1. Getting There
I wrote nothing the whole time at Meramec. We camped, we floated, we sweated. Friday I camped with one of my five cousins, Kyle. He picked me up in his Sierra. I gave him a quick tour of the house. His brother had been here, a few years ago at holiday time. We crawled along Hanley and I regretted having suggested we go that way. Big Bend, Jack—quit forgetting about Big Bend.
Just getting my camp gear loaded into the truck I was sweating. Kyle was sweating at work and never stopped. He must’ve hauled ass to get to my place when he did—left the mill at 3:50, down 70 to Soulard, fight the good fight along 64/170 to University City—I expected him at 5:30 but he got here at ten after. I was only a third of the way through a manhattan solidarity said I shouldn’t have. But solidarity lost its good fight.
Once we hit 44 the congestion faded away and he drove in the left lane most of the way. We made small talk, I wondered if he could smell the bourbon on my breath. I was comfortable. He had the country going.
At Sullivan I told him it was his call—he drove, he could have his pick of where to eat. It was the first time I’d been to Steak ‘n’ Shake since an ill-fated venture out to the St. Charles Oktoberfest three years ago. But this time my vanilla shake shook out within minutes and as I spooned that cold ice cream into my mouth—oooh, and a little whip cream mixed in—I couldn’t complain about anything.
We both got Frisco Melts. Our server’s name was Ciara. I poured a pool of ketchup over and over. Kyle likes their fries. I tried not to talk too much about the future—that night, the next day. I don’t believe I had told him that The Vonage was coming down for the float—or no, I did say I thought they were coming, that they had reserved kayaks. And Kyle was asking me why I wasn’t willing to say I was sure they were coming if they had already reserved kayaks. Kyle doesn’t really know me yet.
2. The Shack
It’s not far down 185 south of the Sullivan I-44 turnoff before you see the sign for Meramec State Park. I had guessed it would take us ten minutes from Steak ‘n’ Shake but it was more like four. The campground is still set a ways back in once you enter the park.
At the check in “shack” I said the reservation was under “Haley”—sites 108 and 110. The gal who checked us in said, “You guys are gonna be roughin’ it.” I think she was kind of giving us shit but also being a little flirty. I said, “You mean the heat?”
“Yeah,” she said.
I don’t know when it happened. Maybe it was that brief downpour of acid rain in the the early Oughts but I have become one of the worst small talk/flirters in the world.
So then I’m like, “Ha ha—well, I’m not gonna make any promises about Saturday night but we’ll make do tonight and blah blah blah blah blah, barf.” I should have been like, “I’ve camped in the blanking Mojave Desert, hun. This ain’t nothin.” That would have been only a half-truth, of course. But I think that’s what most people tell, most of the time.
We proceeded past the showerhouse and around the loop to our site, 110, the end cap—very close to what I would have called the check-in station but Kyle later referred to it as a “shack” and I really like that description, so I’m going with it.
3. Tents and Fire
Kyle had borrowed a tent from his buddy in Covington, where some of our family is buried. I gave him a hand in setting it up but I had no wisdom as to his tent: an eight-seater reliant at points on a sort of light metal scaffolding. There was some trial and error.
I’m good at setting up our little two-seater—Eureka!—but on a lot of other tents I must confess. We were both sweating already, it was a little after seven. He was set up, I was slowly going about mine—that was probably around the point we cracked the first round of Busch of the weekend—the first but not the last, dear reader, I assure you!
I did not put the fly on my tent. We were both under the gracious shade of a big walnut, flanked by several slightly smaller ashes. There was no breeze. It was low nineties and humid as Mel Tormé. Heat index 100, my guess.
He opened the french doors on one side of the Sierra and we had the Cardinals going on 102.1 Sullivan—the game was broadcast from Philadelphia. It was nice.
In the back of the Sierra’s bed was a truck-width, three sticks high, of Grade A Illinois firewood—that stack was the shape of a burden assumed, an endeavor lifted from one Minty-Meier and passed to another, who eagerly—or unwittingly—accepted it and ran.
Kyle’s a teepee-method firestarter, and he doesn’t mess around with the sort of small-stick teepees I’ve trotted out there in campfires past. His thinking is, if I can translate: if you’ve got good, dry wood you put it out there and you set fire to it and it’s not really any more complicated than that. So he had three or four good-sized logs of wood teepeed against each other, and then he was using sheets of the Illinois AgriNews as an accelerant.
I had prepared a bag of “smaller stuff”—twigs, paper bark—but I don’t believe we used any of that until Saturday morning. Because he pulled out an effing torch, like a real torch, a propane soldering torch—oh, and I didn’t even mention the tikis he’d brought, stuck in the ground, filled, and lit.
He was trying to get the soldering torch lit using the flame from one of the tikis but he had a little trouble at first. He had some sort of tip on the torch that didn’t have a big enough opening—it’s beyond me. He got the torch going soon enough and then he just sat there in a camp chair, shirtless, holding that torch to the middle of the teepee structure. He might have thrown a few shards in there, as kindling. Eventually the construct achieved its own unique critical heat and like a kid shucking off training wheels, it was on its way. We did not cook on the fire Friday night. We sat there for a little while and had one or two more Busch beers.
