I. Friday at Site 88.
…In which Pat sets up his erstwhile tent, an igloo type, smaller than his new one, saying it [the erstwhile tent] is a little musty because he hasn’t used it since Wisconsin…And in which Jack buys a couple of bundles of wood from a guy on a golf cart…
One of the campground hosts is circulating on a golf cart asking if campers need firewood or ice. Fire and ice, fire and ice. He was wearing a shirt that on the back announced in green lettering something to the effect, “The Little Bug That Kills.” I’ve my cache of wood in the back of the car still, in lawn refuse—”Kraft” paper—bags and it’s a scenario I’ve fretted before. A park ranger, or in this case a campground host, asks me whereabouts my wood is from. For the record, ninety percent of what I got is from St. Louis County. College City, to be exact. Some of it’s from my own yard. A lot I got from the College City park’s woodlot. A fair bit is from a certain St. Louis County park, where someone downed a tree, cut it up alright, and left it to rot. Nuh uh. I grabbed a lot of it.
Missouri has this problem with a specific beatle, the emerald ash borer, which is infesting ash trees and killing them. Moving firewood—ash especially, but any hardwood generally—is how the beatle is is spreading its reign. There are counties in mostly southern parts of the state that are subject to quarantine—you’re not supposed to take firewood out of those counties. St. Louis County is not a quarantine county. But where we camped along the Current River, at Round Spring? That’s Shannon County. And Shannon County is a quarantine county.
And, well, I brought some wood back from that trip. Now, before you cuff me, I want to point out that the wood I brought back from there was wood we got from the general store down by the campground. It was the bundled, pre-split, cellophane-wrapped variety you will see sitting out in front of gas stations from here to everywhere. And my big point here is: I have no way of knowing, and no one else does, where this wood I brought back from Shannon County originated from. It could easily have come from a different county than Shannon County. I admit making the mistake of not burning what I bought. I never should have brought it back. But you’re also not supposed to leave any excess wood behind at your campsite. We had too much and after the Odysseus Float the day before we didn’t even have a fire Sunday morning. So I took what was left, wrapped it in a garbage bag, and headed for home.
I just bought a couple-a bundles. The host puttered up on his golf cart and asked, “You got plenty of wood.” I do have plenty of wood but I said, “I could use a couple of bundles.” I figure I want to be on record as having bought some of the “local wood”—which gets me back to what I was saying. I asked the host where the wood was from and he said, “I…don’t know.” He looked at one of the bundles and read off the address of the place listed on the little piece of paper that’s tucked into each bundle. “New Florence, Missouri,” he says. Which means nothing. That’s the address of the business as far as I know—not the location from which the wood was taken (or stored/seasoned).
My point: Does have any idea where this wood is really from? Who is regulating these supplies of wood that land at gas stations and campgrounds? Because I’m here to tell you: This wood I just bought is the same “brand” of wood that I bought when B and I were at Meramec State Park earlier this year. Meramec is at least several counties away from here. But, oh, go to the Missouri State Parks website and you’ll see that the “Firewood Advisory” is in full effect—don’t move firewood. Hello? This stuff I just bought is “moved firewood,” courtesy of Midwest Hardwood Farms, purveyor of “seasoned oak firewood.” (Not that it matters but New Florence, MO is 116 miles from St. Francois State Park. College City is 60 miles from here.)
If we are going to get serious about the emerald ash borer then any firewood sold on any level (wholesale or retail) in Missouri needs a stamp, or a sticker—kind of like fruit—identifying where the wood has been.
I’ve got to digress from my firewood sermon for just a minute to tell you about a seven-year-old kid at a campsite not far from here that hates his tent and hates his brother, too. I want to sniper rifle this kid. Without him, the ambient noise here would be perfect. There are a couple of DeadHeads right across the road, thirty feet from me, who have a sort of Robert Plant-led jam band going on their stereo that I wish was actually a little louder, to counteract the racket that this kid is making.
