Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Couple Camping: The New Marital Therapy

Katja, Dave, Mike, and Duffy at the State Dock, Lake Cumberland

Dear George,
One insight I’ve garnered from camping is how much happier couples are in the forest than in the city or the suburbs.  When you see married couples at the mall or the Olive Garden, usually they either look estranged or ready to holler at one another.  On the campground, in contrast, it’s all smiles and giggles.  Partly, people may be elated by the beauties of nature.  And I’m sure they enjoy the peace and quiet and opportunities to commune.  Most importantly, though, I think it’s a consequence of roughing it – shedding one’s reliance on modern conveniences, coping with the elements, getting back in touch with one’s primal pioneer spirit.  Nothing brings couples together more than dealing with challenging circumstances in the wilds.  I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that camping rejuvenates emotional bonds more than intensive therapy, but I’m sure it comes pretty close.  

Usually I go camping by myself with the sheepdogs, so my wife Katja hasn’t had as much opportunity to observe all these wonderful effects.  A center-city Philadelphia girl, she thinks of herself as someone who prefers a life of comfort and luxury.  However, I’m convinced this is a form of false self-consciousness, probably due to something her mother told her at an impressionable age.  In my view, Katja has an untapped “inner camper” to her nature that’s waiting to blossom forth under the right conditions.

Remarkably, the heavens aligned last week when the workers began laying hardwood floors on our second floor, making sleeping at home difficult.  Much to my amazement, Katja suggested that we take the week off and go camping at Lake Cumberland, about two hundred miles south of us near the Kentucky-Tennessee border. I’m not usually disposed to traveling that far in our gas-guzzling SUV, but it was hard to pass by such an opportunity.  I packed up our gear, and we set out on the Monday before Labor Day weekend.

Our SUV, packed to the gills with important stuff

It was 91 degrees out when we arrived at the state park in mid-afternoon, and there was practically nobody else on the campground.  We have a large, 8-person tent which accommodates the two of us and the sheepdogs with room to spare.  I don’t take it when camping by myself because it takes two people to set it up.  The tent is held up by four 21-foot poles.  Each pole is broken down into a bunch of smaller segments which were originally held together as a unit by an elastic band running through their centers (such that the whole pole popped together when you straightened out the various segments).  Unfortunately all the elastic bands are now broken, and we have to assemble each pole manually, link by link.  This makes erecting our voluminous tent more challenging.  Each time we tried to insert one pole in the tent sleeve, all the other poles fell apart, the pieces getting mixed up with one another and requiring that we sort them out and start over from the beginning.  It made for a frustrating task, the sort of thing that might be used at a weekend retreat to explore how couples deal with insanity.  I remarked that this was an enjoyable challenge, but Katja wasn’t enthused.  We did get the tent up after 90 minutes of struggle and pain.  I said that, because of our practice, our task would be much easier on our next trip.  Katja, however, said we should buy a new pop-up tent that would set itself up.

Our tent, finally assembled and looking good

I gathered some firewood from the forest, and Katja started making corned beef hash for dinner.  She hadn’t gotten very far before a swarm of flies descended on our table.  I wasn’t accustomed to this because parks in Ohio secretly spray their campgrounds with insecticide and there are no flies.  Kentucky, however, is more ecologically correct, and there’s no spraying.  My impression was that most of the bugs from Ohio had migrated to Kentucky.  Further, because we were the only campers in our wing of the park, all the local flies had come over to have dinner with us.  We got through the meal by my waving a dish towel frantically over our plates with my left hand while eating with my right.  It wasn’t a fully satisfying dining experience.  Here’s a picture of our cutting board which I took about 90 seconds after slicing a tomato on it.

Flies on the cutting board

Just by luck I’d bought a new screened dining canopy which had been on sale at our neighborhood drugstore at the end of last summer, and I set this up first thing the next morning.  Certain that this would eliminate our fly problems, I began cooking French toast and bacon for our breakfast.  Much to my dismay, the dining canopy didn’t work as advertised.  The canopy had no floor, and the walls were an inch or two above the ground, enabling the more clever and enterprising flies to gain ready access after a quick search.  The screened walls, moreover, kept them in there so that by the time that Katja arrived our new dining space was like a gigantic fly auditorium.  Again I used the old waving dish towel technique while we quickly gobbled up breakfast.  

