Friday, April 30, 2010

To Plan or Not to Plan?

Ever since I've discovered the Casita Club, I've been a fan of the site (even though I've got a Scamp). Fiberglass RV is another one I like, but the Casita Club has a forum for solo campers and that's given me a lot of information and encouragement. Right now, there's a discussion going on about what kind of planning we do before a trip. It's been really interesting to see what people do--and it even surprises me how different we all are.

Some prefer to make no plans at all, no reservations, preferring to follow the road wherever it takes them. Some make minimal plans. Some prefer to travel only a certain amount of miles a day. Some, like me, prefer a mix. I'm not confident enough to head out for parts-unknown without knowing for sure that I have a place to park my camper. I certainly don't have a problem driving 8-10 hours a day if I need to. Maybe it's because I camp solo. Maybe it's because I'm a control freak. Maybe it's all of the above.

I suppose, though, that you can't completely escape the way you grow up and I grew up with a kind of destination-based camping. Every few years (because we couldn't afford it every year), we camped from MN out to California to visit the California Babines--so we had a very specific destination in mind that couldn't be changed. However, the route that we took to get there changed every time we went. There's lots to see in the West. (I'm not sure how it became her job, but K3 was in charge of making the reservations for us.) Camping was the most economical way we had to make that long trip--and our parents wanted to camp with us, so it all worked out well. These days, my camping is similar: I'm not living near my family and camping is the most economical--as well as interesting--way to get from Point A to Point B. Especially with two cats. And maybe, as I said earlier, I just don't have enough confidence to completely eschew the comfort of knowing I'll have a safe place to spend the night.

A few of the posts on this discussion laud the freedom of getting off the road and following it wherever it might lead, that this is one of the true ways to find adventure. There's some truth to that, but I think I disagree. I think that adventure is a state of mind and that you can find adventure no matter where you are. I think it's a matter of being open to what's around you. I may be driving on the interstate system, but that doesn't mean it's less of an adventure. I find that I'm also a lot more adventurous once I've dropped the trailer in the campground. I'm more likely to go exploring once I have a home-base established. Being a traveler or being a tourist and having campground reservations are not mutually exclusive, at least to my mind. I've had plenty of adventures, had many unexpected stops and explorations along the road, made lots of memories, but even when I plan to stop at a place along the route to where I'm going to spend the night, I still don't know what I'll find--and that makes it an adventure for me, even when I'm going back to places I've been before.

A certain measure of planning is essential for me, simply because the Scamp is the vehicle for the writing I plan to do in the near future. I want to write about the Babine's Acadian history, so I want to spend some time up in Maine and Nova Scotia. Someday, I'd like to camp the entire length of the Mississippi, from beginning to end. Someday, I'd like to camp the circumference of Lake Superior. I'd like to get back to the Pacific Northwest, where I spent two years of my life, and see all the places I didn't get to see when I lived there.

Somebody on the forum wondered if the discussion was a moment of "zen and the art of solo camping," which made me smile, simply because that's pretty much exactly what it is. We all have a way of doing what we do and it works for us. Sometimes we may not know exactly why we do what we do--or how we came to prefer that, but the discussion is always interesting.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Become an Expat

Back when I was doing my MFA in Spokane, I clearly remember sitting on my best friend MH's couch--and he says, "You have to hear this." He proceeds to read me this short piece and it was one of those moments where the world just goes "Huh. Yeah." It was an issue of Men's Health on 100 things to do before you die and Bob Shacochis's "Become an Expat" was #16. For years now, I've had that taped to my office door and yesterday as I was continuing to pack up my East Hall life, I took down everything on my door, including that piece of wisdom (which, I will admit, is slightly depressing). When you're a writer (and maybe this applies to people who don't claim themselves as writers), there are pieces of writing that are like sandpaper to your consciousness, roughing up the surface so that the finish will take better. This is one of those pieces for me. By the time MH read this to me, I'd already spent considerable time traveling, including a six-month study abroad in Ireland in college. What Shacochis was talking about, I knew--at least in a vague sort of way.

Here it is:

“When you teach grad students, those brainy, dreamy, slack-ass selves who have been squeezed through the educational intestine into the relatively expansive bowel of never-ending higher education, you have a recurring thought each time you enter a seminar room and scan the robust, nascently cynical faces of the whatever generation horseshoed around the table, receptive to the morsels of your wisdom: When are you guys ever going to get the fuck out of here?

And I don’t mean finish the degree, get a job, a life. I mean turn your life upside down, expose it, raw, to the muddle. ‘Put out,’ as the New Testament (Luke 5:4) would have it, ‘into deep water.’ A headline in the New York Times on gardening delivers the same marching orders: IF A PLANT’S ROOTS ARE TOO TIGHT, REPOT. Go among strangers in strange lands. Sniff, lick, and swallow the mysteries. Learn to say clearly in an unpronounceable language, ‘Please, I very much need a toilet. A doctor. Change for a 500,000 note. I very much need a friend.’

