I'm Not What I Used to Be

by Howard Faxon

Tags: Slow,

Desc: : It's not the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It's the slow decline of a proud man as his health takes away his choices.

Or The Saga of Three Time Charlie

The doctor told me that I had a blood clot form and then another behind that. It was enough to give me a stroke. I walk a little odd but I get around all right. I had to stay in the hospital while I learned to walk and to shape words again. I could see them in my head and hear them all right, but I couldn't make the shapes that made the sounds. For a while the shapes on paper didn't make any sense either. Now that bothered me!

I soon learned that I lost more than that.

A lot of people came by to see me. I didn't know who any of them were. They said that I'd been working with them for ten years! Imagine that!

My reading came back, thank God. It gave me something to do. I can't believe that I ever held television programming to be anything other than despicable, and being unable to read meant that there wasn't much else to do except watch TV. Let me tell you, that was a great motivator!

I've read a few autobiographies lately, by people such as W. C. Fields, Samuel Clemens, Theodore Roosevelt, Vincent Price, Alfred Hitchcock and Peter Lorre. They had some fine minds. I am not embarrassed to admit that I have learned a lot from them.

I understand that I had a lot on the ball when it came to computers. Well, all that seems to be gone now. Oh, I can type and make my way around on the internet well enough, but the rest confuses me. That's all right. I've learned not to be as frustrated by my limitations as I was at the beginning.

A lot of people have helped me unasked. A man I used to work for bought me a 1977 Ford Courier pickup that he had set up for LP-gas fuel. The fuel tank was where the gas tank used to be, so it didn't take up space in the bed of the truck. He said that it had been gone over from end to end and nothing was wrong. I thought it very nice of him as he had just retired himself. I wondered what his wife had to say about it. I accepted his gift as graciously as I could. It was a boxy little thing and quite powerful for its size. It had been repainted dark green. I looked it up on the internet and yes, it did have the largest factory engine installed at the time.

Another fellow, older than I yet also from the same place, bought me a used 2005 Northstar Igloo slide-in camper and showed me the ins and outs of using it. He stated that I'd showed him enough things over the years and that it was his chance to return the favor. I smiled and shook his hand in thanks. Then I harvested what I wanted from my apartment.

Since I had been medically disabled I was told that they were forced to hold the contents of my apartment for me, even if they re-rented my place, which they did. I thought that it was quite nice of them and told them so, as I'd been in the hospital for over two years.

As I'd come to expect, I didn't recognize anyone from the apartment complex and told them why. I must have been friends with a big Latino guy in maintenance because he cried and hugged my shoulders. He helped me go through my things and move what made sense to the camper. I stocked the kitchen with a few pots and things, a crock pot, more canned food than I knew what to do with, some knives, kitchen tools, flatware, dishes and cups. Next I skimmed off basically what struck me as being useful in a camper, such as a swing-arm lamp, blankets and bedding, cleaning supplies and paper products, a ten-inch electric fan with a built-in heating element and some camping furniture that I could set up outside when I wanted to enjoy the weather. I kept an old laptop along with an external keyboard and mouse for writing. As a matter of fact I'm using it now.

I remembered something about having and using two oil-cloth tarps. I found them in my storage boxes and took them with me, as well as the ropes and the big iron tent-stakes that were stored with them. There was a huge 12'x12' oil-cloth tarp that I could make into a wind or rain shelter for several people. The other one was 9'6" square. I remembered drowsing in the tall grass next to a lightly smoking fire while under that tarp-tent. Those were good memories. I wanted to do some of that again. I found some candle lanterns and beeswax candles stored away. I found my old copper pots and cups. They all went with me. I found a small hard-side suitcase with some things in it like fresh underwear, socks, good shoes (stored in socks) and a set of clean shirt and pants. It only made sense to take that as well.

I found some clothes set aside in a separate bag. They were made out of leather, wool and linen. There was something about them that both called to me and made me feel comfortable. I bought a good suit-hanger bag to keep them in. I found my old 'possibles' bag. I remembered! I remembered my bag, what it had held and how to start a fire with flint and steel! The things I did with my hands I seemed to remember more easily. I discovered my old photo album with pictures of different camp sites, people at rendezvous and me all dressed up in camp gear.

