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Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Stories in Place: The Old Guard

 We pulled into our campsite and found them sitting at our picnic bench, the two of them with their backs turned to each other, gazing over opposite ends of the campground. As we got out of the truck they turned to face us with big grins.

"Hey, we were just making sure no one messed with the roadrunner nest. Where you guys been? Out sight seeing today?"

Neither Mark or I were new to camping on our first trip to Death Valley in 1995, but being the youngest couple in the campground was a new experience for us. Death Valley in the spring attracts the Snowbird population, those ubiquitous retired traveling couples roaming the US and Mexico in their gigantic "rigs". On our first visit to the Furnace Creek campground, the entire place was packed with large RVs and trailers, almost invariably maneuvered by the husband while the wives stayed squirreled away in the rig, presumably cooking up dinner, knitting, or otherwise occupied. It was hard to tell, we rarely saw the wives. This arrangement left the old guys free to futz around the RV, adjusting this, fixing that, and keeping an eye out for interesting activity in the campground. The minute we pulled into our site, their attention turned to us.

When we arrived, the campground host showed us to the spot and explained there was a roadrunner's nest in the tree behind our site. She asked us to please move carefully around the tree and to not let anyone harass the parents as they delivered special treats like lizard tails and bugs to their fledglings. It was an honor to be trusted and a thrill to see the birds so bold as to build their home in a bustling campground. Problem was, the old guys found out.

Every time we left to explore the valley, they would saunter over to our picnic table, shooting the breeze and watching the other campers. I'm sure there was a running commentary on what old George was doing with his rig or how Jerry was terrible at backing his trailer or how Bob seemed to be letting maintenance go on that generator. Some good natured ribbing seemed to be a requirement for these old birds. The tribe traveled the same roads, visited the same places, and they all seemed to either know each other or know someone who knew the others.

Our particular Old Guards consisted mainly of two codgers: Wendell and Berkeley. Wendell was camped right across the road from us in his huge fifth wheel trailer. He often spoke of his wife, but in the 7 days we were there we never actually saw her. His hobbies included weaving new webbing onto old camp chair frames, wiping dust off his shining impeccable trailer and telling bad jokes. Berkeley was sort of the odd man out. He was traveling in a homemade wooden camper affixed to the back of a decrepit Mazda truck. Each night when he prepared his can of Dinty Moore stew he'd fire up his one burner stove, huge flames shooting to the ceiling. It's a miracle he didn't burn his entire rig to the ground. He dressed like the old college professor that he was, leather elbow patches and all. His hobbies included complaining about his ex-wife and expounding on the virtues of the road. What most excited him though, was a really good deal. 

Since they spent their waking hours hanging around the campground, they seemed to be starved for news. Each day when we returned, we'd find them at our table hungry to talk about where we'd been and give us advice about where we should have gone. It was hard to tell if they had actually ever been themselves, the stories were at times...suspect.

It got so bad sometimes we'd drift past the campground on the main road and if we saw them at our spot we'd go into the village and park there for awhile, not ready to face another grilling yet. We felt a little bad about it, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do to keep your sanity.

By the end of the week we had heard all the stories (some of them twice) and as we packed to leave they hung out and made helpful suggestions about our route home. Berkeley thought it was about time to mosey too, and spent the better part of two hours trying to convince us to join him in Las Vegas. "Found a great deal at Fitzgeralds! Gonna catch me a girly show!" Sounds great Berkeley, maybe next time.

I think about those guys a lot nowadays. They were annoying, funny and helpful. They did have some good pointers about places in the valley to visit, and tips about camping spots. We provided entertainment and a new ear to listen to those stories.

Thinking back on those days it's hard to believe we are drifting into "old guard" territory ourselves now. We're not quite traditional retirement age, but we've decided to quit the working world and start checking off our bucket list a bit early. When we pull into a new campground we sometimes see those young couples in their small truck or tent and have to check ourselves. Let the young folks explore on their own, they'll figure it out. And only tell those stories once, but only if they ask.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Stories in Place: Bill & Debbie

(This pandemic has put a cramp in our camp, so I thought I'd start a series of short stories from our travels. You know, those kinds of stories that go around the campfire after a day of exploring, and may get repeated more than once over the years. I hope you enjoy them as much as we enjoy telling them. Pull up a camp chair and grab a beverage. Let's Story in Place together.)

The first time it happened, it was kind of funny.

"Bill! Debbie! So nice to see you again!"

A huge safari guide trotted over and embraced me in a giant bear hug, lifting me off my feet. "What are you two doing back here? I thought you were on your way to Serengeti!"

Mark and I exchanged looks of confusion. "We just got here this afternoon."

"No! Don't be kidders. Why have you come back?"

"We were in Tarangire this morning, and drove up today. We plan to see the crater tomorrow. I think you might be thinking of someone else?"

Now the confusion was on the guide's face. He shrugged his shoulders and laughed. "Well, welcome then. How are you liking Tanzania?"

That was our second day of camping on our own in Africa. 