A car comes around the bend…a baldish guy in a black wagony/hatchback looking car…but darn it’s a VW Golf, not a Forester. Ohh—here comes the ranger in a car that looks kind of like a cop car. I don’t feel unsafe here. Most of the sites are occupied. There are numerous camp hosts and right now it’s a parade of cars, trucks, and trucks with RVs in tow coming by looking for unreserved sites. Six days ago it was just this site and one other that were reserved on this entire side of the campground. Now the place is packed. I’m amazed.
But let me get back to the emerald ash borer because, as it so often happens, Shakespeare was right. One of his best aphorisms was about the persons who “Doth protest too much.” In other words, part of the reason I am so animated about the emerald ash borer is because I have a confession to make. The guilt is eating away at me. Remember that wood I brought back from the Current River campsite? Some of it I had already unbundled, and split, in preparation for a fire Sunday morning (which never happened). But there was another bundle that I never even un-cellophaned. I had it still wrapped in a garbage bag and sitting on a rack in my garage. I did not cut the cellophane off until B and I went on our next camping expedition, to Klondike Park in St. Charles County three weeks later (and also, as it happens, three weeks ago).
When I took the edge of my camper’s axe to the cellophane at Klondike, the cellophane split open, and the wood “unbundled.” As it did so, something green scuttled out of the bundle. I was fearing as much, so I was ready for the possibility that some little critter would come tearing out of that bundle when I loosed it. But this little sucker was quick. Its size was about right for that of a borer (a half inch from head to tail). I stomped at it and then I stomped and tried to rub and swipe at the grass real hard with my foot where I saw the little critter flee to. But I’m only about half-sure that I killed the thing.
So that’s my story about how I messed up bringing that wood back from Shannon County. And that’s why I also believe that as far as Missouri and the emerald ash borer goes…it’s only a matter of time. I’m a firebug, a wood-luster. But I’m also fairly aware of the problem and I have been somewhat mindful of best practices. I’m also a camper, though. And when I’m going to some place to camp that I’ve never been to before, I’m never sure I’m going to have enough wood when I get there. The camp hosts make it pretty easy here by bringing by wood on their carts, but that’s a luxury that I’ve never before seen at any other site. Plus, I need kindling to get these big pieces of wood to catch. Sure, I can split up the pieces that come out of the bundles but that’s hard work. I want to do that work before I come camping. Not when I’m out here. Part of the problem, too, is that campers at Missouri State Parks are SPECIFICALLY PROHIBITED from going into the woods for any reason. As I drove into the campground, one of the camp hosts, the lady with eyes like big round grapes listed for me the park ranger’s pet peeves. “Let’s see,” she says, and I can tell it’s a list she’s run down a thousand times and has become tired with. “Only two vehicles to a site.” And she pauses, uses her eyes to search upward in their sockets for the next item on the list. “Don’t go into the woods.” The eyes go left to right this time. “Quiet time is ten p.m.” She purses her lips, tilts her head at me. “The speed limit is ten miles per hour. Oh, and don’t park on the grass.”
I want to get away from the wood for good now and turn my attention to other matters. It’s 7:20 and dusk is getting warmed up. Someone is chopping wood. A girl scooters by. Two kids two sites over contemplate wiffle ball. I’ve had a Red Hook Longhammer IPA tall boy and a Santa Fe Brewing Saison 88, which has to be only a handful of saisons available in can. It’s pretty good. Five-point-five by volume.
I swat at a mosquito. The grape-eyed lady host comes by with her husband riding shotgun. I’m thinking that if Pat doesn’t arrive tonight I don’t know if I’ll even have a fire. I might need one, though. I’m two-and-a-half beers in and I haven’t eaten since lunch. The park gates close at ten, at least that’s what posted.
Hey, lookee there! Pat is here at seven thirty-six.
