When my parents were still young enough to delude themselves as to their levels of patience and exhaustion, they would take us camping. For a week beforehand, the house was chaotic with preparations. The day before was spent restlessly packing our gear into our bags and our bags into the car. The morning of we were somehow always running late, still cramming coolers full of food when we should have been halfway to the campground. Then they would load us five girls in the car between the supplies and we’d make our way to the Poconos to Otter Lake. Jen and myself, being the eldest, were required to help set up camp. Our tent was a three-room behemoth with twenty or so specifically shaped poles better suited to inciting frustrated expletives from my parents then providing a framework for our temporary homestead. You held up what you were told to and kept your head down.
Neither of my parents being particularly outdoorsy, it was less of a campsite and more of an outdoor resort. Sites had electricity and running water. We gathered twigs for fun but bought firewood at the camp store. Communal bathrooms had showers with hot water. We slept on air mattresses with real bedding. There were all manner of activities to keep one entertained: a beach, racquetball courts, canoes for rent, movie nights, paint-your-own pottery classes. The grounds had pet peacocks.
Even still, I dreaded it. I enjoyed the activities of course, running off unsupervised, building a fire, but my bag was always the heaviest, packed with books I’d rather be reading. I hated the hours spent securing the site and breaking it down, waking up cold having to walk to use a bathroom which had inevitably been run over by insects in the night, returning home to a week’s worth of dirty dishes and laundry. I could never understand why anyone deemed all that work worth it. As a teenager I camped once, our site mostly functioning as an adult-free place to drink.
As an adult, I went on a trip a friend organized where we were picked up from the MetroNorth station in Beacon and deposited at the woods to hike into a site which had been prepared for us, food and all. That morning I had secured the cheapest sleeping bag available for the endeavor, my first, from the midtown Manhattan Kmart. So while the practically made decision to forego expensive lodging in the four corners region in favor of camping had been mine, I was less than enthusiastic about the realities of the ordeal.
Two nights in Cooper Lake State Park were meant to be both a trial run for the impending, more primitive camping ahead and an attempt at breaking up a long drive to Austin. With said sleeping bag in tow, we left Hope, literally, and crossed another state line.
However, being hit with temperatures in the upper nineties before the day had even settled in caused for some amending in our plan. We found a movie theater along the way, with a screening of It that would allow us to shelter ourselves during the worst of the afternoon’s heat. Exiting the theater with chills still running through us, we realized our choice in movie may have been a misguided one, being just a few hours from spending the night in a tent.
The drive to the campsite Y had picked was a leisurely affair, with a stop for lunch featuring brisket pizza (bless you, Texas), and another for a $5 matinee. As huge fans of horror movies, we were excited to see It. After, we were not so excited about what the night’s sleep almost assuredly promised. We continued on, eventually driving down the aptly named Farm to Market Road towards Cooper Lake to set up camp.
My Father is a very well-spoken man, and given to finely crafted turns of phrase, humor and often extraneous or otherwise undesired wit. One of my favorite lessons he has distilled into verbal coinage was thus: “There are two types of people in this world. Those you would camp with, and those you would not.”
I was raised to respect and enjoy the outdoors, and while those I camped with in my youth have slid into the latter category, the yearning to engage in the simple act of pitching a tent in the woods and sleeping on the ground has always stayed in the same lane. Given all of this, I was excited to share something I love with my partner, who by definition is someone I would camp with. Conversely, knowing my partner on a variety of specific and intimate levels, I found myself electrified by a vast field of trepidation. We might very well kill each other before the tent goes up, I thought to myself.
We arrived at the park as the visitor’s center was closing for the day, and having procured a map and firewood, made our way to the campgrounds to pick out our site. It being midweek in September, we had our choice and selected one right on the lake. Smoke from the controlled burn being conducted by the rangers wafted over, and after a few attempts (and some knowledge bombs from my own personal Eagle Scout), our fire was doing just as well. With tent pitched and dinner percolating, we went to work recounting our day in our journals.
By the time we had finished eating, the sun had set, leaving us with the undesirable task of cleaning up in the dark. Both a little annoyed by the cumbersome task, I fought through my agitation and the steady sting of mosquito bites, determined to be a good sport and accept J’s proposal of a walk. We were enveloped in a darkness so deep it was unnerving.
Eventually, the magnitude of the visible stars shook our salty attitudes clear, and J illustrated how to tell a star from a planet. Feeling confident in my newfound ability, I pointed out what I proclaimed to be Mars and Venus, and we grabbed my binoculars to get a better view. We retired to the tent, J passing out fairly quickly. I stayed up reading for a few hours, hoping to distract myself from the still oppressive heat and the audible movement of creatures nearby.
While there were no death-blows exchanged, the learning curve for both of us is a little complicated. The early camping trip had been planned as a sort of dry run for a later leg of the trip, and I know we’re both grateful for the practice, as it gave us the opportunity to work some of the kinks out. It also gave us the opportunity to examine the fact that both of us are composed of a great deal of interwoven kinks, many of which are stubborn and quite comfortable where they are. The official camping leg of the journey will not be the easiest part, but we’re both certainly more prepared now. As with any trial or tribulation, strength comes from passing through adversity. Like apologizing for being a dick, which feels adverse as hell.