If you want to know a man, the proverb goes, travel with him. If you want to know yourself, travel alone. If you want to know your own home, your own country, go make a home in another country (not Canada, England, or most of Western Europe.) Stop at a crossroads where the light is surreal, nothing is familiar, the air smells like a nameless spice, and the vibes are just plain alien, and stay long enough to truly be there. Become an expatriate, a victim of self-inflicted exile for a year or two.

Sink into an otherness that reflects a reverse image of yourself, wherein lies your identity, or lack of one. Teach English in Japan, aquaculture in the South Pacific, accounting in Brazil. Join the Peace Corps, work in the oil fields of Saudi Arabia, set up a fishing camp on the beach of Uruguay, become a foreign correspondent, study architecture in Istanbul, sell cigarettes in China.

And here’s the point: Amid the fun, the risk, the discomfort, the seduction and sex in a fog of miscommunication, the servants and thieves, the food, the disease, your new friends and enemies, the grand dance between romance and disillusionment, you’ll find out a few things you thought you knew but didn’t.

You’ll learn to engage the world, not fear it, or at least not to be paralyzed by your fear of it. You’ll find out, to your surprise, how American you are — 100-percent, and you can never be anything but — and that is worth knowing. You’ll discover that going native is self-deluding, a type of perversion. Whatever gender or race you are, you’ll find out how much you are eternally hated and conditionally loved and thoroughly envied, based on the evidence of your passport.

You’ll find out what you need to know to be an honest citizen of your own country, patriotic or not, partisan or nonpartisan, active or passive. And you’ll understand in your survivor’s heart that it’s best not to worry too much about making the world better. Worry about not making it worse.

When you come back home, it’s never quite all the way, and only your dog will recognize you.”

This little piece has become my End of Semester Speech to my students. I tell them that the best advice I can give them is to study abroad. Not just a trip for a couple of weeks, but a semester, a year. Be in a place long enough that you have to go to the grocery store, "stay long enough to truly be there," as Shacochis puts it. There are things you will learn that you will never learn any other way. But if your finances or educational plan don't allow for studying abroad, the next best thing is that when you graduate, don't take a job in your hometown, don't take a job in your home state--even if it is your intention to return. You'll learn the same types of things by moving to a different part of the country for a while. And if it is your dream to return to your hometown, leave for a while, so that you're making the deliberate choice to come back. Don't end up where you are by default, just because you never left. Don't let life happen to you. Be an active participant in your life. I tell them some of the things I learned when I moved from MN to Spokane. I tell them some of the things I learned when I moved to Ohio--and thinking that there wouldn't be much difference between MN and Ohio and I couldn't have been more wrong. Ohio is weird, I tell them--which always gets grins and nods from them--it's a lot more East Coast than it likes to think it is.

But this year, I tell them, I'm taking my own advice. My life has gotten a little too comfortable for comfort and I'm feeling the need to shake things up. So I'm leaving here, after seven years, and I'm going to a place I've never seen to start a PhD program. I don't know what it's going to involve, I don't know what it's going to require of me, I don't know who I'll be at the end of it. But that's part of the appeal. "When you come home, it's never quite all the way," Shacochis writes, "and only your dog will recognize you."

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Dreams and Realities

A couple of things happened simultaneously today: I made some campground reservations, I sent an email to my father to remind him to cut a piece of plywood for me (that my mother will bring to me that will enable me to turn the front dinette back into a one-person bed), I got my daily picture text from my sister of my 10 wk old niece (C. is getting her tongue clipped today and I think we're all a bit traumatized by the prospect), and it's the last day of class for my MW classes.

Last Friday, my father and I did some catching up as he was on the road, en route to pick up their fifth wheel from winter storage, and he was excited to surprise my mother with it when she got home from school. "We need to get a picture of your Scamp next to it," he says, laughing. (Last year's picture of the Scamp next to their previous camper, a 24' travel trailer, still makes us laugh. Putting the Scamp next to their 33' fifth wheel will likely amuse us for years to come. Even more exciting than the prospect of their behemoth in their driveway, my father was excited to see if his knife-holder-contraption that he built (the Babine Tinkering Gene kicking in) would work the way he envisioned it. (It did--and there's no better feeling than that.)

And as we talked, he mused about how we could fit my sister K2, my brother-in-law M, baby C, and our youngest sister, K3 (plus Marley the black Lab) into their camper. The couch pulls out into a bed and there's enough room for the Pack and Play; and there's probably enough room for a cot for K3.

"C. can sleep with me in the Scamp," I say, something I've been dreaming about doing since I learned of her existence, back when she was the size of a lima bean, back before we knew if she was a girl or a boy. I had dreams of making the front dinette flexible enough to turn back into a bed if need be and I had dreams of taking my little niece or nephew camping. Of course, only a little person would fit on that dinette, so once C. gets older, we may have to negotiate, especially if she inherits the Babine Height Gene (rather than my mother's height). I did learn during this conversation, however, that K3 has flatly refused to sleep in the Scamp with me as long as the cats are in there. That's okay. She probably wouldn't fit up on the front bed anyway. But maybe once C. gets older.

