It was late in the season. The first snow had come and gone. Nature was teasing us with a delightful Indian summer during which the leaves fell by the millions. I was determined to get in one last outing before the ground froze and nature became less hospitable to those of us with wrinkled skin and creaky joints.
I had located an old abandoned farm. The pole barn that had served the farmer as a machine shed was still standing and relatively sound. I navigated through the ditch and around the rocks blocking off access to park my little truck inside the barn, hidden from casual view.
I locked the door and pocketed my key, then stood quietly. The silence was a shock. I smiled, took a deep breath and let it out, palpably relaxing as the breath left me. That’s what I had come for. The peace and quiet.
Rather than lug a heavy pack along I carried an oilcloth haversack, a pair of steel canteens in carrying cases with canteen cups, an over-the-shoulder food bag termed a wallet and a bedroll. The bedroll was heavier than one would expect as it contained two wool blankets, an exercise mat, a shower curtain to use as a ground cloth, a small, cheap woven polyethylene tarp, a large stiff rectangular sheet of copper with holes drilled in the corners and an oilskin tarp that was really a bit too large. (I believe it was 12’x12’.) I had to pack heavier than normal to accomodate the weather.
It was mid-afternoon on a Friday, about a week before Halloween. I had fled work at noon. Almost all the season’s corn crop had been cut down leaving wide vistas across the fields which would soon be covered by wind-blown snow. Across the highway lay my goal. The property descended in three gentle shelves down to the creek. Half a mile to the left was a long-abandoned tiny little boy scout camp. It held maybe twelve acres. The camp had closed over sixty years before and was quite overgrown as well as being heavily forested. Nobody in their right minds would go to the effort of chasing me out if I took a bit of care.
I would have had to navigate two barbed wire fences and a well-traveled highway to get down there but for something the old farmer had put in--a galvanized corrugated cattle crossing tunnel which passed under the highway. I approached it hoping not to find the ends muddy. I was in luck. The near end was all gravel and rock. Still, there was a good three inches of mud and water in the bottom of the pipe itself. I walked the thing with a rocking spread-legged gait to avoid the mess at the center. The grass before me was lush and tall, only recently drooping in swales and windrows as it died off for the winter. I went straight down the hillside, hoping to quickly get out of sight of passers-by and make my tracks look like a buried pipe or cable run that had compressed and settled over the years.
I had dressed for the season. I had on a tan pair of insulated canvas work bibs over microfleece sweat pants and a merino wool shirt over a synthetic turtleneck. My outer insulation was a synthetic puffy jacket. I had on a stocking hat and leather gloves. My boots were ankle high and sufficient for the purpose. I had two pair of wool socks in my bag and one pair on my feet. The temperature was near forty but promised to reach the twenties after midnight.
Once behind a clump of trees I paused to catch my breath, then took my time to walk down to the creek. There were springs and mires all along the shore. My path kept me far enough back to stay out of the muck as I made my way down the creek.
Once across a final sad excuse for a fence I made my way further into the undergrowth, looking for a suitable campsite. The property had been sculpted long ago to form a spiraling roadway around a hill leading to a flat area that had once featured a bunkhouse and kitchen. There were less trees where gravel had been packed down for the roadbed. The little parking lot at the end of the track looked like a nice camp site.
Most of the property was overgrown with raspberry canes and gooseberry bushes. That would not do at all. I had a wonderfully sharp hatchet with a hammer poll along with its handle in my haversack and used it to cut myself a sapling. I used that to push over the woody stems so that I could hack them off at the ground. Then I stacked them some distance from where I planned to make camp. I cleared my campground and a path down to the creek as I would have to go for water several times. I was thankful I’d remembered to pack my leather gloves. Next I dug a small pit at the foot of a tree so that I would have something to lean back against while doing my business.
I had no problem finding standing deadwood to cut down. The woods had grown so closely together that most of the dead trees never had a chance to fall. Instead of using a hatchet which made a characteristic hammer-like sound I used a large folding pruning saw. Seedling trees had sprouted and grown so closely together that they had little chance to prosper among the competition. Seeing the silvery gray trunks standing there I smiled to myself. The dead, dry wood would make for wonderful fires. Once sawn into manageable lengths I dragged them back to camp. I had a pile of ten to twelve foot long trunks the size of my upper arm stacked half as tall as I was. Some, I reserved for night wood, were thicker. I had to drag those back with a rope. I set aside several manageable eight-foot sections for another use.
I carefully cleared the ground where I planned to string my tarp. Two trees and a stretched line belly-high formed the ridge. I cut a live sapling for tent stakes to pin down the tarp’s back and sides. Two lengths of line attached to the forward corners gave me tie-outs to two more small trees. Another line fastened to the tie-off at the center of the tarp was pulled out to fasten to yet another sapling. This gave me head space inside my shelter and shaped the heat reflector.
I cut several more saplings for four long stakes. I pounded in two of them in a line directly in front of the tarp, just behind where I planned to build my fire. About eight inches behind them I pounded in the last two stakes. I piled the eight foot logs up into a fire reflector some four feet tall, then secured them by tying the pairs of stakes together with sisal rope. After standing back to give it a looking over I was satisfied.
