I. Friday Afternoon.
We’re here! We’ve been here for about 90 minutes. The tent is up; I’m well into a 12 oz. La Fin; the Cardinals are trying to come back and tie the Cubs. It’s 6-5 in the top of the eighth. B is reading her crossword puzzle mystery by Parnell Hall.
On the way down here we stopped at the impressive, incomparable Shaw Nature Reserve. I haven’t done that much birding in years. My one wish was to see a bluebird. I really wanted B to see one. We saw one right away—pellucid blue on its wings, head, and back. Chestnut neck and upper chest. Relatively long wings considering its slight size; kind of swallow-y in demeanor.
The first one popped up from the ground and perched on a two-foot high reed for a minute, letting us get a real good look. Where I lived during my later grade school years—there used to be plenty of bluebirds out there, at first. But eventually they all went away and didn’t come back. We saw between five and ten bluebirds at Shaw.
As we were starting out on the main trail, heading out toward the far end of the reserve, we crossed paths with a birder lady who, eyeing the binoculars around my neck, asked, “Have you seen anything interesting?” Now, I don’t consider myself a hard-core birder, but I’ve spent some time around hard-core birders, enough to know that this is not a simple question. If I say, “Yeah, I saw a bluebird,” I get dismissed as a hack on the spot. So I just played dumb and let her talk. What had she seen? “A lot of yellow rumps. Indigo bunting. Vireos—red-eyed, blue-eyed. Tanagers. I was really hoping to see the Blackburnian, but I haven’t—yet. Oh, and blue-wing—do you know what blue-wings look like?”
I was dazed, trying to hold my footing. I knew what language she was speaking but I wasn’t quite fluent in it. Blue-wing, I’m thinking. Blue-wing, blue-wing—blue-wing what? Instead of pursuing this, I hear a call that B and I had heard a couple of times, that I did not know. It was a teasing, flirtatious call from up on high. “What is that?” I say. “Oh, parula? Everybody knows parula. You don’t see them, but you hear them.”
She had arthritis in her fingers. Rheumatoid or osteo, you know, I’m not sure, I didn’t look close enough. She wore a pair of Swarovskis around her neck. She proceeded to show me, on her phone, what a blue-winged warbler looks like. And the Blackburnian—which was familiar to me, but only because I’d seen it before in my trusty Audubon Field Guide. It is a striking warbler, yellow-breasted with striking black lines streaking this way and that across its head. She was generous. She was saying she liked to look for birds at Los Valley Conservation Area, off 94. We’d have to try that, I said. She really wanted to see that Blackburnian.
“The calls are important,” she says. “At first I didn’t pay attention to the sounds. The lady I started birding with was hard of hearing, so we didn’t worry about the sounds.”
We parted ways. B asked if I was going to write about her. “She was a character,” says B. Indeed.
The Redbirds are down a run. Top of the ninth. How about it, fellas?
They lose 6-5. So now we’re listening to music. The fire is going. It’s a test for the wood I got at Endicott. Good, hard oak. It’s taking but smoking a bit.
“What makes it smoke?”
“Too much moisture, I’d think. But I don’t really know, now that I think about it. Green wood versus seasoned wood. How are they different, really? It could be more than just moisture.”
B is calling out the trailers as the come down the road leading to all of the campsites. We’ve got a front-row seat. An extended-cab F-150 hauling a full trailer—something that looks like it could drive itself. And in the back of the pickup, standing up, is a Weber kettle. Hauling! Whoo, that fire’s getting hot now. It’s partly cloudy, about 60 degrees, the wind variable, with some “I’m thinking about getting windy” gusts. Pleasant. Plenty of light left. It’s 5:15 p.m. central daylight time. It feels later than that. Dodgers at Marlins starts at 6:10. I’m getting two dots of 3G out here. Not acid, reception. I’m streaming, baby! A Wrangler goes by with two kayaks on top of it.
