Monday, May 19, 2014
Meramec State Park, May 2014
I. Friday Afternoon.
We're here! We've been here for about 90 minutes. The tent is up; I'm well into a 12 oz. La Fin; the Cardinals are trying to come back and tie the Cubs. It's 6-5 in the top of the eighth. B is reading her crossword puzzle mystery by Parnell Hall.
On the way down here we stopped at the impressive, incomparable Shaw Nature Reserve. I haven't done that much birding in years. My one wish was to see a bluebird. I really wanted B to see one. We saw one right away—pellucid blue on its wings, head, and back. Chestnut neck and upper chest. Relatively long wings considering its slight size; kind of swallow-y in demeanor.
The first one popped up from the ground and perched on a two-foot high reed for a minute, letting us get a real good look. Where I lived during my later grade school years—there used to be plenty of bluebirds out there, at first. But eventually they all went away and didn't come back. We saw between five and ten bluebirds at Shaw.
As we were starting out on the main trail, heading out toward the far end of the reserve, we crossed paths with a birder lady who, eyeing the binoculars around my neck, asked, "Have you seen anything interesting?" Now, I don't consider myself a hard-core birder, but I've spent some time around hard-core birders, enough to know that this is not a simple question. If I say, "Yeah, I saw a bluebird," I get dismissed as a hack on the spot. So I just played dumb and let her talk. What had she seen? "A lot of yellow rumps. Indigo bunting. Vireos—red-eyed, blue-eyed. Tanagers. I was really hoping to see the Blackburnian, but I haven't—yet. Oh, and blue-wing—do you know what blue-wings look like?"
I was dazed, trying to hold my footing. I knew what language she was speaking but I wasn't quite fluent in it. Blue-wing, I'm thinking. Blue-wing, blue-wing—blue-wing what? Instead of pursuing this, I hear a call that B and I had heard a couple of times, that I did not know. It was a teasing, flirtatious call from up on high. "What is that?" I say. "Oh, parula? Everybody knows parula. You don't see them, but you hear them."
She had arthritis in her fingers. Rheumatoid or osteo, you know, I'm not sure, I didn't look close enough. She wore a pair of Swarovskis around her neck. She proceeded to show me, on her phone, what a blue-winged warbler looks like. And the Blackburnian—which was familiar to me, but only because I'd seen it before in my trusty Audubon Field Guide. It is a striking warbler, yellow-breasted with striking black lines streaking this way and that across its head. She was generous. She was saying she liked to look for birds at Los Valley Conservation Area, off 94. We'd have to try that, I said. She really wanted to see that Blackburnian.
"The calls are important," she says. "At first I didn't pay attention to the sounds. The lady I started birding with was hard of hearing, so we didn't worry about the sounds."
We parted ways. B asked if I was going to write about her. "She was a character," says B. Indeed.
The Redbirds are down a run. Top of the ninth. How about it, fellas?
They lose 6-5. So now we're listening to music. The fire is going. It's a test for the wood I got at Endicott. Good, hard oak. It's taking but smoking a bit.
"What makes it smoke?"
"Too much moisture, I'd think. But I don't really know, now that I think about it. Green wood versus seasoned wood. How are they different, really? It could be more than just moisture."
B is calling out the trailers as the come down the road leading to all of the campsites. We've got a front-row seat. An extended-cab F-150 hauling a full trailer—something that looks like it could drive itself. And in the back of the pickup, standing up, is a Weber kettle. Hauling! Whoo, that fire's getting hot now. It's partly cloudy, about 60 degrees, the wind variable, with some "I'm thinking about getting windy" gusts. Pleasant. Plenty of light left. It's 5:15 p.m. central daylight time. It feels later than that. Dodgers at Marlins starts at 6:10. I'm getting two dots of 3G out here. Not acid, reception. I'm streaming, baby! A Wrangler goes by with two kayaks on top of it.
Pop-up camper. We've seen several of those. I was able to the state park wi-fi going on my iPod. I had tried, briefly, earlier to pull up a wi-fi network but got nothing and moved on. I was saying I was disappointed because the Missouri State Parks website was saying very proudly on there: wi-fi in all MO parks. So I tried again: pulled up the wi-fi on my iPod and bam! Gonna stream some ball!