I must have known a fellow named Trevor fairly well. He came to visit me as I was going through all this stuff.

He understood about me not knowing him. He told me some places to look and things to read that I'd not noticed, such as the Introduction to Buckskinning books from Scurlock Press and the Foxfire books. He showed me things that I had that I really should keep, because I'd have to buy them again if I decided to continue in that vein.

I decided that I really shouldn't be the kind of person to own a firearm. I took all my rifles, shot-guns, pistols and ammunition to the police department, along with my FOID card. (Firearms Owners ID. Thank you, Illinois.) They thanked me for my foresight and took them from me, along with my FOID card.

I asked the Sergeant what I should do if I were assaulted. I realized that they couldn't be everywhere all the time, but I didn't want to be a victim. Despite all my problems I'd rather stand up and fight back.

He smiled at me, and then dug back into the cage where he worked. He came back with a really big pistol with six barrels and a second grip in front. The barrels were big enough for two of my fingers! He laid it on the desk. "This is a four-gauge street-sweeper. It fires a flechette round, like little razor-edged darts. It holds six rounds and has a range of about fifteen feet. If this doesn't stop your intruder, you'd better run away, because that's what we'd do!" He gave me a gym bag with the gun and close to eighty rounds in it. I blinked as I looked at it.

"Where do I aim this thing?"
"Aim low. Don't aim for the face unless you have to." I nodded that I understood and thanked him. Go figure. I wanted to get rid of my fire-arms and here he presents me with one!

When I got back to the warehouse holding my possessions, I hooked up with Trevor once again. I didn't realize how much he put himself out for me at the time. He gave me a .50 caliber 'barn gun' flintlock and a shoulder bag full of the stuff I'd need to shoot it. He hugged me and said "Good Luck, Charlie" and left. It seemed that I was destined to own things that go 'Boom!'.

I had most of my memories of old science fiction stories. In a way it was good because I got to enjoy them for the first time—all over again!

I didn't sleep too well after reading "Flowers for Algernon".

I kept a lot of music CDs and a 'boom box' to play them on. I left all the movies behind. They were all too violent for me.

I wrapped my head around what I had to. Nobody else was going to do it for me. If I didn't want to live under a bridge then I had home economics to deal with. I bought a new laptop that I hoped that I could depend on and installed Quicken on it. I proceeded to track my income and expenses.

I received half my old paycheck per month from an Illinois teacher's retirement fund that I'd been paying into for the last twelve years. Since I was considered disabled, my federal retirement pay had kicked in to help fill in the rest of my needs.

During my stay in the hospital my checking account had grown to a little over sixty thousand dollars. While I was disabled the court had directed someone to act as my agent. They got all my payments redirected to my checking account, closed my utility accounts and car insurance out, disposed of my old Jeep and paid off a twenty-thousand dollar visa account that I had hanging over my head. I found out that a court appointed firm did this for one hundred and fifty dollars a year. I know that I got my money's worth. Once I was declared competent I took back control. That was a scary feeling.

During the few months that I was living on my own after leaving the hospital, I managed to sock away some money each month despite having to pay for LP gas, drugs, food, insurance, site rent, electricity and various small 'living expenses' like buying toilet paper. My old apartment cost me over a thousand dollars a month and a hundred in electricity. Now, not so much.

The guys at the apartment complex auctioned off my stuff and sent me a check! Damn, but some people prove that they're good guys whether they need to or not!

There were several computers, a new, in-warranty queen-sized bed, a huge hi-def monitor and a new futon couch in my stuff. Jeez! I made $1,400.00 from the auction!

I'm glad that I kept the little book-shelf speakers, though. They were made by Bose and sounded good in that little camper.

Out of the mass of books, papers, journals and notes that I'd been sitting on I kept three cook-books, a hand-full of ham radio books and an old chemistry notebook that I remembered having a lot of trouble putting together.

