Camping In Misery

I have never been described as outdoorsy.

I live in Colorado but have never been skiing or snowboarding. My idea of a “hike” is walking along man-made trails and wearing my sneakers. And the last time I went camping was in 2nd grade. Some kids go to “summer camp.” Yes, this camp was during the summer. But it only lasted for a week. And it was only thirty minutes south of my Kansas City home. I didn’t know that at the time though — it felt like a different world. There was canoeing and s’mores and we slept outside under the stars. I had a good enough time. It didn’t scar me for life or anything. So I’m not sure why I hadn’t ever been camping again. Just one of those things that hadn’t come up. Until I was 26.

One of my best friends, Matt, was getting married. And that meant a bachelor party was in the works. And somehow, someone decided that it should be a bachelor party weekend roadtrip, from Chicago to Minneapolis. Complete with a baseball game and camping. I was on the fence about the camping, but I figured it would at least be better than the baseball game. (I’m not anti-sports. I love sports. My wife will tell you that I have invested too much time and emotion in sports. It’s just that baseball falls somewhere above yachting and below team handball on my list of favorite sports.)

When it came to camping supplies, there was only one problem. I didn’t have any. At the very least I needed a sleeping bag. My wife had kept hers from childhood — a forest green model that was pretty thick and soft. Other people said they were bringing enough tents and coolers to go around. So that was that.

We arrived in Minneapolis on a Thursday. Together our group of twelve was staying in three rooms, two guys to a bed. It was a dingy, cheap hotel just off the University of Minnesota campus. And our group certainly left it worse than we found it.

After a night of eating roast pig and drinking mid-range beer, we made it back to our room. The four of us in my room played Euchre to decide who would share a bed with whom. The only concern was that the beds were tiny for two — full size, not queen size. The other three guys were skinny. I’m not enormous, but growing up my jean size was husky. So I suppose the main objective for them was not to share a bed with me.

It didn’t matter. I won the card game. I didn’t care who I shared with — I figured one skinny guy is the same as the next. I picked a guy who we called, for no good reason, Burnsy.

Burnsy is a technical wizard. He builds websites in Notepad. He’s funny, super nice and will basically go along with whatever comes up. If I could only call one person in an emergency, I’d pick him. And he snores like a son of a bitch.

I was not aware of that last detail.

I was crammed in a full bed with this snore box. I laid there staring up at the darkness unable to fall asleep. Eventually I did drift off, only to wake up in the middle of the night. And Burnsy’s still snoring. Almost louder then he was earlier. As if the deeper the sleep, the deeper the snore. The best part was I got to share the bed with him Thursday and Friday.

We headed out of Minneapolis on Saturday to a campground somewhere in the middle of Wisconsin. The twelve of us unloaded the gear and went to work. We had teams setting up tents, building a fire, getting groceries. A few hours and a bunch of beers later, our camp was ready and we had a full spread set up. Our group was running like a well-oiled, drunken machine.

The dinner menu was classic: burgers and hot dogs, with all the cheese, buns, and condiments you want. Chips on the side. Ingredients for s’mores for later. Bacon and sausage and eggs for breakfast in the morning. The fire was roaring. We had a team building burger patties from a five-pound tube of beef. We were set.

And then it started to rain.

I wasn’t prepared for how much the weather can ruin camping. We did our best, but it’s hard to cook burgers in a downpour. The buns were mushy. The chips were soggy. We were drenched. The beer, well the beer was fine. So we had twelve guys sitting around a fire getting wetter and drunker.

Of course, the rain let up an hour later. It always stops raining when you don’t care anymore. We were able to salvage some s’mores. Once a few people retired to their tent, I realized that I hadn’t scoped out the tent situation. I had been on team groceries, not team tents. See: non-outdoorsy, above.

I found that my backpack had been placed in a tent along with Burnsy’s stuff. Next to those I saw two more bags. Four backpacks and sleeping bags. In a two-person tent.

I tried to ask around to see if there was a better tent option. Someone I didn’t know that well offered me a spot. It was spacious. But reeked of smoke. As a non-smoker, that was sort of a deal breaker. And it was full of bags but no people yet. I knew that if I tried to go to sleep here, I would get woken up every time someone came in or out or lit up. So I decided that I’d rather be a little cramped with my best friends and be able to actually sleep.