4. Saison and P-Funks
It got dark shortly after I was done setting up my tent and had tossed my bag and mat in there. I cracked the bomber of Firestone Walker dry-hopped Opal saison and poured half into either of our two metal camp mugs. It was a hell of a good beer. Kyle loved it. I tasted grapefruit. Very bright, very flavorful.
Farmhouse-y. We talked about beer for a while. I smoked a Parliament—which he asked about, calling them “P-Funks”, a nickname of which I am aware but had not heard in some time. Eventually he had one but to advance that far in the story I leave a lot out. Hell, I have to leave a lot out. I’ve left a lot out already. I’m torn between doing a general recap and attempting to try to tell you what really happened.
He was eating Cheez-Its. I didn’t accept any. Once that fire got going it was really going and he kept dropping logs on it. I was enjoying myself. We talked about work, about our brothers. About our aunt and uncle who’d recently been through town. By that time it’d cooled down somewhat. I was back on Busch but at some point I drank a Maltopia—one hell of a scotch ale.
I cannot recall if the walk we took to the boat ramp—cutting thru RV sites as we went, something I would never do on my own, or with B—was before or after we went and took us each a shower. I think the walk was after. We saw a skunk on that walk.
We stepped into the river. It looks stagnant at first glance, especially in the dark. But it moves—quietly, below the surface. By that time of the night the dew point had been hit and any grass you moved through was as wet as a lawn in a thunderstorm.
5. The Music and The Night
Kyle was up for anything and everything. Back at the campsite I got my tunes going and when Jagwar Ma came on he said, “This song is crazy.”
I didn’t eat anything after the Steak ‘n’ Shake. I was worried about heartburn. All of my worries. We were talking about guns. They have a gun under their bed.
I said I couldn’t have one because my mental health wasn’t all that good. And I will never forget this, his immediate response to this was, “Oh, fuck you. You’re fine.” I love it. I’m carrying that with me.
My dad tells me to relax—but he’s my dad. My wife tells me to relax—but she’s my wife. Even Billy, at pool league this last week, as I was fighting for my manhood (which eventually I lost) got right up in my face and said, “You need to calm the fuck down.”
And it’s Billy and Kyle, who know me less, but still know me a little—it’s their two very similar pieces of advice that I’m taking with me out of this most recent week of my life. They’re both right, of course. But applying their advice, that’ll be the hard part.
Kyle kept after that Busch. I had my share, too. He said I shouldn’t feel I have to keep up with him but I didn’t want to turn in before he did. I was mesmerized by the fire. The logs he was dropping on it weren’t cheapies!
It was a hot, low-smoke, babe of a fire. The best since Spring Farm, which I talked about a lot, so much so I guess that Kyle, upon meeting The Vonage the next day, relayed to Pat that I had talked about the V-Farm “all night.”
Well, maybe I did. So what. I just said we could shoot guns there and play frisbee and drink Busch and hoot and holler and live a little, is all I said.
Ha ha, it’s late here now on Sunday and I want to make sure I say something about camping with my youngest cousin, who picked me up in his big ole truck and brought wood and crushed Busch and really really wanted to get into Fischer Cave. Who was enamored with The Vonage. Whose wife, Aimee, is a sweetheart. Who loved the pie iron, who wore red sandals, who might be my best camping ally yet—who is my family, and my blood, who lives really not all that far away.
6. The Float Began With a Major Surprise.
I want to list just highlights now because this might be the remnants of what I have to say. We got to the float concessionaire rather late: 9:46 a.m. for a 9:30 check in. I hadn’t even put my suit on yet!
B and Aimee had gotten to our site at 8:12, which was about what I figured but I wasn’t quite prepared, I was still a tad groggy. I had just forced myself to get my business done at the showerhouse—that was stress enough. Kyle didn’t feel the urgency I did.
In all of the haste to check in for the float I forgot to bring sunglasses. I mean, seriously. But I’m burying the lede. I had not told B that The Vonage were going to be joining us for the float. It was a total surprise! And they didn’t know that she didn’t know. I was very happy with myself for keeping that secret sacred once the opportunity presented itself.
We took our time on the float. Along with a fresh 12 of Busch, Kyle had gotten a Meramec State Park frisbee at the float shop. We used it quite a bit. It took me just about the whole float to figure out how to throw it without a major slice. My right bicep is sore today, I think from the frisbee. It was a hot day and I kept comparing the Meramec—its translucence and turbidity—to the Current. Totally unfair.
It was a good float. We had six in our group and I talked to them all, we all enjoyed ourselves. I had some beers and eventually a little Old Crow Reserve but water was my main focus. In my haste-makes-waste prep for the float, I didn’t grab enough water for the float. I had to resort to drinking the ice-melt water from the cooler, which was a delightful sort of pleasure. It didn’t taste all that great but it was cold.
