First Winter Van Camping

Today is Sunday December 14, 2014.  I’m sitting in a camping chair in the van, looking out the side windows at the back creek area of a small GA lake.  A small electric heater by my feet is keeping me nice and toasty warm as I begin to write this post.  This is my second morning being awakened by the sun shining in the back van windows (I’ve learned that when the interior van is lined in reflective insulation, it can get quite bright inside when the sun shines in).  I’ve camped two nights at Hard Labor Creek State Park near Rutledge, GA.  It is not too far from Athens, but in some ways it is a different world.  What an enjoyable couple of days this has been!

I first thought about going camping this weekend when I was hanging out with my Dad Sunday and Monday.  I had just flown back to ATL from a quick trip to the office in DE.  We were talking about everything that had gone on for the last couple of years, and I realized that I was starting to feel like everything was going ok.  My last post had to do with my reaching a tentative conclusion on the way that I view some of the “big questions”.  Another piece that I haven’t written about yet is that I am (finally) feeling comfortable in my own skin.  It’s only been nearly 40 years, but better late than never, right!? Anyway, in talking about these things I realized that I had not been camping too much this year even though I had spent so much time over the last few years fantasizing about it.  Then, hanging out with grandpa Thursday night and Friday morning, we were talking about camping some and I made up my mind.

I threw a few things in the van Friday afternoon, checked for available sites, and headed out. I didn’t bring much with me — my computers, a small folding table, one change of clothes , a small electric space heater, and some other stuff that was already in the van (camping chair and bed).  I panned on eating out, as I often do when camping on the road.  However, when I got here and realized how beautiful it was, I changed my mind about the cooking.  Off to Wal-Mart I went.

I picked up a Weber Smoky Joe (I used to have one but I’m not sure what happened to it), some charcoal, some frozen hot wings, and some broccoli salad from the deli.  I also snagged a steel cup that I could heat up water with on the fire, a multi-tool utensil thingamabobber, some coffee, and a French press.  The last few times I camped, I have used instant coffee.  Yuck!  I decided to go with the good stuff this time.  My roomie uses a French press, and it makes good coffee.  I figured that it would be an easy for camp, as all you have to do is to boil water.  I asked four people in Wal-Mart if they had a French press and not one of them knew what I was talking about (welcome to rural GA!).  One young kid asked if it for making sandwiches.  By the look one lady gave me, I think she thought it was a sex toy or something (those would be French ticklers, but I digress).  I thought of asking for a “freedom press” in case anyone was still ticked at the French (remember “freedom fries” a few years ago?).  I figured that would get me to the exercise equipment so I held back.  Anyway, eventually I did track them down.  Mr. Coffee has one that they call a “coffee press” — who knew?

I spied a liquor store on the way back and picked up a four-pack of some Dogfish Head Burton Baton — a perfect brew for a chilly night by the fire!  It was already starting to get dark as I got back to camp.  I quickly sat down, popped open a beer (pouring into my new steel up since you’re not allowed to have beer at any State Park campground in the US anymore), and put together the Smokey Joe.  It was up and running a few minutes later, and I split some firewood up and started a fire.  Luckily, I got some softwood instead of my last camping trip, where I giant bundle of super-hard wood that I could never get to light.  When the coals in the Smokey Joe were ready, I poured in most of the wings, kicked back by the fire with my yummy brewski, and let the brain turn off for a while. It was dark only a few minutes later, and the first thing I noticed was the stars.  Because I am close to town in Athens and have a limited view of sky, I don’t see too many stars normally unless I am at my grandparent’s house.  However, there was little ambient light and the moon was not out at first, so I had a great view of the sky.  I alternated between staring at the stars and the fire, occasionally checking on the wings.

I was starting to hear critters of the night stirring through the leaves. Something was making a fairly loud sound moving through the leaves, and it seemed to be headed toward me.  Having a flashback to being attacked by a rabid skunk, I momentarily feared the worst.  Upon investigation, however, the noise was being made by one of the silliest-looking critters I have ever com across first-hand: an armadillo.  I don’t remember there being ‘dillies (as my Dad calls them) in GA when I was younger, but there sure have moved in since then.  I see them squished a fair amount.  This one was heading toward my camp.  It would scurry for a few shot steps, pause for a moment, and then repeat.  I couldn’t tell if it was being cautious (not that everything within several hundred feet couldn’t hear it crunching and dragging through the leaves) or if it was stopping a looking for food.  After watching for a while, it seemed to be a little bit of both.  For shits and giggles, I charged it at one point.  It wheeled around, scurried (fairly fast considering) uphill, and then froze.  “I can see you” I taunted.  After  a bit, it resumed it’s disjointed scurry-and-stop movement down the hill, across my campsite, and towards the lake.  Apparently it was not afraid of being thrown on the fire (a ‘dilly on the half shell as Dad would say).  After a while, another one joined the first and the rummaged all around in the pine needles and leaves between my site and the lake.  Occasionally they make some strange little snorting noises.  Curious weird little critters.

