I don't understand camping.
There are people who live for it, their garages stuffed with tents and Coleman stoves and fishing poles and coffin-sized Igloo coolers, all well-used, immaculately maintained, and always at the ready for ventures into the Great Outdoors. These people frequently wear tee-shirts featuring clever slogans like "And On The 8th Day, God Created Hunting" and caps festooned with the noble profile of the mighty elk, or the somewhat less noble profile of the smallmouth bass. Construction workers, school teachers, corporate attorneys: whatever their profession, they are one, The Brotherhood of the Hiking Boot, their F-150s gassed up and ready for a quick trip to the nearest deer blind or state park, to commune. With nature.
I'm more of a Marriott guy.
Last Friday, we took the junior patrol of our Scout troop, mostly 12 and 13 year old boys, to Brazos Band State Park, for a camp-out. Mark, the assistant scoutmaster overseeing the trip, is a member of the Brotherhood, completely and totally at home in the woods. Mark is one of those rare Scout leaders who is as comfortable being around teenage boys as he is whipping up a cherry cobbler in a Dutch oven. (The vast majority of Scouters treat boys like mosquitoes or "primitive restroom facilities": an annoying inconvenience that has to be endured to enjoy the wonders of nature and the avoidance of responsibilities at home). He's an organized and perceptive leader: within fifteen minutes of arrival at our campsite, the boys had set up their tents (by themselves); two kids were busily cooking burgers for supper; and the rest of them were helping get the Dutch oven going, all under Mark's patient, watchful eye.
I stood by, swatting at the invisible bugs gnawing at my calves, watching the cooks do grave personal offense to the hamburger patties. Visions of e-coli.danced in my head as they prodded and poked the burgers with all the gentle care that Brutus and his colleagues showed Caesar: after a few minutes, they were less patties than bloody, ragged lumps, at once raw and charred. I watched, grimacing, resisting the temptation to take over; this was their camp-out, after all. Dinner was served in the gloaming, the dying light mercifully too faint to afford a clear view of what we were eating.
The boys loved it. "Man," one declared, "these taste just like Burger King!" Six boys blew through 18 burgers about the time it takes Usain Bolt to run 100 meters.
Most of the Brazos Bend campers were families, grandparents tagging along with mom and dad and the kids, enjoying the only semi-oppressive heat and only partly stifling humidity of mid-Spring in south Texas. Many came with those pop-up tent trailers, towed behind their pickup trucks. A few had larger, Winnebago-style campers. One couple showed up in a maroon and grey, ten-wheeled behemoth, which I'm pretty sure was at one time Reba McEntire's tour bus (this defeats the whole purpose of camping. Whether you subscribe to the Brotherhood of the Hiking Boot's credo -- camping restores man's vital connection to nature -- or my personal ethos -- camping is Discomfort, Pain, and Privation, designed to deepen your appreciation of the glory that is Civilization -- you accomplish nothing by driving an air conditioned Greyhound coach into the woods and watching the season finale of "N.C.I.S. -- Bayonne" via satellite while the kids cook S'mores on a Weber grill outside. Get in a pup tent, people. Quit cheating.)
Brazos Bend is famous as an alligator sanctuary. There are signs everywhere, delightfully cut in the shape of a gaping jawed gator, reminding you that alligators have lived at Brazos Bend for 65 million years, and that there is no record of a human ever having been killed by an alligator in Texas, which of course leads to just one conclusion: They're due.
A full-time resident of the park. They think we taste like chicken.
Brazos Bend is a beautiful place. Despite its considerable charms, the knowledge that you are sleeping with gigantic, carnivorous holdovers from the late Cretaceous Period is unnerving. I felt like a character in "Pearls Before Swine", sweltering in my tent, swatting at the legion of bugs Noah had let in when he neglected to zip the mesh flap, waiting for a tapping and the words, "Hullo, zeeba neighba."
Being a middle aged man who takes a diuretic for hypertension, Two AM brought the urgent need for a restroom. I headed to the cinder block facilities, roughly two football fields away from our campsite.
It was dark. Dark and quiet. Too quiet. There was an alligator cutout on the restroom wall: "Welcome to Brazos Band S.P. -- Home of the American Alligator!" My skin puckered, the way it does when you think someone creepy is standing right behind you. I used the facilities, splashed some water on my face, and headed back to camp.
It was dark. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement. "This is it, I'm gator bait!" I thought. My hands trembled as I awaited the horror of those awful mandibles of death.
It was an opossum. Opossum are the Mister Haney of woodland creatures, plodding and devious, untrustworthy but non-threatening. I relaxed as he lumbered across the path.
Wait a second," I thought. "Those things have giant rat bodies, and babies' hands, and creepy prehistoric faces. They're nocturnal, and smart. He's probably gone to get his opossum buddies, and they're going to come back and eat my face off." I spent the next three hours sitting in a chair, occasionally waving a glow stick, waiting to repulse an attack from the Opossum Horde.
Like I said, I'm more of a Marriott guy.