The county that I'd lived in had zoning in place that made any trailer parks illegal. The next county over, DeKalb County, boasted a university and had no such restrictions. I moved there and took advantage of the various campus libraries throughout the fall, winter and spring. I was able to read whatever I wished, however I could not check out the books as I was not a student.

I didn't want to kvetch about my camper but it could do with a few upgrades. It needed insulated windows, for one thing. I investigated what options were available from the company that made it, the R. C. Willett company of Cedar Falls, Iowa.

I bought an ICOM R75 receiver for a about $250.00 and started listening to the radio bands for something to do. Soon after that I bought a Radio Shack trunk-tracking police band receiver to listen to the local traffic.

A lot I heard on the short wave bands was in Morse code. It frustrated the hell out of me that I couldn't understand it.

I spent weeks with the CDs from the ARRL learning Morse code. I was fiercely determined to master it. It finally clicked! I'd learned something new! I then took a plunge. If I could listen to Morse code and understand it there was no reason that I couldn't send in it as well. I bought a brand new ARRL handbook, station log and license manuals for both the Technician and General class. I got busy studying. I made flash cards out of the entries in the question pools and quizzed myself. By February first I'd gotten my Technician's ticket with a Morse Code endorsement. I kept studying. Yaesu had a little 2-meter hand-held unit with a 5.5 watt output, an optional AA-battery-driven power pack and a weather channel receiver. I spent less than $200.00 to get on the air. I dropped a twenty on a CD that would allow me to access a national repeater list and (hopefully) auto-program my hand-held for selected areas. It would make use of a GPS. (That's another thing I felt I needed to get if I was going to be a road warrior—a GPS with an updated map. I'd lost so much of my memory that I was hesitant about going anywhere.)

Next I investigated all-band transmitters. I couldn't find anything on transmitters that looked rational so I changed my search key to transceivers. That's when I struck gold. I found a listing for an Icom IC-7600 transceiver. I didn't want to spring for over four thousand dollars without researching this thing so I ordered the printed manual and dug in. I went back and forth between the ARRL handbook, the manual and the internet trying to figure out what I read. It clicked after a while. First, however, I wanted my General license so that I could take advantage of the different bands. I passed it at the end of March. I used a UPS store rental box as an address. I bought the transceiver, the DC power cords, the antenna tuner, the CD for computer controlling the unit, a Morse code key and a good pair of headphones. I mounted a couple of loaded whip antennas to the camper and had another four center-tapped wire antennas wrapped up on giant spindles, like Christmas tree light keepers. I spent a lot of late nights operating that thing.

I wasn't doing anything that would keep me in one place so I left DeKalb and drove around some. I didn't like being in heavy traffic so I stayed away from the big cities like Chicago, Indianapolis, Louisville or any place within a hundred miles of a coastline. I headed west, with a side-trip to Cedar Falls Iowa in mind.

When I talked to one of the line foremen I found out that there were some things that could only be installed during the original build-out, but the things I'd liked from their web-site could be done. He remarked that the unit was in pretty good shape for its age (nine years old). They gave me a price for putting in a small generator bay, a dual battery tray, their LED light package, insulated windows, a roof-mounted air conditioner and a three-burner stove with an oven. I spent some time at the University of Waterloo library while they worked on my camper. I lived out of a Red Roof Inn. I didn't find it that much of a trial. I found a good pizza place!

I bought two large, deep-cycle marine batteries for the battery tray and asked them to wire in an inverter to keep the batteries charged when on city power. I bought an itty-bitty Honda generator that fit in the generator storage space. It would power the air conditioner or the microwave. I paid a place to convert it to LP gas and had a plumber connect it to the camper's LP gas line with a flexible coupling, so that it wouldn't flex and leak over time.

I found Nebraska and Kansas boring. I didn't have anything invested in the area so it went by me like water off a duck's back. I thought Wyoming was nice just because of the changes in scenery. I had to be careful in selecting the places that I decided to stay for a bit. If they didn't have a propane farm there I could be marooned with no fuel, and calling for a bulk truck to fill me up would be expensive!