II. Saturday Morning.
…In which Jack wakes up with a bit of the crikey…Pat sleeps in…and Jack gets a question by text from Bobby, who is arriving imminently…
I awake to the sound of other campers getting their morning fires going. That’s change for the better!
Me and Pat closed this place down last night. How perfect the weather was. A bit of haze maybe, and that was probably campfire smoke. I had to put on long sleeves, which I have put on again just now. It is chilly here! In St. Louis, in July. I walked to the showerhouse and back a few minutes ago and I was wishing I had my tuq—my beanie, my little winter cap.
I am marveling at how much of this campground is awake at 7:35 on a Saturday morning. On my walk I saw no fewer than three people wrapping themselves in their blankets as they sat fireside. Pat is not up yet. B is leaving College City right now. There is a bit of exceptionally high cirrus. It was bright, light, and right when I awoke. Never have I been scooped on a beautiful morning by so many campers in my own campground.
I ate three White Castle sliders last night, that was all. Pat bought them, frozen, from the Shop ‘n’ Save in Arnold. He let them thaw on the way down. I haven’t had a lower-maintenance, better-tasting meal out of a pie iron. Three Castles each. He had another sixer but I was content. Eventually we went for a walk, out of the camping area, and down to what I’m calling the prairie, a natural tallgrass field interspersed with dead cedar. The stars were held back just a bit by the haze. The moon was a quarter full. We were the only people still stirring at one or so. On the way back I had a wild hair to explore the “Deer Trail,” a short trail in the park. But once we were on it we realized it was going to take us within close proximity of several campsites. My ankles were popping and resounding and we were both stepping on the occasional twig. Pat, to his credit, said, “You know what? This is not a good idea.”
So we turned in. I jotted some gibberish [that turns out not to be legible]. I slept with both sides of the fly rolled up and pinned back. Sometime since our last camp I had been doing a search for a good photo of our tent, the Spitfire II. While doing so I stumbled upon a photo of a Spitfire where the fly seemed to be rolled up and held in place with pieces that were part of the fly itself. And wouldn’t you know—that’s what those loops and knobs on the fly were for, and have been all along. So much for the magnets.
I drank a Doubleshot as I walked to the showerhouse. I overheard talk of bacon but all I whiffed at one point was some strong, dark campfire coffee. I have good things to say about our new air mats. This is rocky ground here but you wouldn’t know it levitating on one of those Thermarests. It is a bit dewy this morn. A few dogs are going now. Some bird in a tree is croaking. I did not hear any birds last night but I did hear two barred owls hooting and huffing at each other quite early, at six-thirty or so, while it was still quite light, down by the prairie. I thought to myself that they are coming out before dark because it’s getting late in the mating season and the males know that the time is short now.
I was down by the prairie because I was looking for the river access. It’s about a 15-minute walk. I slipped on an inclined “trail” leading down to the river. In hindsight it was really more of a slide. I banged my knee decent, and my hand was smudged up where I broke my fall. I washed it off, and rinsed my knee, in the river once I reached it. The river is real pretty in the spots where it’s moving well, like a stream of good thoughts running through your mind. But it’s shallow, and stagnant, and murky in other spots. It’s no Current, but I never expected it to be so I’m not too disappointed. There are plenty of campers here who swam somewhere yesterday. I could tell some of them had swimming because they still had their swimming suits on. In other cases, I saw beach towels hanging to dry. I’m wondering where they swam exactly. I don’t think it was at the precise point I visited. Could it be the creek? I want to take the car out and cruise this park a little to see where everyone is enjoying himself. Then I’ll know for sure.
I’m not lying in Pat’s hammock. It’s a fine hammock. I hear: kids (the same kid from yesterday), some insect in a nearby tree that sounds like a squirrel scratching against bark as it screws around on a tree trunk, a campfire crackling and popping (is there a better sound?). Every ten minutes a car goes by on the loop. My head hurts a little. I am dehydrated. I ate two Kind bars. Last night I got into the Old Bardstown a shade too deep. I told Pat about my faux-resignation. He and I camped together one other time where it was just the two of us—in the Huzzah Valley in September 2012. I had my Spitfire with me back then but much else has changed. I was just a camping baby then.