We woke the next morning feeling a little less ornery, if not entirely well rested, and decided to start the day with a hike on the Coyote Run Trail. Pondering on whether coyotes even lived around here, we scanned the trail for clues. We had both wrongfully assumed there would be a fountain near the trailhead, which was next to a picnic area, and had left our water bottles back at the site. As the sun and temperature rose, nervousness about succumbing to dehydration in the middle of the woods welled up in me.
With the terrain proving a bit monotonous I asked to turn back, irritating J once more. A swim in the lake cooled us down, both figuratively and literally. With the entire beach empty but for us, the hawks and herons were cocksure, hovering nearby. We waded in the cool water watching quietly. With no one around, I indulged in a liberating nude outdoor shower and then a turn on the swings (in which I definitively swung higher than J) before returning to camp.
We made a humble lunch and J went to take a nap while I wrote, though our neighbors’ rambunctious canine seemed determined to make both difficult. J gave up the premise and rejoined me outside. We started dinner early, learning from the previous night’s mistake. With cleanup completed, J suggested going to watch the sunset at the beach, but when we got there the angle was all wrong, our view obstructed by the woods. However, we did come across a parking lot with three smallish deer scavenging its contents. Nose deep in a Kind Bar wrapper (how’s that for irony?) their presence eased my concerns about the large animals I’d heard rustling nearby the night before.
We arrived back at the site, still too early for stars, and scrambled to get what we needed from the car before being assailed by mosquitos attracted by the car’s interior light and our status as universal donors. The stillness was interrupted by stirring, and I whirled around, instantly on alert scanning the tree line. A duck quacking nearby was enough to convince J I was overreacting. I reminded him that ducks don’t go rustling through the woods, and the quacking was clearly coming from further away, at the lake’s edge. As he closed the trunk, I saw two eyes shining in the distance.
“There!” I pointed. It was hard to make out, but slowly the creature was advancing toward us. J focused his flashlight and caught the mammoth possum in its beam. We moved forward, eager to get inside the tent, but the possum turned to continue his trajectory toward us. J ran at him, yelling, and he sauntered away, seeming more ruffled by the necessary change in route than afraid. Once safely inside the tent, we cracked open a bottle of peppermint vodka, the mint flavor feeling cool in the dense, sticky night. Between swigs, J informed me that despite an appearance that seemed to communicate otherwise, possums do not contract rabies.
The weather was hot and sticky, but perfect for the low-impact sport of writing. We ate simply and well, cooking over small wood fires. It felt good to build a fire, it always does. It felt even better to watch Y become more confident in manipulating the fire. The park was mostly deserted, and we had the entirety of the lake to ourselves aside from some herons and hawks when we went for a swim. At night, massive and shockingly brave opossums trolled our campsite, and in the distance, we could hear a band of coyotes sing to the stars.
We wrote a bit more, our thoughts occasionally disturbed by the melancholy howls of coyotes too distant to solve our yappy dog issue, answering our earlier question. Eventually, the vodka made going to the bathroom inevitable, and I forced J to join me to keep watch. The effects of the alcohol and necessity for flashlights made the affair a decidedly ungraceful one, which we were to repeat twice more before the night was over.
We awoke the next morning to a massive spider hanging directly over the fire pit, having woven its web between trees on opposite sides of our site. Careful to duck under the silky entanglement, I went to shower as J broke down the tent. The persistent heat had ensured I never woke needing to brave the cold to use the bathroom. Showering now, noticing the dried scorpion husks trapped in the bathroom’s fluorescent lighting above me, I mused at how some things don’t change. I moved quickly and within the hour we were headed to Austin by way of Dallas.
After two nights’ stay, it was time to pack up and move on to Austin, a stop we had gleefully planned since the infancy of this enterprise. Dallas, however, was on the way, and Y had found a few things there to help break up the long day’s drive. Getting into and around Dallas proved to be the beginning of slow-burning anxiety attack for me. The traffic, the roads, the Mad Max extras behind the wheel and the profusion of construction would be bad enough, but Dallas is less a city that makes sense than it is the deranged vision of a 12-year old pretending to be a city planner, mapping the bloated metropolitan area out with a schizophrenic vision-board collage of skewed crayon lines and incongruous magazine clippings and photographs. Fuck. Dallas.
I’ve never thought much of Dallas, a dislike for its airport being my only real opinion of it, however, it was well positioned to break for lunch and it has a number of exceptional museums I was interested in examining. Once inside the city limits, we were funneled through drunkenly poured swirls of asphalt and warped streets that don’t quite match up. Navigating the melee was making me almost as prickly as J was directing me through it.
