By Chris Kowalski
"When it looks like you can't go any further...keep going."
This was the advice Crazy Bob gave us as he rang up our 12-pack of Miller. The convenience store was a two-room outfit located in Nowheresville, Michigan, where two rural routes crossed. Someplace about the middle.
I must have been 15 and my brother 13 that summer when we went on that camping trip. My uncle had called us up out of the blue to see if we wanted to go on a road trip. I think he'd broken up with a girlfriend or something. For some reason we tended to catch him on the rebound. But hell it was summer and we didn't really have anything going on. It was the first of many camping trips with him, and then in later years with his kids.
"Where are we off to?" we asked.
He laid out a Rand McNally map of Michigan. "Point to a place. Any place that looks like it oughta have a campground."
As we scanned that map, we came across quaint names like Grand Haven and Kalamazoo but our eyes always returned to this huge hunk of green in the middle. No national forest. No state park. We pointed to a swatch of land with arguably the least amount of drainage in the state. As we drove down the highway in the beautiful sun, taking turns sticking our heads out the window, all we could see for miles was swamp.
Which was fine.
One thing I've learned over the years is that a little trouble makes it worth the going. That time it rained.... That time it snowed.... That time any number of difficulties presented themselves.... Those are the beginnings of all of my best stories.
We drove for a few hours and saw surprisingly few cars. There really wasn't much there, until we hit the crossroads with that little convenience store. Sandwiches. Bait and tackle. Hunting licenses. And...
"Beer. You want to get some beer?" my uncle asked suddenly.
And so we stopped at the crossroads. It was late afternoon and we were thinking we really ought to find a place. Get some food. Get some beer. My uncle grabbed for a six-pack before we stopped him.
"You really think we'll drink a whole 12-pack?" he asked, but we knew even then: You err on the side of quantity.
The guy behind the counter introduced himself as Crazy Bob. Now I've run across a number of Crazy Bobs in my day and they're usually running a liquor store or a fireworks stand and it's usually by the highway. But this guy always stuck in my head as just the most good-natured fella you'd meet at a crossroads. My uncle could start a conversation with anyone (indeed he sells cars now, and very successfully at that), so he asked Bob if there was anyplace around there we could camp.
Apparently the only thing going around there was logging, and out in the forest there was a lake where the guys went fishing and the loggers had a porta-potty, which made it good for camping. There were two ways to get there, the long way or the direct way. The long way was a string of route numbers which I didn't follow so much. The direct way was the second right going north.
"It's the logging road, so it's a little rough in there, but it's quicker," Bob said as he rang up our 12-pack of Miller. "You go through there and it's all just a clay road cut out from between the trees. It'll get tight in there, but when it looks like you can't go any further...keep going. That's how you'll know you're almost there."
Well Bob wasn't kidding. We drove through an oversized rut straight into the forest. I had no clue about this one. We really didn't see much evidence of logging aside from a few sites. They must have been carving out the road for the real work because it was mostly still forest. But man that road....
My uncle was driving a pickup with the sort of suspension that made a kid my age have to climb in. He drove it five miles an hour and it still felt like a bumper car because I was bouncing so much. The clay was that pure slick ochre that reminded me of ceramics class, and I swear I could hear the sucking sound it must have made when that road was cut loose.
I've got no idea why, but the road was two to three feet deep in the ground, and it seemed that the forest floor came right up to the window at some points. Maybe it was to keep it from being washed out, but if it ever rained it looked like it would spit pickup trucks out on the highway like the tail end of the rapids ride at Great America. And I don't know how they would have got any logging equipment in there, much less how they would have got trees out. In any case, the forest closed in deep, and the road got narrower until there was about a foot or less of space on either side threatening to pinch the hood in.
"Man, I think we'd better turn back," my uncle said.
"But Crazy Bob said keep going."
"Okay, I'll give it another few hundred yards, but I really don't feel comfortable bringing my truck in here. If we got stuck we'd have to wait until Monday to get towed out."
We did go that hundred or so yards, but man there wasn't nothing happening. And I would've thought it was sissy of my uncle to back down except that I figured if it was that hard to go forward, it must have been pure hell to try to back a pickup a half mile to the first turnout with only a foot of clearance on either side and a 13-year-old calling out directions.
We went back to Crazy Bob's to get the directions for the long way but, of course, it was closed.
"That's all right," my uncle said. "I think I remember."
And sure as his word, a few twists and turns and a little bit longer than the direct route and we were pitching tent. There was a murky old lake and a few empty campsites, just clean enough to accommodate the local fishermen who weren't too picky. But what the hell, the sun was setting and the tent was pitched.
"Let's take a walk," my uncle declared. We all were a little claustrophobic from the ride.
And in the spirit of this trip he announced, "There," and pointed in a
random direction toward an open field.
"Shit! Something just bit me!"
"What? Like a mosquito?"
"No, I got stung." And then, "Shit, I just got stung again."
Then my brother yelled out and as one we all high-tailed it back to the truck and hid out until the wasps were gone. Fortunately, I might add, I didn't get stung once. But there were cold beers and sandwiches later and we all felt a lot better.
The next night we were a lot more sensible and stayed at one of Michigan's fabulous lakeside state parks. Warren Dunes maybe, but I'm not entirely sure. We pitched tent and had our dinner and after a few beers we decided to take a walk to the beach.
We were walking through the campsite with our flashlight, when suddenly from beneath the bushes, something bright and green and glowing shot out from the bushes and into the trees.
We jumped back with a lot of holy shitting and "Did you see that?" There was laughter in the bushes, which turned out to be some real good-natured fellas with a glow stick on a fishing rod who were spooking the passersby. Once more our uncle talked 'em up and we wound up sitting around their campfire drinking beers and shooting the shit. My brother still talks about how cool it was that this guy told his son (who was just my brother's age) to go and get these men some beer. The kid handed my brother a beer and then sulked back to his corner to sip on cokes.
It was a lot of fun. It broke down pretty bad after that. All I remember was my brother lying face down in the dunes and somebody saying, "Your friend looks a little incoherent."
But we all had a real good time. My uncle contracted Lyme disease just to make it extra special. And I don't think I ever told anyone this before, but whenever I look at this web site, the first thing that pops into my mind is that first camping trip and how far tenting it in the woods has led me. I think of all the good folks I've met for the first time over a beer and a campfire and I nod to myself knowing just how right ol' Crazy Bob was. When it looks like you can't go any further...keep going.
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Copyrightę2002 by Chris Kowalski.
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