Last night I also got a very funny email from my great-aunt K, replying to the original email I'd sent her about this blog. To which she hit Reply All. It's impossible to fully convey how much I adore this woman, how much she's everything I want to be when I grow up. My parents are heading out to CA this summer to see all the California Babines (or as many of them as possible) and K. wanted to know if we kids were coming. I said we weren't. We went out last year and we just can't afford to go out every year. And since I'm about to cut my yearly salary in half, I'm going to have even less expendable income for long camping trips.

Even as I'm choosing to camp by myself, camping has always been a family thing for us. Both my father's family and my mother's family camped--and once my sisters and I were old enough, my parents decided that it was something they wanted to do with us. And even as my father's thoughts as he went to pick up their camper last weekend involved future plans that would involve the rest of our immediate family--as well as plans for July that would involve the Behemoth and the Scamp caravanning north--it's interesting to see where we'll build family memory's for C's generation. I'm hoping she'll grow up thinking it's cool to sleep in Aunt Karen's tiny little camper with the cats.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Come on in!

From the outside.

Looking in the front door.

The kitchen area. I have a two-burner stove and a sink, but I don't use either.

Bed, sweet, bed.

Built a drawer under the bed, to make storing stuff there easier.

Shelves in the closet, made out of PVC pipes and plywood. Sturdy and brilliant.

Shelves, with stuff on them.

Originally, the floor plan included this front couch that turned into bunk beds.

But that wasn't functional, so voila! A two-person dinette. With storage under both seats.

Monday, April 26, 2010

A Yellowstone Memory: June, 2003

A dark stretch of Yellowstone highway. June 2003. It’s not full dark yet, but twilight has faded considerably. The only light left is a narrow inch-high ribbon over the horizon. I didn’t notice much as we drove along in the dusk, except a car approaching that didn’t turn off its brights.

As we got closer, we realized that the car was stationary, sitting on the side of the road. Smashed almost beyond recognition. We pulled to the side of the road to offer assistance, just like the line of cars that had already stopped. Since traffic was not moving, we got out of the car and found out that the older couple in the car were fine. Miraculously, considering the state of their car.

But what we realized when we all got out of the car was the reason no cars were moving in either direction. It was a full-grown buffalo lying in the middle of the road. Even from where we were, we could see a pool of dark around its massive head. It was, unquestionably, dead.

“Be careful,” someone called. “There’s another one.”

Not another dead, we realized. Quite alive. The unpredictable tempers of buffalo are nothing to trifle with, so we kept our distance. This other buffalo climbed out of the ditch and made its way toward its fallen comrade and it was difficult not to project human reactions onto the animal. What kind of relationships do buffalo form? Were they were parent-child, siblings, mates, friends? Do they feel emotion? The second buffalo approached, then nudged the fallen one. Again. Harder. The fallen buffalo didn’t move. The second buffalo moved a little, then nudged again, this time using one of its horns, rather than the flat of its forehead. Do buffalo feel grief? Undeniably, yes.

One minute ticked by—clacks of hooves on the asphalt, circling—then five—confusion turning to certainty—then ten—do buffalo feel hope? despair?—and then the second buffalo left its fallen friend as it lumbered off into the now-complete darkness.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Scamp Food: Hoboes

My life in this place has entered the countdown phase, which, I’m fairly certain I don’t like. I’m t-minus one month now and the thought makes me faintly nauseous, even as I’m working on packing and stalking Craig’s List for apartments. In the last few days, I’ve made quite a dent on my kitchen—and I have no words for how good that feels. With the exception of the cupboard under the sink (which I’m afraid of), all my cupboards have been gone through, culled, and the stuff I can live without for a short while packed. Yesterday I packed up almost all of my tea china and all the pots and pans and cookie sheets I wouldn’t need for the next thirty days. I also took most everything off the walls—and you never realize what stuff on the walls does for a home until it’s not there. Something about permanence, I think. Like the packing episode I did a couple of weeks ago, the Goodwill pile is almost as big as the Going With Me pile and that feels damn good.

I also had to consider that I would actually have to cook in the next four weeks, so I couldn’t pack everything away. At the very least, I still have some Cow in my freezer (my third of a quarter-cow that two friends and I split last fall) and since I like to cook, not cooking for the next few weeks isn’t an option. But being a single person, I tend to cook several things at once, divide them up into single containers and freeze them (last Saturday I made sauerbraten, tomato orzo, and a pasta dish and that will feed me for a couple of weeks). Sure beats frozen dinners from the grocery store and it cuts down on the amount of trash I produce. And these individual meals make excellent staples when I’m on the road. I can put them, frozen, in my little fridge and they’ll both keep the fridge cold while we’re on the road (if the battery fails) and be thawed when I’m ready for them, which is really nice if it happens to be raining and I can’t cook outside. I tend to prefer cooking on an open fire whenever possible, but even if I have to resort to the microwave, there are worse things.

