August 17, 2003

What I Did During the Blackout

We didn’t get a blackout here in the Pacific Northwest, but Shelly and I wanted one. So we went “camping” this weekend at a long narrow lake in a canyon in the central Oregon desert.

Proper camping is when you hike at least an hour to a remote place in the sticks, preferably near a lake at the foot of a volcano, humping a pack stuffed with fifty pounds of provisions; camp stove, dehydrated chicken and rice, water filter, MacGyver knife, sleeping bag (no pillow), tent (no frills), waterproof matches, and beef jerky.

“Camping” is when you pitch your tent next to the car in a “campground” where you can listen to the ballgame on the radio of the guy in the parking space next to you.

We pulled into the so-called campground just after dark and took the last tent space. We hardly needed a flashlight to pitch the tent. The place was lit up like a parking lot at a sports stadium. Every campsite had at least one lantern on the picnic table. The people across from us had five.

So the tent thing was easy. Then I lay back to look at the moonless night sky and listen to the crickets. I needed those crickets. Only they could unwind the coil of urban stress in my back. Then I could melt into the shimmering sky and rest.

But it was not to be.

The family to our left had five kids, all of ‘em fighting over who got to play with the dump truck.

Near as I could tell, the oldest person in the five-lantern family across from us was fifteen years old. There were at least eight of them, and every one had a case of the giggles. The girls in the tent swatted each other with pillows, and the boys outside played cards and slapped their hands on the table.

The family to our right had two and a half kids, all of them boys. “Get up and help your mother with the pots and pans.” “But, Dad, I don’t want to do anything right now.” (I could relate.) “You’ve spent all of fourteen years not doing anything. Now move.”

People are not supposed to behave this way in the woods after dark. Especially not in a canyon that amplifies sound.

Our “campsite” was on the path to the bathrooms. The path is a street, mind you, paved with asphalt and slathered with gravel. Every kid under twelve who walked by insisted on scraping his feet. Shloomp shloomp shloomp. Their mothers always seemed to be yelling.

It was just like the city without any walls. It wasn’t nature. It was a tailgate party minus the beer.

I couldn’t enjoy the crickets, so I figured I’d just go to sleep. It was all I could do to shut off the racket.

In the middle of the night I woke to Shelly squeezing my hand. She sat bolt upright in her sleeping bag and cocked her head sideways.

Something’s happening. Something’s out there.

We heard munching sounds. An animal was eating our food. And it wasn’t a raccoon or a chipmunk. It was too loud, surely a large mammal. A deer? A bear? Then I heard feet scrape past our tent. Shloomp shloomp shloomp. Human. Some dipshit eating our Cheeze-Its in our camp at 2:00 in the morning.

Shelly unzipped the tent. Heavy feet clomped away in the darkness.

She wanted to walk to the bathroom but didn’t want to wander around alone, not with the Cheeze-It Killer on the loose. So we both went. The canyon walls were awash with a spooky gray moonlight. The band of the Milky Way was bright as a celestial grow lamp. Mars shimmered above us, as close to Earth as the planet has ever been. It was quiet for once, and it was finally dark. The lanterns were out, the yammering silenced. Every third tent we passed vibrated with snoring, but at last I could listen to the crickets.

Then the horror show started. First one then at least a dozen coyotes howled at the moon, then at each other.

If you’ve never heard coyotes you have no idea what I’m talking about. It is the sound of a hundred madmen stabbing babies with scissors. High-pitched, piercing, feral, bloodthirsty, and mad.

They are harmless animals, but not everyone knows it. Most people don’t get the chance to hear them, especially not those who treat the great outdoors like a suburban block party on the Fourth of July.

The hysterical shrieking ricocheted off the canyon walls. We were surrounded. The tent-snoring stopped. A hundred pairs of eyelids snapped to attention, and no one dared giggle or make a ruckus.

For the first time that night, everyone understood where they were and what was expected of them.

We’re not in Portland anymore. We’re in the hinterland, in the desert. There are things out there and they don’t like the blazing light and the racket.

I climbed into bed and was lulled back to sleep by the chirping of crickets.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at August 17, 2003 10:43 PM

Actually, what you described sounds a LOT like the way the blackout went down in Brooklyn. Everyone hanging out in the streets with car radios on and the kids tearing ass around the block, the boys chasing the girls and the girls squealing like they were really scared. Good times. ...
No coyotes, though. Although I remember my first time hearing them. I used to say it sounded like a large man walking over a carpet of living cats, but I like your description better.


