I think it was me who decided we should go camping. I have fond (fairly fond) memories of camping expeditions in France as a kid. It was hardly camping though. Our 3-bed w/ kitchen Sunsites tents were already erected when we arrived. They had their own parking spaces and gardens, but in essence we were still camping. Sort of. What I remember best was the crispness of the air first thing in the morning as I walked to the bathroom blocks for my morning wash, eating outside, listening to the gentle hum of crickets and trying to cook toast over the dying embers of our nightly barbecues. These are things I’d like to experience again.
Then I have other memories of camping. Memories of the Reading and Glastonbury festivals. Conditions so horrendous the only way to maintain sanity was to drink myself into unconsciousness with vodka. There were the sticky mud baths and objectionable crusties at Reading. Then there was the pain of my charred head from the unrelenting sun at Glastonbury. And I mustn’t forget the horror of pissing and shitting onto a pile of piss and shit so high you could hide a condo in it.
In our deliberations Heidi seemed determined we’d relive the second scenario. I wanted a 3-room eleven man tent. She wanted a 4 man hovel-tent. I wanted a campsite with hot showers, a shop, maybe a restaurant and most definitely running water 5 feet from the flap of our front door. She said camping meant just getting out there in the wilds, stopping at any old place and pitching your tent. This is what she did as a child she said. She slept in cramped tents or under abandoned buildings.
“I once slept under a truck.” I said, “but it was only because I was too drunk to find my leaky tent amongst a sea of so many thousand other leaky tents.”
I had no intention of revisiting any of that.
In the end we compromised. That’s what you do in marriage. We got a 2-room 8-man tent and we booked a couple of nights in a reasonably well equipped campsite in Vermont. We’d have a tap near our tent and nearby showers that cost 25 cents per 5 minutes. There was to be no shop, no restaurant and no other luxuries for me to indulge in.
We headed towards Vermont the day after Heidi’s reunion at Williams. She was quiet in the car, a little overwhelmed after meeting so many people she thought she’d never see again. It was a fairly short drive and in no time at all we pulled into Woodford State Park. We had read that Vermont has a problem with black files around this time of the year and as soon as we had a chance we asked the ranger what the deal was.
He said, “yeah, we got those, not as bad as last week, but we got em.”
“What about mosquitoes?” Heidi asked.
“Oh yeah, there’s mosquitoes alright, though the thing you’ve really gotta look out for are the horse flies. Those things’ll give you a nasty bite.”
I gritted my teeth. I had been reading up on these black fly devils and they didn’t sound so bad. We had a huge bottle of deet for the mosquitoes and as much as I hate the things, I know where I am with them. Being blindsided by a third bug took me totally by surprise. It had never occurred to me that we might receive a triple-pronged attack. Goddam this stupid country, I cursed for the 14,000th time in the last 5 years.
The forest was quite beautiful and as we drove towards out site we caught sneak glimpses of the lake around which the tents were situated. How bad could it be we thought. It was the middle of the day and 90 degrees, bugs aren’t able to stand conditions like this.
When we pulled into our plot and turned the engine off, it started immediately. The tip-tap of bugs on the car windows ended any illusions that these things might sleep through the day. Literally seconds after getting out of the car we had all been bitten. Heidi and I thrashed around swiping at them, limbs spiraling frenetically. Billy stood perfectly still as the insects bit chunks out of his legs, arms and head. The only way to avoid being bitten was to move and move fast. All the time. We ran back and forth to the car grabbing our tent and other stuff. Neither of us could believe how bad it was. Nothing could have prepared us for an onslaught of this magnitude.
Putting up the tent took about 45 minutes and by the time we were done we were so exhausted from running around in the 90-degree heat we wanted to collapse. Below is one of only 2 bits of footage I took all trip. I wanted to make a great movie of our holiday, but the bugs weren’t having it. They wouldn’t even let me set the camera straight, so the film is lopsided. I put some Byron on the soundtrack as a calming counterpoint to our frantic fumbling. (It has been sped up 4000%)
Unfortunately, we had forgotten to bring our chairs and there was no way we could sit at the outside picnic table due to the bugs. As we continued to unpack Heidi asked, “Where is the airbed?”
“What?” I said. Hoping she had not said what she so plainly had just said.
“I can’t find the airbed.” She said.
“Well isn’t it with the other bedding stuff? The bedding stuff you packed?” I said.
“No, I couldn’t find it, I thought you had packed it?”
“Why would I have packed it? You did the packing and you had that big box of bedding. I assumed the first thing you would have put in a box of bedding was the bed!”
“I had it on my list and I never checked it off.” She said.
“Well you were the last one to see the list, why didn’t you say something? Ask me where it was?”
“I was too busy, I had too many things to do, I had to get the car, entertain my brother, look after Billy, do the washing, why am I responsible for everything?”
Things only got uglier. Heidi had already said she’d wanted to go home as we’d spat out bugs putting up the tent. The idea of sleeping on the gravel floor with nothing but a sleeping bag to cushion her was sending her over the edge.
