During the American Civil War, Union Army soldiers often sang a song that detailed the tragedy of war as they camped at night before the next day’s battle.
“Tenting tonight, tenting tonight, tenting on the old camp ground” is portion of the chorus penned by Walter Kittredge in 1863 when he wrote Tenting Tonight.
That chorus runs through my mind now every time Laura and I pitch our tent “on the old camp ground” during one of our adventures. Let me be clear, I have never been a Boy Scout, either literally or figuratively. I am learning just now how to tie a proper knot and never care to scavenge for dinner amongst the weeds. Nevertheless, I have done my fair share of tent camping and thoroughly enjoy pitching a tent today where ever Laura and I roam.
It was in Europe that my friends Mark Nordstrom, Ron Torrence and I earned our “merit badges” for camping over 90 days in tents from September through December in 1972. That included nights of torrential rain, freezing cold, snow and even wolves rummaging for food outside our tents in Yugoslavia. Scrambling in the dark, we grabbed anything we could find to defend ourselves in case we became part of the menu.
Maybe that is why I did not tent camp again until another trip to Europe in 2003. Laura and I made use of Europe’s extensive camp sites, along with the ability to pitch our tent alongside almost any road during 16 days of following the Tour de France. We followed that up with another cycling-related trip in 2007 with camping in Belgium and France during a ten day journey in April for three of the great spring classics.
Since then, we have been dragging the tent out often as our outdoor pursuits continue to grow in the United States. Tent camping remains one of the great travel bargains remaining since “the old camp ground” has become anything but rugged.
Why then is the Red and Rover comic strip running at the top of this story? What do slugs have to do with all this? It is all about Laura (as everything in my life should). The comic strip appeared shortly after we returned from a camping trip this summer and not that long after Laura uttered this forever famous line.
“I’d like to camp just once where I don’t have to worry about stepping on a slug when I crawl out of the tent in the morning,” she said as we pitched our tent at a site outside Osseo, Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, I was bemoaning the site as far too “civilized.” Set high atop a blocked retaining wall, brick steps led up to the perfectly level tent area filled with pea gravel. Another block retaining wall ringed the back of the site making it all far too homey for me. The final indignity to any thought of “roughing it” was the street light with a little lot sign right next to our paved parking spot and the picnic table set on its paved platform right next to our tent area. A wood carved “Jacobsen” name sign could have easily hung from the street light to finish off this homey site. Tent stakes sank into the ground as easily as a fork into a perfectly cooked steak as we pitched our tent.
We should have seen the clues when we checked into the campground inside a massive general store that led past an air-conditioned shower room and spotless laundry room. Driving to our site, we passed two swimming pools, a beach volleyball court, lighted basketball court and even a skateboard park all set amid manicured landscaping and lined with plastic-coated chain link fencing. Even a golf cart filled with locals on patrol passed with regularity to make sure everyone and everything was just right.
We owe this all to RVs. The RV world is one of permanence despite these big rigs’ ability to roll the country’s byways. Any sense of adventure seems lost in these small communities. When we travel, our tent sites are always on the fringe of a campground. These simple sites sit just far enough away from the manicured RV sites to give us a general sense of being out in nature.
Nevertheless, as best I can remember, I do not recall ever seeing a slug at any of our sites when I unzipped my tent door, but I will always think of that now thanks to Laura. I will do so with the utmost respect for my wonderful wife. Laura always has said one of the biggest reasons she fell in love with me was because life with me would surely be an adventure, an adventure she wanted to pursue with me in almost every way. That is not to say she always loves every aspect of those adventures, though.
When we sea kayaked together off the coast of Florida in 2007, she fell in love with kayaking but not with the idea there might be a shark swimming below us. She continues to love kayaking, but does not like not being able to see the bottom of a lake. While I am always ready to jump into the deep water, Laura holds back. When we flew off to France in 2003 and finally pitched our tent nearly 48 hours later in a field along a darkened road, she never complained. Camping in Nebraska, with heavy storms rolling through the river valley and our tent, she held on without a complaint. All I have to do is make sure I dive in through the door and zip the tent doors quickly to keep bugs out of the tent to make her happy.
We reflected on all this in Wisconsin as we sat outside our tent on a dark night with a fire roaring. We discussed a couple that were camping at the site next to us. The two were older than us, but they were camping in a rugged expedition tent designed for the roughest conditions. They had left Pittsburgh on their way to Canada and ultimately to Alaska for an extended stay at Denali National Park before ferrying from Alaska to Seattle for the trip home. Their journey would take nearly three months.
As Laura and I talked, she could tell I was getting more and more fired up. She could see “the wheels turning” in my head. She needed only to bluntly state, “there are bears in Denali” to put an end to any thought of adding that adventure to my list…at least for now. Nevertheless, as I rolled along, Laura’s pragmatic sense of adventure began to soften inside her. Just as my thoughts began to turn to nature of another kind, that golf cart came whizzing by with the self-appointed security force staring at us as we glowed by fire light.
Well, so much for that fun. Blast you civilization.