Hoboes are my main food source when I’m Scamping, wrapping up whatever food in aluminum foil and tossing it on the coals of a well-built fire. My experience with hoboes dates to the years I worked at camp during college and every Thursday for lunch we’d take the kids to a campfire spot, build a fire, cut up potatoes, carrots, onions, and pinch off pieces of ground beef, wrap them in foil and cook them on the fire. It’s simple, it’s good, and as an avowed pyromaniac, I’m always excited when I get to build a fire. When I make hoboes on the road, I always make enough for leftovers, since I never know if it'll be raining the next night.

On my third Scamping trip, I made the traditional hobo and I don’t recall what I did to get the package out of the fire, but gravity was not my friend and the first one (I made two) hit the ground and burst open. Luckily none of the edible portions met the dirt, so the whole thing was still salvageable, but my DNA kicked into overdrive. There had to be a better way. On my next trip to Goodwill, I picked up a wide metal spatula and something that looked like a barbeque spear—and so I took my wire ties and my duct tape to it and I made a long-handled hobo scoop. The Babine Tinkering Gene is a beautiful thing. As a result, I haven’t dropped any more hoboes.

The main food-related thought I had yesterday—as I put my food processor on the Goodwill pile—was that I could start experimenting with new Scamp recipes. Since most of my pans are now packed, I’m wondering about what else I can do in a hobo. I don’t take meat with me when I camp and I’m mostly vegetarian anyway (Cow notwithstanding)—so I’m thinking about doing some different combinations of vegetables (zucchini, yellow squash, tomatoes, mushrooms, baby corn, etc), maybe some sesame chili oil and a sprinkle of ground ginger. I saw a recipe for sweet potatoes and scallions that looked worth trying. Maybe some heirloom varieties of potatoes—bring on the purple ones!—and see where it goes. And it’s strange how I haven’t gotten sick of the basic potato-onion-carrot combination yet, but I’m looking to branch out.

Anybody have any good hobo ideas?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Meet the Groupies

Yesterday, Maeve woke up on the Evil side of the bed (in whatever hell dimension she lives in) and about 6:30, she decided that Galway looked like a tasty snack, so she attacked him, cornered him between my bedroom door and the wall, and when he got away, she chased him down the stairs and got her hooks into him by the patio doors. I've never understood how she can catch him, since he's half her weight and she can't jump. Still half-asleep, I try to separate them and all I could think was "in what world is it a good idea to put these two in a 13-foot camper--with me?" In the general scheme of my life, I wouldn't classify myself as a cat person, but somehow I've ended up with two of them. Camping with them has been an adventure, that's for sure, since it's neither financially or practically possible to leave them at home when I leave. We're getting better at the whole thing, but it's still requiring continuous adjustment.

Galway is seven. He's skinny, black and gray tiger stripes, has green-gold eyes, and a funky heart-shaped white spot on his back. He's neurotic and pathetic and has no spine to speak of, but somehow that just makes him more adorable. He's also got separation anxiety issues that date back to before I adopted him from the local shelter--his former owners left him in their apartment when they moved out, without food and water for three days, so he really doesn't like to be left. Ironically, instead of that anxiety making him clingy, he's very aloof. His likes include catnip sprayed on his crinkly toys, electric blankets, and small places to hide. In the camper, his favorite place to hide is behind the microwave or in my suitcase. His dislikes pretty much begin and end with Maeve, who likes to sneak up on him and bite him. Neither of them have claws, so when he actually fights back (that's rare), it's like a battle of the cotton balls. Nickname: Pacha.

Maeve is three. She's got Siamese markings, with bright blue eyes, and she weighs somewhere between ten and twelve pounds. She used to be my grandmother's cat, but that didn't work out and I couldn't send her back to the shelter. She's pretty and she knows it--and expects fealty in the form of effusive compliments. She's more social than Galway and will wind around your ankles if she feels ignored. Her likes include adoration, food, and making Galway's life miserable. She's cute, but she's evil (but when she's being sweet, it's hard to resist). Her dislikes pretty much begin and end with an empty food bowl. And silence--she can't handle silence and thus feels a need to fill it with her voice. Nickname: Maverick.

A rare moment of not trying to kill each other. Okay, so they don't always hate each other. They just do better when they're not close to each other. Separately, they're excellent company and add copious quantities of character to my spaces.

Proof of Maeve's evilness: here she's smacking Galway as he's trying to do his business.

Galway hiding from Maeve, by crawling into my tool bag. That can't be very comfortable.

Galway: "If I'm between the curtain and the window, she can't see me."

Galway's favorite place in the whole camper: behind the microwave.

This is mine. Any questions?