Pop-up camper. We’ve seen several of those. I was able to the state park wi-fi going on my iPod. I had tried, briefly, earlier to pull up a wi-fi network but got nothing and moved on. I was saying I was disappointed because the Missouri State Parks website was saying very proudly on there: wi-fi in all MO parks. So I tried again: pulled up the wi-fi on my iPod and bam! Gonna stream some ball!
II. Friday Night.
Saw a pileated woodpecker. Had a small, procure-some-coals-for-pie iron-cooking fire. Watched the bluebirds on the green. Drank Ashland Amber and then a little Old Crow Reserve. Peaceful.
The showerhouse is about a four-minute walk away. Seemed alright. The park is filling up nicely. At one point they were queued up at the check-in station waiting for entrance. It’s been as close to a swarm of woodpeckers as I’ve ever seen. Red Heads, Red Bellies, and that stately, plump Pileated. I’m sad about needing to conserve wood for cooking tomorrow—it never lasts as long as you think it will!—but it’ll be dark before long and we have BIG plans for tomorrow morning. It’s going to come early, and it’s going to be beautiful.
B went up to the showerhouse one last time. She ate some of the dill Krunchers. She said they had a little vinegar in them and I took the opportunity to recall that bag of sea salt and vinegar chips I rescued from the lap of a forlorn camp chair the Sunday morning of last fall’s farm party. Motorcycles now. Two of them. I guess they’ve been here all along. Last time I walked up to the showerhouse I distinctly recall hearing someone say, “No, they’re going riding.”
B’s back. I’m not sure what’s going on. In comes a motorcyle with what looks like a pop-up behind it. Elsewhere in the camp are tightrope walkers. I think of that documentary. Things are starting to get kind of heady. They tie their rope between two trees and I’m thinking, “Hammock between two trees, not a tightrope line….” I look up and it’s the gloaming. The gloaming, friend! I see contrails, dissolving. And it dawns on me that “dissolving contrail” would make a great paint swatch.
We are running out of light. Something is being lost here, all around me, and as much as I try I cannot do anything about it. Campers keep coming in. They had to work today—we did not, that is our luxury, and our fortune. In comes an RV pulling a car. “Pop up!” We’ve seen a lot of pop-ups at this point. It’s getting cool. Our hands are cool. They get that way, don’t they? “Everyone has a large truck out here, don’t they?” We have a Jeep. We won’t raise ’em, but we’ll see ’em. Three large trucks, one Suburban, one motorcycle. Tail lights in succession at the check-in station. DJ Bene. The sound of brothers playing catch. Pop! Thwamp! Pop! Thwamp! One is a lefty.
I had one of B’s old-tyme knit winter hats in the Jeep, the sort of thing you might find as you unpacked your suitcase in a dream. It comes in handy. We sit and wonder about what night birds we might hear. The farm’s offerings of constant whip-poor-will and occasional barred owl are daunting. But maybe we’ll hear something different, something new. It’s Electro Mix 18. “Do it, Bene. Do it!” I rate it five stars. A little color is coming into the sky. There’s not a single thing in life that I would change right now. Clouds here and there are taking on a pink hue and some painterly grays. We are under walnuts.
III. Sat Morn.
Expectations of campgrounds as quiet places are unfounded. Sitting here at 6:15 I’m hearing not just the birds but also someone’s yippy dog.
This small, morning cook-fire is humming pretty good. Yolks still intact on those eggs—pretty. The ground here is more hospitable than at the farm.
B is cooking the patty melts. I decided I wanted one sooner rather than later so we’re eating them for lunch instead of for dinner. B is getting to be a pretty good camp cook. It’s funny to think that three years ago, before the farm, neither one of us even knew what a pie iron was. I’m drinking a Heineken tallboy and starting to relax a little bit. I had to do a little battle with the fire first, though. We gave in—ok, I gave in—and paid $4 a bundle for six of those dubious little bundles of wood you’d see outside of a gas station. These we bought from the general store in the park. It burns—the fire’s very hot. But I still needed a lot of smaller stuff to get it going. And it took two attempts before I settled on a “structure” that would support any fire at all. Eventually I went with a square-shaped, log cabin sort of structure before I could get the store-bought stuff going. I had to keep feeding smaller pieces into the center before the fire got hot enough to start burning the store-bought pieces comprising the square. It’s a slower burn, but that’s a good thing. There’s plenty of air flow. We also bought another bag of ice up at the park store. We’re set now.
