In order to understand this story, and the courage it took, I need you to know something about me. I hate the “outdoors.” I don’t know if this is a result of my upbringing as a quintessential latch-key kid in a decade of stranger danger and milk carton kids, but to sum it up: inside your house = safe, outside your house = death and stupidity everywhere.
I like my house. I pay a lot of money for my house. I prefer not ever leaving my house, especially since I have a box of rosé chillin in my fridge and can have Jet’s pizza delivered to me while I sit in my period underwear watching reruns of Unsolved Mysteries. So, you can imagine my surprise when I Venmo-ed my pal, Kim Nelson, a bunch of cash to sleep outside, on the ground, in what adds up to a bed sheet turned into a tent, volunteering to be a blood banquet for mosquitoes and serial killers.
IMHO, I think Kim might be a camping shyster, a trickster, mountebank! YES, I AM CALLING OUT MY GIRL FROM HEAUXS ON HEAUXS. She posts these romantic photos of her and her husband crammed in a truck with a small lamplight as they smile ear to ear, capped with snug fitting Packers knit caps while they watch the stars in Iceland. During the winter, there she is bundled in a snow covered tent, mittened hands wrapped around coffee cuddling up to her adorable dog, aptly named River. Other times, she stands victoriously atop a mountain, outfitted in long sleeves and hiking sticks, as the sun settles behind her, making her glow like a GODDAMN LUMBERJACK GODDESS after 7 days in the woods without showering or plucking her chin hairs AND pooping in holes. HOW DOES SHE DO IT?? The vanity shame alone would not allow me to eye a camera.
Before becoming good friends with Kimmy Crockett, I would NEVER consider camping. Like, I won’t EVEN eat on the outside patio at restaurants if given the option. Bar. ALWAYS BAR SEATING. It’s usually accessible to an exit; there’s a quick grab for a bottle you can break to defend yourself; and should a fellow, who looks like Lemmy and literally got out of prison that morning, sit down next to you and your husband and INSIST (like slams his hand on the bar) that the two of you leave with him to stay at his “mom’s” house NEXT TO A SWAMP, at least you’ll have a bartender nearby who will tell you to run when the killer goes to the bathroom. TRUE STORY.
Camping has been my greatest fear and this year, after being brainwashed by Kim vs. Wild’s instagram, I decided it was time to get over it. There are places that I’m just not going to see unless I learn to get comfortable with the idea of being “outdoors.” Kim runs a basic camping camp each year that involves trees, canoes, a river, and lots and lots of booze, which is what I was going to need since I DON’T EVEN OPEN MY CAR WINDOWS IN THE SUMMER.
Fortunately for me - a woman who has lived in Chicago for 20 winters and still rocks January harder than a Wilding, meaning no hat AND usually several sweatshirts and light jackets I hobble together for a winter coat - I had a friend, Grace, who was able to help me with equipment and preparation before leaving.
Leading up to the week before camping, I was mostly cool, but occasionally go into full, “I’M GONNA FUCKING DIE” meltdowns. I imagined drowning in the river, being stabbed in a tent, or waking up with a bear eating my head. Then there were the smaller panic attacks like how do you wear contacts in the woods and WHAT IF A BEAR EATS MY HEAD?
The worst one came when I received an email from Kim, the Filipino and Irish Sacagawea, about “making sure you bring your rain flies and rain jackets.” FIRST OF ALL - WHO OWNS A RAIN JACKET IN AMERICA? When it rains, you just go inside YOUR HOUSE. AND SECONDLY - WHAT THE HECK IS A RAIN FLY? Kim quickly explained to me that a rain fly was something you put on your tent to protect you from the rain, which begs the question, “Isn’t that what a tent is for? TO PROTECT YOU FROM THE RAIN??” Apparently not.
After a long and drawn out FB drama about rain jackets vs. windbreakers vs. rain repellant vs. waterproof, I had a long cry and a bourbon. Long story short, I got a jacket and Grace had a rain fly so we were set to go.
We pulled up to a few of the campers at our site that were putzing around and setting up their spaces. From inside the car, I had a moment of relief and an appreciation for the natural beauty surrounding us - familiar faces at work among a background of small tents set up along a river canopied by oversized green trees. Then I opened the door.
My only other fear above camping is assholes. I hate assholes. My whole life mantra has been “Don’t be an asshole.” The moment our car door opens, we are greeted by blaring-I-wish-I-could-rip-off-my-ears nu metal shrills from a speaker. The camp next to ours had about 5 - 6 folks playing their music like they were the ONLY PEOPLE ON THE PLANET. They sat around a burned out campfire, using bb guns to shoot at empty beer cans they had tied to a tree. Maybe I should have notice the LIGHTING RIG they had parked next to their tent and turned around to go home at that moment, but I was on a mission and I didn’t want them to ruin it, which OF COURSE THEY DID.
Grace and I set up the tent. It was AMAZING! Like you stick this stick like thing into this little hole like things and then you put these other stick things into these other hole like things and BOOM! SHELTER! Grace mostly did the setting up and like a BOSS used her flip flopped feet to push stakes into the ground so our house wouldn’t fly away and land on a witch. She let me tie the rain fly to the tent and I did a great job!
The music from the camp next door became louder, only now, we had to listen to one of them scream, “Can you believe he accused me of being a racist? I AM NOT A RACIST.” Naturally, this made me want to pluck out his eyeballs and use it for fish bait; which btw, made me think I could win at this nature thing.
