02. A Camper’s Outing

  1. 01. Hardwood Island
  2. 02. A Camper’s Outing
  3. 03. Serious Business

Amongst gays, “camping” has a meaning very different to “the activity of spending a holiday living in a tent.” Wikipedia explains “Camp aesthetics disrupt many modernists’notions of what art is and what can be classified as high art by inverting aesthetic attributes such as beauty, value, and taste through an invitation of a different kind of apprehension and consumption.” I cite this blather not as the alternative definition of camping, but as an excellent demonstration of that alternative definition.

In 1986, Boston’s Gay Pride Parade was a very different animal than it is today. For starters, it was still called “Gay Pride”, rather than today’s beast which is mandatorily and generically referred to as “Pride” so as to encompass “people of all walks of life and all identities”. I guess that’s a good thing. I certainly supported it when they made it “Gay and Lesbian Pride”, and got on board when they added “Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex”. After that, although I was delighted to have their support, it was a little difficult to explain the view that adding “Black, Latin and Youth” to the list had the effect of watering down the potency. Today we celebrate everybody’s Pride, including, presumably, war criminals, performance enhancing drug cheats, bankers, and all the bigots who hate gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, black, Latin and youthful persons.  Huh.

Still young and reasonably good-looking, Frank and I gathered with a hundred thousand of our closest sexual partners on Boston Common after the 1986 Gay Pride Parade. We came across the booth of the Chiltern Mountain Club, a group formed “to bring together gay/lesbian outdoor types”. A jaunty man described several camping outings, not oblivious to the irony behind his choice of words. Particularly attractive was the “car camping” in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, two weekends hence, which included a group bicycle ride through the foothills. Drunk with enthusiasm – or was it stoned on cannabis? – we signed up on the spot.

Over the next few days, it dawned on us that the only requisite camping gear we possessed was two bicycles, which are not easy to sleep on or in.  This led to a call-around to every human we knew within fifty miles who had ever been camping. Ostensibly, we wanted advice. In reality, we wanted to borrow stuff, since, being young and reasonably good-looking, we were also broke.

The folks we contacted fell into two camps. The first was a smaller group of avid campers who owned all the equipment. All of them claimed they were going to be using it that weekend – it is a short season in Massachusetts, after all. I realised that asking avid campers to borrow their camping gear was akin to asking to borrow a golfer’s clubs – or worse, a swimmer’s swimsuit. There was a line we were not going to cross. Their advice was most helpful, though, in extending and broadening the list of necessities we lacked.

The second camp, by contrast, was the much larger group of former campers, all of whom had donated their gear to the Salvation Army. Their advice consisted largely of questions: Why? Really? Have you thought about this? The only piece of equipment we managed to obtain was a bicycle rack for the back of the car we didn’t have. (It was given to us only after express agreement to never give it back.)

Undaunted, for the next week we scoured every army/navy surplus store, second-hand shop, and sporting goods retailers’ bargain basement in the area. I found sleeping bags for twenty bucks each that promised to keep us warm down to 60°F (16°C). Another twenty-five bucks got us a propane camping stove. Ten dollars more at Goodwill netted a ten-gallon jug and a percolator that could withstand a propane camping stove. The list went on and on. Water purification tablets, frying pans, a hibachi, flares, bungees cords, quick dry towels… By the time we finished we had spent enough to rent a suite at the Ritz Carlton. Instead we rented a tent – thirty dollars, I think – and, of course, a car.

Once assembled, I admired with amusement the volume of materials necessary to get back to nature.  Every recess of our rented Camry was packed when we joined the crawling traffic westbound on the Mass Pike at four-thirty that Friday afternoon. We had four hours of daylight for the (theoretically) three hour drive. We arrived at Gardner State Park at sunset, impressed to find a Chiltern Mountain Club volunteer there to direct us to our campsite.

Aside from the vaudevillian routine re-created in erecting a strange tent in the dark –“slapstick” is an unfortunately accurate description of those goddam bendy poles – setting up camp went smoothly. Our hibachi was a hit, the heat and cooking opportunities it offered attracting our fellow campers, some with the barely consumable vegetarian burgers of the day.

All told, it was a fun night. The Chiltern Mountain Club group numbered about twenty-five in all. There was a tent of four gay boys – well, young men – camping in every sense of the word next to us. They were perky enough to be entertaining, yet Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, and Clean, if not Trustworthy, Loyal and Reverent. Most of the rest of the group were lesbians — well, young ladies – well, I assume they were young ladies.

