How we camp

We sleep in the van at the end of abandoned logging roads. We find these roads on topo maps, our ideal spot being one from which the earth drops away steeply on three sides. Because the roads we choose are abandoned but passable, the forest will have been cut recently enough that we have a view. We also like to camp in remote quarries because they consist of large open areas cut from steep hillsides, and because I enjoy studying the rocks. The problem with quarries is that other people use them for camping and target practice. This means there is a chance of the dogs finding something to roll in.

We carry water in one-gallon juice jugs. We like Langer’s jugs because they are rectangularish and take up less space than the same number of round jugs. Four gallons a day is adequate, and we can conveniently pack twelve.

We take food from the freezer for our suppers. This reduces the amount of ice we need. I drink water, coffee, and Tang. Peggy drinks water and milk. If I forgot to pack the coffee, I would have to go looking for some. Peggy is the same way about milk. Among our other staples are homemade crackers and biscuits (made by me) and cookies (made by Peggy).

Peggy is the camp cook, and I am the cleaner, straightener, and organizer. We work together to make the bed and wash the dishes. For years, we heated soapy water on a Coleman stove for the dishes. I never saw much reason for this, so we finally went to pouring cold soapless water over them and using our fingers as a dishcloth.

I wouldn’t bother to heat our meals if Peggy weren’t adamant. I don’t even heat mine at home where it is a lot more convenient. If I’m really cold, hot food is nice, but then if I’m really cold, it’s an more annoying to stand outside and heat it.

Our bed is a four-inch foam mattress that lays atop a homemade plywood box that we use for storage (we took two rows of seats out of the van to make room for it). The box has a large lid at either end, which means that the mattress lifts up when one of the lids is raised. For this reason, we try to keep things that we are likely to want while we’re in bed where we can get to them. Otherwise, we have to either both get out of bed, or one of us has to move to the head of the bed while the other gets out and raises the lid.

For lighting, we use two hanging lanterns that run off D-cell batteries. We like to read in bed. I take along natural history books and whatever else I’m reading at the time, and Peggy takes a mystery novel or an adventure story.

We carry a .38 special and a can of bear-strength pepper spray. The .38 is the one thing that we don’t leave in the van even for a five-minute walk. Bonnie is so afraid of fireworks that if I ever had to fire the .38, I doubt that we would ever see her again. This worries me, but it would worry me more to visit isolated places without something that will shoot farther and hit harder than pepper spray.

I used to take a .357 magnum, but it was too big and heavy to carry in my pocket. The .38 is a little heavy too, but, on those rare instances when someone approaches our camp, I can slip it discreetly into my jacket pocket with my finger on the trigger.

A couple and their dog were murdered in the woods sixty miles from Eugene last summer for no apparent reason. Their killer has not been found. The murder scared Peggy but had little impact on me. I believe that random murders happen all the time, but that we only hear of them when they’re close to home. I am also consoled by the thought that we camp in such remote areas that no one is likely to find us. We’ve even been known to block our road with limbs.

I read that a person’s states of alertness to danger can be compared to the colors of a redlight. If you live under condition red too much, you get sick from the strain; but if you stay under condition green, you make yourself an easy target. I try to practice condition yellow, which is a state of relaxed watchfulness, but I never get really good at it.

Dogs are better in this regard. I envy their ability to go from limp mellowness to bare-toothed aggression in the space of a heartbeat. Human beings are more emotionally complicated, and this works against us. It’s as if we have thirty speeds, and we have to go through each of them to move up or down; whereas dogs only have three speeds, and those speeds correspond to our numbers one, fifteen, and thirty. Having a dog is like having a guardian angel. If I had to choose between losing my dogs and losing my human friends, I would keep the dogs. This is a not a statement about how little I value my friends, but how much I value my dogs.

Bonnie and Baxter are good about staying near us. We can put them out and take a nap, and not worry about them wandering off, although, after having saved Baxter from predators twice, I worry about what might wander off with him. Bonnie is only eight pounds heavier but a lot more formidable.

I’ve been surprised by how close to people predators will come to kill a dog. I used to only worry about mountain lions; now I can’t even relax around hawks and bobcats. If they are willing to approach a dog that is fifty feet from its master; I would expect a mountain lion to be much bolder. Other than people, mountain lions are the only thing in the woods that scare me. Attacks are rare, but they have brought down adult male cyclists, and their population has been on the increase since hunting them with dogs was outlawed.

The dogs sleep on the front seats at night. When we’re driving, Baxter generally sits on the bed and observes the scenery while Bonnie rests on the floor between our seats. Unless she rolls in something, Bonnie stays clean and has a pleasant musky smell. After a day in the woods, Baxter’s curly fur is so full of dirt, twigs, and plant seeds, that he looks and smells like he has been in the woods for months.

I bathe daily with alcohol. As I tell Peggy, “I’m not just clean, I’m sterilized.” She doesn’t find alcohol baths as satisfying, so she uses water sometimes and alcohol sometimes. After three days, she shampoos her hair while I pour cold water over her head. Since I use alcohol on my hair too, I don’t have this problem.

Peggy and I go to places that other people take little interest in. This puts us at less risk of having our van burglarized while we are on a trail, and it reduces problems with the dogs going ballistic when they encounter another person or dog, but the main reason is that we enjoy the wilderness more when we have it to ourselves. Since most people prefer to be around water or near timberline, finding solitude is easy. Ironically, we can get away from people better by staying closer to home. The Cascade crest is seventy road miles from Eugene, while the deep woods of the Middle Fork Ranger District begin at forty. I suspect that most people who drive to the Cascade crest haven’t even heard of the Middle Fork District.

We are also better able to find solitude than most people because we use better maps. The forest service will sell you a topographic district map that shows every last road, but for some reason they won’t display such maps so that you know they exist. The map that they do display is for an entire national forest and is inadequate for our purposes because it only shows a third of the roads and has no elevation lines.

We sometimes use geographic survey maps that depict an area of about 42 square miles, but they are more appropriate for backpackers. We would need to know an awful lot about a small area to require something that detailed, but they are fun to look at in bed on wintry nights. I had never seen a topographic map before moving here from Mississippi, and have since wondered what one for the Mississippi Delta would look like.

We carry short-legged lawn chairs for relaxing around camp. We also carry a toilet seat on legs. We squatted for years, but my knee will no longer bend properly, and Peggy never took to squatting anyway. I initially thought that using a potty was sissified, but I would no longer be without one.

We use a roll-up table for cooking. This was Peggy’s idea, but she is so delighted with her table that I am happy we have it. Yet, when the hour is late, and I’m tired, I sometimes wonder why, if we must cook, we can’t just set the stove on the floor of the van. I have to remind myself that luxuries are essential; it’s just that we require different luxuries, and that she requires a few more than I. Not that I’m counting—heavens no.

Now that I can no longer hike, we might have to take different kinds of trips. This is why our recent vacation put us in contact with so many people. If we had made it purely a backcountry adventure, I would have spent most of my time near the van while Peggy was out hiking with the dogs. By adding a historic/social element, we were able do more together. My love of hiking makes my knee problem more traumatic. We’ve only gone out about four times this season, whereas we usually go at least twice a month.