While driving I came upon Boysen State Park in Wyoming. It was beautiful with the mountains bracketing the big lake and all the trees around. I decided to stay there for a while. I didn't have any special place to be so why not?

I wanted to stay a while in Shoshoni, Wyoming as it was at the south end of the park. However, the nearest propane dealer was either in Thermopolis to the north, or either Lander or Riverton to the south. Riverton was closer so that became my base. Besides, I 'd been to Lander once before as a teen. Upon looking up the town in an on-line encyclopedia I found it to be a political stewpot. That had no appeal to me whatsoever.

Winter had shown its muscles in the area as the first snows had already fallen, even though it was only October thirteenth. I found the housing prices were pretty good around there. I rented a small, well-made house (instead of an apartment) for a place to get me out of the camper for a while.

It wasn't furnished, but I didn't need much. I had a camping table and chair stored in the truck, as well as a six-skin sheepskin rug and a single sheepskin that I kept to throw over the chair. I bought a cot, a set of sheets and three heavy wool blankets. I needed an extension cord and a table lamp as well. The rest of what I needed came from the camper. I moved my wide-band receiver inside as well, and ran a long wire antenna out the back window.

I took moving all that stuff as an excuse to empty out, clean, re-paint and re-pack the camper. What the hell, it kept me busy. I found myself trying to stay busy and not at loose ends. I'd been working a steady job for over thirty years and drifting make me nervous. I devoured library books at a steady pace.

Before parking the camper for the season I drained the water lines then emptied the holding and water tanks. Once parked, I ran a drop-cord to the camper and kept two one-hundred-watt bulbs going to keep the temperature up inside so the plastics wouldn't crack. The refrigerator and freezer were emptied, stuffed with wadded-up newspaper and the doors left open. I jacked up the camper and drove the pick-up out from underneath it so I had some transportation to get around town.

There was a big ice-fishing event that was held each winter about thirty miles north of town within Boysen state park. It was quite a big reservoir for the area. Now, I couldn't wrap my head around sitting out on a frozen lake hoping the stupid fish would eat your stupid fish bait. It didn't seem like a rational hobby. It had the feeling of, um, a religion—kind of like being a Cubs fan. I spent my time reading books at the library or listening to the conversations and broadcasts on the short-wave receiver.

I changed my residence to the town and got my in-state driver's license. With that, and a gas bill to prove my residence, I got a library card. That opened the door in the library that had a row of computers hooked up to the internet. (It was their policy to restrict internet access to registered patrons.)

Once I had access, I ordered a few things such as a new pair of moccasins both to keep my feet warm on the cold floors of the house as well as for rendezvous, a heavy wool capote with a long cape to help keep me warm, a big electric fry pan with a temperature control to aid my cooking.

The snow started falling. Rather than shovel it myself I hired a service to do it for me. I could do without that particular manly rite of passage, thank you very much!

My budget was doing pretty well. I was saving about six hundred dollars a month, even with the added expense of renting the house and paying for its heat. Still and all, I wondered if there was anything I could do to make a little money, to fatten up my savings.

The area was heavy in cattle ranches, and steaks were cheap. I had found a bar that served a decent steak dinner at McDonald's prices. (Well, not quite, but close!) I kept my ears open as I enjoyed my occasional meal there.

Some of the men talked about the dude ranches they ran west of town and the problems they were having keeping them busy. I got an idea. If they had the gear then I could cook!

I introduced myself and tried to talk myself into a job.

"Have you thought about doing what other dude ranches aren't doing? You've put a lot of capital into getting your trails groomed. What about adding overnight camping? Do you have any old chuck wagons?"

I got a few nods and some curious looks.

"I've spent years earning my chops as a re-enactor. I can set up a camp site, pitch a tent that won't fall over sideways or take flight in a wind, light a fire with flint and steel, take care of that fire, cook with dutch ovens and clean up a camp site so that it looks like nothing ever happened there. The only thing left would be the outhouse pit."