Bobby texted and asked if we had a DG basket. I said Pat had his. So they’ll get here around 11 I think. What I’m most curious about—and what I seem to have lost the energy to worry about—are Procter and Brodie next door. Those are the dogs one campsite over. Squirt is about to get dropped into a world that will have his head spinning non-stop once he gets here. I pray it goes OK.
Pat asked to see inside the VW van across the street. He introduced himself to Tim, and then to Chelsea. There is a bunkbed in that bus. I told him they were playing music. He said, “Phish? Grateful Dead? String Cheese Incident?” I told him about how it sounded like a jam band with Robert Plant as lead singer. Now I really want to know who it was. It’s going to bother me, not knowing.
It’s peaceful here. Pleasant. I, with my cracking ankles and hushedly bantering with Pat as we walked, was the loudest person in the campground. Imagine that! These folks are early to bed and early to rise. That bark-scratching bug is still going. Plus a titmouse or chickadee. This many years and I still get their sounds confused; as birds they are brothers. I do smell some bacon now. B said she’d cook when she got here. Bacon and eggs and pie-iron toast. Those Castles last night. Oniony, the hint of cheese, in a toasty bun—nom nom. How did Pat even know that a store would sell frozen Castles? Makes me think of the Beastie Boys. Sitting around a campfire rapping, eating Castles. “We went to White Castle and we got thrown out!”
IV. The Rest of Saturday.
…In which Serena and Boston both covet a hammock, Jack enjoys a hot dog that he cooks over an open fire, Squirt doesn’t get killed by the pit bull next door, “Slag Dam” is identified as potentially being a great name for a band, Bobby cracks his first La Fin, square roots are introduced, and all but one go swimming… And about which, unfortunately, Jack does not write anything until the following day…
V. It is Sunday And I am Back Home.
…In which I try to recap everything that happened, even reaching back again to Friday night…
It is Sunday and I’m back home and clear of mind and I know this will be a trip I won’t have written much about, sobeit. I enjoyed some one-on-one time with Pat. I can’t recall what it was I was doing when he got there. I had just bought some wood from the camp host as he was making rounds on his golf cart. That’s one of the sounds I’ll remember—the brake on the Club Car getting released, the cart gaining speed as it powered off.
Pat had the Cards game going on KMOX when he pulled up. I’ve had a lot of good friends, and most of them are part of my past. Those that aren’t are a thousand miles away. Having Pat drive up with his windows down and the game on the radio was a silver linings playbook. I couldn’t get KMOX clear enough on my little Sangean but I had scanned the list of the Cardinals radio network beforehand and I had spotted Park Hills, 104.3 FM. With the aux cord running from the headphone jack and dumping into the Braven portable bluetooth speaker, the connection was 100% high-fidelity gametime, baby! We drank beer and listened. He drank his Pabst real slow. Whatever it was I was drinking I didn’t drink it slow. He ate some dried fruit. He offered me some but I declined. Then he pulled out those Castles. See, Pat and I have very different ways of doing things. I have my word-processed camp list, over which I agonize in the week preceding a camp, checking items off with a Sharpie once I have packed them. He grabs his camp totes and knocks over the Shop ‘n’ Save in Arnold on his way down, collecting such items as: Spaghetti-Os, Castles, store-made Hawaiian bread deli sandies, tea, Frappuccinos, Ice Mountain water jugs, and dried fruit. And pumpkin seeds. I was sluggish drunk—an unfortunate state—as we walked down to the prairie, where we stayed for just a bit, to see what the sky looked like from there, how open and infinite it might seem. But the haze obscured it just enough to keep us from being amazed. We debated then, and then again on Saturday, what portion of the haze was simply campfire smoke that had drifted to the prairie from the campground.