It’s time I touched on just a few of the other souls who are this campground this weekend.
One. There’s this guy, alone, who arrived in a mini-van with Minnesota plates. His tent blew away as he was first trying to put it up. I didn’t see it, but I imagine its action was a la tumbleweed. (Another P.T. Cruiser…cruises by….) We saw him scrounging for wood. His seems to be a pretty lean operation. It makes me wonder. What’s he doing down here, from Minnesota. So many possibilities.
Two. A woman that showed up just around lunchtime. Didn’t waste any time setting up her tent. Next thing I know she’s got her walking stick and she is gone hiking. I passed right near her site when I went for water. Her license plate was “JMJ RR 1”. (For privacy reasons, I am withholding the state.) And I figure that as standing for “Jesus Mary Joseph, Rest and Relaxation.” And then the “1” is just a one, because she was the first to request that plate. I have this lady pegged as a nun. It looks like she has her camping technique down pretty good. She had a big costco-sized plastic jar of erstwhile pretzels that now holds, among other things, a spatula. Then she had one of those huge containers of ALL, with the spigot on the side like it’s a water cooler. Mainframe-sized. Doing laundry for a hotel-sized. Anyway—what’s she got in there? Pretty sure it ain’t detergent. I’ve re-used detergent containers (I cut mine open with a box cutter when I can’t get any more detergent out and throw both pieces in with a load, to get it all cleaned out) but I’m not sure that I’d ever put water in it for potable purposes. Maybe hers is for ablutions.
Three. Then there’s the motorcycle crew. I briefly mentioned them early, if only tangentially. This morning the lead rider is out drinking coffee in his flannel pajama bottoms, a few hours later he’s all harleyed-up one-arming his handlebars as they set off down the road for a ride in the hills. Someone in that crew has a tent that is shaped just like a teepee. As I walked past them last night I heard one of them saying how he really wanted to go to Ireland, to see the castles. There’s a lot more to this group of…six. B was scoping them out, too. She says the lead guy and who would seem to be his lady companion don’t share a tent. It’s the would-be lady friend that’s in the teepee. Then it’s her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend in another tent (they got up pretty late today). Then there’s another couple that probably includes the guy who wants to go to Ireland.
Four. There were two Indian-looking fellas (could have been Malaysian, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan—I don’t know for sure, I’m just describing people best I can). They pulled in sort of late last night in a white sedan…and they were gone this morning. They couldn’t have been here for more than a few hours. Where’d they go?
Five. A couple of young guys—kids really—can’t be much more than driving age. Set up their tent all frumpy around noon and then drove off somewhere. All that was on their site when they drove off was their tent and the following three items on their picnic table: two towels and a Sonic cup. They’re back now.
I gotta hit the shower-house.
VII. Saturday, Late Afternoon.
If a day is like a baseball bat; and if a baseball bat has a fat part of it; then this is the fat part of the day. The sun is anti-climactic. I can still feel its strength on the back of my neck, but now I know it won’t be much longer before its gone. This part of the day that we’re into now is the part yesterday when the woodpeckers were the most active.
We have seen a lot of butterflies today. Not the real big ones—like monarchs or swallowtails—but the next ones down from there. One that I want to call a zebra fly. And one very similar to that but with blue instead of white on its wing stripes. Lots of bumblebees. And flies: regular ole house flies. The breeze right now is stout and friendly.
