posted by Jeff | Friday, August 15, 2014, 10:12 PM | comments: 0

I've been reading Roger Ebert's memoir Life Itself on and off for the past few months. While some parts are interesting, others seem like lots of extraneous detail that no one would care about. So while on a plane last weekend, I wondered how this flavor of narrative would go if I was writing it. The results are below. I don't know if it's something someone would read in a book or not. -J


I never quite knew how much my step-father made, and had even less context about how much that would be in context with other people. I never felt like we didn’t have “stuff” that we needed, but I do remember there being mentions of value when it came to camping. Ohio had quite a state park system, and many of them had campgrounds where we could land for a few bucks a day. In fact, I remember hearing David complain about it when one of the parks hit $10 per night. Whatever our income bracket was, it’s clear that camping made for a really economical vacation.

I remember going with my parents once before they divorced (before Jason was born, so I couldn’t have been older than 3). The standout memory of that trip was my dad comforting me because I thought I was in trouble for waking them up in the small tent. I remember playing with one of those toddler toys with the magnetic letters in that tent.

We started camping again after David and my mom were married. I’m certain that our first trip was to Alleghany State Park in Western New York. The massive park was actually divided into two parts, and the Red House Area was the better part for a number of reasons. The campground was hilly and heavily wooded, the road around the lake was designated as one-way, so you could freely bike around the inside lane. There was also a beautiful old lodge that had a little museum in it and a restaurant.

We only camped in site C-4. When you entered from the main road, you passed over a little concrete bridge and by the check-in station. Then it was up the hill slightly right. C-4 was great because there was so much room there. We didn’t start with a camper, but we soon had a pop-up, which didn’t take up a lot of room in the average campsite. We would always move the picnic table perpendicular to the camper, under the roll-out awning. That left room for us to put up a tent, a smelly old canvas thing, where we could hang out and put our toys. There was a tree toward the back, beyond the fire pit, ideal for chaining up the bikes at night and stringing up a line for hanging beach towels.

The real action was down toward the main road and the creek. Creeks there were not like those in Ohio, because they were so rocky. It was no trouble to find salamanders and other critters, and the water was so incredibly clear. There was also a big playground there, the best anywhere. They built playgrounds with big logs and old, giant truck tires. Again, the Ohio parks couldn’t touch such amenities. Even the signage fascinated me, because they used the big Century 21-style signs, with one slat of wood hanging for each item on the sign, and chain links in between.

When it rained, you could go into the nearby Salamanca, and maybe catch a movie. There wasn’t much to the town, but it had a museum for the Seneca Indians.

Camping was a bit of a routine, once the picnic table was in place. The cooler, stocked with generic soda cans of every flavor you can imagine, was positioned under one of the pull-out beds of the camper. Wood, usually purchased at the camp store for that campground, was piled neatly near the fire pit and covered with a tarp. The second camper we had required a hand crank to raise the roof, and I would help with that after getting the bikes off of the roof. Mom had a specific menu planned out, and it generally included packaged food side dishes that were easy to cook in boiled water. That water had to come from a tap somewhere in the campground and into our container. That was another perk of C-4: The tap was right there.

Arriving was not a relaxing process. David would be kind of crabby, and he would generally sweat a lot (sweatband around his mostly bald head), and he would be breathing heavy to the point where I worried that he was genuinely at risk of a heart attack. Generally Jason and I would be dismissed soon enough and not be seen again until dinner. We would either take off on the bikes, or take my boom box down to the playground to hang out.

The Ohio State Parks had a junior naturalist program back in the days when they were well funded. The naturalists did all kinds of programs to teach kids (and adults) about the environment and the plants and critters that lived there. The program involved completing a number of different sessions, and they gave you little patches, four of them to match the big round one, and I remember getting them all. I still have them, in fact. By the time I got the last one, I remember having a bit of a crush on the very young naturalist at that last park.

My change in camping agenda was, not surprisingly, well aligned with my age. In the early days, it was all about those playgrounds, or exploring the woods. There were no shortages of trails to follow. By the time I was in middle school, the emphasis had shifted a bit to meeting girls. I had no idea what the outcome was supposed to be, I just know that I liked pretty girls and wanted to be around them. I remember once, on a trip to a park near Zanesville, meeting Rachael and Jennifer and hanging out with them for a few days, after grade 9, I think. We wrote letters back and forth for a year or two after that.

One of the things that annoyed my parents is that Jason and I liked to be inside of the camper. Think about it though, a pop-up camper was like a blanket fort that you towed with your car, and that’s awesome. One of my favorite things was unzipping all of the windows around the end bed, and taking an afternoon nap there. It was so peaceful and the breeze felt wonderful. Sometimes I would put headphones on and listen to some crappy local radio station, or maybe cassettes, and soak in nature without it biting me. That was a great feeling.

In high school, I got into bicycling in a meaningful way, in part because my dad encouraged it. He was doing it as well, and we would do organized rides of varying lengths (some of which I did not finish). This meant that for camping trips, I would take it upon myself to ride where ever I could, even if it was outside of the park. There was one in particular that had a lake, and it was about 20 miles around. I got into the habit of time trialing myself, to see how fast I could get around. It was the first time I really managed to challenge myself in some kind of athletic endeavor.

By the time I got to college, I wasn’t much a part of the camping trips. I do remember one to the nearby park, Findley State Park, where I helped mom out to the park one morning (to get a good site), and followed behind in my car. David would come out after work. Mom decided to go through a beverage drive through to pick a few things up, and turning into it, she completely nailed the corner of the camper on the entry way to the drive through. It was not pretty. That day was the first day I drove the car with the camper attached, and because my stepdad wasn’t a great driver, I took it upon myself to back the thing in to the site. I think it was the first time I really thought about my parents getting older, and me being a grown up.


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