Katja relaxes in our dining canopy with the door open to let out the flies

Afterward I went to the Country Store to discuss the fly situation with local experts.  No one had a quick fix, though a grizzled old customer said fly paper might help some.  The Country Store was out of fly paper, so I drove into town and got some “fly ribbons” at the supermarket.  These came in little spools that you pull out and unwind into thirty-inch hanging strips.  I didn’t unroll the strip properly the first time, and I tried to unwind and straighten out the paper manually with my fingers.  That was a horrible mistake.  Fly paper has to be the stickiest substance in the history of mankind.  It was more messy than manipulating paper soaked in Super Glue.  I had to scrub for five minutes at the rest room sink to get my fingers unglued.  I checked the fly paper strips an hour later, but no flies had yet been captured.  Two hours, no flies.  After four hours, still nothing.  By mid-afternoon, though, I had captured one large fly (see photo below).  After three days about a dozen flies, yellow jackets, and miscellaneous small bugs were stuck to the paper, at a cost of about 35 cents per insect. The remarkable thing is that the flies did seem to become steadily less frequent in our dining canopy.  I think flies are basically intelligent creatures, and they would prefer not to hang around a space that’s decorated with fly paper and insect corpses.   

Our first fly captive

By Wednesday we still hadn’t seen Lake Cumberland, and I figured out from the park map that we could take a one-mile hike from the park lodge and view it from an overlook.  Katja is still recovering from knee replacement surgery, but she gamely said she would give it a try.  We set out with the dogs at mid-morning.  It was a fairly strenuous hike with lots of rocks and roots and up-and-down climbs.  I thought the trail was very pretty, with ravines, sandstone cliffs, dried up rocky creeks, and mature oaks, beech trees, and evergreens.  Katja isn’t as keen on nature though, and, two-thirds of the way through our journey, she decided all the forest views looked the same and she didn’t want to go any further.  I suggested she sit down and wait for us, but she wanted to go back, so I gave her my car keys.  Katja headed back while the dogs and I proceeded to the overlook.  It was pleasant enough, though the lake views were obstructed by lots of  trees, and the dogs were ready to return after a few seconds.  

Lake Cumberland from the Overlook

Heading back, I started worrying about Katja returning alone on the trail.  She didn’t have a cell phone, and her gait is still a little unsteady.  My anxiety was intensified when I came across a fork on the trail where one branch headed uphill, the other down into a ravine.  I hadn’t the vaguest idea which way we’d come from.  I tried the ravine alternative, but, when I got down to a rocky creekbed, I realized I’d never seen that before, and so I headed back up.  Which way had Katja gone, I wondered?  I’d lost one of the dogs in the forest the day before, and now I was imagining that Katja was lost in the depths of the forest too.  I stepped up our pace and was very relieved when I got back to find Katja sitting in our car, enjoying the air conditioning and listening to NPR.  We headed back to our campsite.

Katja and the dogs on the Lake Bluff Trail

I returned to the Country Store, seeking new advice from the staff.  A different young woman and man were behind the counter.  This time I explained that my wife was getting tired of the campground, and I wondered if there were some place resorty where she could browse in little shops.  The woman said that nearby Jaymestown had a Dollar General, but there wasn’t much else of interest, and the next town over, Wessell Springs, had a few more stores plus a McDonald’s and a Wendy’s.  But it wasn’t very interesting either.  However, she said, it was about a thirty-minute trip to Elveron and that Elveron was a fabulous town to visit.  It had tons of antique stores, gift shops, and fun things to see and do.  Elveron would be very exciting, the best town in the entire region.  I couldn’t wait to tell Katja.  We set out the next morning.  The trip through the hilly countryside was pretty, and we passed by Wolf Creek Dam which had created the 101-mile long Lake Cumberland when it was built in 1950.  