In comes a woodpecker, a downy I think. Squeek-asqueek-asqueek-asqueek-asqueek-asqueek-asqueek-asqueek-wh. There is a red-headed farther off. The red-headed woodpecker is like the bomb-pop of woodpeckers: red on top, white underneath, dark blue wings that have patches of contrasting white on them. Three adamant colors. In a tree near me, a red-bellied woodpecker is chasing some other species of woodpecker: up the trunk, down a branch, into another tree. Territory fight. Grackles feed on the ground and “check”. B is putting on a long-sleeved shirt, a light one.
We’ve shifted our chairs to back over by the fire. I can see a whole lot more trees this way. The wide-brimmed hat is getting another workout. It’s the time of day when the crows have stopped cawing and started croaking.
The carnies are back, cussing. One of them says he didn’t get off until six last night. Wind gust. B gets her wine out. The bugs are easier to see at this time. Crepuscular. Still no bluebirds today, though. A pileated woodpecker swoops in and thwacks against a tree trunk, its claws sounding like a squirrel’s would as it navigates its way around the tree. It leaps from the trunk up to a branch, works its way out toward the tip of the branch, makes for another tree, dropping toward the ground, its belly almost scraping before it changes its wing angle and glide-bumps upward onto a trunk.
VIII. Saturday Night.
The carnies are more subdued tonight. B is asleep and I’m not far off. Its the last stage of what was a good fire: a slow burn and not too much smoke but lots of coals along the way. We didn’t do any cooking, though. It’s barely cool. Some dope is running his generator a few campsites down—that’s the mystery red box we saw him toying with a hundred and fifty feet away from his trailer. We saw him go out to it with his son and couldn’t figure out what the heck they would set so far from their site. Running a generator after dark is specifically prohibited at Missouri State park campsites. It’s on the back of the map. Unless that thing is keeping somebody alive—like there’s a bubble boy in that trailer—it shouldn’t be running.
But I’ve got my safe haven: ear plugs. I’m munching pretzel braids. I’m holding my small Mag Lite to the page. It uses two AA batteries and is not an LED lamp. It’s actually nice when I want a little less light.
The biker folks have a really bright lamp going at their sight. It’s like the brightest star in the sky and nothing compares. Just now the carnies are getting themselves all goobered up about something. No one ever showed up next door at camp site 98, even though it did appear to be reserved. Oh yeah, the other thing B was saying about the motor cycle crew. She said the lead guy and his ostensible mate don’t ever touch. B said, “Either they’re dating or they’re just Harley buds.” I wonder if maybe they weren’t married at some point and somebody did something wrong. All I can say for sure is that that light at their site is bright enough for a baseball game to be played under.
Hunter the Dog walked over here earlier, snuck up on us. All of a sudden I realized something big was walking right up to us, all casual, and I was thinking, Is that a person? No, it was just Hunter the Dog. No big deal. I told B that I thought I smelled wet dog last night, at some point after the carnies showed up, after I had put my ear plugs in. She said, “Maybe that’s what was trying to get into the cooler last night.” Very possible.
I have eaten the last pretzel braid. The coals are still glowing but I’m going to go to bed.
IX. Sunday Morning.
We’re on the move. It’s 8:10. We will stop for gas in Sullivan. It’s a beautiful morning. B cooked as I broke down the tent. Dewy.
“I don’t feel that Bohemian, ” says B. “I don’t think there’s anything Bohemian about camping.”
Maybe Beat is a better word. Eschewent. Cost-minded. Outdoors loving. Walks, hikes. Stars. Wood.
We have turned off onto Highway O, and we’re gonna go scope out Robertsville State Park. We pass Riverstone Quarry—piles of pulverized rock. We cross the Meramec River, again. Robertsville looks pretty full. But the sites don’t look all that big and it doesn’t look like there are lot of good places to pitch a tent. Slanty, rocky, woody. Ticky? We’re not feeling it. Better place for a pop-up.
Robertsville Road north to get back on 44. A worthy detour. And we pop out right by Shaw Nature. Hello, Shaw. See you again soon.