By Sarah White
There was no reason to consult the weather forecast, because it wouldn’t change anything. When my friend Jane plans to camp, she will not be deterred. As her camping buddy, I’ve accepted that once we say we’re going, we go.
The Friday afternoon we left was unseasonably hot. It had been hot for days, and the forecast was for continued heat and humidity with potential for thunderstorms to boot. Might have been a good time to cancel plans for living outdoors and sleeping in tents, but even so, Jane and I drove west, hoping we’d left Madison early enough to find a campsite at Wildcat Mountain State Park. It was the last weekend in June, 1998, and we had yet to learn about Wisconsin’s arcane campsite reservation system. As we left town in Jane’s van, with our usual gear plus my three-year-old fox terrier, Fred, windows down to catch the breeze, our conversation skirted possible sore points like the weather.
We were two forty-something nature-lovers who’d met through business networking; our friendship had expanded to day hikes and in the last year, overnight camping. Fred was an avid camper too, and our shared enjoyment across species delighted me. But today, Fred seemed out of sorts. Instead of sniffing the wind he hung his head over the bench seat, eyes clouded.
When we arrived at Wildcat Mountain, no campsites were left. “There’s a private campground on the other side of Ontario,” the park ranger said. Riding shotgun, I held the Gazeteer open in my lap as we crossed the Kickapoo River floodplain and located Brush Creek Campground. The low open valley was full of trailer campers, whom we scorned, but up on the ridge was “primitive” camping, and there we found a site under the canopy of an old woodlot. It wasn’t much—the picnic tables half-rotten, the outhouses likewise, and not so much as a hand pump for water—yet we were glad for it.
Jane started a fire to get coals going for grilling the salmon we had brought along. Then we set up our little dome tents and the camp kitchen. While Jane tended the fish I boiled new potatoes and steamed asparagus on the Coleman stove. Fred usually paid close attention to any cooking activity, but this evening, he sat near the campsite’s entrance, gazing in the direction from which we’d come.
Sweaty and crabby from the work of set-up in the humid evening, I couldn’t muster much enthusiasm for my role as sous-chef. Even so, the meal was good, accompanied by an excellent Sauvignon Blanc. Afterward we talked around the campfire a bit, and went to bed early when rain began to spatter on the leaves overhead.
That night winds and rain ruled the sky. Lightning kept my dome tent flashing like a strobe light all night long, and I rolled in troubled dreams until dawn came.
“Boy, never saw a night like that one!” I greeted Jane as Fred and I emerged from our tent in the soggy morning.
She replied, “A river formed right under my tent. Everything in it is wet.”
I made breakfast while Jane strung a clothesline and hung her wet things to dry. After breakfast we drove over to Wildcat Mountain to hike its nature trails. We saw dozens of campers at the picnic ground there, spreading their bedding in the sun, stretching out to catch some sleep. With gear and sleepers everywhere, it looked like a rock festival. Clearly we weren’t the only ones to pass the night uncomfortably.
“Maybe some campers will give up after last night. Do you want to check if a campsite has opened up here at Wildcat?” Jane asked.
I thought about the work of packing up our damp stuff, hauling it over to Wildcat, and setting up camp all over again. I was already sweating from the sticky morning, and we hadn’t even started hiking yet. “Not worth it,” I replied, and Jane let the suggestion drop.
Tired from the restless night, neither of us could find our usual peace and pleasure in nature that day. The sky remained white. The hiking trail we chose was muggy, buggy and new growth of invasive species testified to flooding the previous season.
The afternoon was a repeat of the previous day’s heat and humidity, but we never turned on the car radio to check the forecast. We assumed last night’s spectacular storm was a once-a-summer doozy. Besides, if we did learn more rain was on the way, what difference would it make?
That night I prepared supper, bustling from cooler to stove to make chili. Jane was restless. She went to the food cooler for something, then turned to me and barked— “You left the lid up. In this heat! Do you want to spoil all our food?”
I had only left the lid unlatched because I was still moving food in and out.
“It’s not going to go bad in a few minutes,” I said. “Don’t have a cow.” It came out more snappish than I intended.
She replied snappishly too. I didn’t like it, and said so. We retreated to silence as we ate the chili, then sat around a fire again—so unnecessary in the heat, but part of our ritual. Fred stayed well back from the flames, panting. Jane pulled a bottle of Chardonnay from the drinks cooler and poured it into glass goblets for each of us, a nod to quality over convenience in our camp dishware. There was not much conversation around that fire as we drank and nursed our grudges.
When rain began spitting down again around 9:00, we surrendered without a fight and headed for our tents. But not Fred—he ran to Jane’s van, and stood at the side door as if asking to be let inside.
“No Fred, we’re sleeping in the tent,” I said. The stubborn terrier remained begging at the van’s door. But I dragged him to my tent and thrust him inside. “Good night Jane,” I said, and took my wine glass and went to join the dog. I lit my flashlight-lantern to read a bit. I heard the “beep” as Jane put something in the van and locked it, then heard the zipper of her tent, perhaps 15 feet from mine.
That’s when the wind picked up. And the rain too. At first I tried to read, ignoring the increasing sounds outside the tent, the groaning branches overhead, the machine-gun fire of raindrops on the tent’s fly. Fred huddled against me, eyes trained on the tent door.
to be continued….
Because this is a longish story, I am posting it in two parts.
I submitted this to a recent Creative Nonfiction contest, without success. Lucky I have my own publishing platform. 😉
© 2015 Sarah White