"Find other guys like me, and do small groups so you have more hands-on. Nobody's doing that. Not even NOLS or Outward Bound. Those places cater to athletes, not fat families with bucks to spend and have a little adventure; have a little fun. Hell, find someone to make me a bull-hide vest and britches and I'll fit in anywhere from the sixteen hundreds to nineteen-sixty."

I talked myself into a job, all right. They wanted to drop it into my lap and let me handle the whole thing. Not only no, but hell no! I explained why I wasn't the one to manage their operation and described my little forced vacation in the hospital. Instead, I offered to do a trial run come spring, and help fine tune things until they worked. Then they'd have something to use as a model.

I spent the next week in the equipment barn of a dude ranch. I had some help, but I knew that I'd done some work after tearing down and rebuilding that chuck wagon. The dutch ovens and frying pans had to be cleaned up and seasoned. The barrels had to be dumped, boiled out and re-lined with wax. Someone that knew what they were doing had the harness and the wheel hubs professionally taken care of. Somebody was there photographing the whole process as we went.

I took the canvas tarps out of the wagon bed and spread them out to check them. It's a good thing I did. They'd been used as animal nests for a couple years. I had the owner buy new tarps and ropes. I demonstrated how to set up a plow-point tent and a reflector tent, as well as how to build a log wall reflector to keep warm in a cold-weather camp. They cut poles for the tents and strapped them to the wagon.

Next they trained four teams to pull a buck-board and I planned meals as well as the wagon inventory. We went with meals for six. That would cover a family of four, the cook/driver and a tender that would ride off to our stashes and bring back firewood, supplies and water, all on a travois pulled behind his or her horse.

They had more wagons made and stocked to total four per ranch. More stock was trained to pull said wagons.

I wrote out some of the things we'd have to do at each camp:

If there were any kids in the party, latch onto 'em and talk them through it as you do each task.

Walk the campsite for cactus, snakes and previous outhouse holes before we settled on a site for the camp. No surprises. Stay out of washes and the bottoms of swales where cold air pockets gather. Don't camp at the top of a ridge either. Lightning strikes there and nothing stops the wind.

Locate the old fire pit. Always re-use the fire pit to keep from screwing up the ground. You're guaranteed no sub-surface roots to keep burning after the fact, as well.

Set up the tents, dining fly, outhouse and horse line, checking the wind direction and weather. Keep the smell of shit down wind and the wind blowing towards the backs of the tents.

Start the fire and get the sweet yeast dough starter going, or feed the mother for sourdough, or both. In bad weather set up the fire's log wall heat reflector and a tarp connected to the chuck wagon for a ramada to keep the wind at bay. (Ramada: a shelter of branches. It's sometimes taken to mean a wall designed and constructed to keep prevailing winds at bay). If it's nasty out put canvas walls on the dining fly. Connect them to the ramada.

Unpack and set up the pallets for beds. Make sure to rake the ground under the pallets first.

Give the first sit-down lecture on how the camp is structured and why, then what the local wild animals are and what to look or listen for. Tell them how a camp changes in the rain or a snowstorm. Let them know why you sleep with your boots! (A. Cold boots are not pleasant to wake up to and put on. B. Critters love boots, both to chew on and to nest in. C. Boots under your feet keep them up off the cold ground.) Tell everyone that fresh undershorts and socks each morning are a real good idea.

...

How did we figure out this list? We did it! Everything got documented, and we used trail hands as guinea pigs. They were told to pay attention, because they'd be doing this too!

We established camp-sites at intervals on the trails, and caches for food, water and firewood that we could lock up to keep thieves and animals out. Part of that first spring was used grooming those sites, and yet trying to keep them natural-looking. They weren't all flat either. It's an unforgettable experience waking up in the middle of the night having rolled to the side of the tent!

Each camp site featured a short firearms range and a permanent outhouse hole. Believe it or not, a quarter coffee-can of lime will make damned near any outhouse as fresh as a daisy. Don't stir it in, just cover what's down there. Just don't let rain or snow get in there, or you'll have the nastiest, smelliest ... Just don't do it, okay?