There is so much to say, and I’m in a groove talking about my night with Pat—I told him about my resignation, and my retraction. And I know I’ve said some of this already and this is just redundant but I think I’m saying it better this time so I’m not going to stop. “Pride in your job,” he says, “that’s good.” Phil says about how people rarely really talk, and he’s right but Pat and I accomplished talking Friday night. A lot of times when it’s me and Pat—like a lot of times when it’s me and just about anybody else, except maybe B, and some of the times with Roy—a lot of times other people will talk and I won’t say much, mostly because I can’t think of anything I really want to say. But I talked on Friday. I told him about how I think people can be classified in one of two ways: either they are politicians or they are not. The daily nature and grind of work tends to bring out the politician in all of us—because there is money at stake—and we spend the rest of our time trying to prove to ourselves we are who we were before we got dressed in the morning. Except there are some people who like what happens to them at work, when they are “playing the game.” Those are the people that actually go on to run for office.
I didn’t feel real well on Saturday morning. I got scooped on waking up. I slept with the fly open. Did I say this already? Maybe.
B got there around nine. Me, B, and Pat on Site 88 at St. Francois State Park just north of Bonne Terre, MO. Bobby and Rosie arrived at 11:30. I’m fading here. I’m not going to do Saturday justice. Boston and Serena loved that hammock, the one I got from my father-in-law, whose name is also Jack. The kids fought over the hammock, swung in it. At one point they were banned from it (wisely, by Rosie) before I and/or Bobby took out a can opener and opened that can of worms back up. There was a great spot for it, not far from our fire pit. I slung it between two trees that were about eleven feet apart. A success, and a test. This morning when I awoke I saw that it hung with the weight of someone. Serena. It makes a good bed—especially for a little one.
The Big River, which runs through the park, and its sandy rock beach were a treat and the highlight for me from Saturday. There was a moment when I stood at the water’s edge with Boston and Serena, talking with them, answering their questions, trying to tell them things, and having them actually listen to what I was saying—I will remember Serena sitting on the beach there, one of its sandier spots, and grabbing globs of sand in both hands and building it up around her feet, saying she was stuck—no! she breaks loose!—that’s a moment I haven’t shared with two young people in some great while, maybe not ever in my adult life, sorry to say. They’re good kids. Well-behaved and smart. Smart in different ways. When Boston came over to say goodnight on Saturday night and didn’t just say goodnight but actually hugged me, that wave of warmth went right to my heart. It was a very tender act. The sort of thing I’m guessing a lot of us were capable of at some point in our lives, but have since lost the capacity to muster by wont of age and disappointment and fear and everything else that goes along with being older and not younger. One of the odd things about Boston is what I perceive as his accent. I have family in Massachusetts and many things he says remind me of the way people in New England talk. He has a mind keen for math. Pat was teaching him about square roots. The first example was that the square root of four is two. But that proved to be not such a good example because the next quiz was about the square root for nine, which Boston guessed as four-and-a-half. So Pat changed his tack and started doing a progression, e.g.: “What’s eight times eight?” “Sixty-foaar.” And then, “OK, then, what’s the square root of 64?” “Eight.” I was enjoying it. We’re out at some campsite in the old mining hills of Missouri and Pat is teaching a kid how to do square roots. It doesn’t get any better.
Getting in the river with them…the downed tree like a telephone pole underwater, first kind of scary but then useful as something to pin yourself against so as not to get carried away in what was, for a shallow river, a surprisingly capable current…getting rocks…Pat telling them about geodes…an older, local guy coming over to Serena and showing her a rock with geodes in it that he said were “river diamonds”…her getting shy just then…Squirt managing his third camp of the year, I never would have believed it…that milky pink pit bull on the beach on the clothesline leash that swung from a limb up above…Pat having Boston do timed runs to a campsite two hundred yards away…That’s it, that’s all I can do, I’m fading for real…Goodnight, y’all…
—Bonne Terre/St. Louis, MO