Thursday, September 04, 2014
Meramec State Park, August 22-24
I wrote nothing the whole time at Meramec. We camped, we floated, we sweated. Friday I camped with one of my five cousins, Lyle. He picked me up in his Sierra. I gave him a quick tour of the house. His brother had been here, a few years ago at holiday time. We crawled along Hanley and I regretted having suggested we go that way. Big Bend, Jack—quit forgetting about Big Bend.
Just getting my camp gear loaded into the truck I was sweating. He was sweating at work and never stopped. He must've hauled ass to get to my place when he did—left the mill at 3:50, down 70 to Soulard, fight the good fight along 64/170 to College City—I expected him at 5:30 but he got here at ten after. I was only a third of the way through a manhattan solidarity said I should have. But solidarity lost its good fight.
Once we hit 44 the congestion faded away and he drove in the left lane most of the way. We made small talk, I wondered if he could smell the bourbon on my breath. I was comfortable. He had the country going. At Sullivan I told him it was his call—he drove, he could have his pick of where to eat. It was the first time I'd been to Steak 'n' Shake since an ill-fated venture out to the St. Charles Oktoberfest three years ago. But this time my vanilla shake shook out within minutes and as I spooned that cold ice cream into my mouth—oooh, and a little whip cream mixed in—I couldn't complain about anything. We both got Frisco Melts. Our server's name was Ciara. I poured a pool of ketchup over and over. Lyle likes their fries. I tried not to talk too much about the future—that night, the next day. I don't believe I had told him that The Vonage was coming down for the float—or no, I did say I thought they were coming, that they had reserved kayaks. And Lyle was asking me why I wasn't willing to say I was sure they were coming if they had already reserved kayaks. Lyle doesn't really know me yet.
It's not far down 185 south of the Sullivan turnoff to Meramec State Park. I had guessed it would take us ten minutes but it was more like four. The campground is still a ways in once you enter the park. At the check in "shack" I said the reservation was under "Paley"—sites 108 and 110. The gal who checked us in said, "You guys are gonna be roughin' it." I think she was kind of giving us shit but also being a little flirty. I say, "You mean the heat?" "Yeah," she says.
I don't know when it happened. Maybe it was that brief downpour of acid rain in the the early Oughts but I have become one of the worse small talk/flirters in the world. So then I'm like, "Ha ha—well, I'm not gonna make any promises about Saturday night but we'll make do tonight and blah blah blah blah blah, barf." I should have been like, "I've camped in the blanking Mojave Desert, hunny. This ain't nothin." That would have been only a half-truth, of course. But I think that's what most people tell, most of the time.
We proceeded past the showerhouse and around the loop to our site, 110, the end cap—very close to what I would have called the check-in station but Lyle later referred to it as a "shack" and I really like that description, so I'm going with it.
He had borrowed a tent from his buddy in Covington, where some of our family is buried. I gave him a hand in setting it up but I had no wisdom as to this tent: an eight-seater reliant at points on a sort of light metal scaffolding. There was some trial and error. I'm good at setting up our little two-seater—Eureka!—but on a lot of other tents I must confess. We were both sweating already, it was a little after seven. He was set up, I was slowly going about mine—that was probably around the point we cracked the first round of Busch of the weekend—the first but not the last I assure you.
I did not put the fly on my tent. We were both under the gracious shade of a big walnut, flanked by several slightly smaller ashes. There was no breeze. It was low nineties and humid as Mel Tormé. Heat index 100, my guess. He opened the french doors on one side of the Sierra and we had the Cardinals going on 102.1 Sullivan—the game was broadcast from Philadelphia. It was nice. In the back of that Sierra was a truck width, three sticks high, of Grade A Illinois firewood—that stack was the shape of a burden assume, and endeavor lifted from one Minty-Meier and passed to another, who eagerly—or unwittingly—accepted it and ran. He's a teepee method firestarter, and he doesn't mess around with the sort of small-stick teepees I've trotted out there in campfires past. His thinking is, if I can translate: if you've got good, dry wood you put it out there and you set fire to it and it's not really any more complicated than that. So he had three or four good-sized logs of wood teepeed against each other, and then he was using sheets of the Illinois AgriNews as an accelerant.
I had prepared a bag of "smaller stuff"—twigs, paper bark—but I don't believe we used any of that until Saturday morning. Because he pulled out a blanking torch, like a real torch, a propane soldering torch—oh, and I didn't even mention the tikis he'd brought, stuck in the ground, filled, and lit. He was trying to get the soldering torch lit using the flame from one of the tikis but he had a little trouble at first. He had some sort of tip on the torch that didn't have a big enough opening—it's beyond me. He got the torch going soon enough and then he just sat there in a camp chair, shirtless, holding that torch to the middle of the teepee structure. He might have thrown a few shards in there, as kindling. Eventually the construct achieved its own unique critical heat and like a kid shucking off training wheels, it was on its way. We did not cook on the fire Friday night. We sat there for a little while and had one or two more Busch beers.
It got dark shortly after I was done setting up my tent and tossing my bag and mat in there. I cracked the bomber of Firestone Walker dry-hopped Opal saison and poured half into either of our two metal camp mugs. It was a hell of a good beer. Lyle loved it. I tasted grapefruit. Very bright, very flavorful.
Farmhouse-y. We talked about beer for a while. I smoked a Parliament—which he asked about, calling them "P-Funks", a nickname of which I am aware but had not heard in some time. Eventually he had one but to advance that far in the story I leave a lot out. Hell, I have to leave a lot out. I've left a lot out already. I'm torn between doing a general recap and attempting to try to tell you what really happened.
He was eating Chees-Its. I didn't accept any. Once that fire going it was really going and he kept dropping logs on it. I was enjoying myself. We talked about work, about our brothers. About our aunt and uncle who'd recently been through town. By that time it'd cooled down somewhat. I was back on Busch but at some point I drank a Maltopia—one hell of a scotch ale. I cannot recall if the walk we took to the boat ramp—cutting thru RV sites as we went, something I would never do on my own, or with B—was before or after we went and took us each a shower. I think the walk was after. We saw a skunk on that walk. We stepped into the river. It looks stagnant at first glance, especially in the dark. But it moves—quietly, below the surface. By that time of the night the dew point had been hit and any grass you moved through was as wet as a lawn in a thunderstorm. Lyle was up for anything and everything. Back at the campsite I got my tunes going and when Jagwar Ma was on he said, "Thing song is crazy." I didn't eat anything after the Steak 'n' Shake. I was worried about heartburn. All of my worries. We were talking about guns. They have a gun under their bed. I said I couldn't have one because my mental health wasn't all that good. And I will never forget this, his immediate response to this was, "Oh, fuck you. You're fine." I love it. I'm carrying that with me. My dad tells me to relax—but he's my dad. My wife tells me to relax—but she's my wife. Even Bobby, at pool league this last week, as I was fighting for my manhood (which eventually I lost) got right up in my face and said, "You need to calm the fuck down." And it's Bobby and Lyle, who know me less, but still know me—it's their two very similar pieces of advice that I'm taking with me out of this most recent week of my life. They're both right, of course. But applying their advice, that'll be the hard part.
Lyle kept after that Busch. I had my share, too. He said I shouldn't feel I have to keep up with him but I didn't want to turn in before he did. I was mesmerized by the fire. The logs he was dropping on it weren't cheapies! It was a hot, low-smoke, babe of a fire. The best since Spring Farm, which I talked a lot about, so much so I guess that Lyle, upon meeting The Vonage the next day, relayed to Pat that I had talked about the V-Farm "all night." Well, maybe I did. So what. I just said we could shoot guns there and play frisbee and drink Busch and hoot and holler and live a little, is all I said. Ha ha, it's late here now on Sunday and I want to make sure I say something about camping with my youngest cousin, who picked me up in his big ole truck and brought wood and crushed Busch and really really wanted to get into Fischer Cave. Who was enamored with The Vonage. Whose wife, Mia, is a sweetheart. Who loved the pie iron, who wore red sandals, who might be my best camping ally yet—who is my family, and my blood, who lives really not all that far away.
Highlights. I want to list just highlights now because this might be the remnants of what I have to say. We got to the float concessionaire rather late: 9:46a for a 9:30 check in. I hadn't even put my suit on yet. B and Mia had gotten to our site at 8:12, which was about what I figured but I wasn't quite prepared, I was still a tad groggy. I had just forced myself to get my business done at the showerhouse—that was stress enough. Lyle didn't feel the urgency I did. In all of the haste to check in for the float I forgot to bring sunglasses. I mean, seriously. But I'm burying the lede. I had not told B that The Vonage were going to be joining us for the float. It was a total surprise! And they didn't know that she didn't know. I was very happy with myself for keeping that secret sacred once the opportunity presented itself.
We took our time on the float. Along with a fresh 12 of Busch, Lyle had gotten a Meramec State Park frisbee at the float shop. We used it quite a bit. It took me just about the whole float to figure out how to throw it without a major slice. My right bicep is sore today, I think from the frisbee. It was a hot today and I kept comparing the Meramec—its translucence and turbidity—to the Current. Totally unfair. It was a good float. We had six and I talked to them all, we all enjoyed ourselves. I had some beers and eventually a little Old Crow Reserve but water was my main focus. In my haste-makes-waste prep for the float, I didn't grab enough water for the float. I had to resort to drinking the ice-melt water from the cooler, which was a delightful sort of pleasure. It didn't taste all that great but it was cold. The Meramec itself, at this time of year, and along the stretch of river we floated, was fairly warm. Probably low seventies. Much warmer than the cool air and even colder water coming out of the cave at the 3.5-mile mark. That was about the same spot where the solitary fella floating a canoe with his half-pit bull/half labrador Max pitched a tent on a rock bar and began to kick back for the rest of the day.
It's ten p.m. now on Sunday night. My neck hurts, my feet hurt. I am crutching on things to power through. B noted I didn't write much during this camp weekend. "I didn't write at all," I tell her. She says, "Well, you still can." And I'm telling her it's just not that easy. If I go to sleep tonight, and wake up tomorrow; if and when I have tomorrow's coffee and I bludgeon through tomorrow's commute and I go through a Monday at work. If after all of that I come back to this selfsame desk and imagine I can just sit down and start la-la writing about what a great weekend we had camping, we did x y and z and this is what he said she said. No. It doesn't work that way. Not for me. If there is a moment yet remaining for me to write about this weekend it is now or never. My grains of sand are falling fast and there isn't much left above the waist.
We milked the float as much as we could, ending at 4:15 or so. Vonage went home, didn't have their camp stuff, we had lost site 108 anyway. It was stultifying, stupid, useless hot. And it would give me and B a chance for some "couples one one one" with Lyle and Mia anyhow. We stopped at the park store—ice and beer—fire, ice, and beer—the coast is clear. It was us four in the Subaru. We went back to the site, oh there was no breeze. It was brutal, can't lie. Until the sun went down we were playing a waiting game, there wasn't much a person could do. Me and Lyle did manage to throw the frisbee around a little more though. I went and showered after that. The ladies had already done so. Site 110 (our site) is very close to the showerhouse. That fact and its abundance of shade made it one heck of a site at that particular moment in time. Lyle was ready for a fire right away even though I was thinking, "Crikey, it's so hot why not wait." But a campfire is always nice to have, even in the heat. It's like the TV in your apartment you come home and turn on, for background if for no other reason. We got back to the Busch. Mia had gotten some Bud Light Lime. I was still cognizant of water too. I was refilling empty bottles and stashing them in the icy cold water of the coolers for later use.
It was smoother sailing once it got dark. Lyle meted out what fluid he had left for the several tiki torches. The fire was perfect, B made chicken taquitos in the pie iron. Lyle had 93.7 going from his truck—"Drunk on the Plane" is a current hit—and then eventually we had the Cardinals game from Philly, what became a 12-inning ordeal.
I am flagging big-time. I am considering all possible reserves I could tap to keep this account going. I have to work tomorrow! What's more important? Only time will tell. But let me tell you just a little about how someone DESTROYED the men's bathroom with an EBOLA-STYLE shit-storm late Saturday night; about how this person, or small gang of errant shitters, clobbered one toilet and then proceeded to leave their tailings all up and down the floor of the men's side of the showerhouse, not just on the "toilet" side but some on the "shower" side, too. I mean, the only thing I can figure is that someone absolutely lost themselves at the toilet and then made a pants-down run for a full-body cleaning in one of the shower stalls, their wake be damned. It's one of the most incredible things I've ever seen and I'm still shaking my head just thinking about it.
