It was late in the evening shift at University Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin, and the last rounds had been completed. Now, Dan and I, respiratory therapy interns, were catching up with charts and patient data in our report room, a disused lab that had been converted to a featureless room with a few orange plastic chairs, a couple of wobbly desks, a sink and a counter. On the chipped surface of the counter sat an ancient hot plate that had two burners, but only one worked. That burner had one setting, high. There was always a glass carafe of dense, bitter coffee that seemed to be days, if not weeks, old. Nevertheless the brown juice was essential in keeping us awake.
Well, awake is probably the wrong word. The condensed, burnt, foul brew produced an effect of being stunned and intensely awake at the same time, rather like a snort of high grade cocaine (or so I am told).
One of the pulmonary medicine residents had left a copy of an outdoor magazine on the counter next to the hot plate. It was a diversion from the paperwork, so I idly picked the issue up and fanned through the contents. It opened to a dog-eared page with an article about winter camping. Being a hiker and enjoyed backpacking, I started reading the piece.
The story rhapsodized about crawling out of a tent in the early hours of the morning to witness the stillness of a January night, no illumination except that coming from the stars. One could observe the Milky Way without the interference of artificial city glow, and witness the tiny streaks of meteors racing across the firmament. With decent binoculars, the craters of the moon could be seen, possibly even the rings of Saturn.
The article included photos of an orange tent in the snow made luminescent by a gas lantern inside. Also, there were pictures of beautiful young women and handsome men gathered around a small campfire sipping wine while one of the them strummed a guitar. Other pictures depicted moonlit couples joyfully gliding on skis across a frozen winterscape.
Without bothering to read the whole piece, I was immediately enchanted with the idea of snow camping and mentioned it to Dan, tossing him the magazine.
Dan and I had a lot in common: we were both veterans, had the same taste in beer, did not trust capitalism, had the same taste in music, and both had long hair and beards as did half the population of men during the hippy period. During breaks we went backpacking, exploring the woods of northern Wisconsin and in the upper peninsula of Michigan. While I recalled the beauty of the rivers and lakes as well as drinking beer next to a campfire, Dan was more likely to remind me of the mosquitoes, deer flies and chiggers. We were also likely to blame each other for the one time we got lost, but that episode was buried, hidden deep in both of our memories, a subject best left alone.
But, in the long run, our friendship was life long.
He glanced at the magazine with the usual distain he reserved for my ideas, his hawkish face ready to sneer. But before he could look at the article, the loudspeaker, placed deviously at ear level in the lounge, announced an emergency in the intensive care unit.
“DOCTOR MAYDAY, ICU!” Was the announcement. Not Code Blue or even Dr. Blue as in other hospitals. The thinly disguised message was broadcast throughout the hospital, but in our room it had the effect of a grenade going off in a small space.
The article was blown out of our minds as we ran out the door.
* * * * * * * *
Weeks and months went by; summer into fall; fall to winter. When the first snow flurries of December floated through the cold air, Dan and I were sitting in a pub called The Brat and Brau near the University of Wisconsin campus with our friend Lance. The tavern was almost as old as the school and had the ambience of a German beer hall with heavy timbers, heavy, dark beer, dim lamps and a large, stone fireplace that hadn’t seen a flame in at least fifty years.
Lance was a different sort of fellow, shy and reclusive with long, dark hair that looked as though he’d slept with an angry chicken. His black framed glasses were held together by a safety pin and tape. He always seemed to have an aura of wood smoke about him.
He was a dietician aid who worked in the University Hospital kitchen. Dan and I met him when we worked part-time as students in the office across the hall from the cafeteria. Lance had the job as a requirement of his conscientious objector status to avoid the draft, but few people were aware of his educational accomplishments. He had a double major in physics and English literature. He presently was in a master’s degree program in some obscure area of computer science.
In spite of his intelligence, he tended to live in a world of fantasy. Instead of Jesus or Buddha, he worshipped J.R.R.Tolkien. He had all the songs in The Lord of the Rings trilogy memorized. Plus, he was an excellent musician accomplished in piano, violin and guitar—the latter he played as he sang of elves, dragons, and the strange folk who populate Middle Earth.
Lance ended up being sewer commissioner in a small town a few miles south of Madison, a position that he held for over thirty years.
But I digress.
So, as snow began to fall outside the pub, I recalled the article that I’d skimmed in the outdoor magazine.
“Have you ever camped in the winter, Lance?” I casually inquired.
“No, of course not. Why would I do that?”
“Dan and I read this article about it a few months ago, and we might give it a try this winter.”
Dan gave a long, loud sigh while objecting, “We did not read the article,” he explained. “And,” he continued, “you did little more than look at the pictures of the women.”
He took a self righteous swallow of beer. The foam on his long mustache gave his lean face a look of age and wisdom. A twenty-four year old sage.
Lance wanted to know more.