II. Friday Night.
Saw a pileated woodpecker. Had a small, procure-some-coals-for-pie iron-cooking fire. Watched the bluebirds on the green. Drank Ashland Amber and then a little Old Crow Reserve. Peaceful.
The showerhouse is about a four-minute walk away. Seemed alright. The park is filling up nicely. At one point they were queued up at the check-in station waiting for entrance. It's been as close to a swarm of woodpeckers as I've ever seen. Red Heads, Red Bellies, and that stately, plump Pileated. I'm sad about needing to conserve wood for cooking tomorrow—it never lasts as long as you think it will!—but it'll be dark before long and we have BIG plans for tomorrow morning. It's going to come early, and it's going to be beautiful.
B went up to the showerhouse one last time. She ate some of the dill Krunchers. She said they had a little vinegar in them and I took the opportunity to recall that bag of sea salt and vinegar chips I rescued from the lap of a forlorn camp chair the Sunday morning of last fall's farm party. Motorcycles now. Two of them. I guess they've been here all along. Last time I walked up to the showerhouse I distinctly recall hearing someone say, "No, they're going riding."
B's back. I'm not sure what's going on. In comes a motorcyle with what looks like a pop-up behind it. Elsewhere in the camp are tightrope walkers. I think of that documentary. Things are starting to get kind of heady. They tie their rope between two trees and I'm thinking, "Hammock between two trees, not a tightrope line...." I look up and it's the gloaming. The gloaming, friend! I see contrails, dissolving. And it dawns on me that "dissolving contrail" would make a great paint swatch.
We are running out of light. Something is being lost here, all around me, and as much as I try I cannot do anything about it. Campers keep coming in. They had to work today—we did not, that is our luxury, and our fortune. In comes an RV pulling a car. "Pop up!" We've seen a lot of pop-ups at this point. It's getting cool. Our hands are cool. They get that way, don't they? "Everyone has a large truck out here, don't they?" We have a Jeep. We won't raise 'em, but we'll see 'em. Three large trucks, one Suburban, one motorcycle. Tail lights in succession at the check-in station. DJ Bene. The sound of brothers playing catch. Pop! Thwamp! Pop! Thwamp! One is a lefty.
I had one of B's old-tyme knit winter hats in the Jeep, the sort of thing you might find as you unpacked your suitcase in a dream. It comes in handy. We sit and wonder about what night birds we might hear. The farm's offerings of constant whip-poor-will and occasional barred owl are daunting. But maybe we'll hear something different, something new. It's Electro Mix 18. "Do it, Bene. Do it!" I rate it five stars. A little color is coming into the sky. There's not a single thing in life that I would change right now. Clouds here and there are taking on a pink hue and some painterly grays. We are under walnuts.
III. Sat Morn.
Expectations of campgrounds as quiet places are unfounded. Sitting here at 6:15 I'm hearing not just the birds but also someone's yippy dog.
Last night, after dark, after we had turned in, but admittedly not that late (yet), a crew rolled into the campsite two posts down. A couple of them are real laughers, and everything is funny. At first they were trying to pick out a campsite in the dark and I remember hearing a gal saying, “But I think someone’s on that site. I think someone’s already there.” I’m not gonna drone on negative and bitch-fest. That’s not what I’m here to do. But it’s always something—that’s the rule. There are exceptions—and those are in heaven.
I popped my ear plugs in and if I wanted to hear anything with those in, I really had to work at it. The upside was that I did not get spooked. There are enough people around that I felt enough at ease, as far as rabid coyotes or escaped convicts go. And with those ear plugs in, I couldn’t have heard much anyway. And I didn’t hear much. I did not hear whatever it was that chewed a couple of holes in the trash bag we have hanging off the end of our picnic table. I did not hear whatever it was, with dirty hands, that was pawing at the cooler with the eggs and bacon and beef and cheese in it. Raccoon? Likely. Bear? Maybe. Coulda been opossum. Anyhow, it didn’t get into the cooler and there was nothing of substance to find in the trash bag. We didn’t even cook last night.
