It’s finally the time of year- for Minnesota anyway – to get outdoors with a markedly lower risk of frostbite. I’ve repressed my California childhood memories of camping in the mountains in March with a tent and a light jacket to ward off the treacherous 55-degree evenings and replaced them with aspirations of camping for the next seven weeks straight, just in time to beat the approaching windchill. If I can simply endure the tornadoes and flooding.
My daughter’s literary taste has apparently dulled, since she has been foregoing the usual cutesy bedtime books and asking me to tell her stories about when I was a kid. She usually says, “Tell me a story about when you went camping and fishing when you were a kid.” Probably because I always talk about camping and fishing.
It’s been a reminiscent exercise for me as I’m compelled to remember the many trips my parents took me on when I was younger. My parents were both teachers so summers were ours. If my parents had been born about 15 years later like my friends’ parents, I could recount the road trips in the Vanagon, listening to James Taylor and stopping at the communes where they lived in college. But my folks were made of Cadillacs, Chuck Berry and Hiawatha’s burial ground.
Between rivers we stopped at every local Coast to Coast for fishing reports and cheap tackle, and ate sandwiches composed of Wonder Bread and Kraft sandwich spread. If you’ve never had it, sandwich spread is basically tartar sauce with additional relish. My dad replaced his typical precursors of “Damn it” and “By God” with “Looky there” and rear view warning glances. Levity was produced with a small writing pad that my mom and I passed over the backseat to play tic tac toe. And gum.
When we didn’t stay in sketchy motels as our angling base camp, we used one tent, ever. My brother’s orange A-frame. I never remember this tent being new. It was mildewy in all my recollections and I can’t be sure that it originally came with poles, since we seemed to always use a combination of rods from portable sheep pens and maybe some sticks. One time while camping on the Snake River in Idaho, we just slept on the ground with a garbage tarp covering us. It likely had less debris on it than the sketchy motel floors.
I often recite the story of “Treasure Island” to my daughter. She’ll probably grow up thinking Robert Louis Stevenson survived by eating SPAM off of a Coleman stove when he didn’t catch trout, but think about it. Isn’t that really a better story? Isn’t it?
In this instance we drove the Cadillac into a cattle field, after consulting with the proprietor of a local gas station, and set up camp. Meaning the orange tent and one quilt. Then my dad led us to the water. This is my strongest memory of one of the fly fishing rules my dad taught me. We walked along the river’s edge looking for good holes for my dad to fish. He cast here and there and eventually we came to a rope bridge. The rope bridge crossed the stream to an island, which apparently had treasure, meaning ticks. It was a pretty cool scene and the dusky light was the perfect backdrop for imprinting on my eight-year-old mind. I don’t remember my dad landing any fish, but when we were about 200 yards from a fly fisherman he said “Walk around, give him lots of room, and do not talk. That’s a fly fisherman.”
Fly fisherman usually don’t like to be disturbed. Ironically, dudes like me who are rushed to get line in water during a 22-minute window before we have to “help our wives with the kids” again seem to have much more compassion for The Others than crotchety old men who can fish all day, every day. If you ever get one of these coots to acknowledge your existence, let me know. I’m not trying to criticize older fly fishermen. They’ve caught many huge trout on flimsy fiberglass rods before the newfangled technology came into play. I’m just saying – probably don’t talk to them.
I simply can’t remember if we ate trout that night or not. If we did, I’m sure it was delicious. The standard Rainbow recipe from my upbringing is gut it, butter it, salt it, pan-fry on a Coleman stove. But if you fry 30 of them in a public park and the gas line breaks and lights the whole thing on fire, put it out with a gallon of milk. Don’t worry- that was a separate time.
For me, camping has always meant fishing. I’ve forgotten clothes, matches and food and not forgotten fishing gear. I want to give my kids lasting memories like I’ve had – as most of us want to do. But time marches on, and things have changed.
We recently bought a 28-foot travel trailer. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about living in Minnesota, it’s that I require air conditioning. While I’m at it, I might as well have a full kitchen, a couch, hot water and a separate bedroom with a queen-sized mattress. I’ll own up to my weaknesses. Because things can never be the same as when I was a kid. I could sleep in a run-down tent in a rainstorm without a worry in the world, because I wasn’t in charge. My dad promised food and intrigue, and he delivered. But everybody’s different. Despite my strongest efforts, my children have learned what a s’more is. Nothing says wilderness like homogenized horse hooves melted into a sugary wafer topped with bricks of processed cacao from South America. But here we are.
When we camp now, we bring bicycles. We bring a DVD player. We bring puzzles. I think we even bring GoGurt. But my goal is to ease my kids into the camping life. Bridging the gap from posh to primitive through compromise. My kids want to sleep in a tent, but they just can’t hack it. They want to catch their own fish on the fly, but they’re not quite ready (they landed their first trout a couple of weeks ago, after I handed them my rod). They want to build the fire themselves, but they will burn their faces off. Everything has a starting point, and I’m proud to say my children can already recognize deer tracks, and which way they lead. They know what a coyote sounds like. We’re working on not yelling, “I hurt my butt!!!” really loud in the campground. But they know that when we walk past fly fishermen, we stay quiet.