Whatever our walks of life or identities, a huge quantity of pre-packaged wine spritzer was consumed. Like the hair stylings of the day, pre-packaged wine spritzers (essentially a tutti-fruity soda mixed with rubbing alcohol shipped in two-litre plastic bottles) are one of those things those of us who endured the late eighties would just assume forget. It did help us sleep through a cold night on the hard ground.

In the frigid morning I emerged from a sweaty tent determined to create coffee. I was delighted to be offered a hot cuppa before I had even stood up. The organizers had an unadvertised bacon and egg breakfast ready for general consumption on an adjacent picnic table. This camping thing isn’t so bad, I thought.

After breakfast about fifteen cyclists gathered for the planned 35-mile ride. It was perfect cycling weather, sunny but not too warm, dry as could be. Off we went.

Near the halfway point I began to struggle getting up the hills. I felt a gritty sensation when peddling, then I heard a grinding noise emitting from the crank where the pedals attach to the bicycle. Frank and I, who had been at the head of the pack, slowly fell back.

“Is something wrong?” Frank asked.

“Yes, it is getting really hard to pedal – not sure what is going on.” A long hill loomed in front of us.

I puffed and grunted, each pump a bit more difficult than the previous. A woman peddled passed, commenting “Got a long way to go; pick it up gents!”

I replied “Wish I could, I’m having some trouble with the bike…”

“It is a poor craftsman that blames his tools” she cracked.

It was the wrong thing to say.

Breathless, frustrated and aching, I gritted my teeth, furious at her suggestion. My characteristic quick-wittedness completely failed me.  I think I said “Ngh gra dgeh frrrm…” The antagonist soon disappeared over a crest ahead.

Moments later, my crank shaft exploded, sending an impressive spray of ball bearings across the road, rolling back down the hill. The pedals flopped to one side, unpeddlable. Frank and I stopped to assess the situation.

One of the club organizers – they always seemed to be around when you needed them – peddled up from behind. “That doesn’t look good…” he deadpanned. He explained that we were near “the top” of the ride. From here I could coast most of the way back to camp, save a few undulations. “The lunch stop is just a few miles further on, almost all downhill. I need to ride ahead to get lunch served, but I will give you more direction there.” He peddled off.

At first, Frank stuck with me, as we’d walk up a short stretch, then coast down a long one. After a couple of these cycles, things seemed under control, so I suggested Frank ride ahead to save us some lunch.  He did.

Twenty minutes later, I coasted on to the small town green where our group had sprawled out, eating boxed lunches. Frank handed me mine.

The woman who had passed me earlier saw the mangled crankshaft. She approached me, truly remorseful. “I’m so sorry I said that craftsman thing. Obviously you had a mechanical problem.” She smiled brightly.

I smiled brightly, too. Now my quick wit kicked in.

“I’m glad you said that. Now I won’t have to sneak into your tent in the dark of the night to strangle you to death with my bare hands.”

It was the wrong thing to say.

There was an audible gasp, the chattering lunch crowd suddenly silent. She glowered at me, angry and frightened. Our happy group of cycling campers quickly acquired the air of a lynch mob.

Unexpectedly the centre of attention, I tried to explain my humour. As every humourist knows, humour that requires explanation isn’t funny. “I said I wouldn’t have to…”

The organizer came to my rescue once again. He clapped his hands, breaking the tension, shouting “Come on, people, time to hit the road!” He wrapped his arm around my shoulder, extracting me from the simmering mob. “As for you, you are going that way.” He pointed me in the direction opposite to which the group would head. “We’re doing another fifteen mile loop with several hills, but the campground is about five miles that way, on the right. It’s virtually all downhill. Try not to get killed.”

And so it was. Frank came along to keep me company, walking up and coasting down. We were back at our tent in thirty minutes. The rest of the crew straggled in over the next few hours.

Relations were pretty stand-offish at dinner that evening. I tried to find my antagonist to make an apology, but her friends told me in accusatory fashion that she decided to stay the night in a nearby motel.

Sunday morning we found everyone else had packed up and left at the crack of dawn. We were on our own.  I thought about making coffee or breakfast, but rejected the notion after considering the amount of effort it required. In Massachusetts, one is never far from a Dunkin’ Donuts, after all. Without coffee, it took us a while to break down and pack up everything.

Driving home, I had to admit this camping outing was a reasonably pleasant affair, social faux paus aside. At the same time, it was not cheap, convenient, comfortable or easy. The organizer had provided a sheet listing upcoming outings of the Chiltern Mountain Club, which I reviewed and considered before crumpling it up in a ball. When I disposed of it in the trash bin at the Westfield Massachusetts Dunkin’ Donuts, I was amazed see another copy already in there.