Roughing it, revisited

Neither of us was what you'd call an experienced camper.Kathy had slept out in the backyard with her younger sisters, and I'd been on a Girl Scout overnight in ninth grade. To New York City.

But there we were, grinning like escapees, on the start of our long anticipated camping tour of the United States. We'd planned the trip during our last semester of college, and finally were heading off to see the world, or at least one continent's worth.

If only we could get out of the driveway.

Kathy was still learning how to shift gears on my station wagon. She gunned the motor and lunged into reverse, then stalled out again. We'd been hoping for a quiet, predawn departure, but the backfires were giving us away. With each boom another neighbor came out to join the pajama party that was forming in the street. One more false start and they'd break out the confetti.

Finally Kathy found first gear and eased the brake off, to the sound of cheers and applause. All the way up Douglas Drive and around the corner, still in first, we could hear the laughter. A disconcerting start perhaps, but no damper on our spirits.

Like all first days of new adventures, ours was a giddy one.As we made our way up the Florida coast we jabbered about the wilderness experience to come. We could hardly wait to cook out first hot dog over crackling coals and spend our first night under silent stars.

We'd planned to make the state park by dusk, but were a little late pulling in. Finding our assigned campsite wasn't hard, though. It was in the middle of a paved clearing bordered by street lights and filled with mobile homes. There wasn't a trailer in sight under 20 feet, and the families on either side of us were gathered around portable television sets, not campfires. Kathy and I glanced at each other and then at the equipment we'd bought cutrate. Maybe if we backed in with the lights off, no one would notice.

We lowered the tailgate and began unloading the boxes, ever so quietly. There was our Army surplus hatchet, our Navy surplus griddle, and the kerosene lantern that no branch of the service had claimed. The lantern caught on the second match, but quickly dimmed to a single, self-conscious flame. No problem. We were getting plenty of reflected light from the Sony next door.

Our tent was still in its box, but we had an all-purpose pocketknife that was great for removing staples. It was just a question of finding it among the other knives, packed safely in the shoe box labeled "cooking utensils."

By the time we'd unfolded the tent directions and laid them out on the pavement, a crowd was beginning to collect at a discreet distance. Our next-door neighbors had turned off their "Gunsmoke" re-runs in favor of live entertainment, and several windows on nearby trailers had opened inquiringly. Word was evidently spreading that a genuine canvas tent was going up in the park and everyone wanted to be able to tell the grandchildren about it.

Unfortunately, there were no familiar ropes or stakes to this tent.It was a newfangled contraption, pyramid shaped, with supporting aluminum cross poles on the outsides. We'd fallen for its rugged simplicity in a basement showroom, but were finding it less than simple to reconstruct.

While Kathy assembled the poles and I stretched the canvas sides out flat, the circle of flashlights moved closer. It took a couple of disorganized heaves and one big snap to bring the tent into shape -- but what a marvelous shape it was!

For the second time that day, we were surrounded by applause. And this time, fewer snickers.

When we finally turned to, rolling carefully in our sleeping bags to avoid the pot-holes, sleep was the last thing on our minds. We were raring to see the w orld, and the world obviously couldn't wait to see us.

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