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Buck Knife

The setting is Yellowstone, June 2003. I had just graduated from my MFA in Spokane, and it was a Babine family reunion. The Buck knife had been a gift from my father some months before and it had belonged to my paternal grandfather. My sister K2 had had her own Buck knife for years, a brilliant neon orange one. Mine was brown. The onion was a sweet Walla Walla, purchased in that place some days before. The crux of the story is this: the knife slipped and I cut a very deep gash on the inside of my left thumb. Realized later I nicked a nerve, because the area around the scar is now that strange combination of numb and ungodly sensitive. (I would do more damage to that same thumb over the next few years, but that’s a story for another time, but it's the reason I asked for a Pampered Chef chopper for my birthday, something that's going in the camper this year.)

As the night went on and as the bleeding went on, my father and uncles did their best to help. Dad and my Uncle Dennis both offered, in turn, to suture and cauterize the cut for me. Uncle Robin just handed me another beer.


Lunches when we were camping as a family involved a choice between peanut butter and jelly or meat and cheese. (I don’t think we’d discovered the brilliance of peanut butter and cheese yet.) Two different kinds of Pringles, which we never got at home, but the Pringles were worth the extra expense, because the can kept them from getting crushed. Pringles on sandwiches, we learned, was a delicacy few could appreciate.

We never had the individually-wrapped cheese for our sandwiches. We always had the big block of Colby and Dad would wield the Buck knife for as many slices as we needed, using the top of our red cooler as a cutting board. Inevitably, though, he would make the offhand comment, half to himself, wondering if he’d cleaned his knife after he dressed his deer last fall. It got the predictable reaction from his three daughters, no matter how many times he said it.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Today's Food For Thought

Flipping between CNN and Morning Joe this morning didn't offer anything terribly interesting, but once I scrolled through the New York Times, this article caught my eye about a woman renovating her garage into her home, a whopping 250 square feet of full-time domicile. I'm a huge fan of Apartment Therapy as well and these days, they're having their 6th Annual Small, Cool Contest, in which apartments/houses of certain square footage compete against each other in design and decorating. It's pretty cool and since I'm a fan of small spaces--and the creativity needed to live in them (and, ahem, to travel in them)--I've been stalking that site a couple of times a day.

But this article on a woman buying a home with a garage and choosing to renovate the garage and live in it (and rent out the house to support the mortgage) requires an unusual out-of-the-box type of thinking and I love it. It seems like small space living requires a more deliberate approach to life and I aspire to that. You have to think harder about what happens in your space, what you need to be happy, what you need to live comfortably, what you really value, and what you can live without. Whatever reason you might have for living small (or traveling small), I really like the idea about being more deliberate about your life, about not letting anything happen by chance (though sometimes that's kind of fun). Next week, I'll read Bob Shacochis's "Become an Expat" to my students as their last-day-of-classes speech from me. I tell them, make the choice to live your life. Don't end up where you are just by default, just because you never left.

Yesterday, as I was flipping through the Small, Cool entries on Apartment Therapy, I'm always on the lookout for small space ideas that I can use in the Scamp. So far, I haven't found any. But as I'm looking at these entries--and some of them are very cool, even though I can't imagine myself living in them (not enough space for my books in 200 sq ft)--I find myself wondering if I could be happy living in 350 sq ft. Or 400. Or 500. What's the smallest space I can be comfortable in? What do I value that requires space? (At this point in my life, I have basically four Needs: washer/dryer, counter space in the kitchen, space for my books, and a parking space outside for my Scamp.)

What do I need to be comfortable and happy in sixty square feet? When I bought the Scamp a couple years ago, it was a standard layout (Layout 1) and while it wasn't terribly problematic, it wasn't practical for what I needed. So, with the help of my father and his tools (I don't have room for tools in my current living situation), we pitched our creativity against the problem--both of us being descended from my grandfather, the king of tinkerers--and we changed the layout ourselves to this (on the lefthand side, with the front dinette). We built a drawer under the existing bed/dinette to maximize space (this is where my suitcase of clothes goes) and we constructed shelves in the closet that so far have more space than I've been able to fill. I now have a place to sit with my computer and write; the cats have a dedicated place for their litter box; the porta potty/Shop Vac/extra jack are in a much more convenient spot. I might have plans for one of the little cupboards under the sink, but it's fine for now. Obviously organization--and being deliberate about the organization--is part of that essential equation.

(Some people do live full-time in their 13-foot Scamps, but I don't think I'm ready for that yet.)

But there's also an element of out-of-the-box thinking required by small space living (and small space travel) here that's kind of like a drug to me. I blame my DNA. We Babines love to build stuff and we’re practical builders, not artisans (for all that we take a lot of pride in our work). That’s not to say that art can’t be useful. What we build may not be all that attractive, but it suits our needs exactly, and it’s built well. We don’t do anything halfway, though what constitutes “halfway” differs from Babine to Babine. It’s why even though the front dinette may more impressive and the drawer underneath the bed is more clever, it’s the shelving system in the closet made of PVC that’s my favorite of all the tinkering we did. And the travel-sized Kleenex box holder made of Plexiglass that Dad made years ago (we had one in each of our cars when I was growing up) that I velcroed to the underside of my camper cabinets was supremely satisfying. Go figure.

