The idea of camping never made much sense to me. I just couldn't fathom trading a nice warm comfortable bed in a nice cozy building, for a tent and sleeping bag. Although the idea of cooking breakfast and having coffee on a chilly morning in the mountains seemed appealing, I decided rather early on that it was one of those joys in life that I was likely to forego.
I managed to avoid the thrill of sleeping outside, with the wildlife making strange noises in the night, accompanied by the humm of mosquitoes buzzing in my ears, until I found myself in the US Army. Basic training was certainly no picnic – running, jumping, push-upping, and shooting our way for eight miserable weeks. Picnic, no. But camping trip, yes. It was called bivouac. It is a nice-sounding term for doing what soldiers are wont to do – namely, camp outside in inclement weather while fighting wars. I have to admit that some of the guys in my basic training unit, including the drill sergeants, were actually looking forward to getting out there in nature and communing with the wild creatures.
We schlepped tents, poles, stakes and all manner of other butch military accouterments for miles back into the wilds of Ft. Ord, California; and were finally instructed to set up camp. Fortunately for me, my tent-mate, a tall, blond, Mormon guy from Provo, Utah, knew all about setting up tents. I suppose I could have figured it out. But as long as he was willing to do most of the work, I was happy to fetch and carry.
It was a rather ho hum adventure, as adventures go, but at that time I became aware of one interesting thing about the collective “mind” of the military. As we all piled out of our tents on the first morning – cold, stiff, unshaven and hungry – our drill instructor said:
“Do you want to hear a joke?” Of course, we all replied enthusiastically in unison, to the affirmative. The punchline? “Welcome to sunny California!”
To quote the immortal words of my hero, Mark Twain: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” Well, December on the Monterrey Peninsula is as cold and dank as any place I have ever been – especially outside and at night.
The military has dates and times for most everything, including apparel. If the calendar says it is spring, no more gloves are allowed – even if there are still two feet of snow on the ground. All heaters are turned off on a particular date, despite the obvious: it is still cold. California is considered a warm climate, so only summer uniforms are the order of the day. And despite what the thermometer may say – well – just deal with it.
My only other camping experience was bittersweet, and also took place while I was serving in the armed forces. Near the close of my exalted military career, when the end was only months away, I was living and working as a graphic artist in Augsburg, Germany. My good friend, guitar-playing Bob, and I had a couple of American military friends who lived off-post, “on the economy.” They were a couple – a lieutenant and his pregnant wife. Being from Colorado, they were fanatical campers. Even rather low-level officers, like first lieutenants, were allowed to ship household goods from one assignment to another on the military's dime. For that reason, Scott and Kippy had an entire retenoire of camping equipment, right down to special silverware. I was impressed.
Scott called me one day in the Graphic Arts Department, all excited. He told me that there was an epic exhibition taking place just north of us in the large famous city of Nürnberg. It was a once in a life time experience. It was the 500th Anniversary of the city's most famous artist, Albrecht Dürer! I had always been a big fan of his from my earliest days in art history classes in college. His paintings, drawings, and – above all – his woodcuts are legendary. I couldn't wait.
Then came the kicker... “Kippy and I thought that you and Bob might like to go together with us. You could translate, Bob could provide the music, and we could all make a camping trip out of it!”
Yeah, I thought in B flat.
“Where in the world could we possibly camp?” I asked incredulously, recalling my engaging experience at Ft. Ord.
“Oh,” he said enthusiastically, “You're really going to love this...! The German government recently has opened Nürnberg's famous old Nazi stadium as a free open‑air camp site!” I had visited that infamous venue before, and I will admit that it is something one never forgets. One can almost hear the Sieg Heils resounding off the marble walls and oversized bleachers. It is huge and very intimidating ... sort of scary in fact. Albert Speer, the architect of the Third Reich, designed it and claimed that it would outlast even the Reich itself, which was touted at the time to have a longevity of a thousand years. Then, he claimed, like the ruins of ancient Greece and Rome, it will still look great with trees and grass growing on it. And, you know, he was right! It does! For some reason, the allies never destroyed the place, but just let it go into ruin after blowing up the massive swastika that was front and center-stage. In any case, the thousand-year Reich that lasted twelve years is long gone. But, I have to admit that I was quite keen to spend the weekend there, despite my dread of camping.
The exhibition was everything it was cracked up to be and more. I will say that it was the best exhibition of its kind I have ever encountered (and I have been to a lot all over the world). Absolutely every famous work (and many rather unknown pieces) had been gathered from museums from all corners of the globe. It was said during the lecture that planes had been forbidden to fly over the city during the exhibition, lest there be a crash and destroy the entire body of work in one fell swoop. Leave it to the Germans to be so detail-oriented, and forward-looking. Too bad all that practicality and forethought wasn't exercised across town at the stadium years ago, I thought wistfully. Well, I shan't natter on and on about this exhibition as I could, because that is a separate story, deserving far more detail and attention than I could even possibly go into in the midst of a camping story.
After the first day, and walking all over the Nürnberger Kunstmuseum, we arrived at the campsite. It was a typical dreary midwinter German day, and having already eaten at a nearby restaurant, we were ready to pitch our tents in the gathering twilight.
Scott and Kippy cheerfully began assembling their impressive array of camping gear. Bob and I began unrolling our military bivouac paraphernalia that the Army issued to all troops in Europe in the face of an impending Russian invasion. The US military high command liked to brag that every soldier in Europe, no matter whether he was in a combat unit or not, was equipped with all necessary essentials to repel the red hoards from the East. I was not quite so sanguine about it, as guitar-strumming Bob and oil-paint-under-the-fingernails Tom bumbled around trying to butch it up enough to set up the OD green tent, roll out the equally drab ground tarp, and inflate our military air mattresses.
Then, by the time we finally rolled out our rather musty, never-used sleeping bags and crawled in for the night, Scott and Kippy were already sleeping peacefully in their totally self-contained North Face geodesic domelike tent that they had bought at some big sporting goods store in Grand Junction. Then the fun began. It began with a single drop, and within a few minutes it was a genuine downpour. Within the hour, the water was invading the tent. A lot of good that plastic ground cloth did! I actually thought the air mattresses might begin to float! The key to survival, we agreed with sardonic chuckles, was not to move, lest by pushing down on the side of the mattress, the water would rush in and inundate the sleeping bag (and inhabitants). So, we attempted to sleep mummy-style with arms folded on our chests until morning.
Finally, we heard the rough-and-ready campers from the Rockies stirring, so we felt justified in dragging ourselves out of the now-drooping tent into the mud that was leftover from the night of terror, to begin disassembling the rain-soaked mess.
“How did you guys sleep?” chirped Kippy in her genuinely sweet and unaffected way.
“Great!” we both lied, as we tossed all the gear into the back of their cute little orange VW station wagon with the ubiquitous green US armed forces license plates. “Quite a little storm last night, huh?”
“Really?” she replied almost innocently. “We hardly noticed.” Bob and I just gave each other one of those looks.
As we left to spend another half day at the museum, viewing their regular permanent collection, I thought to myself quietly... From now on, my definition of camping is the Holiday Inn!