Tepidly seditious, since the young narrator disdains the cube and the oarlock, defaults on the national virtues, and is not glad to be of use. Not much of a consumer either.
The first chapter of Tenting Today.
Rachael and I are recent college graduates who live in a tent in a public campground. We won’t work, getting by on small remittances from our parents. Summer we camp in the mountains of Northern California. Late September we roll south to BLM campgrounds near the Mexican border. We are in substantial noncompliance on life’s responsibilities. We call it our vow of failure. Neither of us wants to succeed in the land of Sam. Our only commitment is to ourselves.
In the past, we’ve both held slacker jobs. It was too much. The mere requirement of punctuality was too much. I have explained the reality to my puzzled dad. Eventually he came around, agreeing to deposit $500 a month in my checking account. Rachael’s remittance comes from cashing out certificates of deposit, birthday gifts from her dad, a New York beagle.
I drifted under canvas accidentally. Rachael seized the life. I’ll summarize. Me, unexceptional white bread juvenilia in a succession of suburban apartments. No drama. Except that early on my mom ditched my morose ineffectual dad for a hard-charging Republican mogul. My mom is a coloratura; she needs drama. Home life with my dad was quieter without her. I was an indifferent student. Not interested in sports either except for a little intramural baseball. In high school, nothing, although I always had friends, other bland latchkey kids. My college mark was a plebeian’s “C.” Even this required contemptible expedients: internet cheating, excuse-making, Cliffs Notes. I had shit jobs along the way: McDonald’s; dishwasher in a Chinese kitchen; busing tables at the college caf. I took a degree in American history only because there isn’t much of it, and a roommate had a stash of term papers for recycling. I have no real interest in the past. I have no interest in sharpening the focus on some bit of dead tissue.
When I forced myself to look beyond graduation, I could only think “teaching credential,” even though I’m afraid of children. I signed up for a few ed courses. Asphyxiating tedium and a priestly vocabulary suffocating the pedagogical world in cant. The experience made me see I don’t believe in public education, or in hired teachers. I hardly remember anything about elementary or middle school. Mostly blank. I can’t remember any of the teachers or classes. I can’t even look back and see myself in the classroom. I don’t think I learned anything. When it came time for the SAT I boned up for the math by reading Algebra for Dummies at the library.
Not a Bad Dad
At first my dad took the line that if I wasn’t going to pursue a masters or a credential, then I had to get a job. My dad really isn’t a stern parent. He’s a hack newspaper reporter, and doesn’t have strong convictions. I think he was just saying what he thought he had to say. My dad’s okay, he’s a generous guy. To humor him, I conjured up a fictive resume. I filled out some job applications available at the student center. I went to an interview. It amazed me how terrified I was of the demure, self-possessed female who quizzed me: why did I wish to be an associate? where did I see myself in five years? how did I see us working together to reach mutual goals? My heart pounded in my throat. Midway through the interview I stammered an excuse and fled. I couldn’t stand up to this kind of lisping interrogation. It wasn’t the inanity and deathly smiling hypocrisy of this particular girl Pharisee. It was the death’s-head adumbration. A cold shadow fell across my face as I followed her finger: the road to minion-hood, acquiescence, servility, to a lackey life dragged out in service to my betters. I suppose that for those with a vocation, work is vital. Pluck and talent shoot like bubbles for the surface. For me, self-involved and timid, unwilling to strive, and of little use, the song of the cubicle and the paycheck is not intoxicating at all. The price is my volition, the only thing I value.
Also. I lack the spine for even the mild regimentation of punch-clock Samland. (An aside: Sam. A coinage from my dad’s made-up vocabulary: Sam, Samland, Samish, equals EweEsOfA. Samtown, our nation’s capital; Samolian, the mighty Buck; Samology, Fox News.) Anyway, net line, I don’t want to play my social security card. Yet, without some ready, I wasn’t going to be able to fulfill the mensual with the landlord, now that my arms-folded, foot-tapping parent had delivered his sotto voce ultimatum. My droopy dead-end dad, open-handed and always guardedly hopeful about my prospects, had spotted my four years of tuition, books, rent, walking around money, never complaining except to mention every month that I didn’t understand the cost of living. I never thought about the cost of living. Yet I know arithmetic. Animated by my dad’s uncharacteristic firmness, I’d done a few figures. A full-time shit job, for instance? The after-taxes McJob would barely cover the tab on my burnt-orange-carpeted one bedroom apartment near the campus. Usually, I’m phlegmatic. I prefer to wait to see how things will turn out. Now the time barked for action.
