It took me four years, but a couple weeks ago, for the first time since Christopher joined Cub Scouts, I didn’t dread a campout as it approached.
As a kid and a young man, I enjoying camping, but I grew out of it. By the time I had sons of my own, I hadn’t gone camping for nearly 20 years. It didn’t take me long to realize that, as a parent active with the BSA, I’d much rather get behind the idea of conserving nature than actually getting out into it.
Nope, that involves a little too much dirt. And living things. And the elements. And dirt.
So I dreaded every campout I had to attend. This one was different, though. I suppose I caught the Matthew bug. He’s been jazzed about joining Cub Scouts since his brother joined four years ago, and he has wanted to go on a campout with us from the day that, at two years old, he “helped” us pitch the tent I had purchased with trepidation the week before, dreading Christopher’s upcoming first campout. And when Matthew is enthusiastic, everyone around him is enthusiastic; we have no choice. His joy is just that infectious.
It might also have been because this is the first and last pack campout that I’d be able to attend with both boys as members of the pack. Matthew just started, and Christopher bridges into Boy Scouts in February. There won’t be any more campouts before then, because the weather would probably be too cold. Like it could get any worse than that weekend at VIR….
Virginia International Raceway is a large motorsports resort near Danville, Virginia, widely regarded as one of the nicest road courses in the country for sports cars, motorcycles and karts. And on this particular weekend, it also happened to be a very cold place.
We left Raleigh a little before 7am Saturday, heading northwest in the dark and watching the sun rise behind us. It didn’t bring nearly enough warmth with it. When I stepped out of the car in the parking lot next to the paddock at 8:30 or so, the wind brought tears to my eyes. It eventually warmed up a little, rising to a balmy 45 or so in the afternoon.
The pack was camping in a small copse of trees at the edge of the paddock, a short hike from the parking lot, restrooms, track, food, heat and civilization. We spent an hour or so alternating between shivering and greeting the brave souls who had spent Friday night there, then set off for the paddock and the races.
The paddock looked like RV Central, as apparently 99 percent of the people who own racing vehicles, also own RVs as the means of towing said vehicles and of sleeping at their venues. Pretty smart, when you consider they have kitchens, beds, toilets, TVs and HVAC systems. Also, a good bit of metal and plastic between the owners and the weather. We had less than a millimeter of vinyl.
The RVs were impressive, too – some of them were larger than my actual house, which unfortunately never goes anywhere with me. These weren’t motor homes, they were motor mansions. Palatial estates on wheels. And I was jealous, moreso of them than of the cool racing karts and sports cars that were right there with them, on display and undergoing pre-race maintenance. We stopped to shoot a few pics of the Scouts sitting in some of them – with the owners’ permission, of course, then moved on to our last stop before watching a race – the restrooms.
To my delight, the restrooms were heated. I would have spent the entire weekend in that building, but it’s not a good idea for a Boy Scout leader to hang out in the bathroom with the boys, so it was off to the races. We stood across from the starting grid and watched the cars pull out to begin their race – an awe-inspiring experience for elementary school boys and their elementary-brained dads, filled with just the right mix of shiny colors, loud noise and noxious fumes to kick our endocrines into overdrive.
From there, we ran down a hillside into an open field and settled into some bleachers to watch the cars come back around on their first lap. This area was apparently known as the “Hog Pen” but to the Y chromosome bearers there, it felt more like hog heaven. We had a fantastic view of a winding leg of the track coming down a hillside toward the valley where we were watching – and where, apparently, the full force of the wind waited to torment anyone foolish enough to stay there for long. The sun was up and bright, but that wind blew every vestige of warmth out of it, leaving only red cheeks and chapped lips in its wake. But at least the sheer adrenaline made up for it for a little while.
This was the weekend for the Heacock Classic Gold Cup Historic Races, so we got to watch vintage European sports cars zip around the valley. It reminded me of “The Love Bug” – pastoral setting, little cars, lots of speed. The boys had fun, too, cheering for their favorite cars and mocking the ones that brought up the rear. If that seems a little cruel for Scouts, don’t worry – there’s no chance the drivers heard them. It might have been hard to miss the ones who shook their butts at the losers, though.
