Monday, October 1, 2007

14. The Power of Man

(Friday 22 June, Grand Rapids)
After Jean-Paul finished work, he was going to drop me off at Hay Lake, in the Savanna State Forest, and then drive to Ontario for a vacation with a friend. I would camp alone for two days before my dad would pick me up on Sunday morning. This campground was ideal for several reasons. My dad could jump on Central Avenue near their house in NE Minneapolis, which turns into Hwy 65, and leads right to Hay Lake. Both my dad and I had camped there before, so it was familiar, and it was sort of on the way to our destination, Orr. Furthermore, Hay Lake was really close to Jean-Paul's workplace.

I'm vegan, and I also abstain from hydrogenated oils, high-fructose corn syrup, and artificial flavors, so shopping in mainstream markets, especially in small towns, often proves problematic. I had seen an ad for a natural-foods grocery store on a regional map in Jean-Paul's bathroom. He had been there, and wasn't into it for lack of produce. After a morning sitting outside of the café downstairs, drinking coffee and writing in the sun, I headed to this grocery store. It had everything I needed: Earth Balance buttery spread, whole grain bread, nut butters, bulk sesame sticks, oats, local jams, and much more.

I told the proprietor I'd be back. First, I had to go to Glen's again. I was aimin' to buy me a knife. I've only ever had Swiss Army knives before, and when cutting food, all the other tools end up getting messy. Plus, because the handle is loaded with tools, Swiss Army knives are never very nice to hold. I needed a knife that was simply a knife. After perusing the cases, I chose a large folding knife with a faux bone handle. It was twenty dollars, and seemed like the nicest one for that price. These days, everyone has one of those wicked, one-handed opening, exotically-serrated, Klingon utility knives that lock. Glen's selection consisted mainly of these as well, but I chose one that was far less aesthetically frightening. An old man knife! A big old man knife.

"Is this one any good?" I asked the young clerk.

"It's made in the USA," he replied.


Several days later, I noticed, stamped on the blade: MADE IN CHINA.
Oh well.

On my way back to the grocer's, my dad and I finally connected after a couple days of phone tag.

"Jacob," he asked, "do you mind if I drink beer [on our trip]?"

Funny. "No," I answered.

"Well, I don't know if you know this, but I like to drink beer. And I like to do it completely unfettered."

"I understand."

"All right. I'll bring three cases."

He then asked if I'd ever had Red Dog before, and I hadn't. I asked him to also bring some Miller High Life. I'd gotten into it before leaving Minneapolis, watching Rambo: First Blood, Part 2 with some buds. Rambrodeo.

I bought the food, packed up all my stuff, and put it and Jean-Paul's luggage into the van. I left my bike for Jean-Paul to bring down to Minneapolis later, and I got to his work at 3:00pm. He drove to Hay Lake, and lent me one of his big culligan bottles, but we didn't have time to fill it up at the aquifer again. He dropped me off in a secluded little site, and we said goodbye. I was going to miss Jean-Paul. Because of his work schedule, we actually hadn't been able to hang out all that much during my visit.

After he left, I decided to move across the road to an open, breezy campsite where I could see the western sky. I set up my little camp.

How strange to go "car camping" without a car! (ie. I wasn't camping in the minimalist style of backpacking.) Shit! I forgot to ask Jean-Paul to help me haul firewood with his van! I resolutely folded up a tarp, and walked to the camp entrance to register and get some firewood. I hardly considered gathering branches near my campsite, since there was a huge pile waiting for me. It was about half a mile from my site to the entrance. The woodpile looked exactly as it had the summer before: tall red pine split into six to ten-foot lengths, no more than two inches thick, some a couple inches wide, some a foot wide.

I came armed with a hatchet (good for splitting wood lengthwise), but no saw. I laid down the tarp and began breaking pieces of wood into reasonable lengths that I could split later. When I reached my perceived maximum carryable armload, I wrapped the tarp around the wood, clutched it in my arms, and started walking back to camp. I made it about halfway before I succumbed to the pain. Some pieces fell out, forcing me to stop, leave some, and carry what I could back to camp. No one else was doing this! They all had cars!

