Suburban Snapshots

And This is Why I Don't Camp

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

I read this story as part of an I Just Want to Pee Alone event. To see me struggle to read it live while hyperventilating with laughter, click here. I'll post the full reading soon.

When my two sisters and I were young, my parents would take us camping each year near the Catskills. I remember genuinely enjoying our long weekend trips when we'd spend four hours riding together each way in our family car-of-the-moment. The five of us traveled in a series of vehicles including a Volkswagen Beetle that my aunt had either loaned or given to my stepdad, a small Subaru well before Subarus were the "it" car for the Whole Foods set, a hand-me-down Pontiac that was once rear-ended by an elderly gentleman who insisted when he surveyed the damage that we'd been parked on a blind corner with our trunk wide open, a small Mazda pick up truck with a cap over the bed that served as the back seat, and — once my stepdad started doing well — a company Chevy.

On this particular trip we took the Mazda pickup — and don't envision the pick up trucks of today, with their crew cabs and comfortable suspension — this was the five-speed, low-end model, roughly the size of a toaster oven, with an added metal bed cap and no pass-through window into the cab, just two, thick pieces of tempered glass with three inches of space separating the cabin and the rear bed where we kids rode, bouncing around unbelted, arguing over who'd have to sit on the wheel well. My parents couldn't hear a damn thing that went on back there. It was brilliant if not even a little bit safe.

The memories of the actual campout are a hazy mix of campouts that came before this one; there would be the smell of coffee in the morning, of fire all day long, muddy dreadlocks and dirty faces, showers that cost a dime to operate and toilets that drew more flies than Staten Island in a heat wave. There was a general store where we'd beg our mother to buy us quarter parachute men or candy, despite the fifty overflowing bags of groceries sitting back at our campsite. In the afternoon we'd eat lunch, then snacks, then some more snacks before dinner. We'd play perilously close to the rapids until they got too deep or too quick, we'd drench all the towels and drag dirt into our beds, and sometimes at night there'd be a social event at the pavilion where I only remember country music and a rusty swing set that likely ran the local ER clean out of tetanus shots. Looking back, I'm sure there had to be alcohol, barely disguised in coffee mugs.

So for three or four days we'd swim and run, we'd eat, argue, listen to the adults up talking late at night and we'd wake them up before the crack of dawn. We had all the kinds of fun that people claim to be nostalgic for today, the kind we modern parents are sure will lead to contusions or certain death, if not kidnapping or Hanta Virus. Thinking about it now, it IS kind of a miracle no one died.

And while most of the content of those days has blended and the trips to and from the Catskills are an uneventful blur of two-lane roads and thick woods, one ride stands out. One ride has become a legend in our family. One ride home from the Catskills will never, ever be forgotten.

There were two adults sitting in the cab of the pick up. My mom and stepdad drove through upstate New York, maybe they were listening to Doobie Brothers, maybe the truck was as loud up front as it was in the back, or maybe my parents had perfected the kind of selective hearing that comes with having three children who never stop asking for things. In the bed of the truck, under its flimsy metal lid, we six cousins were jammed in like stowed immigrants crossing the border from the wilderness back to the suburbs. To ensure not an inch of space was left unoccupied, Saint, our big, dumb Irish Setter was also with us.

Saint had enjoyed as much of the barbecue and s'mores as we had, but likely with a higher concentration of dirt, bugs, and bottle caps. So there we rode in the truck's bed, sliver windows that cranked open like gills to get air into the tiny space where we all sat, circulating the smells of damp camping gear, muddy skin, stale pit smoke, and wet, dirty dog.

I remember that I was wearing shorts, and knowing my awkward, adolescent self, they were at least a half-size too small. I recall little of the trip before this, but I distinctly remember the moment that I realized our dog was shitting in the back of that truck, with all of us packed in around him. I don't know who shouted first, but I do remember my cousin Adam shoving me with his feet, because Saint's second emission had hit my back and rolled from my waistband to the bottom of those too-small shorts, leaving my backside generously smeared with dog shit. Saint's first pile was the one I saw when I landed hard on my hands and knees, my face so close I could analyze his breakfast. The dog was suddenly everywhere and we six had become borderline psychotic with disgust and panic. None of us could get away from him and his clumsy, confused maneuvering or his prolific hindquarters. Already the biggest of the cousins, I was now the biggest, smeared in dog shit, and being pinballed around the back of a poorly ventilated toaster oven.

I don't know how my parents remained oblivious to six children shouting hysterically and jostling each other violently in that four- by five-foot space mere inches from their cushioned, air-conditioned cabin, but neither our shrieks or movement could get their attention. If we'd been on a sailboat instead of in a pickup, desperately, erratically throwing our weight around, we'd have capsized and drowned, which in that moment seemed like the preferable fate. Instead we drove on, the dog seeming to shit for hours as we screamed and clawed away from him.

My cousin Jason cranked open the tiny awning window and started flapping frantically like a one-armed man paddling against the current, hoping to catch my parents' attention. Nothing was happening, the car was not slowing down. Either they really couldn't see him or they figured we just needed to pee, and parents driving four hours home, exhausted from parenting, and possibly hungover with a car load of filthy kids do not stop for a singular bodily urge. Not the human kind, anyway.

In that tiny metal hell, the hysteria continued. My cousin yelled out the window, "SAINT POOPED! SAINT POOPED!" in the panicked falsetto of all his seventeen years, and then more urgently, "SAINTY SHIT! HE SHIT! SAINTY SHIT!" The six of us bounced around our putrid aluminum box trying to avoid the turds, my smeared shorts and the confused, terrified dog. It was a perverse, desperate game of Twister.

Finally — for the love of all that is decent and holy, Jesus Mary and Joseph, if you get me out of this I'll never hit my sisters ever again — my parents pulled over.

If my stepdad wasn't furious he was at least annoyed, expecting to hear the word "tampon" or "farted" being whined out of one of our mouths. But I think once he opened the glass hatch of the cap and then the tailgate, the full extent of the situation made itself stiflingly, malodorously apparent.

I must have stripped off those shorts right in the middle of that mountain road, because none of us was about to climb back into that literal shithole in less than a hazmat suit. I'm sure my mom took care of all the soiled sleeping bags, pillows and clothes while stepdad walked the dog empty so that we could continue the trip home without further interruption.

I still see most of my cousins regularly and somehow managed to evade any unflattering, fecally-themed nicknames as a result of my unfortunate position in the truck that day.

And I have not since nor do I plan to camp ever, ever again.

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