The first time I drove out West by myself, I was determined to do some “real” camping. No tents, no pre-cooked food, and only the bare minimum of comforts. I was going to be the young cowboy in James Taylor’s song Sweet Baby James. My Volkswagen and my tape collection were to be my only companions.
So I hustled through the eastern states, staying with family members, friends, and the occasional low-cost motel. I passed through Denver and got myself up to the high country. I rolled into a Forest Service campground early one evening and it was game-on.
The campfire was priority Number One. I scrounged through the woods at the edge of the campsite for kindling and firewood. My heart jumped when I saw the perfect piece of wood, so dry and ready for my soon-to-be-massive fire that it was bleached white. I picked it up and shrieked like a schoolgirl when I realized it was an animal bone.
This was the real deal. You don’t find bones at a state park campground in Rhode Island unless they’re human. I was in the big time now.
I made a big fire and cooked a raw steak, holding it over the fire on the end of a pair of metal tent poles. And then I rolled out my sleeping bag on the ground. No pad and no tent, I was doing this the old-school way. I lay inside the bag on my back and stared up at the starlight, which was softer than a lullaby.
The next morning I was awakened by a noise in the distance. It sounded like an animal vigorously digging through a pile of leaves. It was probably burying the camper in the next spot over, saving him for a late-day snack. I lay perfectly still on my side and stared in the other direction. Not knowing what I was up against, I didn’t make a move. I was as still as a fallen tree-branch.
The noise got louder. Whatever it was, it was getting closer. I heard the sound of paws furiously at work.
Something landed on my head and jumped off running. A second later another animal dropped onto my skull, bounded off, and kept pursuing the first animal. I watched as the two squirrels ran toward the woods. The little guy in front was not going to relinquish his nut. I cheered him on.
I’d always wondered where that phrase “sleeping like a log” came from. Now I knew. And I also knew that from then on I’d be using the tent.