But B is doing her best short-order cook impression as we speak and I can hear that bacon sizzling. As far as the campground goes, nothing in particular stands out. When it’s just me and B, we tend to go to bed a bit too early—we are, ahh, pushing the limits of the ahh, ahh, social norm, so to speak—mmh, hmm. (That’s my Foghorn Leghorn.) The coffee is starting to hit—what can I say?
B says the eggs only take a minute in the pie iron. She gets the bacon to about a minute away and then adds a couple cracked eggs. We are completely through the first big brown bag of wood. I’m already starting to get woodlust. Time to add the eggs. There are plenty of vacant non-electric sites yet around us, but some of the post-tags have had their status altered at some point in the night. At least one of the adjacent empty sites—98—shows the 98-4 designation, the four being the day on which the booking ends. Today’s the third of May, so someone’s booked it for tonight. And this campground, like most campgrounds, won’t let you just book one weekend night, it’s a minimum of two—so I suppose they paid for last night as well, even though they weren’t here.
Driving in tent stakes here versus at the farm, quite a contrast. Here I could just push them in. At the farm, you need a bunker-buster.
I had…three beers  last night. I think I brought nine. I feel good this morning. Not too sore. We’re site 96. If I came back here, I’d probably angle for something in the triple digits: 102 or 103. One-ten is the end of the circle as it goes around (one way). What I like about our site is that it doesn’t back up to another site. Yeah, we’re close to the road, but that hasn’t bothered us. We even liked doing Camp Vehicle Theater yesterday. The late arrivees next to us have a PT Cruiser. Actually not a bad tent-camping vehicle, when you think about it, what with the big back-end and wide-berth back gate. I rented one once, in California.
The fire is dwindling. B’s got most of the cooking done. Now it’s time for the toast—that same French-loaf style we had at the farm, sliced ahead of time. It has notes of sourdough. Tonight: Frisco Melts!
No tick sightings so far. There are some gnats about but it’s early yet for mosquitoes. The sound of a train in the distance. I could hear the traffic from out on I-44 this morning before I got out of the tent. At 5:42, I decided it was time to move.
The woodpeckers have been at it for a while. No bluebirds yet today. The crows are croaking. Following up on the birds from yesterday, I could not conclude that the description of the northern parula’s song matched the teasing call I had heard and found so alluring—and which the birder lady said was a parula—yesterday at Shaw. So, I guess I still don’t know parulas. But I am going on record to say we saw the following birds: summer tanager (the female, mind you, a flutter of mustard—the male is red) and indigo bunting, which was like a jet of payne’s gray paint squirted out of the tube flying past us. And, both at Shaw and here, the chipping sparrow, a.k.a. the hair bird. They take hair apparently. They used to get plenty of hair from horses but horses aren’t as common as they used to be so now hair birds will pluck strands from sleeping dogs. This made me think of a cartoon with a chipping sparrow where it goes up to a camper and says, “Uhh, where’s your dog at?”
IV. Saturday, past noon.
But not too far past noon. Cards Cubs on KMOX. The wi-fi remains very spotty at best. Our Verizon connection isn’t much better. B queries “Cardinals Radio Network Sullivan” and a few second later says, “Try…one-oh-two point one.” Bingo! Clear as day. I have it playing on the little speaker on my Sangean weather radio. Beats the phone, beats the Braven Bluetooth speaker (which isn’t much use without the phone). But we had to know what the local station was. There are trips I’ve taken during the baseball season when I have looked ahead to see what the affiliates would be as we made our way, say, to middle Tennessee. I’ve gotten away from doing that. The Sangean DT-400W is a great little radio. I did plug my aux cord into the headphone jack, which helps the reception quite a bit. It acts like an antenna.
We walked this morning for a good two hours, on various little trails around here. What we thought was the Deer Hollow Trail turned out to be just an old road, leading up a hill. But it was a good path, with old pavement still in place, covered my moss and countless leaves. We saw the male version of the summer tanager up that way. It was looking at us curiously. It looks very much like a male cardinal, but without the crest. Then, on the other side of the campground, and down the river road, we walked the River Trail, where we saw the Kentucky Warbler. It’s a yellow bird with stark black markings like sideburns along its face. There were a lot of other birds out there but I couldn’t confidently identify them. They remain unknown, to me. I will remember the sounds along that River Trail: lots of buzzes and warbles and trills and chips. It was a beautiful morning, with the early clouds giving way slowly to the sun. And now it’s a beautiful day, where contrails are the only clouds in the sky. It’s time to eat.
