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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.