The ground clutter from between my tarp and the reflector had to be cleared. My next task was to walk down to the river for a half dozen stones roughly the size of a brick. I laid them to the sides of the fire in a chute and dug out a small trench between them to make a “keyhole” fire lay. The sun was going down. It was time to set up my bed, start the fire and make some supper.
I lay out my ground cloth and rubber mat, then lay out my blankets. The little poly tarp was hung at the back of the shelter to pull over me when it got cold as it would hold in a warm air blanket about me, yet moisture would penetrate the weave and not leave me soaked from perspiration. I had learned this trick many years before when camping with nothing but a pad, an army wool blanket and an ugly bright blue poly tarp that wrapped around everything. The first morning I poked my nose out, supremely comfortable and saw a heavy rime of frost on the grass before my nose I was astonished.
If anything I had an overabundance of fire-making supplies. I split some narrow branches for starter wood, broke off handfuls of dried twigs then sawed free and split my first few logs for the fire. With a good starter fire I wouldn’t have to split anything else. The first fire in a new pit needs a wood or bark platform beneath it to keep the moisture away from the nanescent fire. I lit a cotton ball soaked in vaseline and piled twigs over it. When they caught and began to crackle I added finger-thick splits of wood, then progressively larger pieces until I laid one larger log to the side and propped a few wrist thick pieces across it. I had a robust little fire going that already was making me sweat enough to take off my jacket. A breeze was blowing between the fire and my shelter. I rose and moved the wall stake nearest my head to make a tighter enclosure, then put a narrow log across the bottom of the tarp to stop the wind from working its way underneath.
I spent the next twenty minutes cutting wood for later as I had to wait for coals. I sat down to appreciate my work. I could hear the wind beating the remaining leaves free of the trees. I smelled the decaying summer growth coming from the ground which mixed with wisps of sweet wood smoke.
It was time to get out of my boots! My haversack held a pair of moose-hide mocs that I had long before reserved as camp shoes. I kept them well-greased with ‘mink oil’ to keep them supple and water resistant. Nothing but your skin is waterproof.
I dragged a double-handful of coals forward and stoked the fire. I kept a legless gridiron with me in a canvas sack as there was no way to keep the thing from getting filthy. I laid it across the stones to heat then fished my dinner and eating tools out of the food bag. I had two halves of a tri-tip steak reserved for my evening meals, stored in a plastic freezer bag. I decorated one with plenty of garlic mixed with celery salt and laid it across the grill where it hissed and browned. I sealed up the bag with the other half inside and buried it a few feet behind the fire reflector to keep it cool. Then I dusted the ground with cayenne pepper as a critter repellent.
When the meat began to smell good I carefully turned it. I knew that I’d stashed a couple paper plates in the pack somewhere. I fished out one plate, then cut two foot long sections of log about two inches thick to make a tripod. I thoroughly lashed them together at the middle and spread them out, then split a short section of tree trunk in two and laid it on top as a makeshift table. I had to cut notches at the ends to lock them over the arms of the tripod. That made it quite stable.
After my diversion, my dinner was a bit more done than I cared for but it was still tasty. After finishing I threw the evidence in the fire and cleaned up with a wet-knap. I found the little ten-packs to be a camper’s god-send. They kept me clean and made for excellent toilet paper. To my dismay I had learned not to use Clorox wipes on my fundament.
I withdrew my last bit of cooking kit, a dented old steel bowl that measured five and a half inches across. I filled it half full of water and set it on the fire to boil. I always used a plastic cup in camp to keep from burning my lips and to hold the heat better than metal ever could. I made preparations for a cup of sweet tea then spent my time gazing at the stars. The wind picked up a bit and broken clouds scudded across the sky but the stars were still there, always patient.
Before calling it a day I stacked logs cut for the fire inside the shelter with me so that I could just reach behind and toss wood on the fire during the night without having to get up. I peed, changed my socks and went to bed.
That magical time comes in the morning when you wake up and see your breath, then look around and see a rime of frost covering every leaf, ever fiber and every blade of grass. After crawling out of my warm bed peeing became much more important. Steam rose as I wetted down the shrubbery. I quickly used my little metal toilet trowel to expose the coals and piled on a bit of resinous wood. I blew it to light and covered it with some finger-sized pieces of wood. Once they caught I set a log to one side of the coal pit to hold up the larger wood and not crush the growing blaze. I’d brought a couple bakery rolls and a quarter pound of bacon for my breakfasts. Once I had coals to work with I draped the thick-cut bacon over my gridiron to broil. It smelled wonderful mixed with the wood smoke. I sliced open a roll to warm and toast next to the bacon. Once the meat was browned and bubbling I pulled it off with a stick and laid it inside the french roll. There was just enough residual bacon grease on the meat to keep my breakfast sandwich from being dry. I had enough boiled water in my pan from the night before to have a drink with breakfast.
After eating I sat on my little table/stool to pull on my boots and made my deposit in the woods which I covered over. Next I went down to the creek for water. It looked clear and ran pretty well but I’d read years before that girardia was found in every body of fresh water around the world. I set my canteens on the fire to boil for the requisite time, then took them off to cool.