I'm spent. There's so much left to say. I want to talk about the cave we couldn't get into and the uppity aloof cave restoration people and the midnight hike on the half-mile Walking Fern Trail and how B did that tricky hike without wearing a headlamp or carrying a flashlight! Mia did it in flip flops! At the outset we were looking at a sort of opening in the woods that kind of looked like a trail and Mia said, "If that's the trail I'm not doing it." As it turned out, that was where we exited after having done the hike. It was actually a pretty cool midnight hike. I had my headlamp on and as I trained it on the trail I would frequently see something bright and metallic and green reflecting back at me. It was a spider with its head full of eyes. We never found a way into the cave, though I suspected there had to be a backdoor entrance somewhere.
We slept well. I woke up at 6 or so and got in my hammock. It was actually a little chilly then. We had eggs and bacon and doubleshots. I went back to the bathroom and it was still a mess. Later Lyle went and he didn't have anything to say about it. I had to ask him. "Somebody hosed it down," he said. Thank God! We were all moving pretty good, it was still early. B was showing off her mad pie-iron skills. I got my camera out and propped it up to take a candid timer-shot. I hustled back into its field but I didn't get myself squared up in time. There was still a little wood left over after we were all done. Lyle had me take it, I'm grateful. Him and Mia followed us most of the way back up Interstate 44, doing my speed, not gating us like 99% of other people would. We parted company at the 270/44 split. Lyle honked once and I put my hand out the window and was waving.
August 24, 2014
Tuesday, August 19, 2014
Sam A. Baker State Park, August 8-10
I. Getting There.
Leaving 9:25a, cloudy...we're listening to the radio...the market is mixed, I did a bit of work this morning, B is driving..."I Touch Myself," I have an inexplicable memory of getting off a plane when I hear this song, of disembarking at the moment when you say "bye now" to the stewardess...and I remember my mom saying she thought this song was "stupid," which I don't dispute...but the song was a success...I'm talking about it, hearing it, however many years later—20 years? 1994 or so?—I can't remember who sings it...the Divinyls?... It's playing on 90.7 HD2: HD radio in the Subaru...I miss the Jeep emotionally, but not functionally...It's an eclectic mix on this station, one song was a collection of racket, like bad Beach Boys mixed with poseur Middle Eastern rhythms. As we cross the Meramec River close to its Terminus with the Mississippi, we enter Jeff Co. and Arnold—where Pat got Frozen Castles for our camp at St. Francois State Park. And the Heartless Bastards come on. This song goes out to you, P Hole—thanks again for that ride home from pool Wednesday night.
This is a good time to be on Interstate 55—it's about half the volume versus last time I traversed it, three weeks ago plus six hours en route St. Francois S.P. We'll go past St. Fran on our way to Sam A. Baker.
I can start to see some hills peaking out due south, lightly cloaked in a foggy mist. Silver Hills, is what Ida called them...
...I'm in here and I'm not talking...
"You don't have much to say," she says.
"No, I don't."
"Then why'd you come in here."
"I came in for him. He—his dad died. He just found out, a couple hours ago."
"Yeah. He wanted to come in here. I don't know. It's not where Ida ended up. Or if I had—I'd be a lot drunker than he is."
"Maybe you should buy him a drink."
"Maybe you should buy me one, too."
Just riffing there, a little fictionalized memoir. But which parts are real, and which aren't. Ah-ha-ha-ha-hah. It's 10:07, sixty-seven degrees. To Farmington, a mile away.
Fort Find It. Dillo. We're about to pass St. Francois State Park, which is on the left. See ya. No Francois but we will be fishing, swimming in, and floating the St. Francis River. We pass a metal fabricator. We pass Cherokee Landing, an outfitter. It was that name we saw painted on the sides of canoes putting in on the Big River at St. Francois S.P. Bonne Terre. A used car lot displays a pink polka-dotted-elephant. I think of that National song, "Pink Rabbits." Drinking pink rabbits in some kind of chair. Is the singer drinking pink rabbits or is his erstwhile flame drinking them? Does it matter? A little sun for the first time all day. Still rocking the 90.7 HD2, so-called "Exponential Radio."
Farmington. There's a turnoff via 221 for "Arcadia Valley," the constituents of which I've largely heard—Johnson's Shut-Ins, Taum Sauk State Park—but I've never heard it called Arcadia Valley. St. Joe State Park is over that way, too. I was telling B that St. Joe is an ATV destination. And that it's also polluted. Past Farmington we crossed the St. Francis, and we just crossed it again. We also lost the signal for exponential radio. We're on 67, headed south. It's two lanes each way, separated by a healthy gray median. There is a steady feed of cars and trucks but the traffic is not heavy. Plenty of room out here. There's rain out to the west, somewhere. South, too. But we press on. Sprinkles. S bar F Scout Ranch. I say with nearly complete confidence that I've never been on this road before. In college, for the rock class or two I took, we came down 67, and eventually made our way on over to Johnson's Shut-Ins and Elephant Rocks—but I don't believe we were ever this far south. Coppermines Church. It's 10:57.
The median, past Fredericktown (which makes me think of my father, whose middle name is Frederick, oddly), is no longer green. It's lined with a maroon, igneous rock blasted out of the earth not far from here. And it's been sprayed, because there is no green at all, just dead brown weeds in some spots and parched white grass in others. It's twenty-eight miles yet to Highway 34, our turnoff. To Poplar Bluff, 61 miles. Does 67 go all the way to Arkansas, B wonders. I don't know. From the glove compartment I remove a map of the great state of Missouri. The answer is "yes." Twelve Mile Creek. The map indicates we are about to pass through Mark Twain National Forest. And it seems there are camping options there—Silver Mines, one of the Arcadia Valley constituents I did not know. Every day, every day.
A mobile home in a state of decay. Collapsed, flattened, the stuffing turned inside out. Immobile. Trucks going the other way turn up mist in their treadwake. It rained here, very recently. Between the raindrops we shall go, dancing wanly, to and fro. I am pondering the Twain Forest. I've always regarded it as some sort of alien land, inhospitable, a dense green nowhere. A small sign on an unmarked road advertises, "Camping—Paw Paw Park." We'll pass on that. I suppose the campgrounds within Mark Twain Forest would be listed on recreation.gov, like those along the Current. The Feds have got their paws all over Missouri parks, haven't they? A sly move, I'd say.
Smoke on the near horizon. We're hurtling downhill toward the origin, but I can't quite see it. Some local is burning a pile, apparently, out behind an old "Fireworks City" store. The speed limit is 65. Having two lanes in either direction, so that the enterprising can pass us on the left, is a big plus. Wayne County. But there's no one behind us anyway, hasn't hardly been anyone behind us since Bonne Terre. There's something in the road up ahead. It's a blown-out tire, one big piece and lots of assorted shreds. Cedar Creek. A sign for a conservation area. There is some blue sky to the west now. It's 11:19. I think that conservation area was Coldwater Conservation Area. Lodi. That tells me that we have already traveled through much of the swath of Mark Twain National Forest that I saw on the map. But I never saw any signs indicating as much. Strange.
Camp Lewellen Boy Scouts Camp. "I guess they own the property," says B. It's kind of like a Social Precurity system for boys, involving outdoor activities and other endeavors facilitating preparation. Here's the land, gents, do something with it. We see the turnoff for 34—Piedmont, Marble Hill. The road has slimmed, the median is just a parapet now. We're...veering...right. We see signs for Sam A. Baker State Park. We see signs for Clearwater Lake and Dam, an Army Corps of Engineers production. Maybe that's a place for us to go with Tyler when he's got the boat. An old sign for "Camp Wood, 15 stks, $5." We cross the St. Francis River again. This is the takeout point for the float, I realize. The 34 bridge. The river looked OK, not really hustling much, but just OK.
Ragwort and Queen Anne's Lace alongside the road, an unnamed creek. A place called "The Back Table," with billiards on offer. We're on 143N now. NV Circle Ranch, full RV hookups. Now we're hemmed in by forest, no more red clay. Five hens. The Winking Owl, some sort of store—the sign said closed but the door was open and a guy stood along the doorframe smoking a cigarette and watching us as we coasted by. Sam A. Baker, we're here.
We hiked the Shut-Ins trail but veered off somewhere along the way. The Shut-Ins are somewhere along Big creek but I don't think we arrived at the right spot. As I was walking along I knew I hadn't seen any blue blazes in a while but we could hear voices of river play and we followed them. Big Creek is clear, cool, and it moves—the recent rain probably helped put it in a good light. I gradually worked my way in and as I leant more and more of myself to the water I could feel my cultivated toxins flee further and further up my body until they were all in my head and then out the top of it as I finally put my head under. It was a restorative bath. There is a moment every year when I have a craving to go put myself into a body of cool water. But I had never before identified this urge as a craving for a specific form of forced, physical catharsis. If I miss any aspect of swimming laps it is the simple fact of placing myself under water. I miss the shock of immersion. It is a powerful, benign, constructive act.
It's past five here on Friday night. We have tunes going—vintage Tom Petty. "She's gonna listen to her heart. It's gonna tell her what to do-oo-oo. Well, she might need a lot of lovin' but she don't need you." A dog a ways away, a yipper, is going crazy. That's not nearly as bad as Hatfield and McCoy waking up at cross-purposes amidst their hungover family reunion about a campsite block away. Right when we got here two guys over there were throwing down—like, for real. And we're looking at each other thinking, "What did we get ourselves into now." Someone, maybe the camp hosts, called the park ranger and he was over there pretty quick. Ohhhhh: now we're getting hit with some tasty camp cook smoke. B says it's burgers. For lunch we did cured meat, Triscuits, English sharp cheddar (eat it, Russia), cucumbers, and carrots. Not bad. The summer sausage was courtesy of Milwaukee.
It's humid, there's no sugar-coating it. But there is a breeze stirring now and we're on the other side of two hours of hiking. It's time to kick back and dip into our finest provisions. There are remnants on our site of an epic silly string battle—blue vs. pink. The loser I imagine had to shamble his or her way through dank patches of poison ivy and a minute army of poison dart frogs to the St. Francis River for a dunking, in view of our site, number five. I don't know for sure, I haven't even spent a night here yet, but it seems to me that Big Creek is nicer than the St. Francis River. I've the notion that when Big Creek is floatable—which isn't often—it's a lot like floating the Current. We had planned on doing the five-mile of the St. Francis tomorrow but we are probably going to audible and hike along Missouri's tallest mountain instead, Taum Sauk.
I'm into my second Shift, a pale lager from the New Belgium brewery in Fort Collins, CO. B is working on Weed and water. Dinner is Castles. I bought 20 sticks of firewood at the park store for $6.34 (including tax). In terms of volume it's equivalent to three of the pre-wrapped bundles but only about half the price. Let's see, though, how it burns before we go around patting each other on the back.
A melange of topics I wanted to talk about but won't get to before I fall asleep: Bugs on the Mudlick Trail drove us batty; the hosts told us about putting dryer sheets in our hats; site 87 here looked good; there's a tiny kid at the site across the way that loves tearing up and down the road on his tiny tricycle. There's lighter fluid in the air. B likes the smell of it, she makes the wafting motion with her hand, as if she were testing a rue. "What kind of trees are those? I feel like they're California trees." Yeah, I tell her, I was gonna say they were ponderosa pines. At eight o'clock exactly we went down to the river. The moon looked so peaceful, lofted there above it all, nearly full.
III. Sat Morn, 6:21.
It was not a very good night's sleep. We got bit by the late arrivals bug again. They pass their site, turn around, come back (going the wrong way now on the one-way road that loops through the campground), and fumble around with their tent in the last of the day's light. B and I both fell asleep pretty easily but as I drifted in and out of sleep I was aware of kids giggling and screwing around with their flashlights in the neighboring tent. Eventually B and I were both awake and I figured it was 9:30. I was incredulous when she told me it was three. I got up. It was just two young girls over there, eleven years old maybe. At one time there was a mom, or an aunt, or some adult because we saw her and one of the girls carrying a huge air mattress down the road to their new abode. But the old lady was gone now. The two girls went over to the bathroom. The bathroom that's near us is duplex style, one flush toilet on either side, clean enough. The girls both went in to the left half. When they came out I started walking toward them and they froze. I kept my voice down and I didn't get mean. I asked them to listen. What did they hear? Nothing. Crickets and frogs. I told them the only reason my wife and I were awake at this hour was because of them. They really were the only people in the campground making any noise, and had been for hours. One of them apologized, the other one didn't say anything at all. It struck me that they didn't know any better. I blame the mom, or whoever the adult is who puts two girls in a tent and walks away.