Our next stop in Serengeti was a picnic area at the entrance of the park. We were gathering our paperwork to check in and pay our fees when another guide pulled up next to us and smiled in that familiar way of distant friends meeting again. "Bill! I can't believe we are seeing each other again so soon!" He shook Mark's hand through the open window and smiled across to me. "And Debbie, you look well!"

Almost every stop we made, we were "recognized" and greeted warmly by the wrong names. We decided it was a lucky thing that Bill and Debbie were so highly regarded. Imagine if they had been jerks? We stopped correcting people after awhile and just went with it. Why not? How could we possibly measure up to this mysterious other couple? Would they think so highly of us if we told them our real names? Or would they shake their heads and mutter in disgust about how this Mark and Kelly would never hold a candle to Bill and Debbie. Might as well take advantage of the goodwill and jovial conversation.

When we returned to Shaw Safari headquarters at Twiga Lodge two weeks later, we told the story of being mistaken for Bill and Debbie at every turn. The owner Paul Sweet laughed and explained "Bill and Debbie went on the same circuit you did and were ahead of you by a week. You must have run into some of the same guides they did along the way." Apparently it's hard to tell white people apart, especially when we travel in pairs in yellow Land Rovers. 

Someday, we'd like to run into the real Bill & Debbie. From what we've heard, they're a real kick in the pants.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Stories in Place: The Most Fun Possible

(This pandemic has put a cramp in our camp, so I thought I'd start a series of short stories from our travels. You know, those kinds of stories that go around the campfire after a day of exploring, and may get repeated more than once over the years. I hope you enjoy them as much as we enjoy telling them. Pull up a camp chair and grab a beverage. Let's Story in Place together.)

We looked over the map of Quartz Lake State Park and saw there was a trail that ran the circumference, a perfect way to get our bearings on our first day in Alaska. We went back to the camper and threw a few water bottles into a backpack, slapped a little more Deet behind our ears and set off to the trailhead. On our way back across the campground we ran into the host as she was loading firewood into a bin.

"Hey guys! Did you just get in today?"

We told her we had crossed the state border this morning and were excited to check out the scenery. Did she have any advice about what there was to see in the park? We thought we'd take the loop trail around the lake.

"Well, that's probably the best way to see it. You might want to go the other way though, the trail comes through at the other end of the campground over there." She pointed back the way we had come. "The other day, a mama grizzly made a kill and she and her cubs are hanging out working on the dead moose over this way. The carcass is pretty much right on the trail. You can go that way if you want, just keep an eye out."

Hiking suddenly didn't seem to be such a great idea. We might not be the smartest tools in the shed, but we did know that no matter which way you walked in a circle, you would eventually be coming back to where you started. And if that involved crossing between a grizzly and her food, or worse, between her and her cubs, we might not be completing that circle at all.

You know, it's kind of hot out and that lake looks really nice. Maybe we should go swimming instead.

Back at the camper, we changed into our suits and headed to the small beach and boat ramp area. We were the only ones there save for an older woman and a kid about nine years old. The boy was splashing in the shallow swimming area that was cordoned off from the rest of the lake. We threw our towels down a respectful distance from them and waded in. It wasn't warm, but it wasn't as cold as Tahoe like we thought it might be. I slowly waded in easing past that belly mark that's so hard to acclimate, as Mark took the plunge and swam out to the roped off edge. The little boy watched us a minute then turned to his grandma.

"Granny? Can I swim out to where that man is?"

"No Conner, I don't think he wants you hanging around him."

"But Granny, I'm sure it would be ok with him." he turned and looked at Mark. "It would be ok right?"

"I don't know, I think you should do whatever your Grandma says. I don't want you to get into trouble."  Grandma shook her head, with that 'I'm trying not to smile and give in' look.

"No, Conner, I don't want you to go out too far. I wouldn't be able to get to you if you got into trouble."

"He would save me! He can swim, didn't you see him?"

Mark swam back to where I was, trying not to lure the boy out too far and into trouble with his granny. We walked back up onto the beach and sat on our towels. Grandma told us she watches Conner for a few weeks every summer while his parents were working at the Air Force base near Fairbanks. We told her where we were from and chatted awhile. Meanwhile Conner looked back and forth between his Granny and Mark, looking impatient.

When Mark and I got up to go back in the water, Conner was ready with his pitch:

"You know Granny, when I come visit you I want to have a lot of fun and I think swimming out into the lake with this man would be really fun. I really want to have the most fun possible while I'm here. Can't I?"

This is how our motto came to be. This nine year old boy's pitch to his granny is printed on the back of our cards, on the intro to this blog, and is always in the backs of our minds no matter where we go or what we're doing. Shouldn't everyone have the most fun possible while they're here?

Conner was able to get his wish. Mark gave him pointers on how to keep afloat, and helped him touch the rope and swim back to shore. Conner was thrilled, and it made us smile. Having the most fun possible often includes making sure others are having fun too.

May you all have the most fun possible on this Memorial Day weekend. Stay safe my friends.