Encouraged, I ignored Dan’s rude interruption and continued, improvising as I went along. I described the scenes in the magazine and the equipment, pointing out that we already had parkas and sleeping bags. There was an old, canvas, cabin tent in my garage, and Dan grudgingly admitted that he had a Coleman stove. After I ordered another pitcher of the sour, dark beer that that we preferred in those days, he started listening to what Lance and I were proposing. Soon he started contributing to the conversation. As we drank, we started planning a trip to a small campground in Point Beach State Forest on the shore of Lake Michigan.
As the idea began to shape up, we took different assignments. I thought I could borrow a truck. I would also bring a baked chicken and some potatoes to roast in a campfire. Dan would prepare some chili to heat up on his gas stove, and bring a couple of cases of Special Export beer. Lance would supply the songs and bring his guitar.
* * * * * * * * * *
The pickup was an old, dark green GMC half-ton named Goliath that belonged to another friend who had generously let me have the truck for the weekend. But, he opted out of my invitation to join us for winter camping. His excuse was, “You must be nuts!”
The truck was badly rusted and had a hole, stuffed with a dirty red cloth, in the floor on the passenger’s side. The exhaust pipe exuded a dark blue trail of smoke similar to that of a coal burning locomotive. Steering the machine was a difficult matter, more like herding it down the road. The muffler was rusted through, and the motor was loud enough to be heard from miles away. It consumed gas at the gulping rate of ten miles per gallon. But the truck had its good points: It started with a complex method of using the choke and pumping the accelerator just right, and it usually kept running once the motor warmed up.
The pickup was necessary to haul campfire wood as the chance of finding anything to burn at the campground would be unlikely during summer, let alone winter. The wood was in an old barn that belonged to my landlady, Mrs. Haug, who lived in another town about fifty miles away. The old boards were from a house, torn down decades ago, and was tinder dry after being stored for so many years covered and away from weather.
Yes, I stole the wood.
* * * * * * * * * * *
It was around ten on a Saturday morning when Dan arrived in his Jeep. The day was clear and rather warm for late January, and snow melt made the unimproved street next to my house sloppy with icy mud. Still, the temperature, at thirty-nine degrees, gave us encouragement for our adventure. The day seemed almost balmy.
A few minutes later Lance showed up in his vintage, faded orange Volvo.
All three of us wore similar clothing, parkas, blue jeans, and hiking boots. Lance’s coat was army surplus olive, mine was dark blue with patches of leather where it had worn and Dan’s was dark brown with black fur trim.
We all trooped inside where a pot of coffee was waiting. Dan, who was an espresso aficionado, sneered at the old aluminum percolator, sighed and then poured a cup.
“I’m hungry,” he declared. “Is there anything to eat around here?”
“You haven’t had breakfast?” I inquired. “Shit, it’s almost eleven and we’re still hanging around here. There might be a bag of corn chips in the cupboard but not much else.”
Lance offered, “I have a couple of apples.”
Dan sighed again and swore under his breath. “I just thought we might have something to eat before we left. But, nooo. All I can get is some stale chips and a dirty apple.”
Laughing, Lance tossed him an apple and said, “It’s not that dirty, just wipe it off on your jeans.”
I said nothing, but it was obvious that we would now have to stop and feed Dan. Otherwise we would be listening to him grumble and grouse all the way to the lake.
We loaded Dan’s gas stove and beer as well as the chicken and chili into the back of the pickup on top of the stolen wood. Dan tossed in three canvas camp stools. There was no room for Lance’s guitar inside the truck and he was loathe to put the instrument in back where it would be exposed to the weather. It was left behind, inside my house. The only thing, so far, that Lance contributed was his sense of adventure and and apples. This was not unusual for Lance.
The old truck had a cracked leather bench seat with yellowish stuffing exposed. Trying to avoid sitting on an exposed spring, I took the wheel and went through the complicated ritual of starting the engine. Dan sat on the next to the right window while Lance was stuck in the middle where he had to move his legs every time the gears were shifted. It was uncomfortably warm inside the cab, once the motor was running, even though the window on the passenger side could not be closed more than halfway. There was always a slight odor of exhaust present coming up from the floor. The radio, which always seemed to be tuned to a country-western station, played a song asking Jesus to kick the singer or something.
I wasn’t paying attention, but Lance thought the lyrics were hilarious. Dan even smiled.
Our route took us northeast on Highway 151. The road was dry from the warm sun. Other than a few wispy clouds above the northwest horizon, the sky was mostly blue. The fine weather and lack of traffic made the first leg of our trip to Beaver Dam (where, ironically, Mrs, Haug lived) seem short.
We stopped at a restaurant just inside the city limits so that Dan could have something in his stomach other than the small apple that Lance had provided. By that time we all decided that having a large breakfast would be a good idea since we would not eat until we’d found a campsite and started a fire. Dan’s mood improved as he began to peruse the offerings on the menu. A burly waitress headed our way with cups and a pot of coffee.
The Beaver Cafe was connected to a large Town Pump gas station and had several large trucks parked in the expansive parking lot. It seemed to be a favorite of the long haul drivers moving freight from Madison and southwest Wisconsin to Fond du Lac, Oshkosh, and eventually Green Bay. There were several large men as well as a couple of women at booths and tables shoveling down impressive quantities of heart attack food: fried eggs, bacon, sausages, and butter-soaked pancakes. There seemed to be a mist of grease in the air. We looked forward to ordering as our stomachs began to rumble.