I hate to do this, I really hate it. But I'm staying on the Complain Train because just as I sat down to write this—let me back up. We didn't pick a very good site. We're too close to the bathroom. The doors are quite loud against their frames when someone exits the bathroom and lets the door swing closed behind them. I heard that sound once or twice at four or five this morning. I didn't want to put earplugs in because there are these frogs down in the boggy area along the river that are nocturnal and make these crazy banjo-croaking sounds all throughout the night. That's the kind of sound I can only hear when I'm sleeping out in nature, that's why I do this. I want to hear the crickets and the katydids chirping and blirping and buzzing and just before it starts to get light I want to hear the birds that are getting up earlier than anyone else.
Along with the thudding doors is the bathroom's exterior light, which lights the area outside the bathroom a little too well. And then there's a little parking area just to the side of the bathroom. There are eight spots, including one handicapped spot. As I sat down to write I saw a large mini-van parked there with MN plates. Someone popped out of it right as I sat down to write this, a young lady. Then another young lady popped out the other side. I'm thinking they just decided not to stay in a tent last night, they'd just sleep in the van instead, they don't like sleeping in tents, whatever. But over the course of the next fifteen minutes six more people clambered out of that van! Eight people, I'm not exaggerating. A mom, a dad, and half a grade school class. There I am getting out of my tent in the morning, after listening to little LaVerne and Shirley play grabass all night and I crush a Doubleshot and get to thinking I'm gonna enjoy some peace and quiet while I write about yesterday a little bit. And I grant that these people talked hushedly as they took their turns going into the bathroom, but it's a sliding door van, a mid-nineties model that rolled off the assembly line long before the push-button close was invented. And those doors made a sound like a manual garage door being shut. Do the math on how many times the door has to open and close as eight people go to and fro to use the bathroom in the morning.
I'm feeling a little snakebit right now. I reiterate that this was not a very good choice for a site. But between the left-to-themselves-to-screw-around late arrivals and the Minnesotan Octagon I'm sitting here thinking WTF.
I don't want to be a whiner—whining, or being "whiny", is a trait someone has called out in my recent travel writings. I want to accentuate the positives. I need to regroup and restate the objective of my travel writing. I'm here to describe things.
Our site backs up to a marshy, fensy, woodsy bank that rolls a bit until it reaches the St. Francis River, about thirty or forty feet away. The river at that point doesn't look to be moving much. [Editor's Note: I need to mention two things. First, B asked me to define what "fens" are. Fens are "low-lying wet land with grassy vegetation; usually a transition zone between land and water." Second, what I have described just now as the St. Francis river wasn't actually the St. Francis River, it was a spring-fed sideshoot of the St. Francis River, a sort of side-channel that itself feeds into the St. Francis River about 100 yards away, at which point one enters the St. Francis River via the boat ramp and is met immediately about their feet by delightfully cool water from said side-channel/spring.] An ADA spot, number 6, empty, is at my right (north). Site 8, two down from us on the the other side of the ADA site, was reserved for last night, tonight, and tomorrow night—but as of this writing it is empty. Directly across from our site is that parking lot. It abuts the island circumscribed by the loop road running through this side of Campground 1. There are dozens of tall, stately, well-looked-after pines standing over the interior part of this loop. I have a small tree book—it used to be my dad's, or his dad's, but I snagged it—and I need to start carrying it. [Editor's Note: Egads, I just went to go look at the little tree book but it's not there in our bookshelf. I got rid of it, I am kicking myself.] These trees are maybe 160 feet high. Skinny. Sparse of limb on the way up. The bark is notable. It reminds me of fish scales. [Editor's Note: Quick list of candidates includes red pine and shortleaf pine.]
It was humid yesterday, but the sun made its breakthrough eventually and stayed around 'til sundown. It was wet when we got here. There were puddles on the concrete pad under the picnic table. We did a once-over of some of the other sites in Campground 1 and some of them were heavy with standing water. You could not have camped on them last night, probably not tonight either.
It's buggy here. Flies at the campsite were pestering us right away. House flies, or a rabid version of house flies that like to bite people. We deeted up and that fixed the problem. On our second hike yesterday, an attempted loop hike comprised of taking the Mudlick Trail from its northern trailhead and eventually cutting into the Fire Tower Trail, we were besieged by the sort of gnat that wants to house itself in either your ears or your eyes. They might have been the same little pests that were trying to get at us along the swampy Shut-Ins Trail earlier. They were even worse on the Mudlick Trail. I've never been bothered like that by gnats. I was wearing my bandana as a sweatband but I re-fashioned it to cover my ears. I was thinking I could have used earmuffs or one of those bands that skiers wear to keep their ears warm. My ears were plenty warm on the faux-hike; I was trying to take a landing spot away from the little buggers. We walked for half an hour and turned around. I can handle hot but hot and bugs was too much. I was expending more energy trying to wave away and swat at the gnats than I was hiking. Nonetheless, we hiked for a total of two hours yesterday and I'm satisfied with that. If we're really going to Colorado in September, and if we're hiking while we're there, I need to get in shape—and quick.
I consider this a mixed-use campground: RV sites and tent sites. It's mostly RVs. But at some sites there are both RVs and tents. Across from us and one over is a family of six that took an electric site but is not in an RV—they've got one big tent and one small one. I like their set up. B and I were talking about them a little. I think the guy is the father of all four but the woman is the mother of just one, the little tricycle kid. Some of the kids are much older, in their teens. B is moving around in the tent. She wanted more sleep. I wasn't very comfortable—my neck was stiff. So I figured I'd just get up now and nap later. It's like that movie, that terrible movie, "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead." Here she is, the B-ster. It's 7:09. I've had my Doubleshot. Maybe it's time to get our morning cookfire going.
There is a boat ramp 150 yards from here. [Editor's Note: Recall that at this point I still haven't realized that the water right behind us really isn't part of the river "proper", but is instead a spring-based tributary.] There is river access there. I wasn't expecting much, based on the sense I got of the river from the snatch of it I can see from our site. It shapes up somewhere between here and there I guess because it is beautiful down there. The water is clear, and rippling, and cool. Not spring-fed cold, other than right when you step in, but cool. It's split at that point by a picturesque gravel bar and the entire view is expansive and peaceful in both directions. It feels a lot like the river access we enjoyed at the Round Spring campground on the Current River. We walked down there at dusk last night; the moon was up and nearly full. I wanted a photo but I didn't have my camera. I started to walk back for it but my legs were heavy by that time and the moment (last light) was going to pass before long so I stayed put. I had a cigarette and enjoyed the view.
It's time to get a fire going. It's time for eggs and bacon and toast and more coffee. There's something I forgot to mention—the raccoon that came up from the banks ten feet away from us last night, at gloaming, and wasn't afraid of us at all. I was so glad Squirt wasn't here. It's 7:18 in the morning, Saturday, August 9, in Sam A. Baker State Park in Missouri.
IV. Taum Sauk.
It's Saturday, 1:18 pm, we're heading south on 21/72. We have been to Missouri's highest point, Taum Sauk Mountain. We did a hike there, in Taum Sauk State Park. I thought we were going to reach the acme somewhere along the trail but the "highest point" marker is actually set off to the side before you even get to the trail. The trail was a three-mile loop that took us roughly an hour and forty-five minutes. The signs leading to the trail indicated the hike would last three hours, that it was a rugged and difficult trail, and that caution was advised. Indeed it was a strenuous hike but the sign oversold the difficulty. At the beginning, a hiker could go right or left. We went right. The best vistas were on the "right half" of the trail. Approximately halfway around the loop are some falls, the Mina Sauk Falls. If it hadn't rained Thursday and Friday, these falls probably would have been dry. It's a good hike. The bugs were back at it, but it's that time of year I guess. B said she had sprayed her hat with deet but still they hounded her ears. I was swatting at them, as they buzzed my ears, and with the practice I had gotten in yesterday, I was crushing quite a few of them. But there are always more, and they never stop discovering you as you make your way along the trail.
The drive from Sam A. Baker State Park to Taum Sauk State Park was about an hour. It's 143N to 49N to 72/21. Little towns, timber, Baptist churches. Windy, curvy, rolling roads. Big Creek makes at least a couple of appearances. The weather has been good. Humid, partly cloudy. Warm. At times on the hike along Taum Sauk there was a breeze. Now we are going south on 49, jogging through Annapolis. There are a lot of stone walls out here, all along this drive. There are some stone houses. Even along a curve on 72/21 south of Taum Sauk State Park there is a pretty stone wall lining the outer edge of the curve defining the road. The stone is...I'm note sure what kind of stone it is. It's an igneous rock—whatever the earth spat up and slobbered itself with around here. I want to say dolomite but that's just dilettante. I really don't know. It's reddish. Round. We just went over Big Creek for the first time on this, our return trip. It's a clear little riffler that Big Creek. Very inviting.
There was a rattle in the car, upfront. B, who is obviously driving, was fiddling with this and that in the console and I asked her what the heck she was doing. "Trying to figure out what that rattle is," she says. I looked for it. I couldn't find it. I thought maybe it was the CD that's in the CD player (the CD player holds six CDs, but we have only one CD in there). The radio/stereo was off. I wasn't going to eject the CD but then B did. The rattling did not stop. When she popped the CD back in, it started playing. So now we are listening to The War on Drugs, "Living the Dream." In the last several days I've had two people tell me, in response to me asking them how they were doing, "(I'm) living the dream." Chalk it up to zeitgeist. It's a pretty cynical remark, though. I don't think either of the two people who said it really meant it.
I just figured out the rattling. It was the sunglasses in the sunglass kitty up top. 143 and 49 intersect in Des Arc, which has 177 people and a general store. We cross Big Creek again. This is a road with moguls. There have been large swaths of road recently replaced. Signs pronounce "Fresh Oil/Loose Gravel." The swaths are large rectangular patches of pavement that have been replaced wholesale. There is no pothole patching here. The road, overall, is in decent shape. Better than "fair". Iron County. The St. Francois Mountains are the range that Taum Sauk Mountain is in. I have to take a minute to comment on the whole St. Francis vs. St. Francois thing that is going on in this part of Missouri. There is a St. Francois State Park. And there are the St. Francois Mountains. According to many websites, and based on what I have already written in this camp diary, the river that runs through Sam A. Baker State Park is the St. Francis River. Notice I've dropped the "o" there. But if you go to the Sam A. Baker State Park website and pull up a PDF map of Campground 1, it identifies the river running along the south side of the park as the "St. Francois River". I went to the Army Corps of Engineers Site vis-a-vis Lake Wappapello, fed by said river, and they call it the St. Francis. I don't know which is which, I really don't. As far as the St. Francois Mountains are concerned, I'll be direct and tell you that they're really just big hills. They're really pretty, though. Even up close, the way that the milky green and white lichens cover the red, igneous rock is something I can keep in my mind. There aren't too many people on these roads. I drove to Taum Sauk State Park. You must know that; otherwise I would have written something about the drive up there. I can only crutch on B so much. And on that drive to Taum Sauk I only once had someone riding my bumper. It was a nice change of pace.
There aren't many camping sites at Taum Sauk State Park. There is no shower house. You're really on your own out there. The Boy Scouts had descended en masse on the park's special use campground. They must have had 15 tents packed in there.
V. Sat Eve, 5:30.
Recent of gin, late of a delicious shower and an illegal amount of Gold Bond Medicated Powder. Two sites over the people showed up. Looks like a couple with four kids. About two more than they seem capable of monitoring. The two boys are playing catch with a Frisbee, which I should respect. But as it lands, uncaught, and drags and skids along the parking pad of the empty spot between ours and theirs I am doing the dangerous exercise of asking myself what I’d be hearing if I were not hearing that Frisbee scuttle along the concrete. I still haven’t accepted how prevalent Murphy’s Law is, even at campgrounds. I fear my acceptance of Murphy’s Law because, should I accept its truth, I believe I would be faced with one of two alternatives. Hermit life or suicide. Wait, wait, wait. I think that's bullshit, that thinking. I think maybe that what I really fear is living life—letting go and actually living (again). And if I accept that something is always going to go wrong...maybe then I can start to live a little, again. That's deep, deeper than the St. Francis, and enough for now. The Cardinals are getting rolled. Masterson was terrible last night. Lackey has given up nine runs in this game. They might make the playoffs, but they’re not a good team.
VI. Sunday Morning, The Grand Parade.
Leaving. We were up at . That means it took us two hours and thirty minutes to do our morning ablutions, eat, and break camp. I went fishing again. I switched lures, but the result was the same. There are fish in there. I saw a couple of big blue cats sitting right there in the middle of the river, somehow not moved by the current.