Once the initial excitement wore off and we realized how cold we were – probably during the fourth or fifth lap – we set off to tour the paddock some more, at least with the younger boys. It was then that I realized I hadn’t seen Christopher since, approximately, the time we’d arrived. He’s part of the older Webelos den, who are granted a little more independence as they prepare to join Boy Scouts. I wasn’t too worried, since their den leader ostensibly was with them as they were off doing their own thing and making their own discoveries.
I learned later that chief among those discoveries was a very small track, just up the hill in the opposite direction from our campsite. The track was just large enough for go-karts, but it can’t have been practical for racing – it was smaller than the go-kart tracks you’d find at amusement parks and miniature golf courses. There were no bleachers and no PA system, and it appeared to have been deserted – until the Webelos discovered it. We still have no idea what it’s supposed to be for, but they invented their own uses. They enjoyed walking along its crash wall, aka a bunch of tires on the ground, and were delighted to find that the starting ramp was on a steep hill – one sharp enough to roll down. I don’t get the appeal, but I wasn’t the one doing it, either.
The Webelos turned up in time for lunch as we grilled out at the campsite, and you’ve never seen so many people willing to “work” in front of a hot grill. Strange how that’s never the case when we camp out during the summer….
We had an unopened pack of hot dogs left after lunch, so I stuck it in the ice chest next to the tent (which I had yet to pitch). I asked the Cubmaster if he thought that could possibly attract bears during the night. He told me that shouldn’t be a problem, at which point I realized he was probably trying not to laugh out loud – isn’t this hibernation season? It sure felt like it to me. He added that, even without the threat of bears, the area was full of coyotes. I figured he was pulling my leg – aren’t coyotes desert dwellers? Warner Brothers never showed Wile E. chasing the Roadrunner through the pine forests of Virginia, anyway….
Christopher was off and running (or rolling) again before he swallowed his last bite of hot dog, leaving me and Matthew to pitch the tent. I prefer to leave this until the last possible minute, as I’ve discovered that once a tent is up, it’s fair game for roving bands of Cub Scouts. Where there’s a tent, there’s a group of boys wanting to play inside it. And where there are boys playing, there are massive quantities of leaves and dirt. And where there are leaves and dirt, is where I’m going to sleep at night. Therefore, I try to give them plenty of time to find someone else’s tent to trash before I put mine up.
Doesn’t matter. They’re like dogs; if there’s something new to check out and mark as their territory, they’re going to be drawn to it from wherever they are and whatever they’re doing. No sooner had I driven the last stake, then a group of Tiger Cubs showed up, saying, “Matthew! Can we play in your tent?” In they went, followed by lots of yelling and giggling as the tent walls began to puff out like a bellows. Good thing I hadn’t brought any breakables, because I’m pretty sure the contents of my backpack were being strewn about the inside of the tent – which is actually preferable to having them strewn about the outside.
Regardless, I cut a wide swath around the tent, as the BSA has a strict policy against adults being inside a tent with children who aren’t their own. I’m pretty sure the Tigers knew this, as they moved from one tent to the next, trashing them with impunity. They’re like dogs in another respect – they can smell fear. And I’m positive they figured out that, as long as there were at least two of them inside a tent, no adult would be coming in to get them. Two of them even hid in a tent when we weren’t looking, and I’m sure they were giggling as we ran through the surrounding woods for five minutes, screaming their names in a panic.
Still, the tent rule is a good one, as it protects both the children and the adults. And it was made even more pertinent that Saturday as, 400 miles to the north, there was an authoritative knock on Jerry Sandusky’s door….
Besides, the tents survived an afternoon of abuse and, as the shadows grew longer, the boys began to show up in hunger. We walked across the paddock toward our one blessedly indoor activity – a spaghetti dinner. No one went away hungry, as we overate in anticipation of burning every last calorie in an attempt to stay warm that night. There was talk of possible freezing weather, which would result in everyone present later being awarded the coveted Polar Bear Badge – something that gives the boys bragging rights after they camp out in the cold. All they have to do is withstand one night when the temperature dips to 32 degrees (yes, I’m talking Fahrenheit) before morning, and they can wear the evidence – provided frostbite hasn’t damaged their fingers beyond the ability to affix the badge to their pocket.