All the team leaders got the long bull-hide vests and britches that I'd lobbied for. It gave us an image that we could trade on and use in our advertising. We emphasized the personal attention we promised given to each party. Each trail ride featured a minimum of three nights out at three different camp sites. All team leaders carried .22 rifles and ammunition. We gave introductions to firearms and firearm safety while we got them to practice on the ranges. Kids of all ages love drilling holes in tin cans.

I bought a one-year-old Australian sheep dog to act as a camp guard and to work with any kids with problems. I named him Robber. Come spring Robber and I moved out to the ranch. I gave up my little house in town and moved into the bunk-house with the ranch hands. We shared three showers among twelve guys. It still beat washing with a stroke and a poke out of a bucket of warm water on the camper's stove.

I worked with the ranch cooks on fine tuning the recipes and inventories we wanted to use at the camps. I'd found an old cook book with a recipe for suet dough suitable for baking or boiling, like in a dumpling. I worked with raisins and dried apples for fruit, as well as canned fillings for dump cobblers or little tarts. I'd found some tart pans that would stack in a dutch oven. I made steak and kidney pies too. I incorporated some of this into the lectures I had written down. Reputedly back on the cattle drives the trail food became so boring that any change was welcome, so the heart, liver and kidneys from larger game animals were added to the nightly fare. Wild onions and sage were often found in the stews as well.

I had photocopies of journal entries remarking on juniper berry or pine needle tea, sumac berry tea and even blackberry leaf or rose hip tea being consumed on the trail, both to calm the stomach and to vary their diets. After the mid-1860 canned goods were available and more than one cook made a rider very happy by remembering their birthday and presenting them with a can of peaches. What was the very first thing the cow hands did on reaching a town? Yes, some did follow their noses to a saloon. Others, however, bought and consumed a quart of fresh milk!

Journals are deceptive things. They don't record the day-to-day occurrences of life. You don't record the usual. You record the unusual! It's the very definition of remarkable, because it's marked down on paper. When you read 'the wind quit for four hours this morning', the strain that the unrelenting wind made on them became apparent. It's determining the normal conditions from reading comments noting the unusual that make interpreting a journal difficult.

Robber loved it on the ranch. He could sleep when he wanted to; explore where he wanted and enjoyed a regular as well as a varied diet. We hung out a lot together, sitting in the April sunlight, basking in the warmth.

The advertising the owners sent out must have been unusual enough to draw interest. We had steady bookings May through September at all three ranches. At first we practiced our speeches on each other. Soon, however, they became second nature. We had an observer come out from NOLS to see what we were doing. They agreed that there wasn't any infringement as we weren't teaching what they were, and we were focusing on a different section of the population. Yes, they could have raised a stink!

The unusual becomes the usual. The months, then the years merged as the tourists came and went.

Boy, my butt got tired of that buckboard seat. Robber was happy enough on it though. It meant he didn't have to walk. He was getting some white hairs around his muzzle. It had been seven years since we'd started this gig. My right hip hurt every morning getting out of that damned pallet. I had finally gotten to the point where I was ready to move on.

I liked the lifestyle, but not the life. I'd been on seven three-season cattle-drives. I yearned for the slower pace of camp life without a tear-down and set-up every day. I decided to hit the rendezvous circuit for a while. I decided to only attend the longer events.

I'd saved right around fifty-two thousand dollars a year what with retirement, disability and my pay as a team leader. I didn't need much to live on and my job included room and board. Since I gave up drinking with my strokes the money sort of stuck to me. I had roughly $420,000.00 in the bank. I'd gotten out of the habit of spending! That was about to change.

I had my pickup worked over and all the fluids replaced. The engine ran fine but the air and oil filters needed replacing. I got the windshield replaced because the wind-blown grit on the near-constant wind acts like a sand blaster and fogs vehicle windshields pretty fast. I got the propane tanks filled up on the truck and the camper. After taking a walk through Lowe's I had a set of LED lights installed under the kitchen cabinets. They're bright, a nice yellow-white and quite efficient. You can't dim them for shit, though. The tires got inspected for checks and cracks and the brakes got inspected. I had my automotive insurance changed to a motor-home coverage.