We are heading east on 34. We were ready to hit the road. There was nothing left to do but go for another hike. There was an in-tent pissing incident a couple doors down and the mom was on the warpath. I could feel her seething and so now I’m glad to be looking through a windshield. B says we stand out like sore thumbs at the campgrounds we go to. She says it’s because (a) we don’t have kids and (b) we’re not old. It’s true…there just aren’t that many other people fitting that description going camping.
What I’ll miss most is those banjo frogs. From sunset to sunrise without ceasing. It’s first one louder croak and then three or four more twangs in quicker succession. They are loud but when I was waking up to them I took comfort in doing so. We heard dogs going nuts a couple of times in the night. I suggested it was a bear out prowling around but B thought raccoons were a much more likely explanation.
We’re going under 67 now. We’re not taking it north to Fredericktown. Instead we’re taking 34 to 51 and crossing the real big river at Chester. 34 east is a two-lane road. The War on Drugs picked up where it left when we last left the car. I’m still not tired of listening to this album. I have designs to attend a Grammy party when it wins for album of the year. It’s 77 degrees outside but it’s humid. Hazy. It’ll be a hot one.
There seem to be as many churches as there are people out here. It’s Baptist country. I’m looking at a field full of tall grass. I’m ready for the fall I guess. The summer is over. A house with a corn garden. Crows. They were croaking on the river this morning, too. Now that I think of it, along the river there this morning would have been an ideal time and place to practice my fly fishing stroke. There wasn’t anyone else out there and the banks are all stone, clean and clear—nothing to get my line tangled up in. A barn with a thresher in it. They’ll be putting that implement to work soon enough. A thresher. Is that even the right term? I mean to say I saw the sort of tow-behind cutting blade that spins in the fashion of a paddle-boat wheel. Old Man River gonna go out and cut himself some hay, Thomas Hart Benton-style. B swerves slightly to avoid a turtle. “Through the grand parade….” A big RV coming the opposite way. We’re winding, curving, banking, rising, and falling. We have the AC on low. I had a Doubleshot and a Via this morning. I felt good when I got up. I could have slept better, deeper. I need my knee pillow. I did not get into my sleeping bag last night or night. I continue to believe that our airmats, sleek as they might be, make a significant difference.
The album is finished. Considering that “Living the Dream” is the only CD we have loaded in the car’s CD changer, I took out my iPod, the one with the cracked screen. The icon indicating an established Bluetooth connection was visible, so I hit play. I could hear music…but the music wasn’t coming from the car stereo…neither was it coming from the speaker on the iPod itself. I was puzzled and then I realized that the iPod was still Bluetooth-linked to the Braven portable—and that was the sound I was hearing! Crazy Bluetooth games. I guess I never turned off the Braven last night/this morning. Bollinger County. We passed a guy working on something near his mailbox (B almost hit him) but otherwise there’s no one out here. –Wow! Except for the MASSIVE RV park that just sprung up full-born from out of nowhere and was completely packed. It sat on the Castor River, which we just went over. On quick glance the Castor did not seem as nice as the St. Francis—or Big Creek. There were several canopies set up and sitting there at the river’s edge. I suppose it was more beachy there, a red sandy clay perhaps. There had to’ve been 100 RVs crammed in to that little several acres. We enter Grassy, no population listed.
Gimlet Creek. Here’s to all the gimlets out there. We pass a Southern Baptist church with three cars in the parking lot. Now an “apostolic” church with no cars in the parking lot. Cornfield. Hay bales.
Woodland R-4 schools. The marquee announces that school starts August 13th. I think that’s what happened at Sam A. Baker. We walked right into the melee that is the last weekend of the summer for kids and their strung-out parents. A Stihl facility. It looked like there was a factory in the back. We take a left onto 51, and then we take another left and this time we’re “really” on 51. Lutesville General Baptist had a decent crowd. Now a non-denominational community church with a pretty sparse parking lot. It seems pretty poor through here. Trailer homes, strewn trash. New Salem Baptist, plenty of cars. It’s quite a curvy stretch of road. One bend gives way to another. It’s a good test for the car in advance of CO.
Woodland R-4 schools. The marquee announces that school starts August 13th. I think that’s what happened at Sam A. Baker. We walked right into the melee that is the last weekend of the summer for kids and their strung-out parents. A Stihl facility. It looked like there was a factory in the back. We take a left onto 51, and then we take another left and this time we’re “really” on 51. Lutesville General Baptist had a decent crowd. Now a non-denominational community church with a pretty sparse parking lot. It seems pretty poor through here. Trailer homes, strewn trash. New Salem Baptist, plenty of cars. It’s quite a curvy stretch of road. One bend gives way to another. It’s a good test for the car in advance of CO.
A dillo, on its back, yet unvisited by carrion crowes. Soybeans. More beans. B turned the AC off. More beans. Patton, no population listed. Little White Water River. A post office. Patton Presbyterian. A formidable pile of wood, one of several I’ve seen on this drive. Major junction with 72. But we’re staying on 51. 72 runs from the Cape all the way over to Rolla.
Perry County and we are suddenly stuck behind a truck that is carrying a big load and moving fitfully. It is flashing its hazards, going about 15 miles per hour up hills. We can’t pass: there’s no visibility over these hills and there are two cars between us and the truck anyway. One of those cars is a P.T. Cruiser. It’s gonna be slow going between here and Interstate 55. We’re just bumbling along, slower than a bumblebee. Now we pass a lumberyard with pile after pile of Grade A firewood (schwing!). The land is still rolling but it is increasingly in what I will call “active farm status”. Pastures. Cows. The beans I mentioned. Here there are hayfields that’ve already been cut and baled. The homes are getting nicer. Another lumberyard, but this one specializes in planks. An enormous cow pasture. Cow pond. B says the land is less divided here, too. The lots are bigger, so to speak.
Perryville. The bumbletruck turns off into the Walmart parking lot. We’re passing over Interstate 55. We’re going to the river, remember. A place called Stonie’s, touting its state champion beef jerky. A winery. We’re about ten miles from Chester. That’s all for me this time. I’m going to turn my attention to photographic endeavors. Not just Instagram, but some shots onto real film. I’ve still got this camera used to belong to a friend of mine. Apparently it still works.
Friday, August 01, 2014
St. Francois State Park, July 18-20, 2014
I. Friday at Site 88.
...In which Pat sets up his erstwhile tent, an igloo type, smaller than his new one, saying it [the erstwhile tent] is a little musty because he hasn't used it since Wisconsin...And in which Jack buys a couple of bundles of wood from a guy on a golf cart...
One of the campground hosts is circulating on a golf cart asking if campers need firewood or ice. Fire and ice, fire and ice. He was wearing a shirt that on the back announced in green lettering something to the effect, "The Little Bug That Kills." I've my cache of wood in the back of the car still, in lawn refuse—"Kraft" paper—bags and it's a scenario I've fretted before. A park ranger, or in this case a campground host, asks me whereabouts my wood is from. For the record, ninety percent of what I got is from St. Louis County. College City, to be exact. Some of it's from my own yard. A lot I got from the College City park's woodlot. A fair bit is from a certain St. Louis County park, where someone downed a tree, cut it up alright, and left it to rot. Nuh uh. I grabbed a lot of it.
Missouri has this problem with a specific beatle, the emerald ash borer, which is infesting ash trees and killing them. Moving firewood—ash especially, but any hardwood generally—is how the beatle is is spreading its reign. There are counties in mostly southern parts of the state that are subject to quarantine—you're not supposed to take firewood out of those counties. St. Louis County is not a quarantine county. But where we camped along the Current River, at Round Spring? That's Shannon County. And Shannon County is a quarantine county.
And, well, I brought some wood back from that trip. Now, before you cuff me, I want to point out that the wood I brought back from there was wood we got from the general store down by the campground. It was the bundled, pre-split, cellophane-wrapped variety you will see sitting out in front of gas stations from here to everywhere. And my big point here is: I have no way of knowing, and no one else does, where this wood I brought back from Shannon County originated from. It could easily have come from a different county than Shannon County. I admit making the mistake of not burning what I bought. I never should have brought it back. But you're also not supposed to leave any excess wood behind at your campsite. We had too much and after the Odysseus Float the day before we didn't even have a fire Sunday morning. So I took what was left, wrapped it in a garbage bag, and headed for home.
I just bought a couple-a bundles. The host puttered up on his golf cart and asked, "You got plenty of wood." I do have plenty of wood but I said, "I could use a couple of bundles." I figure I want to be on record as having bought some of the "local wood"—which gets me back to what I was saying. I asked the host where the wood was from and he said, "I...don't know." He looked at one of the bundles and read off the address of the place listed on the little piece of paper that's tucked into each bundle. "New Florence, Missouri," he says. Which means nothing. That's the address of the business as far as I know—not the location from which the wood was taken (or stored/seasoned).
My point: Does have any idea where this wood is really from? Who is regulating these supplies of wood that land at gas stations and campgrounds? Because I'm here to tell you: This wood I just bought is the same "brand" of wood that I bought when B and I were at Meramec State Park earlier this year. Meramec is at least several counties away from here. But, oh, go to the Missouri State Parks website and you'll see that the "Firewood Advisory" is in full effect—don't move firewood. Hello? This stuff I just bought is "moved firewood," courtesy of Midwest Hardwood Farms, purveyor of "seasoned oak firewood." (Not that it matters but New Florence, MO is 116 miles from St. Francois State Park. College City is 60 miles from here.)
If we are going to get serious about the emerald ash borer then any firewood sold on any level (wholesale or retail) in Missouri needs a stamp, or a sticker—kind of like fruit—identifying where the wood has been.
I've got to digress from my firewood sermon for just a minute to tell you about a seven-year-old kid at a campsite not far from here that hates his tent and hates his brother, too. I want to sniper rifle this kid. Without him, the ambient noise here would be perfect. There are a couple of DeadHeads right across the road, thirty feet from me, who have a sort of Robert Plant-led jam band going on their stereo that I wish was actually a little louder, to counteract the racket that this kid is making.
A car comes around the bend...a baldish guy in a black wagony/hatchback looking car...but darn it's a VW Golf, not a Forester. Ohh—here comes the ranger in a car that looks kind of like a cop car. I don't feel unsafe here. Most of the sites are occupied. There are numerous camp hosts and right now it's a parade of cars, trucks, and trucks with RVs in tow coming by looking for unreserved sites. Six days ago it was just this site and one other that were reserved on this entire side of the campground. Now the place is packed. I'm amazed.
But let me get back to the emerald ash borer because, as it so often happens, Shakespeare was right. One of his best aphorisms was about the persons who "Doth protest too much." In other words, part of the reason I am so animated about the emerald ash borer is because I have a confession to make. The guilt is eating away at me. Remember that wood I brought back from the Current River campsite? Some of it I had already unbundled, and split, in preparation for a fire Sunday morning (which never happened). But there was another bundle that I never even un-cellophaned. I had it still wrapped in a garbage bag and sitting on a rack in my garage. I did not cut the cellophane off until B and I went on our next camping expedition, to Klondike Park in St. Charles County three weeks later (and also, as it happens, three weeks ago).
When I took the edge of my camper's axe to the cellophane at Klondike, the cellophane split open, and the wood "unbundled." As it did so, something green scuttled out of the bundle. I was fearing as much, so I was ready for the possibility that some little critter would come tearing out of that bundle when I loosed it. But this little sucker was quick. Its size was about right for that of a borer (a half inch from head to tail). I stomped at it and then I stomped and tried to rub and swipe at the grass real hard with my foot where I saw the little critter flee to. But I'm only about half-sure that I killed the thing.
So that's my story about how I messed up bringing that wood back from Shannon County. And that's why I also believe that as far as Missouri and the emerald ash borer goes...it's only a matter of time. I'm a firebug, a wood-luster. But I'm also fairly aware of the problem and I have been somewhat mindful of best practices. I'm also a camper, though. And when I'm going to some place to camp that I've never been to before, I'm never sure I'm going to have enough wood when I get there. The camp hosts make it pretty easy here by bringing by wood on their carts, but that's a luxury that I've never before seen at any other site. Plus, I need kindling to get these big pieces of wood to catch. Sure, I can split up the pieces that come out of the bundles but that's hard work. I want to do that work before I come camping. Not when I'm out here. Part of the problem, too, is that campers at Missouri State Parks are SPECIFICALLY PROHIBITED from going into the woods for any reason. As I drove into the campground, one of the camp hosts, the lady with eyes like big round grapes listed for me the park ranger's pet peeves. "Let's see," she says, and I can tell it's a list she's run down a thousand times and has become tired with. "Only two vehicles to a site." And she pauses, uses her eyes to search upward in their sockets for the next item on the list. "Don't go into the woods." The eyes go left to right this time. "Quiet time is ten p.m." She purses her lips, tilts her head at me. "The speed limit is ten miles per hour. Oh, and don't park on the grass."