We used to joke that our grandparents would trade in their Class A motorhome every couple of years, once Grandpa ran out of things to tinker with. I think my father has fallen into the same mode, having just traded in their 24' travel trailer for a 33' fifth wheel. There isn't much in our world that can't be solved by duct tape and Velcro.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Veritas Caput

Itasca State Park is everything that is right with the world. The root of its name, veritas caput, Latin for “true head,” the name taking the last three letters of the first word and the first two letters of the second word, marks more than the headwaters of the Mississippi River in northern Minnesota. Driving in, the very narrow, winding Main Park Drive, would seem to be just fine if you’re in a single vehicle, but towing anything—say, a 13-foot Scamp—you’ll feel every little bump. The speed limit here is 30 mph and you won’t feel like driving much faster than that.

For me, Itasca is symbolic as well as literal. I get the same feeling anywhere I drive in Hubbard County, if it’s driving Hwy 34 towards Park Rapids and Nevis, if I’m driving Hwy 13 to my grandparents’ Cabin, if I’m driving Hwy 87 or Hwy 11 or Hwy 6. It’s more than feeling like I’m home. But when I’m away, I never feel like my lungs fully inflate and then I get back here and all I can think is that I can finally breathe.

The world here is green and it isn’t so much the variety of colors of green that make Itasca—and northern Minnesota, for that matter—what it is. It’s the textures of green, from the lace of the ferns to the spikes of pine needles to the poison ivy leaves at your ankles to the birch leaves overhead. But green in Minnesota is more than a color and even more than a texture. Green becomes the color of light, it becomes the taste in your mouth when you wake up in the morning and step outside your camper, it becomes a sound. You might be able to discern the individual sounds of wind in the leaves and loon calls, but together the sound is simply green. Green is what you wrap yourself in when you go to sleep, regardless of the actual color of your bedding, green is the warmth of the electric blanket, the cool and damp of the air coming in through the window that’s cracked over your head. Green is what you sprinkle over your morning cereal, what you add to your coffee or tea to add a little spunk. And when you leave, green becomes the color of the shadow that follows you home.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Ode to the Maritime Mist

I'm one of those annoying people kindly referred to as A Morning Person. Sometimes it takes a little caffeine to get me going, but I would much rather get up at 5:00 in the morning than still be up at that time from the night before. (But I only get up at 5:00 when I have papers to grade.) There's nothing better in my world than morning light, when the sun doesn't offer any warmth and it's the most wonderful thing to curl up in a blanket with a cup of tea and just be. Depending on where I am, that means opening the blinds and curtains on my patio doors, curling up with the green fleece on my couch or making a mug and hopping back under the electric blanket in the Scamp or making a mug and going for a walk down along the shoreline of Lake Huron, with the Mackinac Bridge catching that rare angle of morning light.

They say that smell is the greatest link to memory and I think they're right. This morning, in my office, faced with research papers and the prospect of two more classes turning theirs in in the next three hours, I find that my stash of tea is lower than I thought it was. It's getting towards the end of the semester, after all. Yesterday I finished up the Earl Grey I had in the drawer and I'm almost out of Assam. I open the tin of Maritime Mist and I have enough left for one mug. Better than nothing. So I fire up the electric kettle, pour the tea into the strainer and shake out the dust.

This tea is the best tea in the world. I first discovered it up in Kalamazoo, Michigan on a road trip with my friend AMR and her husband FDR to see our friends G. and M., who had moved there the year before. We'd gone out for breakfast and and on the way out of the restaurant, there was a little gift shop type alcove and like a magnet, I found the tea first. The company is called Great Lakes Tea and Spice and they sell not only tea but spices too (ironic, right, considering their name?) but I smelled the Maritime Mist and immediately called AMR over: "You HAVE to smell this!" I've been a fan of Earl Grey for a while, but this Earl Grey Creme is on another planet of wonder. I don't know what they add to it to give it the creamy flavor, but it's incredible. I also made the mistake of sniffing the Organic Sunburst Ginger too closely and those of you who've gotten too close to ginger know what I'm talking about. But that tea is amazing as well.

As much as I like supporting small, independent businesses, I have had to bow to the practicality of price. It's a little spendy to buy it from Great Lakes. But one day, my sisters told me that Teavana sells the same tea. For my birthday last year, they sent me a giant tin of it. When we're all together, that's the tea we pull out of the cabinet first. (Though our father will make disparaging comments about it. For him, straight Assam.) We like our Maritime Mist with a little simple syrup.

But anytime I'm confronted with this tea, more than any other memory that's associated with this scent, I'm back in the kitchen in the Scamp, on my maiden voyage. I'm parked in the driveway of friends, up at their cottage in Michigan. It's not exactly camping, but I'm trying to work out the kinks before I go elsewhere. Nobody else is up. The morning light is thin and yellow through my curtains. I boil the water, make my tea, and I take my tea, my book, and my blanket to the lake side of the house and sit there for a while, absorbing the morning through my palms, cupped around my mug. It's been years now since that morning, but one whiff of this tea will always put me back in that spot. Since I'm moving in a few weeks and may never physically be in that place again, that kind of teleporting is essential.

