by Maureen Mancini Amaturo
When my friend’s boyfriend, Bobby, peeked through the door of the tent and doubled over laughing, I assumed he was high. We had already been in the Bushkill, PA, woods for a few months…I mean an hour. I assumed the group started to party while I was unpacking. I ignored him and straightened out my sleeping bag atop four doubled wool blankets serving as a box spring. The width of the hard suitcase I had brought lined up perfectly with my bedding and made a great headboard. While it didn’t look like an Ethan Allen twin, it did look Ikea. Actually, it was looking kind of cozy and turning into a nice little nest. I was setting up my skin care, perfume, and light-up makeup mirror atop the suitcase when Bobby looked in. It was all so neat, so organized, so functional. What was so funny?
“Where you gonna plug that in?” He could hardly point he was laughing so hard. He called the rest of our friends to come see what I was doing. By the time they all crawled into the Manhattan-apartment-sized tent, I had my nightgown and robe straightened out on the sleeping bag and my outfit laid out for the next day. Whatever is needless to say, I won’t say. But I packed up my beauty regimen and lingerie and slept in the car. Swore I’d never go camping again. I was twenty, and I was into “experiences,” so I always tried everything more than once just to be sure I did or didn’t like something. I went camping again.
When that second camping trip rolled around, luckily, my friend, Michelle, couldn’t leave work early either on that Friday, so I had someone to drive with me to meet the rest of our friends, one of our girls-weekend adventures. Among my faults, the few that I have, is no sense of direction. I can find nothing (except the best fashion buys, but I digress.) When I lived in New Jersey, every time I drove somewhere, no matter where I was going, I landed at the Delaware Water Gap. So, when Michelle said she’d drive with me into the dark intestines of Pennsylvania for this camping trip, I was fearless. Or young. Same thing.
It poured that night, mournful, pounding, blinding rain. But I found Pennsylvania. I found the campground complex. But I couldn’t find our campsite. After hours of crawling through the dark, dirty night, driving in circles, my car, Michelle, and I stopped in a field. We got out to look around, and I was up to my lug nuts in mud. I was glad I had brought an umbrella. Since I left the light-up makeup mirror home this time, there was room for necessities like that. We stood in the rain looking around in the dark until our clothes felt like Plaster of Paris. I spotted a light and smoke in the distance, signs of life. I screamed, “Help. Help. Someone, help!” Think the Tin Man in Oz’s poppy field.
Just a few minutes went by before we noticed two people coming toward us. Closer, and I could tell they were guys. Closer still, and I could tell they were good-looking guys our age. Even closer, and…what mud? After Mike and Joe introduced themselves, they asked, “Car trouble?”
“No, we’re lost. Our friends are here somewhere, but we can’t find the campsite.”
They were staring at my umbrella.
Since it was well after eleven, they suggested we stay at their campsite for the night, and they offered to drive us around in the morning to find our friends. My young, Icarus-self thought this was a good idea, not dangerous at all. I was in.
Their campsite was more like a movie set than wilderness. They had some kind of vehicle with an extended awning. It reminded me of a carnival, like the food-vendor stations at the Our Lady of Mercy street bazaars when I was in grammar school. They had several tents, an outdoor cooking area, lots of large coolers, heaters in the tents, and more good-looking guys. Camping was fun.
Joe said, “You guys can take that tent.” They gave us dry clothes and stretched ours out near the heaters to dry. “Hungry?”
Mike grabbed his supplies from what was now our tent. He said, “We’ve got leftovers from dinner. Do you like veal marsala? There’s angel hair left.” He yelled to the other guys, “Hey, any more pizza?”
I looked at Michelle. Her jaw was hanging down to the V-neck in her pullover.“ Sounds great,” I said. “Thank you.”
Italians never visit anyone’s home without bringing food, so I felt compelled to offer something to our hosts. I went to my trunk and pulled out the shopping bag of food I had brought, what I thought was camping food. I handed Mike a box. “Do you like Devil Dogs?” Afterward, we sat around the fire for a few hours listening to “Hotel California,” “Stairway to Heaven,” “Free Bird,” and Frampton before going to our respective tents.
In the morning, Michelle and I awoke to a breakfast spread that was all-out iHop. I went back to my car to grab something to contribute to the feast the guys had prepared. I put my jar of Skippy on the table and extended another box. “Saltine?”