I want to get away from the wood for good now and turn my attention to other matters. It's 7:20 and dusk is getting warmed up. Someone is chopping wood. A girl scooters by. Two kids two sites over contemplate wiffle ball. I've had a Red Hook Longhammer IPA tall boy and a Santa Fe Brewing Saison 88, which has to be only a handful of saisons available in can. It's pretty good. Five-point-five by volume.
I swat at a mosquito. The grape-eyed lady host comes by with her husband riding shotgun. I'm thinking that if Pat doesn't arrive tonight I don't know if I'll even have a fire. I might need one, though. I'm two-and-a-half beers in and I haven't eaten since lunch. The park gates close at ten, at least that's what posted.
Hey, lookee there! Pat is here at seven thirty-six.
II. Saturday Morning.
...In which Jack wakes up with a bit of the crikey...Pat sleeps in...and Jack gets a question by text from Bobby, who is arriving imminently...
I awake to the sound of other campers getting their morning fires going. That's change for the better!
Me and Pat closed this place down last night. How perfect the weather was. A bit of haze maybe, and that was probably campfire smoke. I had to put on long sleeves, which I have put on again just now. It is chilly here! In St. Louis, in July. I walked to the showerhouse and back a few minutes ago and I was wishing I had my tuq—my beanie, my little winter cap.
I am marveling at how much of this campground is awake at 7:35 on a Saturday morning. On my walk I saw no fewer than three people wrapping themselves in their blankets as they sat fireside. Pat is not up yet. B is leaving College City right now. There is a bit of exceptionally high cirrus. It was bright, light, and right when I awoke. Never have I been scooped on a beautiful morning by so many campers in my own campground.
I ate three White Castle sliders last night, that was all. Pat bought them, frozen, from the Shop 'n' Save in Arnold. He let them thaw on the way down. I haven't had a lower-maintenance, better-tasting meal out of a pie iron. Three Castles each. He had another sixer but I was content. Eventually we went for a walk, out of the camping area, and down to what I'm calling the prairie, a natural tallgrass field interspersed with dead cedar. The stars were held back just a bit by the haze. The moon was a quarter full. We were the only people still stirring at one or so. On the way back I had a wild hair to explore the "Deer Trail," a short trail in the park. But once we were on it we realized it was going to take us within close proximity of several campsites. My ankles were popping and resounding and we were both stepping on the occasional twig. Pat, to his credit, said, "You know what? This is not a good idea."
So we turned in. I jotted some gibberish [that turns out not to be legible]. I slept with both sides of the fly rolled up and pinned back. Sometime since our last camp I had been doing a search for a good photo of our tent, the Spitfire II. While doing so I stumbled upon a photo of a Spitfire where the fly seemed to be rolled up and held in place with pieces that were part of the fly itself. And wouldn't you know—that's what those loops and knobs on the fly were for, and have been all along. So much for the magnets.
I drank a Doubleshot as I walked to the showerhouse. I overheard talk of bacon but all I whiffed at one point was some strong, dark campfire coffee. I have good things to say about our new air mats. This is rocky ground here but you wouldn't know it levitating on one of those Thermarests. It is a bit dewy this morn. A few dogs are going now. Some bird in a tree is croaking. I did not hear any birds last night but I did hear two barred owls hooting and huffing at each other quite early, at six-thirty or so, while it was still quite light, down by the prairie. I thought to myself that they are coming out before dark because it's getting late in the mating season and the males know that the time is short now.
I was down by the prairie because I was looking for the river access. It's about a 15-minute walk. I slipped on an inclined "trail" leading down to the river. In hindsight it was really more of a slide. I banged my knee decent, and my hand was smudged up where I broke my fall. I washed it off, and rinsed my knee, in the river once I reached it. The river is real pretty in the spots where it's moving well, like a stream of good thoughts running through your mind. But it's shallow, and stagnant, and murky in other spots. It's no Current, but I never expected it to be so I'm not too disappointed. There are plenty of campers here who swam somewhere yesterday. I could tell some of them had swimming because they still had their swimming suits on. In other cases, I saw beach towels hanging to dry. I'm wondering where they swam exactly. I don't think it was at the precise point I visited. Could it be the creek? I want to take the car out and cruise this park a little to see where everyone is enjoying himself. Then I'll know for sure.
I'm not lying in Pat's hammock. It's a fine hammock. I hear: kids (the same kid from yesterday), some insect in a nearby tree that sounds like a squirrel scratching against bark as it screws around on a tree trunk, a campfire crackling and popping (is there a better sound?). Every ten minutes a car goes by on the loop. My head hurts a little. I am dehydrated. I ate two Kind bars. Last night I got into the Old Bardstown a shade too deep. I told Pat about my faux-resignation. He and I camped together one other time where it was just the two of us—in the Huzzah Valley in September 2012. I had my Spitfire with me back then but much else has changed. I was just a camping baby then.
Bobby texted and asked if we had a DG basket. I said Pat had his. So they'll get here around 11 I think. What I'm most curious about—and what I seem to have lost the energy to worry about—are Procter and Brodie next door. Those are the dogs one campsite over. Squirt is about to get dropped into a world that will have his head spinning non-stop once he gets here. I pray it goes OK.
Pat asked to see inside the VW van across the street. He introduced himself to Tim, and then to Chelsea. There is a bunkbed in that bus. I told him they were playing music. He said, "Phish? Grateful Dead? String Cheese Incident?" I told him about how it sounded like a jam band with Robert Plant as lead singer. Now I really want to know who it was. It's going to bother me, not knowing.
It's peaceful here. Pleasant. I, with my cracking ankles and hushedly bantering with Pat as we walked, was the loudest person in the campground. Imagine that! These folks are early to bed and early to rise. That bark-scratching bug is still going. Plus a titmouse or chickadee. This many years and I still get their sounds confused; as birds they are brothers. I do smell some bacon now. B said she'd cook when she got here. Bacon and eggs and pie-iron toast. Those Castles last night. Oniony, the hint of cheese, in a toasty bun—nom nom. How did Pat even know that a store would sell frozen Castles? Makes me think of the Beastie Boys. Sitting around a campfire rapping, eating Castles. "We went to White Castle and we got thrown out!"
IV. The Rest of Saturday.
...In which Serena and Boston both covet a hammock, Jack enjoys a hot dog that he cooks over an open fire, Squirt doesn't get killed by the pit bull next door, "Slag Dam" is identified as potentially being a great name for a band, Bobby cracks his first La Fin, square roots are introduced, and all but one go swimming... And about which, unfortunately, Jack does not write anything until the following day...
V. It is Sunday And I am Back Home.
...In which I try to recap everything that happened, even reaching back again to Friday night...
It is Sunday and I'm back home and clear of mind and I know this will be a trip I won't have written much about, sobeit. I enjoyed some one-on-one time with Pat. I can't recall what it was I was doing when he got there. I had just bought some wood from the camp host as he was making rounds on his golf cart. That's one of the sounds I'll remember—the brake on the Club Car getting released, the cart gaining speed as it powered off.
Pat had the Cards game going on KMOX when he pulled up. I've had a lot of good friends, and most of them are part of my past. Those that aren't are a thousand miles away. Having Pat drive up with his windows down and the game on the radio was a silver linings playbook. I couldn't get KMOX clear enough on my little Sangean but I had scanned the list of the Cardinals radio network beforehand and I had spotted Park Hills, 104.3 FM. With the aux cord running from the headphone jack and dumping into the Braven portable bluetooth speaker, the connection was 100% high-fidelity gametime, baby! We drank beer and listened. He drank his Pabst real slow. Whatever it was I was drinking I didn't drink it slow. He ate some dried fruit. He offered me some but I declined. Then he pulled out those Castles. See, Pat and I have very different ways of doing things. I have my word-processed camp list, over which I agonize in the week preceding a camp, checking items off with a Sharpie once I have packed them. He grabs his camp totes and knocks over the Shop 'n' Save in Arnold on his way down, collecting such items as: Spaghetti-Os, Castles, store-made Hawaiian bread deli sandies, tea, Frappuccinos, Ice Mountain water jugs, and dried fruit. And pumpkin seeds. I was sluggish drunk—an unfortunate state—as we walked down to the prairie, where we stayed for just a bit, to see what the sky looked like from there, how open and infinite it might seem. But the haze obscured it just enough to keep us from being amazed. We debated then, and then again on Saturday, what portion of the haze was simply campfire smoke that had drifted to the prairie from the campground.
There is so much to say, and I'm in a groove talking about my night with Pat—I told him about my resignation, and my retraction. And I know I've said some of this already and this is just redundant but I think I'm saying it better this time so I'm not going to stop. "Pride in your job," he says, "that's good." Phil says about how people rarely really talk, and he's right but Pat and I accomplished talking Friday night. A lot of times when it's me and Pat—like a lot of times when it's me and just about anybody else, except maybe B, and some of the times with Roy—a lot of times other people will talk and I won't say much, mostly because I can't think of anything I really want to say. But I talked on Friday. I told him about how I think people can be classified in one of two ways: either they are politicians or they are not. The daily nature and grind of work tends to bring out the politician in all of us—because there is money at stake—and we spend the rest of our time trying to prove to ourselves we are who we were before we got dressed in the morning. Except there are some people who like what happens to them at work, when they are "playing the game." Those are the people that actually go on to run for office.
I didn't feel real well on Saturday morning. I got scooped on waking up. I slept with the fly open. Did I say this already? Maybe.
B got there around nine. Me, B, and Pat on Site 88 at St. Francois State Park just north of Bonne Terre, MO. Bobby and Rosie arrived at 11:30. I'm fading here. I'm not going to do Saturday justice. Boston and Serena loved that hammock, the one I got from my father-in-law, whose name is also Jack. The kids fought over the hammock, swung in it. At one point they were banned from it (wisely, by Rosie) before I and/or Bobby took out a can opener and opened that can of worms back up. There was a great spot for it, not far from our fire pit. I slung it between two trees that were about eleven feet apart. A success, and a test. This morning when I awoke I saw that it hung with the weight of someone. Serena. It makes a good bed—especially for a little one.
The Big River, which runs through the park, and its sandy rock beach were a treat and the highlight for me from Saturday. There was a moment when I stood at the water's edge with Boston and Serena, talking with them, answering their questions, trying to tell them things, and having them actually listen to what I was saying—I will remember Serena sitting on the beach there, one of its sandier spots, and grabbing globs of sand in both hands and building it up around her feet, saying she was stuck—no! she breaks loose!—that's a moment I haven't shared with two young people in some great while, maybe not ever in my adult life, sorry to say. They're good kids. Well-behaved and smart. Smart in different ways. When Boston came over to say goodnight on Saturday night and didn't just say goodnight but actually hugged me, that wave of warmth went right to my heart. It was a very tender act. The sort of thing I'm guessing a lot of us were capable of at some point in our lives, but have since lost the capacity to muster by wont of age and disappointment and fear and everything else that goes along with being older and not younger. One of the odd things about Boston is what I perceive as his accent. I have family in Massachusetts and many things he says remind me of the way people in New England talk. He has a mind keen for math. Pat was teaching him about square roots. The first example was that the square root of four is two. But that proved to be not such a good example because the next quiz was about the square root for nine, which Boston guessed as four-and-a-half. So Pat changed his tack and started doing a progression, e.g.: "What's eight times eight?" "Sixty-foaar." And then, "OK, then, what's the square root of 64?" "Eight." I was enjoying it. We're out at some campsite in the old mining hills of Missouri and Pat is teaching a kid how to do square roots. It doesn't get any better.
Getting in the river with them...the downed tree like a telephone pole underwater, first kind of scary but then useful as something to pin yourself against so as not to get carried away in what was, for a shallow river, a surprisingly capable current...getting rocks...Pat telling them about geodes...an older, local guy coming over to Serena and showing her a rock with geodes in it that he said were "river diamonds"...her getting shy just then...Squirt managing his third camp of the year, I never would have believed it...that milky pink pit bull on the beach on the clothesline leash that swung from a limb up above...Pat having Boston do timed runs to a campsite two hundred yards away...That's it, that's all I can do, I'm fading for real...Goodnight, y'all...