Poor Robber didn't do well in cars. He got the pukes and would be miserable on the road. I left him at the ranch for the guys to watch over him. He was well liked, even by the owner. He'd do well.

I practiced with my 'barn gun' flint-lock before I left, then gave it a good cleaning. I bought a couple fresh cans of black powder for it too. Powder picks up damp in the strangest places.

I'd gotten used to using that little Marlin .22 in the camps. I decided to buy one of my own, but I stepped it up a bit. I bought a Savage bolt-action .22 magnum rifle with iron sights. It was made of stainless steel and had a black synthetic stock. It was a poacher's gun if there ever was one! The ammunition was a bit pricey but you could fit enough in one pocket of your jeans to fight a small war.

I was happy. I was moving on, being pro-active. My pocket was deep enough not to worry about these one-off expenses and each purchase brought me closer to my goal.

I took a final trip to the library to check with the 'interwebs' to see where and when the national black powder rendezvous was to be held.

I took a good look at my slide-in camper to see what I could store, and where. I paid a visit to the local police department to see what they'd say about a big pair of hooks mounted high on the side, so that tent poles could be accommodated. I got the okay as long as the full width of the camper didn't exceed eight and a half feet, or 102 inches.

Since the camper was 7'6" wide I had plenty of working room. I had flat stock bent into "J" hooks and mounted both front and rear, way up high. I had to get one of the top windows covered over to keep it from being broken but I could live with that. I bought a "Woodall's" campsite guide and made a call to Panther Primitives to buy a small tipi. I had them ship me a 14 foot model with a liner, a set of poles and an instructional set-up DVD to help me figure out how to set the damned thing up. It required 14 poles thirteen feet long. Once the poles arrived I had the "J" hooks fitted to hold the bundle of poles.

I set up that thing eight times before I got it right. You could have set up bleachers then sold peanuts and popcorn to the crowd I attracted. You'd have made a fortune.

I hit on the idea of making an oval of rope with a criss-cross of ropes tied to the big loop, defining and limiting the shape. Once that was in place the tipi poles were erected just inside that rope. Then the cover fit. It worked every time after I figured that out! A tipi bottom isn't a circle, and the poles lean towards the front. The thing's an oval! My little cot would keep my ass off of the ground and the tipi would keep me warm with a dinky little fire, even at twelve degrees with a thirty mile-an-hour wind. I used the single bunk that was over the camper's dining area to stash the canvas, camp furniture and three camp boxes. I kind of pushed it for weight. The balance worked out, though, as the tent poles were stored on the opposite side of the camper. I had stiffeners added to the rear suspension as a just-in-case thing. I didn't want that rig to get caught in a windstorm while I was driving, then have it discover a harmonic in the suspension and waltz, polka or stomp across the highway. Bucking broncos should have feet, not wheels.

It was nearly the end of April. They had a going-away-party/excuse-for-a-bash for me that I sort of remember. I thought discretion to be the better part of valor and laid-up for a day before I left. I wasn't used to drinking.

The first of May found me at Bloody Lake near Woodford, Wisconsin. I'd bought a quarter face-cord of dried, split firewood just down the road from camp. Ipicked up a big block of ice and a small bag of cubes in Monroe, Wisconsin just back down the road fifteen miles or so. I had a freezer full of meat, plenty of sandwich fixings, the mandatory butt-load of booze and a good attitude. Everything was either covered up or camouflaged. I'd bought a camp box sized to take a Styrofoam cooler and the cooler to go into it. If I found anyone selling better ones in camp I'd buy it.

I'd learned long before on the rendezvous circuit that even though you'd paid good money for item 'A', if item 'B' was heads up better, buy item 'B' and walk away happy. If all else failed, give item 'A' to someone as a camp gift and make their day. Been there, done that. The smile that lights up a new guy's face when you drop a canvas tent in his arms and walk away, is simply amazing.