Wolf Creek Dam

Elveron’s a little town of about 2000 people.  We cruised around the small downtown area, but we couldn’t find any of the attractions I’d been told about.  The most interesting-looking store was simply labelled “Consignment Store”.  It was closed and completely empty.  Betty Sue’s Boutique and Resale Shop was open, but Katja didn’t want to try it.  She suggested we turn around and head back to the campground.  That seemed unduly pessimistic.  I pulled over at the two-pump downtown gas station.  A gray-haired man in overalls was filling his gas tank.  I explained that my wife and I had come to Elveron to visit the antique district, and I wondered where it was.  The man looked warily at me and said there wasn’t any antique district.  There’d been an antique store once, but it had gone out of business a long time ago.  I asked what other shops in town Katja might enjoy.  He said there wasn’t anything of interest in Elveron.  His own wife hated it here.  He noted that there were 14 empty storefronts in town, practically the entire downtown.  He said, if we wanted to go to a really good town, we should go back to Wessell Springs, the town with the McDonald’s and Wendy’s near our campground.  I thanked him, and we headed back.  I couldn’t imagine why the Country Store clerk had told me what she did.  Either she had pretty limited judgment, or perhaps she just decided to be malicious because we city folk were more interested in gift shops than in fishing and hiking trails.  In any case, Wessell Springs did turn out to be bigger than Elveron, though it specialized mainly in secondhand junk shops, most of them a step down St. Vincent de Paul’s.  We did find one small antique mall that occupied Katja’s interest for a short while.  On the way home we stopped at a roadside ice cream parlor.  Their sundae machine was broken, but we enjoyed double scoops of chocolate ice cream.   

Some of the attractive merchandise in the Wessell Springs Olde Trading Post

All in all, our camping trip was well above average in terms of generating adversity and testing our resilience.  Katja was pretty miserable, but I was proud of her for hanging in there.  She was covered in bug bites by the end of the trip.  I never understand why that happens because nothing ever bites me.  However, I did manage to come down with a healthy case of poison ivy, and we jointly used up three bottles of anti-itch spray on our return.  At the same time, not everything during our stay was difficult.  The most relaxing periods were the end of the day, after eating supper and washing the evening dishes.  Katja and I would sit down by the campfire, and, unlike normal evenings at home where we retreat to the computer and the TV respectively, we sat around and reminisced about the past, our parents, our families, and our life together over the years.  Then we’d take the dogs into our cozy tent where we’d chat a bit more before nodding off.  Duffy would climb onto Katja’s air mattress, and Mike would lay by her side with his head on her pillow.  We all slept really well.  

The campfire

Anticipating the rainy aftermath of Hurricane Isaac, we packed most of our gear on Thursday night and set out for home early Friday morning.  We stopped at Berea on the way back, where Katja enjoyed the upscale shops and I gave the dogs a tour of the college campus.  Back in the car I diplomatically asked Katja what she would change about our trip if she could.  She said the heat, the flies, and having interesting places to go.  I agreed, and Katja said we should should pick another destination if we go camping again, probably closer to home.  As we approached the city, Katja said she was very sad being away from home so long, and I said I was very sad leaving the campground.  That proves my point.  Having a shared emotional experience of being sad together shows why camping is so therapeutic.  Last night I’d just drifted off at 12:30 when I heard Katja ask, “Would you like to talk?”  I said no, that I was asleep.  Katja said that if we were around the campfire, we’d be having a talk.  I didn’t say anything, but I secretly thought to myself that perhaps Katja would want to try out more campfires in the future.

G-mail Comments
-Donna D (9-8): sounds awful.  you can get build a fire at home in the hibachi on your front porch surrounded by bushes and trees, gather round it with blankets, and talk. donna
-David L (9-9):  Good advice.  I'd need to bring the dogs and the tent out to the porch too.  I'll bring this up with Katja as soon as she's recovered. 

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