I had never been a Boy Scout or taken any interest in fresh air. Sometimes my dad barbequed on the tiny patio of our various apartments. The other previous experience of the outdoors: a college roommate once invited me on a weekend campout, during which a dozen noisy drunks lit a bonfire and broached a keg. I didn’t have a tent, and slept in the back of my car. A few weeks after graduation, I ran into this same roommate at the Rumpus Room, my saloon of record near the campus. Just to say something, I ran down my stat, that of seemingly needing a job, not wanting one, ta da.
He said I should go backpacking for a month to find myself. “It’s cheaper than the Oso Negro,” he said. He was shortcutting to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which our old house had watched a couple of times. In the movie I think it’s the old prospector who says it’s cheaper to camp for free in the mountains than to pay a peso a night for a bench at the flop house. So I’m thinking. Hermetic solitude in the wilderness as a stimulus to insight. Historical precedent: Buddha, Jesus, countless obscure seekers, undertaking the lonely and inexpensive vision quest. I didn’t have a better idea.
I didn’t have any equipment either. I went to Wal-Mart and used my dad’s credit card to get what I thought I’d need: pack, sleeping bag, tent, stove, canteen, compass, whistle, some freeze-dried packets of food. I drove to a campground in the mountains, parked, loaded the pack, and started from the trailhead. I was carrying about 80 pounds. Half a mile up the trail I threw down the pack in the dust, kicked it a few times, and sat on a rock. A while later a pair of real backpackers came by. They let me heft one of their packs, which weighed maybe twenty pounds, the weight of my tent alone. They lifted my pack and shook their heads. I turned around and went back to the campground, where I pitched my Wal-Mart tent, boiled water for spaghetti on the tiny stove, and uncorked a bottle of wine that was in the trunk of my car.
The Wal-Mart gear might be too heavy for the trail, but it seemed fine for the campground. My pitch had a picnic table and a fire pit. I decided I had gone far enough to find myself. The surrounding wilderness seemed sufficient, and my quest was just as likely to enlighten me here as in any other woodsy venue. It turned out this particular Forest Service campground didn’t charge a fee. Global warming. No water in the pipes, pit toilets instead of plumbing. No cell service either, but from the pay phone at the entrance I called my landlord and broke my lease. It was the Rubicon. Only a couple of hours into my quest, and I’d already made a life-altering decision. A huge weight lifted from my heart, my eyes blurred. I was free.
So Long Melinda
I called Melinda, my then girlfriend, and asked her if she wanted to join me at the campsite for the weekend. She didn’t. She was cramming for the LSAT. She aspired to beagledom via ivy halls on the Eastern seaboard. Melinda always referred to me as “dear man,” which meant that I was a transitional figure in her life. The undergraduate beau, the sweet but impractical swain who served as a place holder until she hit law school and more promising DNA. There was no drama when she dumped me a week later.
Next I called Rachael. I didn’t think of this as cheating because I’d already seen Melinda’s footman coming with my coat. I’d known Rachael for a few years; we’d hooked up a couple of times when we’d been drunk at parties. Nothing tense. I hadn’t even called her the next day. Rachael had food issues, and was too zaftig for me. I’d always see her sitting in the student lounge reading fat paperbacks of historical fiction. Black hair, black overcoat, pale skin, kind of Goth-lite, no tats or mascara. She agreed to visit. But wait! She recently had become a strict vegan, and no grease could cross her lips; she couldn’t even stand the smell of a pizza anymore. All these years, lactose intolerant, she never knew, until she got the word from the nutrition guru at the Green Zone Cafe. This was new, because I’d been at parties where she’d wolfed her slice of the pie with gusto. Of course, we’d been toking. I told her to bring three or four big plastic jugs for water. I’d already found out from another camper that these could be filled behind a little store down the road.
One thing I liked about Rachael right off the bat: she had no desire to strive. She didn’t want to continue her studies, or have a career, or be an artist. She had no illusions about having talent. Money didn’t blow her skirt up. Doing work for others on the clock didn’t interest her. She liked to read novels; she liked to make astringent comments about the foibles of her friends. She wasn’t immune to the sip or toke; veganism apparently hadn’t changed that.
