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  • May 23rd, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

Hell, as visualized by Dante, the Italian poet has a pit of ice at the lowest level, presumably where if you bore a hole and jig a Swedish Pimple tipped with a minnow head you will not be rewarded with a trophy walleye. When you die you don’t go to your dream fishing honey hole, but to the hellhole of Stephen King’s fevered imagination. And, instead of a ice fishing augurs, you will find demons with augurs to bore through you!

The hero of Dante’s epic Inferno, Odysseus, missed one level on his harrowing tour of the underworld. The one where you spend eternity in a commercial campground on a hot summer holiday weekend.

Maybe he couldn’t get a reservation. Those who inhabit this Inferno on Earth don’t realize they’re in Hell! They enjoy it. They are there by choice.

Once I spent time in a Kampground (always spelled with a “K”– in fact they’ll rent you a Kamping Kabin) in northeast Pennsylvania on the Fourth of July weekend. I took notes on the experience because our tattered tent did not have air-conditioning nor satellite television. The summary reads somewhat like Dante’s Inferno updated.

Hot and dusty, no rain, but the humidity for it, dust haze in the air, Tunkhannock Creek low and with a reek of decomposing algae. It was just slightly more agreeable than parking next to a sewage lagoon (something I suffered through once, sleeping in a cab over camper owned by a fellow hunter who was obviously olfactorily impaired). A sleek dude with reflective sunglasses and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth turns Polish sausages on a barbecue grill. He wears no shirt; he is flabby. His mate, inside the screened patio, sets the table, a cigarette dangling from her mouth.

A couple walks ahead of me, about five- five and 250 each. It’s like watching a team of elephants. He is shirtless and she wears a T-shirt big enough to host a Shriner’s barbecue. Their four legs weigh more than my family. Later I see them with their family, a mammoth group except for one cadaverous man whose shoulders hunch as if he were caving in. He is smoking a cigarette.

Some RVs have grown roots: permanent carpeted patios, often screened, one even with a wooden picket fence containing a large, noisy dog. Every patio is festooned with Chinese lanterns–more in this Kampground than there are in all of China. The trailer across from me is hung with decorations intricately constructed of plastic drinking glasses. Dusk comes and the proud owner throws a switch and they become lamps, glittering as a thousand jewels.

Nearly every “yard” (that tiny wasteland of sunblasted grass and dust) sports plywood figures–Woody Woodpecker or a little Dutch boy and girl or a frog on a mushroom saying “Hi!” The plastic daisy is endemic. Several trailers have full-sized refrigerators outside (and probably a deep freeze or walk-in cooler inside). One has two enormous planters tastefully built of discarded automobile tires. The flowers, predictably, are petunias, the wimps of the botanical world. Garfield the Cat clings to many a window in the Kampground. If ever there was a cat that deserves the ultimate fate at the animal shelter, it is Garfield, the surly, arrogant little animal-that-should-be-euthanized.

The Kampground pool is jammed. “Swimming” is a stand-up procedure because no one has enough room to go prone in a swimming position. Everyone is shouting and the din is terrific. It is not, as my friend Marty Malin says, “silent, like the ‘P’ in swimming.” There is the inevitable rec room (not recreation room) with Space Invaders and other games to provide mental stimulus for the Kamp adolescents so they won’t have to torment their unwrinkled brains with books.

This Kampground features a hayride, a rubber-tired wagon pulled by a small tractor. There are about a dozen kids and a very pregnant woman (perhaps she does not know she is pregnant) riding on it. A small boy is throwing the hay out by handsful as they move along. By the fourth circuit of the Kampground the pregnant woman begins to look as if she will deliver. While cab drivers are famous for delivering babies in the back seat of their vehicles, I doubt the driver, a slack- jawed teenager with a thriving case of acne, will be much good in a birthing crisis.

A father and son walk in front of our motorhome, sharing a warm moment together. They have matching sunglasses, so you can tell they are close. Ward Cleaver turns over in his grave. A man is walking a hairy little dog. He is a veteran of the Kampground, for he is wearing a plastic glove on his left hand and when the dog pauses to make a hard little deposit, the man scoops it up like Ozzie Smith fielding a hot one. Give that man a Brown Glove award!

This is not a campground like one where I once camped in northern Minnesota, a stone’s throw from the Canadian border, where Big Falls roared just over the bank from the hookups and where a full campground was six vehicles. The roar in this Kamp is from incessant and heavy traffic on the nearby Interstate and is as irritating as the tumbling waters in Minnesota were soothing.

