Car camping is the simple practice of packing way too much gear, way too much food and beer, and not enough ice to then sit in the great outdoors with friends and family. The farthest likely distance from your car to your bed is one hundred feet. I say car camping to distinguish the activity from backpacking, where you will feel every pound of the necessary gear, food, and drink.
It is quite common at federal and state parks and campsites to have some reserved space and ‘first come, first served’ sites. Elizabeth Furnace Recreational Area is one such campsite.
Setting Up Camp
Our group would have four families with a collective nine children needing to claim enough sites to survive the weekend without being completely on top of one another so three of us went a day early with the hope to hold three sites. Checking in was simple: cash in the envelope, provide a few details about the future happy campers, and tuck it all into the ‘checking-in’ lock box.
Tents pitched, fire lit, Scotch cleverly disguised as ‘a soft drink in a mug’ we found ourselves boiling water for our dinner. One of our friends had brought a set of backpacking meals to try them out. For those unfamiliar backpacking meals are high calorie, freeze-dried food that are shelf stable for decades. You simply rip the top off, remove any sauce packets or similar accoutrements, add hot water, reseal for 10 minutes to allow for rehydration, then eat.
As we waited for our burrito filling to rehydrate I learned a valuable tip for surviving the wilderness that I will now share with you. A fella camping with us had brought his wife for two overnights in hammock tents, meaning they were sleeping separately. This particular trip was in black bear country. Black bears are on the Yogi bear end of the bear-human interaction spectrum: they will absolutely steal your food and occasionally murder a Jellystone tourist. The first night she heard a bear outside her tent. Perhaps even two or three.
Given the ursus caucus in her campsite she didn’t sleep well that night. She awoke to a well rested, unsympathetic husband who explained the noises couldn’t possible have been a bear or three. It was likely just the wind, or a squirrel, or a large spider. That night before going to bed he offered her a set of earplugs to help her sleep. What he meant to say is “so you don’t hear the innocent forest creatures.” What he actually said is ” so you don’t hear the bears.”
And so, mug in hand, bag of spicy-flavored bean and potato paste in my lap, the sun set on our first day camping. In the twilight that came after we saw a bus come through and pull into the nearby trail hiking lot. We refilled our mugs and drifted into conversation about recent events and the books we were using to hide from them. They told a story from their most recent camping trip nearby.
They were off to sleep for the night, a significant amount of bourbon later, when two men ran through their campsite between them. Only one friend saw this, the other claims to this day it was just a dream. These men were illuminated by the torches they were carrying. Not ‘torches’ in the British sense of the word. Lord of the Rings torches. They were wearing cross country running gear: running shoes, short shorts, and tank tops. As we began to joke about the implications of such a dream, the bus pulled away from the nearby parking lot.
Slowly twilight became night. The forest creatures were settling into their symphony competing with the crackling fire in front of us. I began to hear the Skyrim theme song in my mind. If you are unfamiliar imagine something between the haka and an 80’s karate movie’s dojo scene backed by a very enthusiastic percussionist. As I began to doubt the source of the song one of my companions exclaimed “What the fuck is that?” We quickly surmised that the bus had left empty. Now these folks were doing… this. Whatever this was. Their song ebbed and flowed for the greater part of an hour before quieting. The silence left an anxiety. Was this the ritualistic sacrifice part of the evening? You can’t carry goats on a charter bus, right?
We began to hear another song. It was the beautiful voice of a woman accompanied by a guitar. “I could go for some live music,” one friend exclaimed. I was thinking aloud that it would be fun to play some guitar around a campfire. Our third friend asked if we ever thought on siren songs. Nevertheless, we were soon following our feet towards the source of the music. What we found was not a campsite, truly, but three people with a two person tent. No campfire, no lantern. And so we walked over, hanging our lantern to shed some light on the situation.
Seeing their own campsite, perhaps for the first time in full light, they explained that this camping trip was a bit impromptu. They had swung by the store to pick up necessities, except they didn’t think about a light. They didn’t bring anything for a fire either. And the tents were right next to the children’s popup soccer goals when they were shopping. They had melted some marshmallows with a lighter for s’mores. We offered what we could to make the night a bit more tolerable for them. We explained we had heard her singing, and were curious. She expressed her love for singing as if she had just discovered it. They were from a small town near the Shenandoah, but she was going to start taking singing more seriously. How does someone ‘make it’ she mused.
I’ve spent some time around a lot of talented performers: singers, actors, musicians. I’m willing to bet that you’ve never heard of any of them, and that is a shame for you and them both. In my youth I had dreams like these that I invested in, but I never went for broke for them. In my late twenties my dreams shifted to raising a family, having a successful career. Now that middle age has caught me I think back to standing on stage again. I think, maybe, maturity is being happy with any-sized stage. And being satisfied that anybody came at all.
How does one make it? More than likely it starts with a lot of work to develop talent at the cost of other things in your life. Go for broke, keep working at it, look for opportunity, get really lucky. If you can pull that off, you just might make it. It’s not good advice, but it’s all the advice I’ve got. I can also say, with some certainty, that polling random campers chasing siren songs probably isn’t the way.
One of her friends gestured towards my Fender shirt, nodding an acknowledgement of it. “Give him the guitar. He knows what’s up,” he said to his friend as a matter of fact. There is a certain absurdity of estimating folks qualifications based on their t-shirt advertising, but this what drew me more than the singer or the song. I wanted to play.
There had been a time in my life early in high school where most folks I knew played a little, and we’d sit passing a guitar around showing the little bits we had learned since last time. It has become more and more rare to the point where now I’m not sure I could get two people in a room who can strum a chord. I’ve found there are two directions you can go when playing for other folks: you can play a song they know and catch their attention, or you can play a song they need to hear and hope they pay attention. I opted for the latter playing some Benjamin Booker because I think most folks still need to hear him. We passed the guitar around playing songs, playing licks. It felt a bit like being back in high school.
The conversation turned back to making it. People were telling our singer that she had a voice like Dolly Parton, and she belted a perfect ‘I Will Always Love You’. The friend originally drawn to the voice asked if she could do ‘Jolene’. Our singer said she had never heard of her, but she would look her up. That admission broke the siren’s spell, and my friend just walked away from the campsite to head back to our own. We excused ourselves under the guise of checking on our friend and caught up to him mumbling to himself, “never heard of Jolene. It’s Dolly’s song!”
As we returned to our own campsite we saw a long string of lights walking the ridge road nearby the campsite. Someone wondered aloud where the cultists were going. “Probably to run through backpackers campsites,” I guessed. We soon retired, each to our own tents. I wore earplugs that night so that I couldn’t hear the bears.