Camping for Free
When Ranger Rick cruised through the campground, I flagged him to find out how long I could stay. It’s like this, says Rick. The rule is, two weeks. But at this particular out-of-the-way, under-used, waterless venue the rangers were reactive, not proactive. If a camper isn’t causing a fuss, Rick isn’t going to give him the boot. Ranger Rick would rather have me, harmless college milquetoast (in so many words), in the space rather than some liquored-up palooka that yells all night and sets the woods on fire. And if I wanted to volunteer to be campground host, the Forest Service would even give me a stipend (but that was too much responsibility). I took this to mean that a mild collegial boy could stay indefinitely for free.
That being the case, Rachael when she arrived suggested we go back to Wal-Mart to buy a bigger tent and other stuff to make ourselves more comfortable. She liked the tent idea right off the bat. Grasping the possibilities at a glance, she decided on the spot that she was staying. She had no other plans for her future. But she wanted more amenities.
Rachael won’t go into Wal-Mart herself. The musky prey animal smell bothers her. The ambiance depresses her. The low-rent cliental reminds her too keenly that she is an upper class intellectual Jewish girl from New York. She doesn’t like to think about beige starvelings chained to sewing machines, or about the cowed possessors of epicanthic folds and good small motor control who are threatened daily with being raped by thuggish shop overseers. Or about any other grimy scene of the global chase for cheap labor. She waited in the car. Wal-Mart was having a summer blowout, and I got a 10’ by 10’ wall tent, as well as a screen tent that would fit over the picnic table. I got two camp mattresses, and two lounging chairs that ingeniously collapsed into a duffle. I got a small plastic inflatable wading pool, the kind for toddlers. Rachael’s idea. We use it for bathing in the privacy of one of the tents. We got a Mr. Heater, and a Colman two-burner propane stove. Except for Mr. Heater, all on sale, about $400.
We drove over to Rachael’s place to tell her roommates that she was bailing and to get her stuff. Most of it went into storage at her hippie mom’s, but she brought some kitchen pots and a box of books. We don’t like the same music (she’s strictly classical) but we both have ear buds filled with pilfered music from the insufficiently policed ether. Happily, hippie mom wasn’t home, so we could just dump Rachael’s surplus gear in the garage without getting into any drama. “Hippie mom” is shortcut for credulous semi-affluent middle-aged divorcee enthralled with New Age hokum. It’s a type you see here in California. Consciousness expansion, self-discovery, energy healing, astral guidance. Retreats, intensives, workshops in which you “own what you’re wearing,” which at Harbin Hot Springs isn’t much. Hippie mom’s specialty is alchemical divination. She also signs up for the noetic sciences and holotropic breathwork. Rachael rolls her eyes. I keep my mouth shut.
Our only other stop was for lunch at the Green Zone Cafe. A new-minted vegan, Rachael no longer can stand the filth of a restaurant kitchen. She won’t eat in any restaurant except the Green Zone, where sterile Swedes in hair nets and surgical gloves chop veggies in full view of the fastidious diner.
Along with beagle dad and hippie mom, Rachael has one sib, older sister Naomi, who is only 25 and already a trophy bride. It’s Naomi’s second. Her first was to a rich Persian she met when she was 18 and taking summer honors at Stanford. They eloped for Tehran, and at first it wasn’t as bad as you might think. Purdah on the street, but at home and while visiting her top crust neighbors she wore Western duds and led a pampered life. Rachael says even a eunuch to take her shopping. Being Jewish didn’t seem to be an issue. But she got bored, fled, reenrolled at Stanford as a super-achiever. At a weekend party in Atherton she met the forty-something dot-com VP who had just cashed his options and was looking for fun that didn’t include a forty-something ball-and-chain. So now Naomi lives in Hillsborough in a gated estate when she wasn’t in St. Tropez or wherever such people go. There’s some strain between the sisters.
Back at the camp site we had the fun of assembling the tents. I was surprised at how comfortable we were. Of course this was balmy summer in the California mountains. Tee-shirt days, pullover evenings. We only used Mr. Heater for a few minutes to warm up the tent before bedtime. This was before our remittances (Rachael didn’t even know then she could cash out her CDs). We counted our funds and figured between us we had enough to get through to Thanksgiving, by which time, we assumed, this being Samland, something would turn up to spare us trouble.