On a separate note, as a public service, after many, many years of trying to find the perfect travel mug, I have found it. And with the fervor of a new convert, I must tell the world. I got mine at Target (and then ordered a second one from Amazon), but Contigo is the greatest mug in the world. Stainless steel, double-walled, absolutely airtight, so it absolutely does not spill. It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.

Monday, April 19, 2010

On Needing to be Somewhere Else

This afternoon, I'm basking in the memories of where the Scamp and I have already been. And I seem to be that neurotic person who takes a picture of her camper everywhere she camps...

Mackinac, Michigan. Had the most beautiful view of the bridge from my campsite. The downside: it was very, very cold--and I didn't have my electric blanket yet (a lack which was shortly remedied).

"Hey, that's my Scamp!" View from tour boat, Apostle Islands, Wisconsin

My parents' driveway. Their camper is twice the size of mine. I just think this picture is funny. (They traded in this camper last summer for a 33' fifth wheel, which is nearly three times the size of the Scamp.)

Stillwater, MN (William O'Brien State Park) That's my mom. We're hanging out while Dad does a wedding. This is the first and only time that I put the awning out (not yet out, because I need a second person to help me do it, and Mom's not tall enough.)

Itasca State Park, MN (Headwaters of the Mississippi) Maeve got out here and I had to chase her around for a while. For a tubby cat, she can sure move.

Schroeder, MN (north of Duluth, MN)

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Trying to Look on the Bright Side

This week, after getting through four classes of 8-10 page research paper rough drafts in three and a half days, I come home on Thursday to my water being shut off, because the city is doing work on the water main. After the water is turned back on, we're under a boil order for the next 48 hours. I was warned of this, but that doesn't make it any better.

I try to put the best spin on it: I can pretend that I'm camping. Heating water in the electric kettle, using my dishpans, and pretending I'm washing the dishes on a picnic table somewhere cool. I could remember lovely mornings looking at the Mackinac Bridge, mornings at the Headwaters of the Mississippi, mornings overlooking Lake Superior. The power of positive thinking? The power of memories?

When my family and I camped when my sisters and I were younger, my mother came up with the concept of "days" to curb the bickering. Whoever's "day" it was had to wash the breakfast dishes, the one whose day it was next wiped them, and the third one put them away. (When lunch came, it moved one position: whoever's day it was next washed, #3 washed, and #1 put away; same went for dinner.) Washing dishes was never a popular job and this tactic only dampened the complaining a little. Except. Except for those chilly mornings when to have your hands in a pan of hot water was a little bit of heaven. On those days, we offered to take the spot of whoever's turn it was. We would heat the water in two electric kettles and keep warming up the dishwater. I actually have some pretty good memories of those mornings, mostly because they were so out of the ordinary.

I resolve to try as I get the electric kettle out of the Scamp. The positive thinking actually lasts about fifteen minutes. Washing dishes one electric kettle of water at a time is not efficient and my attempts to pretend I'm elsewhere were not successful. It's completely different to wash a bowl and spoon--or even just the dinner dishes--than it is to wash pots and pans, which I don't use when I'm Scamping. Eventually, I abandoned the whole idea, embraced the size of my kitchen that allows me to own a stock pot, filled it with several gallons of water and set it to boil. Still not as wonderful as clean, safe water coming from the tap, but it's better.

To quote the brilliant essayist Paul Gruchow, sometimes there are better things than verisimilitude.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Solo Woman's Camping Manifesto

It’s a simple enough concept: you want to go camping, so you do. You want to see the world, you want to see your country, you want to see your home state, and this is the easiest way to do it, you think. You went camping as a kid, so this isn’t a foreign world. You’ve traveled internationally by yourself, so that’s nothing new. You’re a single woman, thirty years old, who wouldn’t trade her solo life for anything.

As with the rest of life, reality is a lot more complex. But who wants a boring life?

You trade in your Ford Escape for a Jeep Liberty with a tow package. Your father gives you an extra stinger he has no use for. You know what you want—a 13-foot Scamp, the camper you’ve wanted for years. So you stalk Craig’s List, eBay, and a few RV sites, waiting. You find a few, lose a few. But then you find one that’s perfect and it’s only two hours away. Thirteen feet, AC, furnace, fridge, the whole shebang. Before the week is out, it’s sitting in your driveway.