Many years ago when I was a wannabe soldier in ROTC, spending six lovely weeks at Fort. Sill Oklahoma, learning how to be abused and humiliated by superior artillerymen— everybody on that godforsaken military post was superior to Rotsy tourists— we spent several nights under the stars doing something or other military (I conveniently forgot what if I ever knew to begin with).

If there is anything charming about Fort Sill at night it is that the sky is uncluttered by ambient light, and there is none of that annoying civilization to disturb your tranquility. Instead of closing ourselves inside pup tents, several of us spread our shelter halves under the stars and stared into infinity. If ants ever gaze up into the night sky, I know how they must feel–pitifully insignificant. The memory would be more impressive except that all along we had the knowledge that at 5:30 AM a sergeant with the empathy of a prison guard would motivate us by screaming obscenities welcoming us into another day so we could spend many hours under a broiling sun listening to the ear shattering blast of 105 mm howitzers.

My camping life has evolved gradually over the years, as has my concept of how best to enjoy being outdoors and living a simple life. I graduated from a pup tent to a family size contraption devised by the Coleman company, to confound incompetent campers like me with yards of material and aluminum poles all cleverly designed to collapse in the middle of the night, in the middle of a windstorm. One night on a Current River gravel bar the tent buckled on top of us and we crawled into the starlit night, counted heads, and realized that Andy, our youngest son, was missing. Ultimately we discovered him under the debris of the tent, still sound asleep and irritable at being disturbed—not by the wind or the tent failure, but by us waking him up.

Another time the entire family camped in that same tent under a looming old tree and, wonder of wonders, the tent did not collapse. The next morning, with the help of family members who understand the complexities of tent construction, we folded up our portable accommodations and hit the road. Later we discovered that a violent storm had blown through the campground after we left and the huge tree broke into pieces and fell exactly where our tent had been. I interpreted this as an omen that perhaps tent camping was not the safest way to ensure family longevity.

I bought a succession of one man tents, none of which provided any more comfort than a bed of nails. All seemed to magnify rocks, roots, and any other tiny profusion beneath the tent floor, no matter how many layers of air mattress or other padding material I lay down. Among those tents was one which trapped the moisture which I apparently exuded copiously during the night and every time I woke and jostled the tent I created a mini monsoon. For a long time, I opted to rough it when I went on the road for the Conservation Department, sleeping in my tiny tents, saving money for the state and feeling grandly charitable, if also grandly uncomfortable. Gradually it dawned on me that I was on an expense account and did not have to sleep on a bed of rocks while gamely gathering material for outdoor articles, but instead could opt for a motel room where I could watch nature in the raw on the National Geographic Channel.

It did not occur to me that this also was a signal that I also was getting older, softer and wimpier.

So when the era of the recreational vehicle came along it was a simple jump from staying in motel rooms to staying in motel rooms that moved from one place to another. However, I soon discovered that Motel Eight does not gulp gasoline at an alarming and expensive rate, and, the first time I was faced with emptying a holding tank, I learned to appreciate the fact that using the facilities in a Motel Eight and pressing the flush lever was infinitely more convenient and infinitely less potentially disgusting than figuring out the complexities of a dump station.

Once, deep in the Ozarks, I stayed in a decrepit motor court, too primitive even to be called a motel. But it had a sagging bed, scarcely more comfortable than sleeping on a river gravel bar, and instead of a flat screen television set with the National Geographic Channel, it had an antique radio which played scratchy low power stations, populated by evangelists and gospel groups. It cost $2.50 for the night which seemed excessive for what I got, but still was far less than the eight dollars a night charged by the original incarnation of Motel Eight.

So, now in my geriatric wimp hood, at the end of a long day of challenging the outdoors, outwitting hungry wolf packs, dropping charging grizzly bears inches from my boot tops, fleeing from cheetahs, and swimming with crocodiles, I slump behind the wheel of my battered road vehicle and wearily look for the ultimate sign of civilization:


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By Joel M. Vance Leave it to science fiction to predict what’s in store for us. Ray Bradbury, the finest of all science fiction writers, summed it up in a short story written in 1952 about time travel. “The Sound of Thunder” appeared in Collier’s magazine— which perhaps prophetically is a magazine that has gone […]

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