The Virtue of Abstinence
Although I offered to help, Rachael insisted on doing all the cooking herself; she doesn’t like anybody else’s mitts on her food. She also doubted my commitment to hygiene. My only job was scrubbing the pots in a plastic dish pan. I’d never thought of being a vegan myself, but I immediately saw the virtue in it for long-term budget campers. It solved a lot of issues about refrigeration. However. I had grown up on a slave diet of fast-food grease. At first I had huge cravings for lard that even fistfuls of almonds and peanuts didn’t satisfy. But we had avocados and olive oil, too, and poco a poco I came to accept veganism, not with Rachael’s pop-eyed zeal, but as practical expedient that kept our kitchen simple and costs down. During these same first weeks of domestic adjustment, Rachael finally quit cigarettes for good, bitched her head off, and got over it. Another expense jettisoned. Although we both toked in school, now we didn’t have that smoke either, unless someone visited. Same for vino. “Abstinence,” Rachael says, “Better for fucking.”
For the record, I haven’t caved to Rachael’s every culinary crotchet. She’s uses chopsticks, for instance, or her well-washed fingers. She refuses a fork, saying they’re unsanitary because of the hard-to-clean interstices between the tines. I drew the line. I use a fork. “So manly,” Rachael says, “when you stand up to me.”
Figuring It Out
Pues, by mid-summer we pretty much had the main points of tenting figured out. After the raccoons and squirrels raided the food a few times, we put the entire kitchen and larder in plastic bins, and stacked them on the picnic table inside the screen tent. Rachael does the cooking on a two-burner Coleman stove fueled by propane bottles. We found an abandoned ice chest, and buy one block of ice per week at the little store. The few things inside the chest, the more perishable veggies, we bag in plastic to keep the water out.
In the morning we set out some water jugs in the sun. These are gallon plastic jugs filled with creek water. By afternoon the water has warmed enough for a bath. Two gallons each. Sometimes, for erotic stimulus, we’d kneel together inside the plastic wading pool and wash each other. But usually Rachael has her bath first, sitting cross-legged in the little plastic wading pool. The lack of a hair dryer could be an issue for some women, Rachael says, but her short hair doesn’t need an elaborate coif. After our baths we get conjugal in the sleeping tent. It’s very pleasant to rub our clean bodies together in the warm drowsy afternoon. Afterwards, Rachael reads in the hammock, and I stay in the tent meditating on the miracle of consciousness, although first I rinse off the stickiness in a plastic dish pan, a kind of a rustic bidet.
For our bed we lay a couple of Rachael’s blankets on the tent floor, then the two full-length camp mattresses, then a couple of more blankets, and then our sleeping bags. At night we wear fleece watch caps in bed and thick socks. A propane lantern screwed into a propane bottle gives plenty of garish light, but we both have individual LED head lamps too. And a beeswax candle, which Rachael says doesn’t emit sooty pollutants.
In the evening we stroll around the campground and pick up any spare wood other campers have left in the fire pits. We make a little fire, uncork the vino if we have any, talk about this or that. Before we got our remittances, Rachael would say: “I wonder how you’re going to provide for my future?” “Isn’t it enough that I’m pleased with you now?” I’d say. Rachael says that my unimaginative skepticism and inability to plan ahead make me a natural Buddhist.
In August my dad unexpectedly sent me some dough, care of general delivery at the little post office in the store down the hill. I’d talked to him on the phone a couple of times over the summer, assuring him it wasn’t drugs or mental illness causing me to live in a tent. Maybe he worried, or blamed himself for my inability to get a grip, but anyway we had more money. A little later Rachael’s hippie mom reminded her that the beagle’s birthday gift, a certificate of deposit, had matured; she could cash it out instead of rolling it over. It meant we could postpone making any hard decisions.
September it started to get nippy at night in the Northern California mountains. “Let’s roll deep,” Rachael said, by which she meant south. By this time we’d acquired so much gear it wouldn’t all fit in our practical student cars, a Honda Civic and a Toyota Tercel. Wal-Mart again, for a rooftop pod to hold the tents and bedding. I’d read in a magazine about the Bureau of Land Management’s Long Term Visitor Areas in Southern California and Arizona. For a modest fee (less than a C-note) the tent camper or alumna-lodger can stay the winter on a patch of amenity-less desert. We wound up at the Wiley Wells campground off Interstate 10 near Ironwood State Prison. Late September, still 80 degrees during the day, with rapid cooling at dusk. For a few dollars we bought a pile of gnarly tree limbs from another camper (he had a trailer load of stumps and snarls) and I used an old axe from a garage sale to knock it into suitable chunks. Rachael claimed to be impressed. That evening at campfire Rachael gave me a hand-made invitation to the “Bunyan Days Top Chopper Awards Night,” where I was to receive an honorable mention. This incident began our puerile tradition of awarding each other certificates of recognition. Nobody else would be doing it. I wouldn’t be getting “Most Improved Associate for August” from anybody else.
