Sunday, November 1, 2009

Camping: A Back Story

This was going to be about a recent camping trip, but I think a little back story would help first, so this post is just an account from a few years ago.

In August the first summer we were dating, my husband and I went on a camping trip together that was a complete catastrophe. About three days before we left, I ate some pizza that had been sitting under a heat lamp for too long and greatly impressed my future in-laws - we're talking the whole extended family here - by projectile vomiting on the outside wall of his grandmother's rented cottage. My Taller Half was sweet enough to hold my hair back through the ordeal, which gained him several thousand bonus points in my book, but I spent the next day - my twenty-first birthday - feeling fairly close to dead while my body discovered creative ways to empty my GI tract. Despite all this, we decided to go ahead with the camping we'd planned, because hey, when else could we do it? We'd both be heading back to college in different states in a few weeks, so this would be our last chance for some alone-together time for a while.

So, roughly 72 hours after the outdoor redecorating incident, the two of us rode in his beater van with no air conditioning to a campground in Michigan. I was still feeling off, but had been maintaining a mostly liquid diet and it was no longer touch-and-go. We found a spot at a crowded state park campsite and set up our borrowed tent. I built a campfire, a skill I had honed as a camp counselor, and he was impressed. We cooked up some brats over the fire and I recall gingerly trying one and waiting for bad results. There was no problem. Things were starting to look up.

In my memory, there was a one-day period of that trip when neither of us was horribly sick. During that time, though, I was on the mend and the state of his health was plummeting much, much faster than I realized. I'm going to blame this on two things:

1) We'd been dating for only a few months, and this nice guy's camping-geek girlfriend was really excited about this trip, and he's a gentleman, so he didn't want to whine.

2) The Dutch don't believe in illness. I'll elaborate on that in a moment.

Probably in an effort to show how strong and resilient I was, I was all about a long hike over the dunes our first morning at the state park. A very long hike. On a ninety-plus degree day. I recall one section of parched, sandy, never-ending hills which yielded zero shade, through which I continued climbing while he looked peaked and thirsty. There was a little whining from his direction at this point, and he was moving a bit slower than I expected. But if I had been as sick as he must already have felt, I would have been more likely to dig a little pit in the sand for ease of my own body disposal.

We eventually made it back to our site, and I remember asking him if he wanted to do the long hike the next day. I contend that I must have been drunk on the outdoors, or love, or something. Besides, I really didn't know him the way I know him now. If I had, I would have told him to remain seated, I'd pack the car, we're leaving immediately.

It came to that later, but not as soon as it should have.

What I know now, and what is important for the rest of this story, is that my husband still has his tonsils. If anyone should not have tonsils, it's this guy - but whoever his pediatrician is should be fired. Except, of course, that it may not be his pediatrician's fault because he never saw the kid.

The doctrine of disease in my husband's childhood home was that if there was no vomit, there was no illness. When this was fully explained to me - long after the Camping Trip From Hell - I had trouble believing it. My siblings and I all suffered from terrible tonsillitis when we were kids, and all three of us had our tonsils removed at a young age after battling nonstop throat and ear infections. I have vague memories of that misery because I was 4 years old when I had the surgery. Those memories mostly involve crying. To need to vomit to prove illness is also difficult to grasp because my in-laws are generally very nice people: generous, good with pets and babies, understanding, nice people.

I'm not sure why I expect the family of the man I married to be completely consistent, because no family is, but there you go.

So this was the problem: this poor guy had grown up with the concept that complaining won't get you to the doctor anyway, so you have to suffer for DAYS until someone gets tired of you looking half-dead and takes you to the doctor, who tells you it's almost run its course, go home. And it was with this understanding that he only slightly complained as his throat felt as if he was attempting to swallow shards of molten gravel and he couldn't see straight from fever and his excitable new girlfriend forced him to hike over hot sand in August.

If you think I feel guilty about this, you're right. But in my defense: I didn't know.

By that evening, when we sat by the campfire, he must have been looking pretty awful, because I started to get concerned. We turned in a little early, hoping he was just tired from the afternoon's forced death march.

