The following is the first chapter of a book I started writing last winter called, "A Selection of Times I Almost Died in Pursuit of Fun". As you can guess - it's a collection of short stories: adventures and misadventures I've had over the last decade. My book is a work in progress as is this chapter but I thought I'd share some of it here, I think we could all use a good laugh. The following story is my own and unfortunately, entirely true.
Standing next to Nick underneath a canopy of trees with nothing but the milky way above us should have been one of those romantic memorable moments that stick with you. Since we were standing in an unlit parking lot while he was holding his side laughing uncontrollably and I… well I wasn’t wearing any pants, the mood didn’t exactly evoke a hallmark movie montage. I’d abandoned my pants during my lifesaving leap from the car when I realized the spider from the bathroom scene of “Arachnophobia” had retired inside one of the pant legs. That’s just too many legs for one pair of pants.
Part of me wanted to be mad at the indignity of it all, probably the freezing cold, bottom-half of me, it was April in Northern Michigan after all. But thanks to those early-days-of-dating-butterflies and the easiness of a budding romance I was able to squeeze out a few giggles as I took his extra sweatpants from his extended arm. With only one headlamp between us and the night only getting darker, we’d need to worry about my pants and their new resident in the morning. For now, we needed to get our tent set-up or else we’d be sleeping in the car with the spider.
You see, we were on my very first camping trip. We’d been dating for maybe a month before my Mountain Man realized that I’d never slept outside the confines of a home. He pitched the idea perfectly... a romantic drive north from our university campus, we’d stop at pristine beaches and darling wineries, we’d camp beneath the stars and hike through the falling rainbow of autumn leaves. On a chilly early Friday morning, I loaded what I thought I needed for a successful weekend of roughing it in the car (several suitcases), Mountain Man loaded his bag and a few more ominous shaped sacks and we hit the road a few hours later.
After a lovely spring day and college-budget dinner of pizza, we needed somewhere to rest our weary heads. After finding no other option, we circled back to a place we'd seen earlier in the day. We were now trekking into a campground that was not open for the season yet. I wasn’t quite aware of that fact until this moment. Navigating the narrow path through the woods by the light of Mountain Man’s headlamp ahead of me I whispered, “Where are all the other campers?” and was only met by “shhh...” I ventured on, “Isn’t there a park ranger we’re supposed to pay or check-in with?” I was thinking about the dark pay station we drove right past...and the entirely empty parking our car was in. This chatter was too much for Mountain Man who stopped walking long enough for me to catch up. He put his hands over my mouth and whispered, “Do you hear that?” I strained my ears listening for music, chatter, or some sound of human life to answer my question. After a few breaths of silence, I heard it: the eeriness of nothing and then, a pack of coyotes yipping and howling nearby. Mountain Man, in total awe, said, “It sounds like they made a kill! They’re calling in the rest of the pack to come and find them. Hear how some of the sounds are coming from different sides of us...it’s like they’re giving each other directions! This is real life Nat Geo!” I did not find this awesome. In fact I was turned around, poised to sprint for the car if I could just be sure of what direction it was. I’d take my chances with the spider-pants over a pack of coyotes. Mountain Man sensing the very real fear, adrenaline, and potential departing flight assured me that they "wouldn’t be hungry after making a kill" and that they’d be "more scared of us". He continued these reassurances as we wandered further into the woods.
My breathing had all but returned to normal when Mountain Man, walking next to me, came to a full stop. I looked up from the trail to see if we’d finally arrived at our site only to be met by two glowing eyes. They were definitely too tall to be the spider from the car.
I now know a few things about myself: 1) In moments of intense fear I have neither fight nor flight behaviors. I freeze like a giant frozen chicken nugget. 2) If we were in a horror movie, I’d be murdered first. 3) I now understand why I always died playing Oregon Trail. About 20 feet ahead of me stood the unfriendliest-looking large-sized dog I’ve ever seen. Hypnotized by it’s green ethereal eyes, I stood locked into the highest stakes staring contest I’ve ever been in. No one breathed, no one moved. It was only a few moments later when we heard the pack calling in the distance that the spell had been broken. Mountain Man springing into action moved me off to the side of the trail, slowly, while whispering, ‘his pack is calling for him and we’re in his way.” When I think about my response to this I’m surprised his adventurous soul married me: “What if they’re still hungry and he tells them he knows where two tasty humans are…” He held in a laugh as the coyote turned and darted off into the woods, yipping to let his pack know to save him some dinner. Or possibly to say that he had found desert.