So we continued tenting into winter. This campsite was only twenty miles from the little town of Blythe, California. We’d go in every week to Safeway for produce. Always a drama, with Rachael. But there was also a farm stand that sold veggies straight from somebody’s backyard. In the mountains we’d used a bucket to wash clothes; now we tried Suds ‘n’ Duds in town, but only once. Rachael said the clothes smelled like ozone when they came out of the dryer. And she didn’t like the people. So we went back to the bucket. It didn’t matter. We got by mostly on underwear, socks, tee-shirts and jeans. Anyway, a coin laundry was splurging. We took pride in our frugality. If we are talking at night in the tent instead of reading we shut down the lantern and light a candle. We buy our books at library book sales. Rachael trades historical fiction with other campers. I load my ear bud at the junior college, using swipe ware
At night we talked about everything. We discussed all the possibilities. Since neither of us can think of anything we want to do, we figured we must have evolved to the higher level of being unproductive. So many strive. So much pushing. The world doesn’t need two more to churn up the dust and make a smudge. We’d attended a mediocre state college staffed by middling hacks, but even there, in that bath of ochre, we had known tons of kids kindled by ambition. Burning. Then think of all the topnotch universities here and in India cranking out phalanxes of highly trained PhDs. All that talent, all that yeasty squirming, all that heliotropic straining. New hatched turtles scrambling for the surf through a gauntlet of predators; few destined to prosper. I admire talent and pluck in others, but I know I’m not needed, and in any case I could never meet the demands of competition. Rachael could; she has iron in her backbone. But she despises groveling and hypocrisy, without which there is no hope of advancement.
Instance Sally Grubman, one of Rachael’s friends who graduated a year ahead of us. She now has an internship at a big deal Mad Ave.outfit. Cute studio in the Village. Intimate dinners with corporate feudal lords twice her age. Bound for glory. Bound to hike up her skirt and climb from cubicle to view office with her name on it. Sally is willing to make her deal and pay the tab. Not R. Rachael won’t smile and smile, or snap a salute. Rachael to would-be boss: “And the same for the horse you rode in on.”
Buuuht.... We were both kind of nervous because of the expectations. My dad let on how he was disappointed about my choices (but not angry). He raised me single-handedly. He’d supported me all through college. He said he wouldn’t support me any more (unless I went to grad school), but that in any kind of emergency to give him the first call. My mom (who had dumped my hapless dead-end dad for a go-getting junior titan) said she wasn’t surprised that I’m a flop. She cited liberal professors, the media, and secular permissiveness. She’s become Republican and churchy, after remarrying to the hard-driving positive thinker. My mom and I don’t seem to have much in common. On the other mano. Despite my iffy paternal DNA, she keeps saying she wants a grandchild.
Rachael and I aren’t reproductive either. No urches. I don’t see why anybody wants one. The future doesn’t look cheery. Not for the plebes. Being out of the race, we wouldn’t have the Samolians to shield an urch from looming shortfalls and depletions. When Rachael first arrived we’d been lax about contraception. Pull and pray. We had a scare; now no more laxity. The pill makes her bloat, she doesn’t trust coils, latex doesn’t feel good. Which means diaphragm and spermicide. Depending a little on the weather (sometimes the tent gets too warm) we have our daily sex in the afternoon while we both have plenty of energy and we’re clean after bathing.
She taught me how to insert the taco gently (following my oral presentation). I enjoy capping her cervix with the slippery rubbery cup, thus fencing out and foiling the drumming hoards soon arriving. Rachael has ample (heavy, voluptuous, pendulous) breasts, and they comfort me. But at heart I’m a pelvic girdle man; I love smooth flanks, the rich dank delta between round thighs that kiss at the top. Rachael has the best vagina in the world, embedded in a salad of soft, tight pubic curls, jet black. She lubricates easily, and her menstrual blood is clean and shiny on my penis. She smells like geraniums, tastes like almonds, and her copious oil slicks her perineum and glides my finger into her slippery anus. Her bartholins are prolific gushers, but she worries.
“Promise you won’t leave when I’m dry as a cracker.” Her hippie mom, she says, won’t abide horse urine and relies on emotion lotion during intimacy with her savants and shamans. When I’m lying with Rachael I don’t believe anything will change. We wither and come to dust, but I don’t believe it. If Rachael is old I will make her pussy wet with my loving tears. We are mated for life, our stainless hearts impervious to rust, despite whatever happens to our fickle genitalia.
The book is at Smashwords Garlington or on any of the e-book platforms.