Posted by: ken at August 18, 2003 05:28 AM

I hate to sound harsh, but what did you expect? Of course those hateful campgrounds are full of loud and obnoxious people. Surely you couldn't have expected anything different?

From someone who loves "proper camping", although hasn't gone in a while.

Posted by: Zachary Braverman at August 18, 2003 05:52 AM

Campground selection is a big concern. I'm glad that a pack of canine scavengers helped you find your inner cricket, but next time you should put some more planning in. If you find the means to do so, flying into a cabin on a lake in Alaska will certainly help you find the solitude you seek. Otherwise, if you want to find quiet in Oregon, plan on schlepping your load up a trail.

Posted by: Patrick Lasswell at August 18, 2003 11:38 AM


Yes, I usually do shlep a load up a trail. This weekend reminded me why I've always preferred that...

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at August 18, 2003 11:40 AM

Update: Abigail and I are starting to look at flat water kayaking as a transportation to isolated places. We've noticed that there are fewer hills on the lower Willamette and Colombia than on Mt. Hood, the Gorge, or the Three Sisters.

Posted by: Patrick Lasswell at August 18, 2003 11:43 AM

Why, I slept near a lake at the foot of a volcano, having carried a heavy load up a trail and into the wilderness, just a week ago Saturday night.

Well, "slept" isn't quite the right word. Mostly I squirmed on a pile of rocks, trying to shut the wind out of my sleeping bag. Camping, whether in quotes or otherwise, should be more luxurious.

I didn't hear any coyotes; instead I was terrified by the boiling, groping lenticular cloud. I did see mountain goats, and found a good-sized bone near my bivouac, bleached white as snow.

Patrick, you'll be pleased to know I went filament-free. I want to tell you about my headlamp. It has two "on" settings. One setting consists of two bright white LEDs with lenses that create a cone of illumination. The other setting is a single red LED with no lens. This setting is very handy, because it illuminates details of near objects without wrecking night vision for the big picture. And to think, when I bought this lamp I thought the red light was just a gimmick.

Red LEDs: they're not just for crappy old calculators anymore.

Posted by: dipnut at August 18, 2003 04:18 PM

Mr. Totten,
I am glad you heard the Call of the Wild (lite). There is nothing quite like a pack of wolves running down a deer on a frozen river in the North. And, winter camping cuts down on the mosquitoes. We have plenty of gray wolves and coyotes ...

... and even an International Wolf Center nearby in Ely, Minnesota.

All, I heard the night of the blackout were the crickets.

Posted by: Virgil K. Saari at August 18, 2003 05:06 PM

The blackout was a lot like a camping trip - without the city lights, the stars were much brighter, everyone was out, sitting by (candle)fire light, talking instead of sitting inside. I even thought about cooking something on the barbeque, but we made do with some sushi that the local japanese place was selling for half price.

The first time I took the kids on a cross-country camping trip, we were thrilled by the eerie sound of the coyotes. It was a sign that we weren't in Kansas anymore.. we were out west, where the wild things were.

Posted by: mary at August 18, 2003 06:17 PM

You could see the stars! Oh, envy, envy! (even if we had had the blackout here in Boston, it was still so muggy and overcast that nothing could get through!)

Posted by: John Costello at August 18, 2003 06:57 PM

Camping? Camping?

But... but...why?

Posted by: Van der Leun at August 19, 2003 01:11 AM

Last weekend I took Exit 40 (Bonneville Dam) off I-84, cruised uphill for 7 miles to the top of the Gorge (Dublin Lake to be exact), and have never felt more (physically) isolated in my life. The campsite even had a couch made out of stones. I was quite surprised to wake up to find someone else filtering water, but he sure as hell wasn't 8 screaming children.

Posted by: Rob La Raus at August 19, 2003 03:04 PM

i miss hearing the coyotes. believe it or not, there are parts of LA, up in the foothills, where you can hear them quite often late at night. no coyotes out here in Hawaii, but your description made me remember the sounds quite well. We would even see them walking the streets sometimes, and i know we lost at least one of our cats to them. there was an urban legend when i was a kid that a little girl had fed one and later it had come back looking for food, and upon finding none attacked her. that kept us from ever even thinking about chasing coyotes. that and their howls. i miss camping.

Posted by: kool keith at August 19, 2003 05:36 PM

Did someone say "luxurious camping?"

Yes, it's a shameless plug, but at least it's on topic.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin at August 20, 2003 10:44 AM


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