I stayed up for a while after finishing the wings, just trying to still my mind and let my senses take in everything.  It was very relaxing.  Once the fire died out, I made the long walk to the bathhouse, got ready for bed, and hit the sack.  I turned the electric heater on high and set it under the edge of my bed platform.  This way, the heat would rise right through me.  In addition, because I am so close to the ceiling, the heat collected and after a while I was frying.  I turned the heater down (or so I thought).  I had actually switched the heater to “fan” mode.  When I woke a few hours later, it was just above freezing.  I figured that the heater just couldn’t keep up and went back to sleep; I was plenty warm in my sleeping bag.  I realized later that morning that the heater hadn’t been on most of the night.  Oh well! I got up, made a fire, and heated up some water for coffee.  I made the first batch too strong, and had to dilute it with water and creamer, but it did the trick.  I then worked for a few hours at the picnic table  It was nice and in the sun, although my butt was cold sitting on the concrete bench.

I headed into town to get some dinner. I decided that I would continue my steak tradition.  I found a nice T-bone and a pre-made stuffed baked potato.  I added a cheap bottle of merlot and was off.  I got some soup and salad for lunch and headed to a nearby park in Madison, GA to eat.  Madison is an interesting town; there are a bench of ante-bellum homes that were spared from General Sherman’s burning rampage, unlike so many other towns in the area.  The park had an interesting statue to memorialize confederate soldiers.  One on side the inscription says something about the “unconstitutional invasion” by the North.  Umm…maybe I’m missing something, but once a state secedes from the United States, joins other states in order to form another nation (something that is, in fact, not allowed per the Constitution — look it up), doesn’t that mean that the Constitution no longer applies to you?  And didn’t the Confederacy fire the first shots in the war (thanks a lot, South Carolina?)  Anyway, at some point I would like to learn more about the Civil War.  I started reading a very long (and somewhat tedious and boring) book about it.  Perhaps I’ll pick it up again one day.

The second night was a lot like the first, except I learned a great new way to make a campfire, the food was even better, and there were slightly different critters.  I don’t have firewood lying around, so I generally end up buying wood from the parks I stay at.  Usually, they have a few pieces of softwood and some hardwood.  However, they don’t give you anything remotely close to kindling.  You either have to chop down some of the softer pieces with a hatchet (which can be fun but time consuming) or you have to scrounge around the campground for small twigs and sticks and such.  I don’t like to pick up wood from around the campsite because if everyone did this, there wouldn’t be any left.  I’d rather just leave it as it is and bring my own wood.  Second, campgrounds are often picked over and so it is not a good idea to rely on finding wood. One method that I’ve used in the past is to douse a roll of toilet paper in lighter fluid, and use this as a fire starter.  This actually works fairly well, but sometimes little bits of paper end up flying around in the heat-rising air, and I don’t like to send bits of flaming stuff out into the woods.

I’ve been wondering about using charcoal for a while, and after trying it, it works like a charm!  I laid a few pieces of hardwood on the ground in the fire ring, built a pyramid of charcoal on top of those, and then put a few pieces of smaller softwood that I had split from the fire wood bundle on top of that.  i little lighter fluid on the whole thing, light, and viola!  The way to get a great fire is to build up a bed of hot coals.  This is hard to do if you don’t have small wood; usually your kindling burns out, the bigger pieces only smolder but don’t really get going, and it leaves you with a smoky mess that is hard to really light and keep lit.  Charcoal fills the role of the intermediate sized wood great.  In addition, having charcoal on top of several pieces of wood creates am amazing bed of coals!  It was the best fire I’ve made in years.  I will definitely make this my go-to method of fire starting when using firewood bundles that don’t have good small wood.

There were two new types of critters the second night.  The first was causing some crazy noises and splashing out in the lake.  I would hear a “ker-plunk” and a moment a later a splash.  The only thing I could think of was that some fish, probably a largemouth bass, was jumping out of the water for some reason.  It went on for a quite a while.  The second group critters made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.  I heard a long, drawn out howl followed by a bunch of howls, interspersed with some yips and weird almost crazy laughing noises.  I think it was a pack of coyotes, as I had never heard dogs make that sort of sound before.  I decided to add a couple of pieces of wood on the fire, just in case. I was not attacked by any coyote, skunk, armadillo, or flying fish.  Just another nice night with the stars and a fire.

I wasn’t doing a lot of thinking, but I did think about two things: I know that I want to get out more (that is a recurring theme, is it not?).  I also know that I want to do something to give back to society.  I donate money here and there, but I want to do something a little more personal.  Perhaps I can figure out something that involves the outdoors.  One of the hard parts is balancing my wanting to give back something with my loner mentality — it’s hard to help people when most of the time you just want to get away from them.  Hmm…the next challenge for myself, I suppose. Well, this is long enough for now and it is too beautiful out here to go back to the “real world” just yet, so I am going to go for a walk and then get some work done.  I’ll be skiing in less than a week!!

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