform, and usually based on the logs at hand, the purpose of the fire, and me treating it like an animate object with desires. “I want this log here now,” says the Fire. “I need more kindling,” it demands. Still, I felt like maybe it was time to try it the “right” way, so I began building my tepee.

FireNow, despite what most movies would have you believe, you can’t just strike a flint and steel above something reasonably flammable and have it burst into flames. You need your sparks to fall on something especially flammable. Newspaper, the most common campfire starting material, is reasonably flammable, but not especially flammable. That’s why I saved up the last several loads worth of dryer lint from home to bring with me on the trip. The sparks catch on the lint, which catches on the newspaper, which catches on the kindling, which catches on the logs. And you have a fire. In theory.

The flint & steel part wasn’t too difficult. It certainly takes some elbow grease, and my calves got tired of squatting down next to the fire ring for so long, but eventually the sparks caught and I was on my way. Sort of. My tepee wasn’t doing so great. The flames looked fine, but the logs just weren’t having it. After spending too much time waving away smoke and trying to get the thing going, I gave up on the traditional wisdom and went back to my old, haphazard style of arranging logs the way I think the Fire will find most appealing. It worked instantly, and the fire needed almost no maintenance the rest of the evening. In fact, it was a little too hardy, and I ended staying up late waiting for the fire to die.

Cooking DinnerIn the end, I did eventually start a successful fire using a flint and steel, and as a bonus I cooked my dinner over it. I suppose sometimes life is about trying new things, and sometimes new things are there to explain why you always did it the old way. As for me and my flint, we will stick with the old way.