There was also a good bit of excitement over dinner, as one astronomy buff mentioned that the International Space Station would be visible that evening. Moments before it was due to cross the sky, Matthew had to go to the bathroom, so I ran him down the sidewalk to the closest men’s room, all the while admonishing him to hurry, so we could get back to the patio before the ISS disappeared. We made it in time, though, and it was amazing to behold – a dot of light overhead. Never seen anything like that before….
Matthew was duly impressed, though, as he ran back into the dining room and loudly announced, “Hey, everybody! We just saw the A-S-S!” (And of course, the last these folks knew, we’d been headed to the men’s room.)
“Ah, ha-ha, I think you mean I-S-S, pal!”
“Oh, yeah. We just saw the I-S-S, everybody!”
We trudged back to the campground in the growing cold, looking forward to the campfire program. Matthew was proud to take part in a flag retirement ceremony and enjoyed performing a short den skit in front of the fire, but I could tell his energy level was dropping faster than the temperature. When I carried him to the tent, I was surprised to see that it wasn’t even 9pm yet – we were in for a long night. To make matters worse, we were supposed to set clocks back an hour before going to bed. Normally I enjoy the extra hour of sleep, but on this occasion, it was nothing more than an extra hour of shivering.
Christopher stayed at the fire bowls a little longer, but came to the tent soon enough, and the three of us climbed into our sleeping bags like they were cocoons. I’m convinced I never actually fell asleep that night, between shivering uncontrollably, listening to various animal sounds all around us, having to pee three times and having to help Matthew pee once (thank God for empty one-gallon milk jugs, is all I’m going to say). The boys managed to sleep, but Matthew woke up cold and miserable during the night, so I let him crawl into my sleeping bag. This kept us both warmer, especially since he’s like a human furnace. I run warmer than most people, and he runs warmer than I do – he must be part werewolf. (I’m embarrassed that I even get that reference.)
The challenge, however, was in sharing a sleeping bag that’s meant to be snug for only one occupant, let alone two. I let him sleep on the closed side, but to make space, I had to unzip my side and slide out a little. This meant that, sleeping on my side and facing him, I had my I-S-S hanging out in the cold air most of the night, pressed up against the side of the tent. This really lay heavy on my mind when the first round of howling started.
I had thought the Cubmaster was joking about coyotes, but there they were, loud and numerous as you please. Out of nowhere, one started howling, and it didn’t remain a solo performance for long. You know how in the movies, coyote howls are portrayed as essentially the same “awooooo” sound from each animal? That’s not realistic at all. Some of them made that sound, while the others barked, yipped and snarled. The result is twice as unsettling – sort of a cacophony of dog noises, each one coming from a different direction and each one posing a different threat.
I was happy when it stopped, but about an hour later, they were at it again – and this time, they sounded like they were a lot closer. In fact, it sounded like they’d formed a ring around my tent specifically. I was sure I could hear paws walking right outside the tent, way too close to the spot where my butt was pressed up against the thin fabric. If I’d moved an inch, though, I’d probably have woken Matthew up – and there was no sense in having both of us terrified beyond reason. So I lay still, hoping they were further away than they sounded, and if not, that the hot dogs in the ice chest smelled better to them than my butt did. The odds were good by then.
The second choral performance eventually died down, and the next thing I heard in the distance was a herd of very nervous cattle mooing. “Better them than me,” I thought to myself as I stared at the tent wall and tried hard to either fall asleep or force dawn to break. In between, I checked the thermometer, where the lowest temperature I observed was 36 – no badge for all our shivering. But we managed to live through the rest of the night, and the Sunday morning temperatures were enough to inspire us to break camp and pack the car faster than we’d ever done. On the way to the bathroom, I received further incentive to hurry, compliments of the creepy old guy who saw our uniforms and told me that Cub Scouts enjoy “titty jokes.” I backed away slowly, then moved twice as quickly as I had been.
Matthew slept in the car all the way back and we were home before noon, stopping at the convenience store outside our neighborhood for, of all things, a frozen slushee. I didn’t mind, though. We were safe and warm, I was headed for a gas heat and a shower, and I had a day of napping ahead. I’m still not sure why I looked forward to this particular camping trip – or even how I managed to somewhat enjoy it. Because overall, I have to say, camping is a real pain in the i-s-s.