Last week I waxed all poetic about “A Boy in the Woods,” and this week I paid for it. On Tuesday, right after I posted that article, my sister, Roni, and I were driving to our grandmother’s house in Richmond, a trip we should be able to make with our eyes closed. However, it turned out we had so many interesting words to share that we overshot the turnoff, and didn’t notice until we were halfway to Pocatello, Idaho. (By “we” I mean “I” because I was the driver and really should have been paying better attention.)
No problem, we’ll turn here, and the GPS can get us back on track. That was our first mistake, I mean fully one third of all horror movies start with some version of that very decision.
We found ourselves on a road-ish, which would have been perfectly fine, had not some city slicker computer programmer convinced the GPS it was a two-lane highway with two-lane highway speeds, even though accommodating two cars would require at least one to keep the passenger-side wheels solidly in the sagebrush. Also, we were soooo late!
The Wasatch Mountains are pretty much not straight or flat, so I was hurrying as fast as I could, holding my breath at the crest of every blind hill, and vision impaired curve. I don’t mean to imply I was driving recklessly, because I’m not that stupid, no matter how late I am. But the road itself was so narrow and fast, and clearly laid out by a guy who spent a couple of weeks following a mountain goat. Most of the time I just hoped nobody was coming. I really believe that if the surveyor and the computer programmer got together to go bowling, they’d make strikes in everyone’s lane but their own.
Eventually, we passed through an open snow gate bearing the sign, “Road not maintained, proceed at your own risk,” which is very similar to what I’d already been doing. However, the next road sign gave me pause as it was riddled with buckshot. We did pass the occasional cow, and for the rest of the drive I hoped the owner of the shotgun wasn’t hiding behind a nice Angus, ready to jump out and take a potshot at stupid people in black SUVs who get talking and leave the safety of the smoggy freeway for a lovely stint in the wild.
We did finally make it to grandma’s house, late, but without accident, or a single bullet hole in the car. That evening I was joking about my little story when my son, Porter, announced he was going camping with his friends. I was surprised, but kept it to myself, and on Thursday morning took him to acquire a little tent, helped him gather what he needed, and texted him when I noticed the pile of essential items he’d forgotten in his haste, though it was too late to return.
At 10:00 a.m. the next morning he burst through the front door, looking rather worse for wear. “I hate camping. I didn’t sleep at all!”
His sister, Abby, stared at him. “We all hate camping. Why did you go?”
“It sounded fun.”
To be fair, he did have fun with his friends, as he generally does. They’re good kids, up for a snipe hunt in the woods, or a round of stories. But then came the sleeping bit, which suffered from an appalling surplus of nature in the form of hard, sloping ground, and an excess of humans in a small space who stubbornly insisted on breathing whether their breath was minty or not. Porter is a super smeller, supertaster, and the feel of paper raises goosebumps on his skin. Camping is a sensory explosion.
Ironically, Porter is the most nature conscious of all my children. He’s watched thousands of hours of animal and insect documentaries, not to mention whatever he can find on the internet. Junior year he was asked to a high school dance by a very clever girl who left a poster on our porch, along with a live praying mantis in a jar. It’s not every boy can carry off a praying mantis like a gold medal, but Porter did, and immediately began rushing around like a new father. What does it eat? How does it live? “Mom, can I have a terrarium for my birthday?” which was at least a month away. Off we went to the pet store to obtain the necessary accoutrements, including a supply of very tiny crickets for his baby’s dinner. By evening he’d named it Moriarty, though time would prove that Morticia would have been a better choice. Mantises lay a lot of eggs.
Here I interrupt Porter’s adventures to tell the story of my dad and the fish barrel. One day, when he was a teenager, young Ronnie Messer was in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, on a blisteringly hot midsummer day, when he came across a barrel of dead fish that announced its presence from a considerable distance. Me, I would have given it a wide berth, teenager or no, but Ronnie figured he better satisfy his curiosity and stick his head in.
A barrelful of guts and fish heads putrefying in the hot South Carolina sun. He very nearly passed dead out. Curiosity being the mother of scientific discovery, I suppose the first time makes some sort of weirdly bizarre sense, but that doesn’t explain why he stuck his head in a second time. He can’t explain it either, and remembers absolutely nothing else about that day, but sixty years later he says, “I can still smell it.”
Given our family history, perhaps it is no surprise that Porter wasn’t quite ready to let go of the romance of camping. On Saturday his brother, Chase, went off camping with his friends, which was odd in itself. No call for a sleeping bag for ages, and suddenly two in one week, maybe tinfoil dinners were in the air. At any rate, Porter got cruising around the internet, and read a couple of articles about backyard camping. Saturday evening Porter called me on my phone sounding very pleased. “Mom, come outside, something happened.” There he was, tent set up, air mattress inflated, ready to take nature on his own terms. I said something along the lines of “Ooh Aah,” and returned to the air conditioning.
About 11:00 p.m., I had just finished watching a home remodeling show, when I heard the backdoor bang, and Porter’s sorrowful tread on the stairs. “I’ve failed,” he said. “I thought I could be a mountain man, but it turns out I’m just a house boy . . . It’s the worst failure of my life.”
“Don’t worry, you’ll have others,” I said.
He plopped down in a squishy, soft leather armchair with an ottoman. “I’ll just be sitting in this chair, which is a lot more comfortable than the ground. My book wasn’t good, no videos held my attention. I read two articles that made backyard camping sound whimsical. It wasn’t whimsical, it was just windy. Do you want to watch a movie?”
I questioned him about the articles he’d read, and could see he’d missed the point of both. In the first, a woman had gone backyard venturing because she’d been quarantining with her fiancé and needed some private time, and the second had involved a grandmother spending alone time with her granddaughter. Neither was about being out in nature, they were both about escaping from the norm. Porter had nothing to escape from, everything he actually wanted was inside.
Chase returns from his camping trip later today. I’m going to ask him how it went, and I bet ten bucks he’ll say, “Pretty Fun,” in that bright staccato tone that checks the box while telling me nothing. He too has a good group of friends, and knowing him, I’m guessing he’ll focus more on the activities than the hardness of the terrain under his sleeping bag. Although, I did notice he managed to squeeze in his lush minky blanket, so he could enjoy a little comfort from home.
All in all, I think I’d describe our family as Indoorsy. We genuinely enjoy hiking in Southern Utah’s red petrified sand dunes, watching a documentary on the mating dance of the orchid mantis, and playing with baby elephants in Thailand, but do we like nature? Oddly enough, I sincerely think we do, as long as we can nip back in for a minky blanket and a squishy leather chair, which may once have been an angus cow standing by the side of a 1 ½-lane highway on the way to grandma’s house. What do I personally think of nature? It’s Pretty Fun.