Forty-five minutes later, hunger sated, we walked out onto the parking lot and immediately noticed a change in the weather. Even though the temperature remained above freezing, a chilly wind came from the north. The sky was covered with thick grey clouds.
None of us was overweight. Lance was a bit lean, but Dan was wiry and thin. I was a stick that wore clothes. Nevertheless, with our full stomaches, the cab seemed crowded, and the truck again became uncomfortably warm. Coats were unzipped, hats removed, and the triangular vent windows were popped open, more than just a crack. The truck’s heater could be turned down, but not off, which made it difficult to get the temperature just right. Plus, the left side of the cab was always a few degrees warmer than the passenger’s side, a situation which frequently became fuel for arguments.
Nevertheless, Dan’s mood had improved dramatically once he’d been fed. He whistled a tuneless melody, and frequently pointed out minor interesting sights: wild geese feeding downed corn stalks, an old rusty John Deere resting in back of a farm building, tattered blue overalls hanging on a clothesline, a deer carcass covered with crows.
Lance entertained us with fanciful descriptions: birch woods as a haunted forest with strange folk skulking among the trees as a few Ents ever so slowly inched toward a half frozen stream.
By the time we reached the outskirts of Fond du lac, the sky resembled a plowed field with furrows of dark clouds. A few snowflakes raced across the windshield as the wind picked up. Lance fiddled with the radio dial, trying to find a station that might have a weather report. Instead, it delivered country western or snarled with static.
Entering Clinton, just a few miles east of Lake Winnebago, a real snow dump had begun and started to collect on the side of the road, but the traffic lanes remained relatively clear. Only one of the windshield wipers worked, but at least it was on the driver’s side. The defroster managed to keep the bottom, right side of the windshield free of snow, but ice began to accumulate around the edges, distorting the view for the passenger.
Half an hour later, at Manitowoc and the shore of Lake Michigan, the highway became covered with snow. The wind was strong enough to rock the truck with an irregular rhythm which made Lance chuckle.
“Seems like some magical mischief,” he commented.
“Perhaps we should stop at the Prancing Pony and wait for the weather to turn,” added Dan, still surprisingly cheerful as the truck kept trying to pitch itself off the road.
He was playing along with Lance by using the name of a favorite Hobbit hangout, suggesting that we stop at one of the many country taverns in the area. Our leisurely meal in Beaver Dam had caused us to lose some valuable time, and the hours of daylight in January were short. As much as the idea of a strong pint of ale appealed to me, it seemed prudent to get to the campground before sunset.
After listening to my thoughts and concerns, both my companions concurred to forego the beer break.
Dan agreed, but was not pleased. Lance pulled out a small pipe that was already filled with musky smelling green leaves. After fishing a Bic lighter out of his coat, he handed it along with the pipe to Dan who smiled gratefully and set a flame to the pipe. Soon the cab was filled with a gray haze, and we were all smiling.
Meanwhile, the snow fell with increased intensity. The buffeting wind rocked the GMC, and drifts began to form across the highway. The old truck had a high carriage and snow tires, but each time we hit a pile of snow, it would slide and fishtail. With a buzz on, it seemed great fun to feel the truck’s rear whipping back and forth.
Again, Lance tried to find a weather report but now could find nothing but static.
The fuel gage indicated that there was less than a quarter tank of gas left even though I had filled it just the night before we left. I pulled into a CENEX station, but as we got out of the truck, the wind almost tore the doors off. The blowing snow stung my cheeks and forehead as I filled the tank, and wind whistled through high-line wires along the road. It might be foolish to keep driving, yet the park was less than twenty-five miles away. And, even though the snow drifts were deep and growing, with snow tires it seemed reasonable to carry on. But before making a final decision, I would ask Dan and Lance.
By the time our bladders were emptied of the coffee from breakfast and we’d climbed back into the warmth of the cab, the wind felt less fierce. It also seemed that it wasn’t snowing as hard. When asked if we should abort our mission and turn back, Dan refused to consider the option.
“Fuck no,” he objected. “You talked us into this trip and now you want to go home?”
“Plus,” he continued, “the roads going back are going to be just as shitty.”
“We should just go and see what it looks like at the park,” said Lance as he loaded another bowl. He lit the contents and handed the pipe to Dan who enthusiastically filled his lungs with
smoke. Next, he offered me the pipe. I hesitated, and then thought, what the hell, and took a small toke as well.
Out on the road again, it appeared that the weather had changed, less threatening. The truck was more stable, easier to drive with less buffeting by the wind. There were a few flurries around, but a streak of blue visible on the western horizon gave a bit of hope that the storm might be over and would not turn into a brutal blizzard.
The road was still covered with snow and had a few slick ice spots. Our progress over the last few miles was sluggish. With our delays and slower driving, we reached the park as daylight began to fail.
to be continued . . .
To be continued?…I’m on the edge of my seat here, Jan. You’re retired – what else you gotta do? Geez.