When I entered the tent Burnsy was already asleep. And already snoring. To fit four people in a two-person tent, Burnsy was laying sideways. He fit, but barely. The mental image really is sardines in a can. Around this time, the two other guys were setting up their bags. I laid mine out and was moderately comfortable. Within minutes, the other two guys had fallen asleep. I couldn’t believe it. Were they not hearing this? Was I extra sensitive? I didn’t have long to worry about that though. Because the rain started again. Hard.

That’s when I learned the importance of having a waterproof tent.

This tent had some sort of rain cover, but it didn’t protect the entire tent, just the center. There was a good foot of space, a margin all the way around, left exposed by the rain cover. Which seemed like a design flaw. A tent is not an umbrella where you can carefully stand within a radius of dryness. The rain seeped in, pooling along the edges.

That’s when I learned the importance of having a waterproof sleeping bag.

My forest green sleeping bag, as it turns out, was essentially water absorbent. The thick, soft material was holding in every molecule of water. I was now attempting to sleep on the inside of a waterbed.

I looked to my side to see my friends had shiny, waterproof sleeping bags. One in particular was wrapped up in a nylon cocoon. I could see the water beading off it. He would be dry all night. I looked back at my bag. It was soaked. I grabbed a fistful of material and wringed out a cup of rainwater. I was inside a sponge.

Because we were all crammed in to this too small tent sideways, my head was up against the wall. Up against the thin material without a full rain cover. The rain dripped on to my forehead. It was a water metronome. And despite the downpour, I could still hear the unmistakable sound of snoring.

At the risk of being overdramatic I’ll just say: this was unpleasant. I imagine few bachelor parties include Chinese water torture on the itinerary.

To avoid the incoming rain, I turned on my side and scrunched as much as possible. But it was useless. My entire sleeping bag was wet and the longer I laid there, the wetter and colder I became. I really didn’t want to lie there anymore. But my only means of escape would have been to stand out in the pouring rain, which seemed marginally worse.

So I laid there. Minutes turned into an hour. Still awake. Still getting rained on. Still hearing Burnsy snore. Until I heard something else. I heard chit chat. It was probably two in the morning, but I wasn’t the only one still awake. They weren’t concerned with being quiet, but they were far enough away that I couldn’t make out everything they said. I knew the voices. It was Savan, a lanky Indian friend, talking to Matt, the groom-to-be.

I laid there for a while, trying to listen them just to pass the time. And amazingly, even though I could barely hear them…they could hear Burnsy. They talked about how loud he was and how miserable it must be to be in that tent.

That almost made it worse. To hear other people saying how miserable you must be. It was like stumbling across an email that you weren’t supposed to read about what a shitty employee you are. Even if you know it’s true, it’s worse to hear other people say it behind your back.

So I called out to them. And said it was miserable. How I was soaked. And cramped. And hadn’t been able to sleep at all.

They said they were nice and dry. There was only two of them in a three-person tent.

What. The. Fuck.

I told them I needed to get out of this tent. I could tell they didn’t really want to, but they let me come over to theirs.

I grabbed my soaking wet sleeping bag and walked across the campsite. I opened the flap of their tent and entered a sanctuary. Bone dry. A lantern emitted a soft blue glow. And they were passing back and forth a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black, straight up.

They took one look at my sleeping bag and saw rain water dripping into their tent. “No! Absolutely not. You can’t bring that wet shit in here! You can come in, but that stays outside.”

So I threw the sleeping bag out of the tent and sat down on the dry nylon floor.

“If you’re going to be in this tent, you have to drink some Scotch.” They passed me the bottle. I was in the mood to sleep, not drink whisky out of the bottle, but I didn’t argue. I was dry. And happy.

Savan unzipped his sleeping bag so that we could both lay on it like a blanket. That was probably the nicest thing a friend has ever done for me. Another sip of Scotch and I fell asleep.

The next morning I carried my wife’s soaked sleeping bag to the camp dumpster. Some of the other guys seemed surprised that I was willing to throw something away just because it was wet. But I didn’t think twice about it.

If I ever go camping again, I’m buying waterproof everything.

This is part of a collection of true stories called “Pie For Breakfast”.