V. Saturday, mid-afternoon.
Good burgers, with swiss. I’m becoming more of a swiss guy. Sorry, cheddar. I’m letting the cookfire burn down. It’s warm enough, and light enough, and our bellies are full. I went out onto the bowling green area behind our tent and grabbed a bit more random kindling, dropped twigs and smaller branches, for later on today or perhaps tomorrow morning. B remarked on these odd—tiny—little moths that have mostly translucent wings except for being opaque (brown) in two bands across their back. One band spans the very tip of their wings, one is just below the shoulder. B said she sees them on her and thinks it’s little specks of ash. They are about two-and-a-half millimeters long and one-and-a-half millimeters wide. I think they look like a jack, like on a playing card, if his back was to you.
Earlier I said nothing about this campground stood out, but I overlooked what was then and is now again right in front of me. This lawn that I’m looking at—it’s a manse, an excerpt from a disc golf course—is in great shape. It had to have been cut just a few days ago. It’s a sprawling stretch of grass, populated with well-spaced trees. I sent Pat and Bobby a text, which included a photo of the green, and suggested that the disc-golf basket could go anywhere. I lament that I am not out on it throwing something.
I’ve re-applied the SPF50 sunscreen. I dislike the process of putting on sunscreen but it’s one of those things where there’s a voice in my head saying, “Dude. Don’t be stupid. Lather that stuff on.” And I can tell the difference immediately. I’ve gone to shorts, Crox—no socks. The feet need the sunscreen, too. It reminds me of Missy at the farm saying to me, two weeks ago, “Jack, I’m worried about you.” Clueless expression on my face in response to her. “Your feet—did you put sunscreen on them?” I just had. And someone, I’m not positive it was her, was telling me about a photo they had seen of a guy with Croc-footed sunburn: red dots.
B is reading her crossword puzzle mystery. I’m wanting to give you an update on the score of this game but I don’t actually know what the score is. I’m thinking there is no score. We’re gonna have plenty of wood tonight. Good times. But I think B and me both would say that we would like to have other companions for most of our other camp outings. There aren’t many other “sole couples” here. It throws our timing off vis-à-vis everyone else. We do everything that much quicker, without the deliberation or the down time or the hem and haw. When we’re ready for bed tonight, I’m thinking, the folks around us will be just getting started.
Junior Lake takes Wacha deep. It’s 2-0. C’mon, Cardinals!
A few of our carnie-type neighbors are now tossing a Frisbee out on the grass. They’re busker types. Not quite bohemian, although it looked like a couple of them did sleep en plein last night. And you’re not going to believe this. They brought their pet chicken!
B has lain down for a nap. I have four of those jack millers crawling on me. Miller is another word for moth, according to Reds broadcaster Marty Brenneman. The carnies have some music going. The first song they played was Johnny Cash. After they threw the Frisbee around for a while they switched to a tennis ball. You don’t see too many people play a simple game of catch with a tennis ball. It’s an unusual sight. Nor did I take the carnie crew for catch players, but I’ve got to hand it to them. One of the pieces of wood from the patty melt cookfire is still aflame. It’s one of the store-bought pieces. Once it gets going, I guess it’s pretty decent stuff. Both B and I have now made a habit of looking for and grabbing any lay-about twigs on our jaunts back from the showerhouse.
RizZo just went deep on Choate. Lefty on lefty action. It’s 3-0. This Crads team is listless. That’s it. I’m calling it right here. Either the Crads come back and tie this game or they are D-U-N. I’m not kidding. There are too many other teams showing too much life. After a Waino loss yesterday, this team cannot come out and lay another egg in Wrigley and expect to be holding a ticket to the post-season come October. I do not like the vibe this team is putting off.
Whew. This sun, I’ll tell ya. It never quits. I wonder how many lumens the sun puts out. What does that calculation even look like? The trees at this point in the year aren’t even close to being leafed out, so shade is hard to find. I’m sweating it out but I’m not uncomfortable. But considering the post-block grime of sunscreen and how much it rankles me, I might have to succumb to a shower later—like I did in the showerhouse in the park in Wisconsin—with my Crocs as showershoes. Ain’t no fungus on these gators, meat!