“I have batteries for the bed.” I offered, as a feeble sort of conciliation. “I remembered to charge spare batteries, so we’d definitely be able to pump it up.”
She ignored me.
Billy’s air bed required a power outlet. There was no battery option and no manual pump and as the nearest outlet was over a mile away, he too was condemned to 2 nights sleeping on gravel. When, after a few more hours of heated disputes and petty recriminations, we finally lay him down that night He looked up at us and said, “I don’t like it.”
“What don’t you like Billy?” we asked.
He looked at the floor beneath him and he said, “this.”
That was at least the worst of it. We had other periods thrashing around fighting bugs, but as the tent was up and we’d only open it for the split second it took to squeeze in, we at least had a safe haven. We lit a big fire with wet sticks and logs to smoke out the bugs and we were able to eat outside. It was very brief and the thick smoke made us choke, but we had at least achieved something.
We also went to the lake and Heidi and Billy had a swim. I was too scared of the “fish that nipped” and decided to stick with the bugs.
I did get a bit of a break though when we took out this rowboat.
Both nights when we returned to our tent in the evening we sit silently in the car for a few moments bracing ourselves. It reminded me of the Stephen King book/movie, The Mist. We’d prepped ourselves for a quick run from car to tent. Quick enough that no beasts could latch onto us and suck out our blood.
The horse flies were definitely the worst. On the first night a horsefly took a bite out of Billy’s head so big that his hair was covered in blood. Another bite behind his ear left a stream of blood running down his neck. The image on the left is just a mosquito bite.
My face also had blood on it, but that was not from bites, it was from the carcasses of crushed bugs. I was so quick to whack myself in the face that I was doing it unnecessarily at times. Once I had my hands full, so I asked Heidi to swat a horsefly off my face with her towel. When she eventually obliged she whipped my right eyeball leaving me blind in one eye and screaming with rage. “Fuck you nature!” I hollered pathetically at the beautifully tranquil scene laid out before us.
You probably imagine I am exaggerating and making a big fuss for a bit of a laugh, but both Heidi and the locals we spoke to said they had never seen bugs so bad in their lives. We somehow chose the worst time and the worst place in the history of everything to set up camp.
We did our best to stay positive. We got up at 6:30 in the morning so we could drive off the site before all the bugs woke up. I went for my shower, business as usual. Our shower block was infested with so many bugs I nearly fainted, every square millimeter of porcelain was hidden under a pulsating carpet of blackflies. I somehow remained positive. I have to shower and I will shower, I thought, so I walked a mile to the second shower block, and by some miracle there was nought but one solitary mosquito in there. I smashed the motherfucker into the ceiling and had one of the nicest showers of my life. When the timer ran out and the shower jerked violently off, I grabbed my towel and determined to stay positive no matter what.
We drove to ‘Mas Mocha’. More Coffee. Not really, MASS MoCA is the Massachusetts Contemporary Art Museum, and a fine museum it is too.
The children’s section was sadly closed, but there were other things that engaged Billy, like this aircraft hanger-sized room where words were projected onto the walls floor and ceiling. You lay on beanbags and watched as they washed over you. It was one of those rare opportunities in life where you get to scream, “Ahhh, lookout, ‘B’ for Billy is coming to get me!”
There was also this outsider art series of constructions, into which Billy could literally climb and explore. (Emily and Dougie, you would have loved this!)
Billy insisted on making imaginary phone calls to his friends back home on this underground phone.
Other highlights of the holiday included this trip to a supermarket, where Billy got to ride in this cool shopping car(t).
Heidi put her head in a garden.
We went to the Blue Benn diner in Bennington 3 times. The food was good and cheap, the staff friendly, and the old folks admired young Billy as he squirmed and hid between our legs.
Billy also got to drop quarters in the old fashioned jukebox and play a bit of Peter Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys and The Beatles.
And on the way home we stopped at the farm in the Hudson Valley where Heidi and her brothers used to spend their summers as kids.
Billy got to cool down in the river.
Looking back, though it had its horrific moments, it was not the worst of our vacations. We tend to expect them to be bad. The misery of being attacked by so many bugs only made us appreciate the few nice moments more. And New York more.
We visited Heidi’s alma mater, Williams College in Massachusetts last weekend. It was the 10 year anniversary of her graduation. Williams College holds reunion events for its alumni every 5 years for the rest of their lives.
On Saturday morning there was a parade in which all the classes walked through the town in chronological order. It was strange to see people ageing like that in front of our eyes. Kind of moving too. The oldest class was the class of ’43. The blank space that followed them was particularly poignant.
Cows are the mascot or something…
After the walk we braved the 1500 degree heat so Billy could have a go on some emergency transportation.
We got to stay in this quaint old house, built in 1770:
Oh yeah, and Heidi made us walk up this huge hill for a bird’s eye view of the town.