Anyone that is paying attention to the world today knows that the number one thing to say to prove you’re a racist is “I am not a racist.” Let me give you a perfect example. My camp was mostly made of white people, like ALMOST ALL. In the 2 nights and 2 days I was with them, among the millions of discussions we had, not one of them screamed, “I AM NOT A RACIST.” If someone accuses you of being a racists and you’re not a racist, your reaction wouldn’t be to defend yourself by yelling it across a campground. Rather, you’d pause to ask yourself why someone is interpreting what you’re saying or doing as a racist thing. Then, you’d go to your phone and do a quick Buzzfeed quiz titled, “Am I a Racist?” Finally, you’d google “how not to be racist” and KAPOW! NOW YOU KNOW.
I was excited to find out that there was a tiki bar next to our campsite, a recent addition to this area, but disappointed to find that it was closed. I was also excited that the bathrooms had clean flushing toilets, but disappointed there was no sink. I was also excited to know that a bar nearby had a Friday night fish fry and that’s where Grace and I would eat. Camping wasn’t so bad.
While trying to sleep, our jerkface neighbors decided to pop off fireworks at midnight screaming, “‘MUR-I-CA!” Waking me from a deep sleep thinking I had been shot. It’s a weird feeling when you wake up thinking you’re dead, wondering, “OMG. HELL IS A CAMPGROUND NEXT TO NAZIS AND A CLOSED TIKI BAR.”
The next morning, while waiting to be picked up to head “up river” - that’s campspeak for going up the river so you can go down the river - we eat boiled eggs and watch Kim’s husband MAKE BACON - WHAT??! Our neighbors to the west of us, discuss their friend “Brown David” and how it’s not racist to call him “Brown David” because “he IS brown. What am I supposed to call him?” Har-har.
I stop to pray that they’ll shoot each other in the face, but am interrupted by more fireworks and yelling. Poor River dog runs under a table, shivering from fear. Now, I wonder if I can personally shoot them in the face. I don’t want to kill them, just shoot them in the face a little, so they can stop screaming and won’t be able to locate their fireworks.
On the canoe, I am happy. The water, my friends (old and new), the fried chicken on the sandbar, the copious amount of booze and equal amounts of sunshine. My friend Ray makes daiquiris on his cooler blender with fresh fruit. River chills in Kim’s canoe and, during stops, she runs around while various people throw her the ball. Everyone’s eyelids lazily draw down from too much time on the river, while their faces turn red. Grace and I tip our canoe. I lose my shorts and favorite t-shirt, but everyone jumps into action trying to recover as much of our stuff as possible. We sit in the river, talking, laughing, and peeing and WE ALL KNOW this is happening but NO ONE CARES. We are FREE and part of a community. It is in this moment that I am reminded about how fucking cool America can be.
As a young girl, locked up in my house watching Van Halen videos on MTV, I never knew this feeling of America - open and majestic. To me, it was money and sports cars and cocaine (hello 80’s) and the everlasting struggle to look like a blonde haired video girl. Here, in this shallow Wisconsin river, crossed legged, surrounded by river birches, non racists, grapefruit beers, and other people’s urine, the Midwest smacks me hard and I soak up every second of this summer day wondering why I would ever go back home.
It takes us 6 hours to float 6 miles. I’m riding high on this feeling of utter joy and confidence. Imaginary trips of returning with my daughters run through my mind. Feelings of sadness and aching desire that my husband should have been here with me floods my heart. We talk of our camping neighbors and feel great relief to return to a silent horizon of tents, where we’re met with pulled pork sandwiches, corn on the cob boiled in cream and butter, pasta, and fruit salad. While we eat, others fall asleep in the chairs and inflatable couches which makes me wonder, why wouldn’t you sleep on that INSTEAD OF THE GROUND? BUT WHATEVER.
Grace and I lay in our tent and it begins again, the chatter of ignorant people that feel slighted because they are white people perceived as racists. We fall asleep to more talk about Brown David and whether he is Cuban or Mexican but “why did it matter because they’re all the same.” Chuckle, chuckle. As a matter of fact, “It’s like the Chinese because all Asians are Orientals.” AND BOY! WAS THIS HILARIOUS! Racists or not, I still hate them because their joke writing is HACK.
After falling into a dead sleep, I am startled by the ground shaking underneath me and go into full blown panic attack. In 2011, I was in an earthquake in Tokyo, as part of one of the most horrific natural disasters Japan has ever known. My heart is racing, my ears ringing, hands sweating, and tears fogging my eyes because I think it’s an earthquake and this time, I am going to die. After a second, when my vision straightens out and the shaking has subsided, I realize it’s the ASSHOLES WITH FIREWORKS AGAIN. From inside the tent, I can see bursts of red and white falling towards our tent, and then another BOOM! Followed by another and another. I’m trying to hold my shit together and deciding whether I need to just go home before our tent is set on fire. I am frozen in fear, but as I’m about to jump out the tent, my she-ro, Wonder Kim, storms over to the camp next to us.
I can hear her - defiant, annoyed, and still, extremely polite - as she firmly tells them to KNOCK. IT. THE. FUCK. OFF. I am worried for her and crank my neck further to eavesdrop, but she is successful. The woman in the camp apologizes and agrees to stop, plus they were “running out anyway.” My love light for Kim is on full blast and I admire how brave she is and feel relieved that the other camp didn’t fight. Then, one of the guys screams at Kim, after she settles back in, “I’M SORRY ABOUT YOUR DOG.” I begin my Arya Stark list and assign that asshole as my first name.
The next morning, I have so many feelings as we take down our tent to GTFO. Part of me sad that my whole experience was overshadowed by these terrible people. Part of me warmed by the people in our camp and the way they welcomed us. Most of me confused about whether I’d do it again. As we packed up the car, I look up at the pinkish purple blue sky with layers of white cream puffed pastry shaped clouds and take a minute to breath the sharp morning air. I grab my bag and walk by the racists camp one last time, when I see this and think, “Well, damn, ain’t that some symbolism.”