“I think I forgot something in the car, I’ll go back and get it, and since it’s so late, we could just sleep there tonight. We can set up our tent tomorrow…” Any facade I had at trying to look tough on this first camping-date was crumbling. How had I not realized that to sleep outside was a life or death endeavor? The fear of walking back through the woods alone and without a headlamp was at this point, the only thing that kept me following Mountain Man deeper into the woods.
Finally, after a short eternity, he declared he’d found our perfect spot for the night. He made short work of turning a bag of sticks and nylon into a short two-person tent, long enough to lay in, tall enough to sit in. While staring at my first non-inside sleeping accommodations I felt this set-up seemed woefully unprepared to defend us against the wilds. As if reading my thoughts Mountain Man told me he inherited this tent from a family friend who’d taken it on many journeys including backpacking through Patagonia. If it could keep her safe there, surely it could keep me alive for one night in Northern Michigan. To calm my nerves Mountain Man proposed we open a bottle of wine we’d picked up during the day while sampling our way further north.
Finally an idea I could get behind. While a good portion of my brain felt like marinating myself in a nice white wine wasn’t going to make me less appealing to any still-hungry coyotes, I decided being drunk if they came back might give me the courage to fight them off. Backing up this plan was the fact that we didn’t have a wine opener… or glasses. Our only option was to push the cork in and commit to the whole bottle. Which we did immediately. One bottle of wine and two group pees later (after all I was only drunk, not gullible enough to believe they “weren’t hungry anymore”) I was ready for bed. As for my first night of sleep while camping, I wasn’t lulled to a peaceful sleep by the crickets and wind blowing through the trees so much as I passed out, mouth open, with a bit of marshmallow on my face.
In the morning I woke up toasty warm, slightly groggy, but pleasantly surprised to still be alive. I popped out of my sleeping bag in search of aspirin and wanting my own pants. I unzipped the tent and stood in the crisp morning air listening to the surrounding silence. Daylight has a way of making things look much less dire. I found myself wondering, “how much of last night happened?” I was wandering around the campsite mulling this over when there.... next our tent, a mere 5 feet from our heads, was what remained of a raccoon’s head. Typically finding any bloody body part outside of your tent is how a horror movie begins and this confirmed my suspicion that the coyotes wanted us out of their hood. It wasn’t a horse head in the bed but it was close enough. If we ignored any more of the “signs” that it was time to go who knows what would have happened. I wandered down a narrow footpath in the direction I saw Mountain Man ambled off towards. In my mind, the threat of fighting coyotes sober and solo overrode the possibility of finding Mountain Man taking care of some natural morning business. Instead, I found him standing on the shoreline, the sun rising, the sky full of cotton candy pinks and burnt orange staring down the craggy coastline. There, among some leafless bushes and shrubs, a silhouetted-figure was striding out to the point of a rocky jetty. A distinct four-legged canine silhouette with the sun rising behind it as it stopped to drink from the lake and survey its surroundings. Neither of us was breathing. Shocked by the beauty of the scene and simultaneously realizing that it was either the largest coyote known to man...or...not a coyote at all. Silently we made eye-contact and wordlessly decided we weren’t sticking around to find out. We grabbed our things and scrambled back to the car, not quite at the speed one would take when being chased through the woods, but quick enough to prove to any woodland creatures that we were leaving. Message received.
It’s amazing to me when I think back to that first time camping. Not only did I spend the rest of that weekend camping but in the ten years since then have logged hundred of nights sleeping in a tent all over the world. Places with venomous snakes living in the public bathrooms, morning scorpion boot-check, needing to lock your car and belonging to avoid bears breaking in, mudslides, forest fires, flash floods, hantavirus, twenty degrees below zero temperatures, thunderstorms, and humans wielding all manner of weapons for a variety of reasons.
My two motivations in life are food and fear, since we’d just drank our way through the wine country of the north - I didn’t really have room for food, luckily a pack of coyotes in the yipping distance kept my fear strong.