There’s an inch worm on my page. B is up from her siesta. I’ve relented and moved my chair to a shadier spot. The wind has picked up a bit. The carnies went fishing. Seems like a tough time of day for it. But I’ve never fished in the Meramec before and maybe they have, so what do I know? Speaking of fishers, the cave right by this campsite is called Fisher Cave. (And did you know Missouri is the Cave State?) B and I walked into the opening of Fisher Cave this morning but a considerable gate halted our progress. We weren’t gonna go very far, anyway—we had no flashlight with us. Plus, a sign on the walkway to the cave had one of those “height lines” posted, kind of like you’d see for a ride at Six Flags, except in this case the sign said, “You have to duck down to this height for a span of 100 feet in order to explore Fisher Cave.” The line was about three-and-a-half feet high. I asked my back what it thought and it said, “No, I can’t get you that low for a stretch of 100 feet.” But I would crawl it if I had to. Anyway, it doesn’t matter, the cave was not open for visitors. Maybe it has a season, like a pool, and it’s only open from Memorial Day to Labor Day, when the state hires someone to monitor it or take people on tours. Who knows!
B is back with another handful of kindling.
“Is that too many sticks?”
The thrum of a diesel engine. Saw a chopper not too long ago. There was one last night, too.
VI. Camp People.
It’s time I touched on just a few of the other souls who are this campground this weekend.
It’s time I touched on just a few of the other souls who are this campground this weekend.
Two. A woman that showed up just around lunchtime. Didn't waste any time setting up her tent. Next thing I know she's got her walking stick and she is gone hiking. I passed right near her site when I went for water. Her license plate was "JMJ RR 1". (For privacy reasons, I am withholding the state.) And I figure that as standing for "Jesus Mary Joseph, Rest and Relaxation." And then the "1" is just a one, because she was the first to request that plate. I have this lady pegged as a nun. It looks like she has her camping technique down pretty good. She had a big costco-sized plastic jar of erstwhile pretzels that now holds, among other things, a spatula. Then she had one of those huge containers of ALL, with the spigot on the side like it's a water cooler. Mainframe-sized. Doing laundry for a hotel-sized. Anyway—what's she got in there? Pretty sure it ain't detergent. I've re-used detergent containers (I cut mine open with a box cutter when I can't get any more detergent out and throw both pieces in with a load, to get it all cleaned out) but I'm not sure that I'd ever put water in it for potable purposes. Maybe hers is for ablutions.
Three. Then there's the motorcycle crew. I briefly mentioned them early, if only tangentially. This morning the lead rider is out drinking coffee in his flannel pajama bottoms, a few hours later he's all harleyed-up one-arming his handlebars as they set off down the road for a ride in the hills. Someone in that crew has a tent that is shaped just like a teepee. As I walked past them last night I heard one of them saying how he really wanted to go to Ireland, to see the castles. There's a lot more to this group of...six. B was scoping them out, too. She says the lead guy and who would seem to be his lady companion don't share a tent. It's the would-be lady friend that's in the teepee. Then it's her daughter and her daughter's boyfriend in another tent (they got up pretty late today). Then there's another couple that probably includes the guy who wants to go to Ireland.
Four. There were two Indian-looking fellas (could have been Malaysian, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan—I don't know for sure, I'm just describing people best I can). They pulled in sort of late last night in a white sedan...and they were gone this morning. They couldn't have been here for more than a few hours. Where'd they go?
Five. A couple of young guys—kids really—can't be much more than driving age. Set up their tent all frumpy around noon and then drove off somewhere. All that was on their site when they drove off was their tent and the following three items on their picnic table: two towels and a Sonic cup. They're back now.
I gotta hit the shower-house.
VII. Saturday, Late Afternoon.
If a day is like a baseball bat; and if a baseball bat has a fat part of it; then this is the fat part of the day. The sun is anti-climactic. I can still feel its strength on the back of my neck, but now I know it won't be much longer before its gone. This part of the day that we're into now is the part yesterday when the woodpeckers were the most active.