Anyway, I paid the vigorish, (camp fee) drove in, found a site and set up my tipi in record time. I filled the cooler, loaded all the boxes, firewood, furniture and 'stuff' inside the tipi, tied off the flap door and drove back out to stash my pickup. There's a long, long steep path between the car park at the top of the hill and the camp site down in the river valley. It's tough sleddin' wearing slick-soled mocs when the leaves on the trail are wet. You'd better have a walking stick handy or you'll soon find yourself snow-boarding without the board! For further entertainment, the fence on the path is barbed wire. Wear gloves.

I walked down the road from the car park path to the center of camp. I was dressed in my bull-hide leathers and a linen shirt from my last job. I got pointed at a lot as I strode through camp back to my site. Once there I threw open the tipi door for light, strung up the liner, stacked the firewood, put down canvas for a rug towards the back of the shelter, set up my cot and bedding, stacked the boxes, dug a little fire pit where it should be, under the opening at the top of the tipi, found my yoke and buckets, fetched two pails of water, (one to drink out of, one for the fire) set up my chair and dropped down for a well-deserved time-out.

After a bit I heard "Hello the camp!" and stuck my head out. The Segundo (the Booshway's seargeant-at-arms) was there. I invited him in. He checked out my fire-pit, made sure the water-bucket was there and spotted my firewood stash. "You bring that wood from home?"

"Nope." I showed him the receipt that I'd gotten from the farmer.

He nodded. "Good. I gotta ask, as it's a camp rule to keep the damned beetles from killing our trees. Wood's either gotta be kiln dried or local."

I replied, "Yep, I remember from a few years ago when it made the camp rules. Gunny sack to carry your ice, no printing on canvas wood slings, the water bucket rule, all that. No problem."

He shook my hand. He said, "Have a good vous!" and left.

Well, I was up, so I decided to go wandering. Two Eagles was no doubt in business by now. The organizers had a policy of letting the food vendors in early to set up. The man was a goddamned institution at Bloody Lake. He'd spot you, drop his head as if he were looking over his glasses and say, "Do Dah!" then go back to whatever he was doing.

I set up my little table, found a candle lantern and put it on the table for later, tied my hair back, slung my 'possibles' bag over my shoulder, took my staff in hand and set out to explore the camp.

I always tried to find a site with the pine trees right behind me. It meant that I could walk out after dark and take a piss without scaring the neighbors. It also meant that when I was mostly drunk I only had to walk down one row of tents to find mine. I'd been at more than one rendezvous where I'd opened the tent in the morning to find someone sleeping by my fire pit. They'd been too drunk to find their camp-site the night before! I'd also been to Bloody Lake several times when there was a noticeable skin of ice on the water bucket in the morning. It made for an interesting penance. "Bbbbless mmme Fffather fffor I am Fffrozen!"

Two Eagles was open for business. I dug into my bag for my cup, threw a dollar on the counter near the cash register and filled up with his elixir. I inhaled and took my first sip. Divine. I watched him do a slow double-take when I walked in. He brought over his own cup and sat down across the picnic table from me.

I said, "Hello, Doyle. It's good to see you."

"Well, look at you! What's it been, eleven, twelve years?"

I nodded. "Yep. When Smoky passed on it kind of took the heart out of me. I dropped out for a while. I had a bad stroke and spent a couple years in the hospital."

He looked me over. "Those leathers ring a bell. You been out west lately?"

I grinned. "Yep. I started that mess around Riverton. I've been ridin' a chuck wagon for seven years and my ass told me to quit, so here I am!"

We tapped coffee cups. "Rightly so, rightly so. People gonna know you in those duds, but not know you." More people came in—he had to treat his customers. "See you for breakfast?"

"Wouldn't miss it." Doyle was around and all was right with the world.

Now, I've never been to the Burning Man festival, but I can't help but compare a good rendezvous to a toned-down Burning Man set in 1840 with a little black powder fun thrown in for kicks. Most of the attendees buy commercially available canvas tents but some go all out with painted tipis, wickiups, long-houses, hide-covered domes and custom-sewn creations the likes of which I'd not seen anywhere else. Some pre-teens could be found on site, and School day, Friday, usually meant that we had school-bus-loads of kids wandering around trying to find trouble to get into. Accordingly, there was no obvious nudity.

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