The Meramec itself, at this time of year, and along the stretch of river we floated, was fairly warm. Probably low seventies. Much warmer than the cool air and even colder water coming out of the cave at the 3.5-mile mark. That was about the same spot where the solitary fella floating a canoe with his half-pit bull/half labrador Max pitched a tent on a rock bar and began to kick back for the rest of the day.
7. Write or Forget
It’s ten p.m. now on Sunday night. My neck hurts, my feet hurt. I am crutching on things to power through. B noted I didn’t write much during this camp weekend.
“I didn’t write at all,” I tell her.
She says, “Well, you still can.”
And I’m telling her it’s just not that easy.
If I go to sleep tonight, and wake up tomorrow— If and when I have tomorrow’s coffee and bludgeon through tomorrow’s commute and I go through a Monday at work….
If after all of that I come back to this selfsame desk and imagine I can just sit down and start la-la writing about what a great weekend we had camping, we did x y and z and this is what he said and she said. No. It doesn’t work that way. Not for me. If there is a moment yet remaining for me to write about this weekend it is now or never. My grains of sand are falling fast and there isn’t much left above the waist.
We milked the float as much as we could, ending at 4:15 or so. Vonage went home, didn’t have their camp stuff, we had lost site 108 anyway. It was stultifying, stupid, uselessly hot.
And it would give me and B a chance for some “couples one-on-one” with Kyle and Aimee anyhow. We stopped at the park store—ice and beer—fire, ice, and beer—the coast is clear. It was us four in the Subaru. We went back to the site, oh there was no breeze. It was brutal, can’t lie.
8. Fire It Up, Ebola in the Hole!
Until the sun went down we were playing a waiting game, there wasn’t much a person could do. Me and Kyle did manage to throw the frisbee around a little more though. I went and showered after that. The ladies had already done so. Site 110 (our site) is very close to the showerhouse. That fact and its abundance of shade made it one heck of a site at that particular moment in time.
Kyle was ready for a fire right away even though I was thinking, “Crikey, it’s so hot, why not wait?” But a campfire is always nice to have, even in the heat. It’s like the TV in your apartment—you come home and turn it on, for background if for no other reason.
We got back to the Busch. Aimee had gotten some Bud Light Lime. I was still cognizant of water too. I was refilling empty bottles and stashing them in the icy cold water of the coolers for later use.
It was smoother sailing once it got dark. Kyle meted out what fluid he had left for the several tiki torches. The fire was perfect, B made chicken taquitos in the pie iron. Lyle had 93.7 going from his truck—”Drunk on the Plane” is a current hit—and then eventually we had the Cardinals game from Philly, what became a 12-inning ordeal.
I am flagging big-time. I am considering all possible reserves I could tap to keep this account going. I have to work tomorrow!
What’s more important? Only time will tell. But let me tell you just a little about how someone DESTROYED the men’s bathroom with an EBOLA-STYLE shit-storm late Saturday night; about how this person, or small gang of errant shitters, clobbered one toilet and then proceeded to leave their tailings all up and down the floor of the men’s side of the showerhouse, not just on the “toilet” side but some on the “shower” side, too.
I mean, the only thing I can figure is that someone absolutely lost themselves at the toilet and then made a pants-down run for a full-body cleaning in one of the shower stalls, their wake be damned. It’s one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen and I’m still shaking my head just thinking about it.
9. Say Goodnight Now
I’m spent. There’s so much left to say. I want to talk about the cave we couldn’t get into and the uppity aloof cave restoration people and the midnight hike on the half-mile Walking Fern Trail and how B did that tricky hike without wearing a headlamp or carrying a flashlight! Aimee did it in flip flops!
At the outset we were looking at a sort of opening in the woods that kind of looked like a trail and Aimee said, “If that’s the trail I’m not doing it.” As it turned out, that was where we exited after having done the hike. It was actually a pretty cool midnight hike. I had my headlamp on and as I trained it on the trail I would frequently see something bright and metallic and green reflecting back at me. It was a spider with its head full of eyes. We never found a way into the cave, though I suspected there had to be a backdoor entrance somewhere.
We slept well. I woke up at 6 or so and got in my hammock. It was actually a little chilly then. We had eggs and bacon and doubleshots. I went back to the bathroom and it was still a mess.
Later Kyle went and he didn’t have anything to say about it. I had to ask him. “Somebody hosed it down,” he said. Thank God! We were all moving pretty good, it was still early. B was showing off her mad pie-iron skills. I got my camera out and propped it up to take a candid timer-shot. I hustled back into its field but I didn’t get myself squared up in time.
There was still a little wood left over after we were all done. Kyle had me take it, I’m grateful. Him and Aimee followed us most of the way back up Interstate 44, doing my speed, not gating us like 99% of other people would.
We parted company at the 270/44 split. Lyle honked once and I put my hand out the window and was waving.
August 24, 2014