—Bonne Terre/St. Louis, MO
Saturday, July 05, 2014
Klondike Park, Late June 2014
I. Friday Night, Late Enough, Lying in Tent.
That roar, that humming noise is not some dope's generator—it's the hulking skulking Labadie power plant. Its white noise comes and goes, I don't mind. That light from a few campsites down, that's the fire of two guys, not real country music but listening to country. I can see a star, up behind the skinny waving poplars, their leaves a pubic tuft against a clearing sky. That—was not a shooting star, but a firefly.
The wind is in the trees, the river is down below. The quarry is hollow, the owl is hunting, the skunk is just plain skanking.
I've got one side of the fly peeled back, this time with magnets. It rained a bit earlier. It's humid here, but not hot. The breeze is fond.
We are at primitive site 6. There is no RV camping at Klondike Park, a St, Charles County Park. There are cabins. If you are tent camping, you either get a basic site or a primitive site. The basic campsites look spacious and inviting, with no apparent downside. The cabins can't be more than twenty years old. [Later, when I saw the park ranger walking down the path of our particular primitive campground loop, and proceeded to ditch the dugout and start burning a Camel, I proceeded to ask the ranger about the age of the park and he said that the park was only ten years old.]
I lay here thinking that, however old this park is, it wasn't here twenty years ago, not as a park. Either way, it's new to us and we are eager to explore. Squirt is game. We walked around at dusk and saw a skunk and an owl. He smelled the skunk and wanted to follow its scent. We had him on the leash—park rule. We weren't about to let him go rooting around in the brush, much less at dusk. But he floats around on the pavement and the limestone gravel. His feet are wet and dirty but he really seems to enjoy it.
B made patty melts, checked the weather, had a Heineken and a Sam Adams. We're happy here. I'm lying on one of the new Thermarest air mats. It feels good under me, a buffer against the bumps in the ground—but not against the things that go bump in the night.
II. Saturday Morning, Reality is Relentless.
I went and yelled at the two guys at the only other occupied site in the group of ten campsites in this particular loop. I guess that's how I'll die one day: yell at the wrong insane bastard and end up getting shot. But I refuse to capitulate to crazy stupid assholes. It was toward 12:30. For a couple of hours, off and on, they'd been hacking at wet, salvaged wood they had been scavenging from the woods nearby. I had fallen asleep initially at 9:30 or so, and they wrenched me from that. Later they had pulled B from a sleep even after she had put her ear plugs in. I was wide awake and seething. I got out of the tent and I was watching these clowns. One was dragging whole, young trees out of the woods. The other had some sort of panel that he was frenetically waving at the fire with. I wondered to myself, "What are these people on?"
I told B I was going over there. I'm not even sure she heard me, across hear ear plugs, against the guy crazily taking his little camper's axe against the broad side of an adolescent tree.
"Hey! Hey! Enough with the hatchet. Enough!"
And the other guy, the waver with the panel, who was now sitting, decided to take the position of amazement. He says, "Why are you yelling?"
I say, "Why are you waking me up?"
The quiet hours at Klondike are 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. I do not expect the other campers to go dead quiet at 10 p.m. Some ambient noise is to be expected. That's part of the reason B and I bring—and sometimes wear—earplugs. But one of the characteristics of camping, that draws me to it, are the "early to bed, early to rise" regulations. If you are camping, you are out in nature. It's a lot easier to enjoy nature, and to enjoy a park like Klondike, when it is light outside. So at ten o'clock, or eleven o'clock, or at least by midnight...it should be true that one's fellow campers were turning in for some shut-eye before getting up bright and early to enjoy God's handiwork by daylight. Not these idiots. If there is a knock on Klondike it is that you are really on your own out here. If you have a problem after midnight, there is no ranger to contact. You have to call the St. Charles County Sheriff. There is no "attendant on duty."
I went from happiness to rage to despair within a couple of hours. All because of two complete fucking morons who thought they could just show up at some camping park along the river with lighter fluid, a piece of cardboard, and a 24-pack of some shitty beer and have a raging campfire well into the wee hours of the morning. I got one decent hour of sleep prior to the commencement of their post-crepuscular wood-chopping. After I counter-attacked them, and retreated, I stood wild-eyed and bare-chested at my campsite, watching them, knowing my tomahawk wasn't far away, almost wanting one of those fuckers to come back at me. It was not a good moment.
The silver lining was the skunk I saw present itself as I stood on guard, seething. I was telling myself I didn't handle it right, that there was some better way to complain. But I was also glad I made my displeasure clear. In hindsight, I really regret not doing something about the mook running the generator at Meramec when B and I were there a few month ago. It's a matter of respect. It's a question of necessity. Even after I finally got back into my tent, toward two this morning, I could hear the laughter and some words from a different primitive campsite, on the other side of the trees from us, on another loop. Maybe I was just wiped out but that didn't really bother me. That I could translate into white noise (although I wonder how I would feel, differently, if I were in the same loop as them, not on the other side of some trees, and I knew that they knew, or should know, that I was just a hundred yards from them).
I want to get away from thinking about last night/early this morning. It didn't rain. That was an upside. It cleared completely around 1:30. Plus that skunk, lurking and sniffing about during the dark early hours. It was the white streak on its side that I could see plainly, as long as I wasn't trying to look right at it. That's the rods and cones phenomenon, an illustration of which I can remember seeing on a page of one of my college textbooks, perhaps Biopsychology? No matter—the point is that you can best see something in the dark if you look at it obliquely, just off center. If you try to look at it straight on, your chances of discerning it decrease. It's kind of like a Taoist/Buddhist principle. The object is there, but if you look right at it—you won't see it. Only because it entered my field of vision did I see that silvery slinky skunk make its way into our primitive loop, seeing if anything was different than the night before. It was about as big as Squirt, maybe eight pounds. It was fluffy, mostly black, but with a white stripe running from shoulder to tail on each of its two sides. The stripe contracted and expanded as the skunk huffalumped along, uncertainly, not unlike an overgrown inchworm, its back arching pretty good with each step.
It was within fifteen feet of me and I started to get a little witchety-witchety. I was telling B about it—she was back awake at this point—and she looked up skunks on Wiki. She said their eyesight was really poor (hence their roadkill incidence). So I was making a few sharp "Ch!" or "Ch—hh!" noises in its direction and I swear to God the skunk first seemed to tilt its head at these noises and say, "What exactly are you trying to tell me here, pal?" But I kept doing it and eventually it resigned itself to huffalumping away, back into the brush, in search of something else on a humid early summer night. I am certain it never dumped all of the scent it was carrying but after it was gone, the smell of skunk did waft lightly in the air.
Primitive site 6 is one of ten sites on this particular loop. There are four distinct groupings of primitive sites spread over the southern half of the park. A primitive site has a fire ring—which is a circular piece of metal set in the ground with a swing-over grill attached to it—and a picnic table. Compare this to the basic site, where the advantage is that the picnic tables at those sites are covered. Some of the basic sites—namely three and four—seemed to have a nicer layout, with more room and better turf underfoot. But we are not wholly without cover over in the primitive patch, for there is a large, seemingly new metal-roofed pavilion set between the third and fourth sites in this loop. Under it are a dozen sturdy picnic tables—it really is a big pavilion.
I should not forget to mention that the sites at Klondike, whether primitive or basic, are walk-in sites. This place is not like other campgrounds where the sites have a concrete pad that you park your car on. Our car is in a parking space about 150 yards away, maybe 175. Because rain was threatening when we got here yesterday, we initially dumped all our gear under the pavilion, using it as a way station between the car and our site. I was mainly worried that we wouldn't be able to get our tent set up before it rained. Even if we could get the tent set up without the rain hitting, I still wasn't sure we would be able to get a fire going and cook dinner on it without getting wet. There is at least one stand-up grill right beside the pavilion, so that was our fallback plan for cooking. But the rain did hold off and eventually we ferried everything from the pavilion down to our site at the far end of the loop.
Our site has some grass and a lot of plantains—a weed we've been keenly removing from our yard because grass seems to have a hard time growing alongside. The soil here is surprisingly sandy. The tent stakes went in without much trouble but there are some rocks here and there below the surface. Actually, because the soil is so sandy, a couple of the stakes looked to be pulling out a bit as we went along tightening up the fly. It's a bit wet here now on this Saturday morning. My Toms are sandy and soaked. There is a good bit of sand in the tent. Squirt is a bit grubby. It's humid. It was humid all night. At some point the breeze went away. I missed the sound of it in the trees, and the air became stagnant in a negative way. On the bright side, our new air mats are a major upgrade over that frumpy comforter we were previously using as our "pad". Not only do they get us and our bones off of the ground, but they also pack up better.
B got up first. I had gotten up a bit earlier, but only to go to the bathroom. She took Squirt for a walk and I was lying there, debating whether or not to go join them. I figured I probably wasn't really going to get back to sleep, even though I needed a few more hours. So I got up and went and found them by the shower house. From there we ambled over to the "Power Line" trail. It runs along the top of the bluff overlooking the Missouri valley. We only took it for about a quarter of a mile though. It was muddy and hemmed in pretty good with weeds and outgrowth that included poison ivy. I was hoping that it would lead to a clear view across the river toward the power plant but we never gained that vista.
I had a dream last night I dropped my iPod in water, and ended it. A few minutes ago I walked over to the picnic table and picked up this notebook, on which my iPod stealthily lay. The iPod slid off, hit the bench running along one side of the picnic table, and fell innocently to the ground. I said to myself, "At least it didn't fall into water." But when I looked at the screen my head spun. The screen now has a dozen cracks running through it, looking like the satellite view of a river delta. Chaos theory, fractals comes to mind. Thankfully it still works.
III. Saturday: The Overlook, A Drive to Augusta, Thoughts on Labadie.
We took the car out after making a stop at the overlook point. The power plant is clearly visible to the south/east, its three looming stacks taller than anything anywhere close. The power plant draws your eye, but the river is visible too—the Missouri—flowing north toward its eventual confluence with the Mississippi. After scanning the panoramic view from left (north) to right (south), what caught my fancy more than anything weren't the cell towers on the not-too-distant hills of western St. Louis County—I think it's those towers giving us three dots of 3G, a connection superior to any we've yet had camping—but the farmland to the south. Corn, livid with green, eye-high before July. And beans, and sweeping fields of wheat. I am delivered back to the cover of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. Think of a golden yellow and contrast it starkly with the most healthy green around it. It was a subject for Grant Wood or Thomas Hart Benton. Prime farmland, as rich as the river—the ultimate place to grow crops as long as it isn't flooding. Because it's bottomland, alluvial soil, not elevated much higher than the river itself. You pays your money and you takes your chances. I took a photo and posted it on IG, but I don't think I came close to saying what I really wanted to say.
There was a killdeer hen up there, sitting on a rock, nursing her eggs. When we got up to the overlook a mother of two asked us if we had seen the crazy bird. Looking out and seeing a hard-to-miss turkey vulture circling just off the edge of the bluff, I said, "Yeah, it's a turkey vulture." She said, "No, not that. There's a killdeer over there acting all crazy on the rocks." Her two kids had noticed it yesterday. I imagine they noticed it when it was doing its "fake broken wing" act, something killdeer will do to try to draw one's attention away from their eggs or chicks. If it weren't doing this signature act, the bird would be very difficult to notice because even when the two kids were over there looking at the mama killdeer sitting on its nest there in the middle of a slab of sandstone, it was rather well camouflaged and hard to pick out against the background. Either way, I was glad to see two kids get interested in a bird. I can still see them standing at a certain distance just looking at the mama killdeer sitting there, rapt and reverent.
We both used the restroom up there, a Phoenix composter—no cigs, no plastic, no chemical toilet waste. And voila—humus. It was perhaps when I was up at the overlook, feeling the need, and realizing that there was actually a bathroom up there, that my appreciation for Klondike Park—how it was put together—began to condense. We walked back down the steep, paved path toward the parking lot. Squirt was flitting right along, enjoying the space and the day and the passersby who frequently wanted to give him a little pat on the head. One lady called him a "little chicken," affectionately. Several kids in the park came up to him over the course of the weekend and asked if they could pet him. The fact of their asking now astounds me. Who taught them to ask and why are they actually doing as they were told to do? They also seemed to offer first their hand, for smelling—a lot of people do this. I was never taught to do this. It's good etiquette and I'm grateful that it exists.
B asks if I think the skunk I saw late last night (early today) was the same one we saw yesterday along the Power Line trail at sundown. I chew my lip.