This was the beginning of one of the longest nights in my memory so far.

I can't recall what we ate for dinner that night, but we had washed our mess kit plates and left them out on the picnic table to dry. Neither of us were aware of the temptation for absolute annoyance we were leaving out.

Drying mess kits! Do you know what those do? No?

Oh, I'll tell you.

Drying mess kits attract every oversized raccoon in the tri-county area to your camp site, where the fun begins when Obese Raccoon A gallops over your picnic table, trying his best to smash into every dish en route to the campfire ring. This is followed by Even Larger Raccoon B, and so on, with seventeen or thirty spectating raccoons hanging around in nearby trees, chattering their applause.

All this is taking place roughly 2 yards in front of your tent, the same tent inside which your boyfriend, who at this point cannot properly breathe because his tonsils are the size of limes, is struggling to sleep through his rising fever. Then you'll climb out of your tent, which causes the raccoons to amble up the nearby trees in a "oh, wow, lady, are you intimidating!"move. You, half-asleep and temporary relieved that they stopped the noise, will believe them, for reasons nobody quite understands, even though they are looking right at you and waiting for you to go away. You will climb carefully back into the tent, briefly interrupting the strangled snoring sounds coming from your ill boyfriend's side of the tent. As you begin to relax just a bit, you will be startled awake by another clangity clang clang clang! Followed by chattering raccoons. It begins to sound like they're laughing. At you. Your boyfriend will roll over for the six thousandth time, trying to find a position that allows him to breathe. You will climb out of the tent again, pissed this time, and will illustrate your rage by actually shaking your fist at the raccoons as they watch you from the trees. You will pack up the mess kits into one unit and, because you're brilliant, leave them on the picnic table and climb back in to the tent.

This adventure of sleep-deprived brilliance, ultra-loud, ultra-fat raccoons and suffering, whimpering, loudly-snoring boyfriend will continue all night as you repeat the pattern of climbing out of the tent, doing something useless and angry, and climbing back into the tent.

That's what happens.

In the morning, after I had enjoyed a refreshing sleep of a combined three hours or so, I was apparently still feeling disconnected with reality, because I thought sleeping would have helped my camping partner feel better.

He looked miserable, sitting by the fire ring in the morning light, staring at the ashes of the previous evening's fire. And I asked him - because I'm brilliant - how he was feeling. His response sounded like embodied pain. What it did not sound like, actually, was English. His throat was so closed at this point that he could make only rasping sounds while looking as if he'd like to cry if it didn't require rapid breathing.

We called off the rest of the trip, which was supposed to last two more nights, and we packed up the van. I called his mother from the pay phone at the entrance to the campground and asked her to make a doctor's appointment, and then I drove the three hours back to his parents' house while he tried to doze in the passenger's seat of the hot, noisy minivan.

When we got to the doctor's office, I waited in the waiting room, trying to interest myself with old magazines or daytime television and realizing that this was something I had never done before. Sure, I'd had a couple of boyfriends in high school and college, but never before had I found myself worrying and waiting in a doctor's office, hoping for some kind of good news or relief about some guy.

When you're in it, and it's new, sometimes it's hard to recognize you're in love. What if it's just infatuation? And who on earth would think about love here, in a chair that's impossible to get comfortable in, on a beautiful August day when people should be outside? I thought back to the night before and realized I had been so angry at those stupid raccoons because this guy really needed the sleep. I had made the drive back, on unfamiliar highways, to a town I didn't know, in record time because I was worried about him.

And when he walked into the waiting room and triumphantly rasp-growled, "One hundred and two point three" - his temperature - in a manner that told me he thought I hadn't believed that he was sick, I was angry, because I wanted him to know that I believed him.

Over the course of the next two days, he took antibiotics (horse pills! For someone unable to swallow! Cruelty, that's what that is) and slept for roughly eighteen hours a day. We rode the train together back to Chicago, where he continued to rest and I fed him warm grits and hot tea. Slowly, he got better. And at about the point where he was recovered, he left to go back to his college in Ohio while I stayed to start my last year at mine.

It would be six years before we tried camping again.

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