I told them the area name and site number we were looking for, and Mike, Joe, and their friends took us there. Easily. What an interesting reunion when we arrived. Our friends had been worried sick about Michelle and me. Pre-cell-phone days, remember. They hadn’t slept. They were freezing from looking for us all night. Since I had most of the food in my car, they were starving having shared only one package of Oreos and several bottles of Boone’s Farm Apple Wine among the five of them. We introduced the guys and told our friends what happened. We thought it best not to mention the veal.
Mike, Joe, and their friends settled in beautifully with our friends. We taught them our rules for a game of Truth or Dare. They taught us how to dig holes should anyone need a toilet. Later, we drove back to Mike’s camp for lunch. Apparently, this campground was a repeat favorite for the guys. They knew these woods like I knew midtown. “There’s a waterfall you should see just over in that direction.” Joe pointed behind him. “We’ll go there after lunch. Then, we can hike down the mountain.”
I was OK with lunch. I was OK with waterfall. Hike, mountain. Not so much. But how could I say no? Everyone was up for it. I had to go along. After the chicken and peppers with white wine and capers and baked potatoes that the guys made and the pink Hostess Snowball Cupcakes I brought, we climbed into two cars, and the whole group headed toward the waterfall. We stopped in an area with enough clearing to park and followed Mike, Joe, and their friends to what seemed like the very perimeter of the planet. And there it was, like the tail of a white horse waving in the wind, the water galloped over the ledge across the valley.
“We can start down here. If we get separated, we’ll meet at the base by those boulders,” Joe said.“Just follow the deer trail.”
Deer had a trail system? I squinted to see what a deer trail looked like. Dirt is dirt, fellas. They began the hike down. My shoulders stiffened. I wouldn’t have been able to smile if someone tickled me. I yelled, “Wait! Where?” No one heard me. In a forest, birds are like jackhammers, and I don’t even want to know what was making all those other noises. Since everyone had started out already, my friends and I followed, some of us more slowly than others, a lot more slowly. Michelle and I were at the end of the pack, so far at the end, we got separated from the group. Hiking down this mountain was not hiking at all. It was more like sliding. Maybe because I couldn’t bring myself to wear anything as ugly as hiking boots and bought slippery, new, aqua sneakers for this trip. It was so steep that we were practically lying down as we descended, our shoulders skimming the dirt as we grabbed onto tree roots trying to make our way. Michelle followed me. She should have known better. I got lost.
Michelle asked, “Where do we go now?”
I leaned against the ground behind me. “No idea. Do you hear monkeys?”
“Follow the deer trail,” she said. “Where is it?”
I looked around. Not that I was expecting a stretch of Deer Highway with exit signs, but…nothing. “I’m from Jersey City.” I shrugged.“If you see a deer, follow it.”I could not see the forest through the trees. Literally. Tin Man time. “Help. Someone, help!”
Soon, I heard rustling, heard twigs cracking, dirt scuffling, and bushes bustling. I hoped it was a deer with a good sense of direction. But fate did better than that. “This way,” Mike waved to us. What seemed like a year later, we made it to the boulders and the bottom of the falls. Eh, the water looked better from the top of the mountain. Frankly, for my taste, water looked even better flowing from a Kohler faucet. But whatever. I wanted an Oreo.
For the trip back to the cars, Mike stayed closer to Michelle and me. The one time in my life that uphill was easier than downhill. Maybe because my motivation to get off that mountain was stronger than gravity. Maybe it was Mike. Whatever it was, I was elated to be on flat land and had a new appreciation for walking upright. My little, red Nissan Sentra felt like Versailles when I finally got in the car. We went directly to the guys’ campsite. They made a steak dinner. I made a neat pile of Fritos on a paper plate.
The expert campers who became our guides, shepherds, coaches, and caterers left for home after dinner, and we had nothing but our own survival skills to rely on for our final night in the forest. We made due with all the Hostess, Drake’s, and Nabisco products I had brought. The tent was secured. The fire blazed. The wine flowed. We all froze. My cute, aqua sneakers were destroyed from that unholy mountain climb earlier, so I put on the extra pair of hiking boots one of my friends had brought in case her shoes had gotten wet–boots I would never be caught dead in. I worried that is exactly what would happen. I slept in my car.
I never did go camping again.