"Maybe—it looked the same. It coulda followed his scent back here." I nod to Squirt but as I say it I feel kind of silly: as if I don't have a scent it could have followed, too. Squirt is pooped. He's lying in his taxi, looking out at us, fighting sleep. He ate some apple with us and finally drank some water out of the yogurt container we repurposed as his water bowl.
We took 94 south, first past Augusta before doing a quick u-turn on highway T and circling back to take the road leading to Mt. Pleasant, Augusta Brewing, and historic downtown Augusta. Our chief objective was to procure a bag of ice. We piddled slowly around the streets of Augusta—Main, High, 5th, Webster. We went down to, and then crossed, the Katy Trail before dead-ending at what could have been mistaken for the ball field from Field of Dreams—a baseball field pretty much surrounded by tall, green, tassled corn. I left the car running (B's phone was charging) and got out and took a few photos that didn't really come out like I hoped. I was going for some creepy cornfield takes but they didn't come off.
Then we went and did a drive by of Mt. Pleasant, a winery with an expansive patio offering an excellent view of the Missouri valley. It was only ten o'clock and there wasn't anyone around, kind of surprising. I was gripped by the well-maintained, rolling grass layout of the Augusta town park across the street from Mt. Pleasant. There was a guy out there at a picnic table, apparently just enjoying some solitude in a peaceful setting mid-morning on a Saturday. I was thinking: get some disc golf baskets, set them up at strategic spots throughout the park, and toss disc while the gals get tipsy on Missouri wine across the street.
We still had to get that ice and the only option that we saw was a throwback, "ripped from the pages of history" sort of general store that we passed by right when we got to Augusta. When I walked in the proprietor was just sort of walking his aisles while his cigarette burned in an ashtray in a corner behind the register. It probably sounds odd but I find it endearing and somehow comforting when I walk into a place and there's a cigarette burning in an ashtray. Seeing the smoke trail up...especially in a quiet setting like the one inside that general store...it strikes me as authentic and honest and something that I fear us losing, as a society. I mean, give me the choice of hundreds of drones flying overhead or numerous cigarettes burning in ashtrays in places like this and I'll take the tobacco.
For sale was the usual convenience store fare—chips, soda, candy, pre-made deli sandies—but also bait, lures, and miscellaneous hardware. Outside were old-fashioned gas pumps that I take it still worked. And a couple of soda vending machines. I forget the name of the place and with all of the dang writing I do, or try to do, it's the one thing I really wish I had just taken the time to scribble down. Oh well. I think it was the guy's name. I bought one bag of ice for $1.75. The guy sort of looked like Carl Icahn. His face had a geography shaped by both smoke and time. I went out and got the ice. On the cooler was a note saying that the ice was subject to the honor system. It was $1.75 per bag and you were supposed to put the money in the cigar box inside the little vestibule that led to the store—the note actually had the word "vestibule" on it. That killed me. The store was red on the outside and there was an MFA sign. One other thing. I should have bought two bags of ice. My advice to you: always buy one more bag of ice than you think you need. If worst comes to worst, you waste the extra bag, it melts, and you're out $1.75. We could have used the extra bag by the time Sunday morning rolled around. It would have eased my mind, and there's no price I wouldn't consider paying for that.
Augusta rolls. It struck me as a cross between the small Illinois farm town where my mom grew up (Okawville) and the sort of dusty faux-rustic town you might find out in California's wine country. I've never been to Napa or Sonoma so I'm reaching here (but I have been to CA's central coast wine region, e.g. Paso Robles). Augusta is full of bed and breakfasts. It seemed peaceful. I drove very slow and we never had a person behind us the whole time. That is such a pleasant fact on a Saturday morning when you are out in the country and you just want to explore a little bit, in your car.
We are back at the campsite after the Augusta jaunt and it's mostly sunny, with a firm, full breeze—a lot like the weather we had when we floated the Current. I can't really hear the power plant now. I hear something whirring but I think it's a plane...I'm waiting to see if it goes away...not really. So I guess that is the power plant. B asked me a question earlier I found most interesting: "Did it seem to you like the power plant was louder last night?" And then she had an immediate follow-up: "Do you think it only seemed that way because we were lying on the ground?" Meaning: could we "hear" the plant rumble and throb and hum on an extra level because we were catching more of the vibrations by virtue of having one side of our entire bodies in communion with the ground, just a couple of miles away from the plant, as ye olde crowe flies?
My first thought was: Well, we're on the ground but now we've got those air mats so really we're not directly on the ground, we're resting just above it. That was a frivolous instant reaction and then I said to myself, "It would seem like the plant would have to work harder during the day because that's when the disproportionate bulk of power is consumed." It's then that the air conditioners are going full blast; then that the workplaces are open and lit; then that the restaurants are hosting lunch and cranking their lights and stoves and fans. If I assume that higher demand equates to a louder sound profile, it doesn't make sense that it would have been louder last night (versus right now, or when we got here Friday night) because the dead of night should be an "off-peak" period where the generation of power for retail consumption is concerned. But then there is also the question of merchant generation, whereby a monstrous plant such as Labadie is creating power to sell into the wholesale market, to be sold in turn on the retail level by other power companies all over the Midwest, whether they be shareholder-owned, arranged as co-ops, or run by municipalities....
Labadie running full-bore in the middle of the night to create supply for the wholesale market makes some sense because B was right: it sure as heck did seem to me that Labadie was louder last night. It was a whole, constant, thrumming wave of white noise spilling our way across the river without any conscience. It sounded like you would imagine the ship from Close Encounters of the Third Kind would have sound, if you had gotten close to it. And I guess it's like the cigarette burning in the corner behind the register at the general store because I found myself really enjoying the sound of the plant wailing away at three o'clock in the morning, pumping that power all across the land. It was surreal and comforting at the same time—mysterious even. It makes for a welcome complement to latent, inevitable campground noise (although there is no way it could mask the sound of someone chopping wood a hundred yards away).
The only other variable in effect—and B, to her credit, mentioned this (and I was like, "Damn girl, you a regular Marie Curie up in here! You wantin' to isolate variables and shit. That's Science!")—is: what else is making noise now that wasn't also making noise throughout the night? There are the birds, the planes, the breeze, the insects, and the frogs (there are tree frogs that at first I thought were a sort of unusual bird, tending to get a bit froggy whenever the sky spits a little). There is the "new arrival" camping couple a few sites away currently in the process of setting up their camp for the night. (Did I mention, by the way, that Paul Bunion and his Oblivious Blue-Veined Ox have taken their tent and apparently left for good?) There are cars and motorcycles out on 94, probably less than 400 yards away. There is us. The act of all of us other entities making noise, i.e. vibrations, has a counter-effect at least somewhat drowning out what is coming our way from the power plant. And then there remains the possibility that I really have no understanding as to how power plants work—or, at least, not this power plant—and that the night time might be the right time to be burning that coal and blasting that gas and sending it to homes all across the grand state of Missouri, to homes like mine, where the AC is set on hold at a modest 79 degrees but the dehumidifier in the subporch is probably hard at work as we speak, requiring not a small amount of juice to take water out of the air and store it in a reservoir just beneath.
IV. Later Saturday: Showers and The World Cup.
It is three o'clock in the afternoon, Saturday. About ninety minutes ago B and I both heard with confusion what I first took to be a "step-up" in the kindly breeze we'd been enjoying amidst the intermittent sunlight. It turned out to be rain. Henny penny, the sky was falling! I scrambled to get into a bucket whatever I deemed of utmost priority. The first thing I grabbed was Exley's A Fan's Notes. Then, cigarettes (I smoked four cigarettes over the weekend). B got her phone, my tennis shoes. I grabbed the charred half-pieces of wood remaining from this morning's cookfire and tossed them under the shower liner draped over the lawn-refuse bag full of what's left of the mix and match pieces of wood we brought). None of us immediately addressed the two sides of the tent's rain fly that were "flapped up" (held in place by unfailing magnets). But B alerted me to it soon enough and, in retrospect, that first chortle of rain turned out to be a useful drill for this erstwhile scout.
We took a handful of goods and concessions back under the pavilion with us. A few minutes after we were confident we had everything crucial covered it really started to toss off. We sat under the pavilion and listened to ESPN radio coverage of the World Cup on Brazil and ate sourdough pretzels and kettle-cooked chips and really enjoyed where we were in the world—I guess I can only speak for myself and hope that B felt the same way, too. I switched the radio to "The Wood, 89.1"—the station of local college Lindenwood University. B listens to that station in the car oft enough that it is sometimes "on" when I am next to command that particular vehicle and back it out of our lovely little drive on Vexvale Avenue in College City, USA! Sometimes I will listen to a song or two, it all depends.
Brazil had just resorted to penalty kicks to fend off Chilé in the World Cup. I listened at first via the 3G stream surprisingly available here before realizing that, because it was Saturday, the game should be on the local radio (101 ESPN, FM). It was indeed. Once I plugged a spare aux cord into the headphone jack of my little Sangean DT-400W, it came in clear (I no longer had to hold the radio—I didn't have to serve as the antenna, something I'm reluctant to do while camping because it means finding an optimal spot for reception and staying there, indefinitely). It poured for about five minutes. I remarked on how we were experiencing another stretch during which a particular weather pattern held court. First there was the inimitably oppressive "heat dome," characterized by humid triple-digit temperatures with no rain; then there was the "polar vortex" this past winter when we got our asses kicked by single-digit temperatures, dogged wind, and relatively large amounts of snow. Now we have a pseudo-Tropical North complex by which the sky is half cloudy/half sunny and it can rain within any ninety-minute window. If it's sunny, don't trust it—it could soon rain. If it's rainy, don't fret, it'll be sunny soon (which it is now, and much more humid, of a sudden). Rain does not approach in the orderly fashion of a west to east, left to right front. It could come from anywhere: the southeast as a source of multiple rain events a couple of weeks ago was an incredible oddity. In this weather phenomena, rain can come from anywhere and it can bring a charge of wind with it.
A group of four skinny, bare-chested teenagers came and scoped out and then returned to populate a tent on Site 3—the site just south of the pavilion. The couple just a few sites away left, apparently on a bike ride, before the rain started, and hadn't yet returned by the time B and I and Squirt walked up to the shower house to sit around a round metal table, under the cover of both sun and rain and—importantly—just a few feet from a power outlet to which we are plugged in and to which we are currently getting turnt up!
B was across the table from me. I had moved from a seat where I was getting harassed by a wasp. Once I moved, I realized that it only wanted me to move so it could attend to its papery nest beneath. To think I thought about killing it.
She says, "There are two things I could really use right now." I made a guess but it was wrong. "A nap and a shower," she says.
It was getting a bit randy about my person and I said, "I've got soap, shampoo, and conditioner in the camp kit—if you want to take a shower, you could do it." I wanted one myself, too. She went and got the sundries from out of the camp kit while I sat here and wrote in certiorari. I unhooked Squirt's leash and wrapped it around the leg of one of the benches and ran the line back through the leash handle and then put the clasp back on his collar. Then I set the leash at a particular length. I attempted to force him to drink some water, which nears water boarding in practice but the ends justify the means: the dog won't drink water when he needs to.
B returned too soon—the ladies' two shower stalls were booked so I went for mine and I loved it. I wish the water was actually cooler—it has gotten to the point of the warm season when I find myself craving the sensation of jumping into a pool. I was also wishing I had opted to bring a pair of crox or flip flops instead of my Toms. I went barefoot in the shower, something I try to avoid doing as a general rule. At least it seemed clean in there.
My shower goods pack for the camp kit needs work. The soap I had was in its original paper box. I had probably picked it up from the hotel we were at in New Orleans. It's possible it goes as far back as when I was in the Bay Area in 2011. I had previously concocted, for this purpose, a soap-in-an-old-container-of-floss trick but the trickster tricked himself—something I will admit happens too often. For a recent stay at my parents' house while my brother was in town, I quickly grabbed hygiene items to pack and, looking for floss, I grabbed what sure looked to me like a container of floss. After eating a couple ears of corn in BelleVegas I went for my floss and—whuh whahhh—it was soap in there. I had to laugh a little, and I did.
I'm clean now but I'm dropping sweat like a Shriner throwing candy from a float at a Memorial Day parade. B is taking her shower. There's a modest breeze but it needs to find some friends or I'm gonna keep sweating.