Stepping into the Nasher Sculpture Garden would have felt like entering an oasis, even without having just traversed the formidable concrete desert around it. I was unfamiliar with Tom Sachs, whose work and influences the museum prominently displayed in the majority of its galleries. A docent alerted us to the screening times for the two Sachs films they were airing. In the interim, we toured an excellent exhibit entitled “2D/3D” which compared two works in contrasting mediums from a number of artists.
The first film, entitled “Ten Bullets,” was a training manual for prospective studio assistants and showed the artist’s irreverence, humor, and left me wondering how someone of my exacting inclinations had failed to mindfully adopt knolling. The second was a reconstruction of the delicate traditions of the Japanese tea ceremony in which the customary implements were replaced with the artist’s collage-like constructs utilizing everyday objects. Many of these were displayed in the main gallery as part of Sach’s rendering of a chashitsu and its surrounding garden, complete with koi pond.
The outdoor sculpture garden was an eclectic mix of modern masters, set in alcoves uniquely landscaped to best present each piece. Sach’s work was again featured. The final gallery was a selection of works from the museum’s collection favored by Sachs for their inspiration. Here the artist’s wry humor was once again illustrated in a marker exposing his reasons for electing to include five small de Kooning sculptures. Upon first seeing them, he felt so impressed that de Kooning would have the conviction to take these lumpy little shapes and proudly cast them in bronze that he couldn’t help but have respect for the man.
The cultural offerings of the city go a long way towards redeeming the irredeemable, and The Nasher Sculpture Museum is an absolute jewel – an entire city block, a large portion of it given over to a gorgeous outdoor sculpture garden. We relished our stroll among the shadows of massive Cor-ten steel sculpture and the shade of willow trees along the burbling of fountains. The museum was featuring Tom Sachs in both the role of curator and that of an auteur. His Tea Ceremony installation was precise and mischievous, sometimes dipping more than a toe into Dada, a bricolage-laden remix of the vaunted Japanese tradition. The Sachs-curated gallery adjacent provided wonderful context to the artist and his process. Two short films, one on the Tea Ceremony, and the other, Ten Bullets, a tongue-in-cheek employee orientation for his studio, helped firmly affix Sachs in our minds as a new favorite.
We crossed the street to view the Asian artifacts in the Crow Collection. There was a particularly impressive sculpture of a Cambodian flower, enormous in scale, fashioned of woven metal and bamboo. I saw a friend had posted a picture of a museum down the street, and after a few texts it became clear she and her husband were also in town. She agreed to take time away from teaching her 9-year-old nephew how to improve upon his UNO smack talk and meet us for a beer. Over coconut beers we discussed our plans for the trip, our days at the museum, and her family, still unreachable by phone in Puerto Rico. We laughed at the idea of me camping. It was an all too brief encounter, but I was glad she got to meet J.
With some time to kill before taking advantage of the discovery that one of Y’s friends was in town for the day, we crossed the street and explored the Crow Collection of Asian Antiquities, a free museum that offered mostly Japanese and Indian artifacts, sculpture and paintings. Our imaginations sufficiently fueled and stoked, we headed across town to have a quick beer to say hello and give a now well-rehearsed synopsis of our plans. It was nice to put a name to a face, as Y’s friends are all scattered across the country.
With the sun already setting on the day, we set off on the three-hour drive to Austin, where we’d be staying with my friend, Beia. I had met Beia years ago in New York, where we had been servers at the same restaurant. Our mutual appreciation for Italian wine and commiseration over our temperamental boss developed into an intimate friendship, despite infrequent visits. I was as excited for J to meet her as I was to be reunited. We arrived to her warm welcome, doing our best to ingratiate ourselves to cat of the house, Monster.
Agreeing we were all starving, we walked to Hopfield’s, an adorably cozy spot where you can still order a real dinner at 11pm. When I was waiting tables in New York, I treasured places like this, where you could go out after a shift and have an actual date. We took a meandering path home, Beia taking the opportunity to walk us past lawn dragons, a cult compound, and the rest of her neighborhood eagerly embracing Austin‘s reputation for individuality. Finally, we came upon her own bungalow and the comfort of an indoor bed.
We rolled into Austin a few hours after dark, where I was able to attach the name Beia to the face of our wonderful host. We grabbed a late dinner, then walked her beautiful neighborhood, bouncing from topic to topic before eventually arriving back at her house. Monster, her cat, has personality in spades and would prove to be another animal fix for me on this journey. Not having Moose around accentuates precisely how deep the sickness goes.
While I doubt I’ll ever ascend to the level of my Granma, who exclusively preferred the ugliest of cats from breeders and consistently put NPR on so her pedigreed felines would not become lonely, I do find myself realizing that not only am I repeatedly just shy of starting a conversation with my cat, but that my cat is several hundred miles away. This, of course, leads me to doubt his abilities as a mascot for Team Felicidad as well as his commitment, which is a conversation we’ll be having come December. Such a serious talk will likely occur after a lengthy effort to catch his nihilistic fuzzy ass up on all of the things in all likelihood he seriously, like, definitely just cannot even be bothered with. He’s got a lot of shit going on, obvi.
I miss our fucking cat, and I will not be judged for it.