Everybody around you worries for your safety, some more than others. A few think it’s just a really bad idea. And for a while, you buy into their worry. You consider getting a dog, but you’ve got two cats already and a dog wouldn’t fit in your apartment. You download a barking app for your iPod instead. You think about taking a baseball bat for protection, but then realize you don’t have enough room in the Scamp to swing it to protect yourself, so you sleep with your Maglite under your pillow. But you’re not stupid. You know how to listen to your gut—and if you don’t feel good going to the campground bathroom in the middle of the night, well, then, that’s why God invented the Porta Potty. But after the first night, you don’t even think about this stuff anymore. You’re aware, yes, but the paranoia goes away, completely.

You feel like everybody’s staring at you as you’re driving down the road and you wonder what they’re thinking. You think that they’re thinking that a woman alone is ludicrous. There’s no way a woman could handle camping like this on her own. And that puts some more steel in your spine. You can do all of this with your eyes closed. You know exactly how to hook up your camper, level it. You know how to use your WD-40. You’re so good at backing up the camper that you don’t even think about it anymore. You know exactly how to build a fire and how to cook your dinner on it. It doesn’t take long to lose your nerves and you’re no longer nervous about being a solo woman, camping. Or a solo woman, being a tourist. You’re still cautious about safety, but not worried. And one night, in Bayfield, Wisconsin, with a view of Lake Superior right outside your door and 50 mph wind gusts battering the Scamp, you’re convinced that the more time you spend in the camper, the more that you understand that this is something you need to do to be happy. Obviously it’s not the sum total of happiness in your life, but it’s an important part. A really important part.

And then you start to mess with your Scamp, to make it more functional—because you know exactly what you want out of it, just like you know exactly what you want out of your life and you’re not willing to compromise that. You know that you’ll be traveling with the cats, so accommodations need to be made for them. The front couch (that would make into bunk beds if you had the right pieces) isn’t really functional space—and since you keep the dinette down as a bed all the time, you decide to take out the couch and build yourself a front dinette. It’s not that hard. Your father helps and it’s a good memory-making activity for both of you. You come from a long line of tinkerers, and camping tinkerers at that. You build closet shelves out of PVC and plywood. You build a drawer under your bed to take advantage of the space. And when you’re done, you stand there, look at what you’ve accomplished with your own two hands and know it couldn’t be any more perfect if you tried.

People will never understand why you do it, you finally realize. Don’t you get lonely? No, you don’t. Don’t you ever feel afraid? Not yet, you haven’t. They might eventually understand what compels you to travel, but they’ll never understand what compels you to travel alone.

They’ll never understand what it’s like to travel with your home on your back, that everything in the world that you need is hooked to your hitch. They’ll never understand the absolute joy that comes with stretching out in your zero-gravity chair with a book in the middle of the afternoon, next to a piece of scenery you’ve never seen before. They’ll never understand why you’re so happy, standing in your camper in the morning, deciding what kind of tea you want to greet the morning, then sitting on the picnic table and doing nothing except drink your tea and breathe. Even the things that don’t go right aren’t that big a deal. Setting up or tearing down in the rain? It makes a good story. The time when [insert story here] happened? Good conversation for later. How about all the leaking that the windows were doing and how much silicone it took to fix it? That’s what it’s all about, right? Stories and memories?

It’s pure, undiluted, absolute freedom. The freedom not to have to compromise in this one area of your life, because the rest of life is all about compromise. The freedom to get up when you like, go to bed when you choose. To do everything because you want to—and because you can. And if you want to just stay around the camper, there’s nothing wrong with that either. Even when camping alone loses some of the absolute, pure joy of the maiden voyage, when you try harder to establish a routine, where things go, how things go, just a general In The Scheme of Things Mindset, the feeling of Can’t Believe This Is Your Life never quite goes away. Maybe you love camping just because nothing else in your life offers that kind of feeling. This is what it means to really live your life, you think, rather than just slide through it.

Sometimes, when the Scamp is parked in your driveway and you don’t have any plans in the works to take it out of the driveway—because life has interfered with your camping—sometimes you just go in there, lay down on the bed, fold your hands behind your head and smile. This is what it feels like when you actually live your dream, something that’s been nebulous for so long. This is it. This is it.

Adventures in Scamping: The Beginning

At its heart, Adventures in Scamping is a personal philosophy that has come out of a dream to travel in this tiny camper. Live lightly, but live well. Good ideas come in small packages. One thing always leads to another and there is no such thing as a wrong turn. All of it feeds the writing.

I'm about to make a complete left turn in my life, leaving a full-time job teaching college composition to start a PhD program in a state I've only seen through the passenger windows of the Blazer we used to tow our pop-up camper when we were kids. I'm going there to study nonfiction and environmental literature--and I'm excited for how a new place, new people, new landscape, and a new culture will show up in my own essays. I don't know where I'll go from here, but that's part of the fun.

So, here begins the adventure: I picked up the Scamp from winter storage last weekend, I'm starting to pack up my apartment, and I'm surfing the internet for campgrounds. I've just gotten off the phone with my family and already I've got two Scamping trips planned for the summer. What I find along the way will show up on this blog: places, people, experiences, and stories. Lots of things can be found here, things that fall into this new Adventures in Scamping philosophy I'm developing.