B got her phone up to 84%. She's showered and ready to go back to the campsite. I'm at 77% and hanging back. I'm sitting here writing—I was polishing off a Sapporo tall boy but he's history—with my little radio on speaker playing the World Cup (Colombia 1, Uruguay 0). People are coming and going. I'm not worried about anything. I'm looking at these two primo basic campsites, The Twins, numbers three and four. There isn't a soul at either one and I'm just SMH.
I'm not going to write much more while I'm still in this park and I want to summarize some of my thoughts. It's a well-planned park. There are trash cans wherever you need one (and they're not overflowing). We aren't even running a trash bag of our own at our site because there is a trash can twenty feet away. There are also well positioned "Aluminum Cans Only" recycling bins. The beer we brought with us is in cans only, not bottles. The bias of camping leans heavily in favor of aluminum. It weighs less, it packs up better, and at a place like this you can recycle the cans.
Many of the streets in the park are one way, which makes them very walkable. The Katy Trail runs right along the eastern boundary. This park, this St. Charles County Park is in its infancy but also in its heyday. I go into the shower house and I look up and I don't see cobwebs or dust or dinge. I see a ceiling that looks like it was put together five years ago. There is a "freshness" about Klondike that I would challenge anyone to find at another camping destination anywhere close to anywhere around right here.
Colombia just went up 2-0. It's a shame Suarez is such a biting fiend. This match never had a chance.
It's four o'clock. We won't be up all that much longer. Why? Because it won't get any better than this. I told B, "My ideal sleeping hours (for camping) are 8 p.m. to 4 a.m." I want to get up and check out that birding area, before or after driving up to the overlook again for what I hope is a colorful sunrise. I am looking forward to hearing that power plant crank tonight. Spin, turbines, spin!
V. Sunday Morn: Babler Drive-by.
There are deer on the campground drive. Two of them. Tons of RVs. Once you get to the "tent" camping area, it's a bit woody and the sites are sized for Micro Machines. There isn't much green space in the tent camping area. The RV campers need all of the green space for a reason I don't grasp. I see some people staging their tents on concrete and my blood boils. Babler State Park is a letdown. Maybe that's why a guy came here a couple months ago and shot his son and then himself. Tent campers for Green Space! God, I can see the bumper stickers now. Takeaway: it doesn't take much longer to get to Klondike and this might be my last time here.
VI. After the Un-pack (Sunday).
We were back home by nine. I unloaded the car and B washed Squirt. I strew out the tent, fly, bags, shower liner, and footprint to dry. What could be turned inside out I did—I have in theory been dubious of beach or oceanside camping because of that fearful additive: sand. A hundred thousand grains were scattered in the tent, in the chair bags, on the car mats—maybe some at the end of B's sleeping bag. There couldn't have been any in mine because I never got into my sleeping bag.
It rained two or three times throughout the night. I had re-pinned the fly back upon itself (via magnets!) at some odd hour after the first rain. It was humid, especially in the tent—I was sweating, I sought better airflow. A few hours later I waked for some unapparent reason, and B had stirred, too. I took one earplug out and when I did I heard her say, "Is it raining?" It was. A few drops had certainly gotten in. I groggily fumbled for the magnet on the underside of the fly. They're kind of a pain in the ass, these magnets, but do you know of a better way? A safety pin to pierce the membrane? A piece of tape to come and go? Who wants to screw around with a fancy knot at 2:30 in the morning amidst raindrops? I didn't think so. The magnets are my obedient little minions and I am building an army of hack.
Whether it was rain or sweat or both, the top side of my pillow was soaked and my air mat was damp on the side I patronized. I bulldozed through it all. I stuck my earplug back in and careened into sleep. On the other side of the treeline, in another primitive campsite loop, the world's most enthralling game of wist was still raring and blaring. Go fish yourself...
At three it was quiet and I took out my earplugs, went to take a leak, and pinned the fly back up. I looked for but I could not see a skunk. The power plant droned on but it didn't thrum. I couldn't feel it like I did on Friday.
At five it started raining again. I put the fly back down and it rained pretty good for twenty or thirty minutes. I(t) was sweaty in the tent. Squirt was starting. Once the rain stopped we put ourselves together and made to break camp.
We had taken to the car last night what we were pretty sure we would not use again: the mini cooler (empty); one of the chairs. We weren't going to cook in the morning. I burned all of the wood I had on hand (some big pieces I never did take out of the car). B cooked the last burger patty and then made two turkey melts. We split each. They were very good. Schnucks country bread, baby swiss, Boar's Head sliced maple turkey. Butter spray into the double pie iron. B blends blacksmithery and barbecue and deli counter and the result confounds and resounds but never flounds.
It was early Sunday but the trip was screeching to an end. I want to revisit last night. Once the sun went behind the bluff, our world cooled off. I thought we were done once we went back to our site after showering. But we weren't. We jumped this morning's plan and walked over to the "birding area," which I never had reason to get excited about, based on how it looked on the map.
I'm writing this now on Sunday, flagging. I want to talk about the bluffs we could see, how when you looked up at them it really did feel like you were standing at the bottom of a quarry, or a canyon. Most of the expansive birding area was given either to marshy fens or to what might have been the makings of a prairie, populated by wildflowers such as Queen Anne's Lace or black-eyed Suzan. Mixed within was a network of sandy walking paths. We didn't see any birds but it was a mesmerizing blend of landscapes, the fens breaking up the would-be prairie, with the face of a three hundred foot high bluff watching over it all. The bluffs themselves were two-toned, changing from limestone grey to a reddish-orange color about halfway up, possibly denoting the end of the limestone strata and the beginning of what I figure was a rock made both from sand and clay. At the top of the wall were trees, and behind them was Highway 94. We were the only people out there. It was a special spot, we thought, the unassuming "Birding Area"/Bluff Trail at Klondike Park.
VII. Letter of Resignation—Retracted.
It is Tuesday. I remember when I worked at the Washington U med school, for ten months after I graduated. I was interviewing people who had used ecstasy, probing them for all of the possibly negative side-effects they had experienced during or after using the drug. In the lore, ecstasy users would occasionally encounter "Terrible Tuesdays", the eventual effect of burning through a week's worth of their beneficial neurotransmitters on Saturday night. All day Sunday they would sleep, the story goes. They could grind through Monday on coffee and adrenaline but when they woke up Tuesday and realized that the whole rest of the week lay before them like a forest of thorns they would become despondent and have a breakdown. And that's where I found myself on this particular Tuesday, July the first.
When I looked at the futures this morning, which have been tepid of late (up ten, down five, up three, down six), and I saw that they were up 41 my heart sank a little into my belly. Then when I got to work and I saw the recently released list of client accounts that were going to get hit by a new "account maintenance fee" I lost it. It was more than I could take on a terrible Tuesday after being so high on my outside life at Klondike Park over the weekend. I refuse to see the justness of these ridiculous money-grab fees, which used to hit a much smaller number of accounts. I'm not a good salesman to begin with—I have no stomach for it. Low prices motivate me, red on the screen motivates me. For most of the last 30 months low prices and red on the screen have been birds so rare that I've given up hope of ever seeing one. So I've tendered my letter of resignation. I'm done in two weeks. What I'll do then I really have no idea. I fear boredom. I fear day drinking. What I will really miss is casting aspersions on those who "don't work." I will miss feeling better than them. I won't be able to drive through Forest Park at 3:45 on a summer's day—when I would normally be driving through the park on my way home from work, navigating through all the people and commotion—and wonder to myself, "Does anybody work anymore?" I'll be one of the hangers-on. I'll be back where I was six years ago: going nowhere and in too much of a goddamned hurry to get there.
I ran cross country one year in high school. I wasn't very good. It was a fall sport. I had run a lot (I thought) the summer before but, in retrospect, even though I had gone running a lot I really hadn't gone on any long runs. That first cross country practice I recall starting out at what was, compared to the other supposedly "good" runners, a strong pace. At one point early into that first jaunt I was frustrated with how slow we were going. "Let's go!" I thought. And I thought, "I'm going to be one of the best runners on the team." We were doing a six-mile run, though. After three I was average; after four I was starting to realize I wasn't all that; at the end I was just happy I had made it six miles. So much for re-casting my identity as "Jack, the runner, where did he come from?" Later that season I was still on the team but my mind was elsewhere. At a meet at Waubonsie Valley I was sitting in the gym on the bleachers, after the guys had all run and we were waiting for the gals, or vice versa. Anyway, I was reading this pathology textbook—pathology as in cutting into dead people to find out what had killed them. This was way before the days of CSI. I had had to read actual books to get the half-baked idea that I was going to be a doctor who did autopsies. I credit Michael Crichton. Of course I wanted people to see me reading this abstruse book of diseases and their indications, visible in such and such tissues of the corpse in front of you. But the following summer, the one between my junior and senior years of high school, I did my IMSA-diploma-mandated volunteer work. I chose to serve as one of the persons who ferries patients at the hospital from their rooms to and fro their various tests or appointments. The patients were usually people who were old and sick but still alive (for now). And I remember the basic smell of these people, their "near death" smell. I remember how frail they were, how crispy their hair seemed, how the skin on their thighs seemed flappy. A lot of a person gets exposed as you move them from a bed to a stretcher or a wheelchair and all they're wearing is a crappy hospital gown. As I racked up my volunteer hours I started realizing, "Christ! If people look and smell this bad when they're still alive, what the hell am I going to have to endure when I start cutting on them when they're dead?"
I still started out pre-med in college but my heart was never in it. By then I had started to transfer my "hoped for" identity to birds, to the outdoors, to science in a more general sense. I read a book or two about scientists doing field work. There was that book about a scientist looking for all the sorts of plants in the rainforest that the indigenous shamans used—and about how we, white people, might use them too. Washington U had a faculty member, last name Losos, who as I recall actually went to the rain forest, and who I figured was doing something with his life similar to what I was then imagining I wanted to do.
I went and saw him and said how I was into birds and animals and identifying wildlife, trees, whatever. He gave me the hard truth about how, "Yeah. You can get out into nature, into the rain forest, but a lot of what I have to spend my time on is computer programming. If you want to get out into the field and do your own research, you're gonna have to compile and process a lot of data and you're gonna have to learn how to write your own computer programs. You'll have to take a lot of computer science classes."
Well shit. Computer science? That's what all the nerds at IMSA did. I just spent three years scoffing at those people and trying to convince myself that I was better than them. I didn't want to take computer science classes. Fuck that.
From there I careened about, flopped around. At some point I got into psychology. Maybe because of dreams. I went and talked to the chair of the department and convinced him to hire me to help run experiments in his lab. I was there for all of about a week.
Then I was gonna be a writer, or at least a journalist. I worked on the school newspaper. I took a semester off from classes entirely and worked on the copy desk of the sports department of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. I had one article published in the newspaper during that time, an obituary for a famous coach's wife.
September the 11th happened. I got into conspiracy theories and did too many drugs. I stumbled to graduation an amalgam of good ideas and bad ones, none of them with any connection to each other whatsoever. I started this blog but didn't see it going anywhere. I went to Europe with my sister and almost had a nervous breakdown in Amsterdam. After letting my brain air out a little bit I got that job at the Washington U med school. I hated it. I went to law school. I worked for the Missouri Attorney General's office after my first year. I worked for a posh downtown Chicago law firm after my second year. The law firm offered me a job but I turned it down. I couldn't see myself working there and being the sort of person I thought I owed it to myself to be. Married now, my wife and I moved back to St. Louis. I sued the city of St. Louis. It was an unexpectedly successful lawsuit but I wasn't getting paid. I told my dad I was ready to go to work for him. He didn't have a place for me. I wrote poems and got one published. The market crashed. My dad hired me. I did paperwork at first and then started to work on my own accounts, my siblings' accounts. I slowly started to buy. That was 2009. I started talking to clients. In May of 2010 the market fell 9% in a minute and I had orders clicking off left and right. It was bliss. I milked the 2011 downgrade of the U.S. credit rating. I was buying steadily through May of 2012 and into the close on June 4, 2012—the last goddamned day that the S&P 500 has spent in correction territory. Other than managing to keep my marriage together, and taking decent care of the little ball of goodness that is our dog, the last two years have been the most frustrating and the least successful years of my life. I offered my resignation because I couldn't take the failure anymore, because quitting seemed a lot easier than staying on and continuing to bash my head into a wall every day.
And then I retracted my resignation because I realized I'm even more displeased by all of my quitting. I have more work to do. I have made thousands of plans for hundreds of people, and they're good plans (and some of them are good people), and I can't walk away—yet.
So I'll keep on prepping for the next crash and prepping my camping kit—and writing—until I start to smell bad, and someone has to wheel me out.
—Augusta / St. Louis,