Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Secret Life of Katja L

Dear George,

When Katja told her coworkers that she was going camping for the weekend, people either didn’t believe it or, if they did, they were astonished.  Katja seems to have a public persona that is contradictory to the notion of roughing it.  Maybe it has to do with her affinity for Saks Fifth Avenue and French restaurants, or her love of NPR and classic opera, or perhaps her overall attraction to elegant and luxurious environs.  Whatever the case, her intimates are quite familiar with her nonpublic rugged side, i.e., Katja, veteran camper.


Katja’s long history as a camper began in 1961, the summer after our wedding.  We had just survived a rocky first year of graduate school, and Katja was eager for faraway places.  We decided that the Worlds Fair in Seattle would be an ideal destination.  We had scrimped and saved a total of $200 for summer travel (along with my dad’s Standard Oil credit card to cover gas).  We departed from Menominee on an 8-week journey in early June. Katja was nervous the night before.  She hadn’t slept in a tent since her mom had been a girl scout leader many years before.  My mother reassured her that I was an experienced camper and that she wouldn’t have anything to worry about.  That bit of friendly mother-in-law encouragement somehow helped.  We set up the first night in Minnesota’s Land of Lakes.  Katja made a mixed salad, but spilled the entire bowl onto the ground.  She burst into tears, but I scooped it up, took a big bite, and explained that a little dirt in the salad was to be taken for granted when you’re camping.  Things were more relaxed from that point on.


We traveled west through Canada, averaging 3-400 miles a day, and spending evenings and nights in wonderful forest campgrounds.  Saskatchewan was undergoing a doctors’ and nurses’ strike, and, with no medical access available, we couldn’t wait to get out of the province.  We enjoyed Banff and Lake Louise, then Seattle and the World’s Fair.  We camped on the beach on the Oregon coast, and the tide came in and flooded our tent.  State inspectors stopped us at the California border, and we had to throw away all alien vegetation, i.e., our Michigan alder tree trunks that we were using for tent poles.  We immediately replaced them with native California tree trunks on the next stretch of uninhabited road.  After an enjoyable stay in San Francisco, we crossed the Rockies and the desert. It was steaming hot in the Southwest, and, though not her accustomed fashion, Katja bought a teeny yellow bikini top to wear in the blazing sun. We pulled into a New Mexico campground late at night, and, too tired to pitch the tent, we just lay our sleeping bags on the ground.  In the morning a fellow camper asked us if we’d seen the bahrs last night.  At first we couldn’t understand his southwestern accent, but we finally figured out that “bahrs” meant “bears”.  It turned out we had put our sleeping bags right on top of the underground garbage bins where the bears foraged for food. We’d slept through it all, and the black bears, though hungry, fortunately had chosen not to eat us.  We ran out of money on the way back and slept in the car in a field outside Ovid, Nebraska.  When I got out of the car at 2 a.m. to do something private, a black stallion charged and nearly ran me down.  


In the summer of 1964 we went to Bethel, Maine, to do research on sensitivity training groups.  To save money, we opted to live at a National Forest campground in the White Mountains in our two-person Eddie Bauer pup tent rather than pay rent in town.  The campground on a mountain lake was gorgeous but isolated.  It required a six mile drive over a rocky road to reach it, and we rarely saw other campers.  There was a single pit toilet, no shower, no washroom facilities. The bullfrogs sang us to sleep each night, and we had to suspend our food chest on ropes tied to trees to foil the many animal visitors that came in the night.  We endured huge summer thunderstorms which shook our small tent and threatened to blow it away.  After a month the park ranger insisted that we leave because of a three-week limit, and we wound up sleeping in a grove of trees in Bethel for the remaining month.  Afterward, at Katja’s initiative, we wound up with a camping tour of New England and the Montreal area.


From the late 60’s onward, we traveled every year from Cincinnati to the Upper Peninsula, camping along the way, either in southeastern Wisconsin or in northern Michigan, and we did the same on family trips to Philadelphia.  After J was born in 1969, our family vacations were mostly camping trips, and we explored state parks and national forests in Kentucky, e.g., Daniel Boone National Forest, and Indiana, e.g., Brown County.  We’ve done some of that ever since.


To be fully candid, I’ll have to acknowledge that Katja is a city girl at heart.  She grew up in midtown Philadelphia, a couple of blocks from Rittenhouse Square, and she is less than fond of bugs, summer heat, and living outdoors in the rain.  What people sometimes don’t realize, though, is that she is always open to going places and having new adventures.  She brings a certain class to our forest expeditions.  She bought crystal wine goblets for our last outing, makes gourmet coffee in her French coffee press, and listens to NPR on her 8-battery portable radio.  I have one thrift-shop-supplied set of camping gear for my solo trips, and we have an alternate, far fancier outfit for joint trips.  While it sometimes takes a little nudging to get Katja out to the woods, once there she is definitely a happy camper.




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