We have seen a lot of butterflies today. Not the real big ones—like monarchs or swallowtails—but the next ones down from there. One that I want to call a zebra fly. And one very similar to that but with blue instead of white on its wing stripes. Lots of bumblebees. And flies: regular ole house flies. The breeze right now is stout and friendly.
In comes a woodpecker, a downy I think. Squeek-asqueek-asqueek-asqueek-asqueek-asqueek-asqueek-asqueek-wh. There is a red-headed farther off. The red-headed woodpecker is like the bomb-pop of woodpeckers: red on top, white underneath, dark blue wings that have patches of contrasting white on them. Three adamant colors. In a tree near me, a red-bellied woodpecker is chasing some other species of woodpecker: up the trunk, down a branch, into another tree. Territory fight. Grackles feed on the ground and "check". B is putting on a long-sleeved shirt, a light one.
We've shifted our chairs to back over by the fire. I can see a whole lot more trees this way. The wide-brimmed hat is getting another workout. It's the time of day when the crows have stopped cawing and started croaking.
The carnies are back, cussing. One of them says he didn't get off until six last night. Wind gust. B gets her wine out. The bugs are easier to see at this time. Crepuscular. Still no bluebirds today, though. A pileated woodpecker swoops in and thwacks against a tree trunk, its claws sounding like a squirrel's would as it navigates its way around the tree. It leaps from the trunk up to a branch, works its way out toward the tip of the branch, makes for another tree, dropping toward the ground, its belly almost scraping before it changes its wing angle and glide-bumps upward onto a trunk.
VIII. Saturday Night.
The carnies are more subdued tonight. B is asleep and I'm not far off. Its the last stage of what was a good fire: a slow burn and not too much smoke but lots of coals along the way. We didn't do any cooking, though. It's barely cool. Some dope is running his generator a few campsites down—that's the mystery red box we saw him toying with a hundred and fifty feet away from his trailer. We saw him go out to it with his son and couldn't figure out what the heck they would set so far from their site. Running a generator after dark is specifically prohibited at Missouri State park campsites. It's on the back of the map. Unless that thing is keeping somebody alive—like there's a bubble boy in that trailer—it shouldn't be running.
But I've got my safe haven: ear plugs. I'm munching pretzel braids. I'm holding my small Mag Lite to the page. It uses two AA batteries and is not an LED lamp. It's actually nice when I want a little less light.
The biker folks have a really bright lamp going at their sight. It's like the brightest star in the sky and nothing compares. Just now the carnies are getting themselves all goobered up about something. No one ever showed up next door at camp site 98, even though it did appear to be reserved. Oh yeah, the other thing B was saying about the motor cycle crew. She said the lead guy and his ostensible mate don't ever touch. B said, "Either they're dating or they're just Harley buds." I wonder if maybe they weren't married at some point and somebody did something wrong. All I can say for sure is that that light at their site is bright enough for a baseball game to be played under.
Hunter the Dog walked over here earlier, snuck up on us. All of a sudden I realized something big was walking right up to us, all casual, and I was thinking, Is that a person? No, it was just Hunter the Dog. No big deal. I told B that I thought I smelled wet dog last night, at some point after the carnies showed up, after I had put my ear plugs in. She said, "Maybe that's what was trying to get into the cooler last night." Very possible.
I have eaten the last pretzel braid. The coals are still glowing but I'm going to go to bed.
IX. Sunday Morning.
We're on the move. It's 8:10. We will stop for gas in Sullivan. It's a beautiful morning. B cooked as I broke down the tent. Dewy.
"I don't feel that Bohemian, " says B. "I don't think there's anything Bohemian about camping."
Maybe Beat is a better word. Eschewent. Cost-minded. Outdoors loving. Walks, hikes. Stars. Wood.
We have turned off onto Highway O, and we're gonna go scope out Robertsville State Park. We pass Riverstone Quarry—piles of pulverized rock. We cross the Meramec River, again. Robertsville looks pretty full. But the sites don't look all that big and it doesn't look like there are lot of good places to pitch a tent. Slanty, rocky, woody. Ticky? We're not feeling it. Better place for a pop-up.
Robertsville Road north to get back on 44. A worthy detour. And we pop out right by Shaw Nature. Hello, Shaw. See you again soon.