I dropped off that load, and headed back a little later to pick up the rest. On the way, I saw a big painted turtle in the road. Even as I approached, its head remained exposed. I leaned down and patted its shell. Its head jerked in a little, and some liquid began running out from underneath its body, into the gravel. Poor little guy!

Later I returned to the woodpile with a plan. In addition to the tarp, I brought my backpack and some bungee cords. I gathered another select pile and rolled it up in the tarp, but this time I tied it with bungees to the top of my backpack straps. I heaved the pile onto the top of my shoulders, and held it from behind with my arms like a cross. Like Jesus. Like Rambo. I carried it walking completely bent forward, taking each step slowly and blindly. If no one saw me, I'd be fine.

I sensed I was approaching a group of campers. I did not wish to attract pity, so I repositioned my awkward load. Instead of holding the pile from behind, I simply grabbed the bungees above my shoulders from the front. This was much more comfortable, and enabled me to walk more upright. I had to take a break halfway. Carrying that much firewood that far was an intensely hard task for one man. But I succeeded.

I savored camping alone again before my dad came. It allowed me to refine my practices and consolidate my gear. Backpackers typically carry lightweight provisions, and tie them up in a tree overnight to protect the food from bears. Since I was "car camping," I had a cooler and heavy plastic tubs full of food, which would theoretically be protected in the car at night. Although, in this campground, I was much more worried about raccoons and skunks than bears, I had to figure out a way to protect my food and cookware.

I tied the end of a long rope to a can of tomatoes, and tossed it over a high, stout branch. I then untied the can, and tied one end of the rope around my food tub. I pulled the other end, using the branch as a pulley, but the tub was too heavy to be supported. So I tied up my pots and pans and some leftovers, and pulled them up, about ten feet off the ground, and three feet from the tree trunk.

Since I was only dealing with smaller mammals, I felt somewhat secure wrapping the food tub in a tarp and strapping it tight with bungees. I did the same with the cooler. It seemed to work. I was mostly worried about the smells escaping.

(23 June, Hay Lake)
On Saturday morning, I sneezed towards the woods and spooked a deer, which I heard crashing loudly away.

I gave myself the task of gathering firewood. I decided that going to the woodpile was not worth the effort involved, so I set about gathering downed branches from the woods around my campsite. I spent over an hour making piles of big but manageable logs, and then going back to retrieve them. The aspen saplings back there grew in dense thickets, and maneuvering through them with armloads of long branches was difficult work. I carried back about five loads before I decided it was enough for the time being.

I began breaking up the wood in lengths small enough to fit inside the fire ring. I felt compelled to arrange them in order of girth, which I had done unconsciously at Noma Lake, and it had proven very helpful in firebuilding.

The larger branches I broke between two adjacent trees, using leverage. If they were too thick, I hacked them a bit with the hatchet. Some of the more rotten logs splintered apart with one blow, scattering woodchips across my green grass carpet.

By the end of all this, I was sweaty and fatigued. In fact, I was surprised how tired I felt. I credited this to having done so much camping, driving, preparing, and hauling over the past few days. Therefore, I did not feel guilty relaxing. And now I had an ample pile of wood for cooking and for pleasure.

I had tea, and the quiet campsite comforted me. I sat in the hot sun and in the shade. A nice western breeze came through the opening in the woods. Suddenly, I thought I heard a motorcycle. No, a giant insect was attacking me! Then I saw it was a hummingbird, exiting the woods right by my face. It flew up and lit on a branch for a moment, then buzzed off.

A pileated woodpecker also came to visit me there. Unlike most woodpeckers, who peck fast like little jackhammers, the pileated pecks slow and violently, like a menacing knock.

In the late afternoon, I went for a swim in Hay Lake. Just like the summer before, no one else was there. For long minutes I lay floating over deep water, immersed in low summer sun. My only cares were ancient and eternal. Food, shelter, and survival.

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