On Thursday night I went camping. That is a sentence I would never have envisioned myself writing, and so what I am about to say shocks me even more: I actually enjoyed myself.
On Thursday night we made the two hour journey from St Louis through endless miles of open countryside – old white-wooden houses and bright red barns were scattered across rolling green hills covered in forests of cedar and oak, like architectural flowers dotting the landscape with an occasional burst of colour. Having just arrived from Bogotá, I was impressed by the quality of the roads – twisting ribbons of smooth tarmac lay streamed across mile upon endless mile of open country, allowing the driver to travel smoothly at an unbroken speed for hours; something I should be accustomed to, being from England. But I had unintentionally adapted to the streets of Bogotá, where holes and cracks riddle every road, forcing drivers to swerve, slow down, speed up – ultimately just to drive erratically. To come straight from Colombia to St Louis proved to provide a great contrast in road conditions, and now I have an appreciation for something I had previously taken very much for granted.
[On an unrelated note, I noticed on the plane from Bogotá to Miami the headline on the back of another passenger’s newspaper. It said ‘Los huecos de Bogotá ya tienen perfil en Facebook’ – meaning ‘the holes of Bogotá now have a Facebook profile’. Here you can see a video on the BBC’s Latin American page. You may not understand what is being said but you will understand my new found appreciation of American roads just by watching]
Eventually, after a pit stop/cultural experience at Wal-Mart, we arrived at Marble Creek campsite: an area in which the woodland had been prepared for campers. Clearings had been made among the trees and fire pits installed into the ground, complete with swerving grills – but that is as far as the civilization went.
Marble Creek – Alongside which is situated the camp site
The camping was for David’s stag-do (bachelor party for the Americans). Ten of us travelled down there in three cars for the night, and upon arrival all the guys started trudging through the woods in search of firewood. This being my first camping experience, I naively assumed that finding firewood consisted of looking for dead sticks on the forest floor. Apparently I was wrong. Whilst calmly wondering through the woods, collecting a pile of sticks in my arms as I went, I came across one of the guys hacking down a huge tree with an axe. I quickly threw my bundle of twigs behind me in embarrassment, hoping to be rid of them before he saw me. But it was too late – David had noticed. He offered for me to accompany him and see how it was done. We waded through the woods until we came across the creek which gave the place its name. There we found a dead tree that was still standing in the ground.
“This will be perfect for the fire” said David.
“Shall we go back and get the axe?” I asked, but before I could finish the question he had his arms wrapped around the trunk, heaving it out of the ground with his bare hands. I asked if we should chop it up there in order to carry it back to camp more easily, whereupon he patiently explained that we needed to carry it whole through the woods in order to achieve a manly appearance of heroism and grandeur as we emerged from the trees.
Pictured: Manly appearance of heroism and grandeur
After lugging the tree through the woods I sat down and watched as the others hacked away at the collection of logs and full trees with axes and machetes. While I watched, others emerged from the forest with the same expressions of triumph on their faces as they carried even bigger trees than mine and David’s over their heads like trophies.
They would lift the larger trees over their heads and throw them against other bigger, more stable trees in order to cut them in half without the effort of hacking with an axe. This turned into a feat of strength in order to impress everyone else and see who was the strongest. I just watched.
After the lumber had been chopped and the fire started, hotdogs, burgers and steaks were cooked – naturally using a machete to flip them. It made me laugh to see one of the guys eating a steak using a split log for a plate, with a penknife and sharpened stick for cutlery; but they were serious.
Manly improvised cutlery and crockery
Turning hot dogs with the trusty machete
The stars emerged one by one as the earth turned away from the sun, and grew brighter as the evening went on. We ate hotdogs as the smell of smoke filled the night air, and fireflies lit up the darkness in flashes as they floated amongst the trees. We smoked pipes and cigars and had deep philosophical conversations about their benefits. It was generally concluded that a pipe lent a man an air of intellectual wisdom and was useful for pointing at people whilst talking and emphasizing your point during a discussion – no one can disagree with a man who is smoking a pipe – whereas a cigar has the ability to make a man look wealthy and sophisticated.
After hours of eating, joking, smoking and conversing around the fire, we all retired to our sleeping bags: we didn’t have tents, just mats on the forest floor. As the fire died down into glowing embers and the twinkling fireflies became the only remaining source of light, the stars appeared in all their splendour. We lay in our sleeping bags under a thick blanket of them; it was the starriest night sky I have ever seen; and as I looked up into the layers and layers of glistening lights the occasional shooting star would dart across the sky. I inevitably woke a few times in the night, but seeing the stars made the sleeplessness bearable. However, hearing the howls of coyotes and other unknown animals didn’t help me to relax, and I forced myself quickly back to sleep trying not to think about what was making that noise, and how close it may be.
The next morning, I was woken by the sound of a woodpecker drilling against some nearby tree. I emerged squinting from my sleeping bag to find that everyone else had woken up and packed away their stuff ready to leave, while I was still lying on the floor in the middle of everything like an idiot. I quickly got up and ready to leave, and within thirty minutes we were off.
As most of you will know, camping is not something I would have ever chosen to do, so I am glad that I had no choice in the matter and was eventually able to find out that it can actually be fun. Being around good people, having good conversation, eating good food and seeing good stars made it all a very enjoyable experience. I think that sitting around a camp fire and being surrounded by nature inspires a good time. However, I don’t think I will be making a habit of this. As soon as I arrived home I couldn’t get in the shower quick enough.