The last time I went camping was five years ago, for a friend’s bachelor party at an off-the-grid cabin on a mountain in New Hampshire. As darkness fell, there was one guy nobody seemed to know. When I asked about him, one of the partygoers told me, “He’s a hitchhiker. I picked him up to help carry stuff up to the cabin.” We all laughed until we realized he was serious and we were now living in a horror movie. As we crawled into our sleeping bags that night, my friend Dave said, “Good night, Ez. Don’t get murdered by the hitchhiker.” That gave me my fill of camping for a while.
But recently my buddy Dan invited me camping at a place he goes every year, a remote fishing outpost set in a stand of trees near a deserted piece of beach. It’s nothing more than some boards laid down to keep you off the ground, a couple of benches and a fire pit. With an upcoming stretch of unseasonably warm fall weather, I decided to break my camping boycott and head out there for a night.
Because it’s a hike to get to this place, Dan recommends packing light. As in, no tent. “It’s not supposed to rain,” he says, “so you just need a sleeping bag.” Even with no tent, I find myself dragging a beach cart loaded with a towering heap of supplies: a cooler, foul-weather gear, an air mattress, a pillow from home, paper towels and—banish the thought—toilet paper. Experienced hikers know you want a waterproof “dry bag” for crucial items, and I have one of those. A layman might take it for a Hefty kitchen trash bag. Which, OK, it is.
Between the trash bag full of clothes and the air mattress, I look less like a camper and more like a disaster victim or a guy whose wife just found his Tinder account. I’m not at all confident in my preparations, least of all in our food supplies. We plan to catch fish for dinner, which is a great plan if you are a pelican. You know what they say: You give a man a fish and… gee, that would be awesome. Please, give me a fish.
Fortunately, I’ve brought a package of jalapeno chicken sausages, just in case. When Dan drops one in the fire—a full 25 percent of our sausage supply—I spear it, wash it off and eat it anyway. After only three hours in the boonies, I’ve already revised the five-second rule to include eating food covered in soot. I’m probably not the guy you want in charge of the rations on your lifeboat.
By 9 pm we’re ready for bed, and I climb onto my air mattress, snuggle into my sleeping bag and prepare for a blissful slumber beneath the stars. I fall asleep almost instantly, aided as I am by the one provision of which the camp had no shortage: bourbon.
When I awaken, it’s with the unease you get when you’re fully conscious but vaguely aware that it’s nowhere near time to get up. Could it be 5 am? That would be OK. I could even deal with 4 am. I look at my phone and learn that it’s precisely 12:38 am. And I’m awake because of the bloodthirsty cloud of mosquitoes hovering around us, thick as the windless night air. Of all the good reasons to bring a tent, mosquitoes hadn’t occurred to either of us. And now there’s no escape.
I wrap a long-sleeved shirt around my head and stick my nose and mouth out through the head hole. But it’s not thick enough to drown out the buzzing, and I can hear them trying to get in. They keep landing on my nose, and I’m smashing them onto my face every minute or two. It’s the middle of the night, and I’m awake, smeared with blood and insect carcasses. The Native Americans had a word for dealing with this: “Ramada.”
By 4 am I’m cutting deals with whatever deity might listen, claiming that I’ll buy some mosquito nets for the Red Cross if only the attack relents. It doesn’t, but I might still do that anyway. Not really out of humanitarianism, but spite toward mosquitoes. Right now I would napalm this whole pristine ecosystem just to get rid of the mosquitoes. Didn’t I read that some scientist was breeding them to give one another deadly STDs or something? Let’s hurry up with that.
By sunrise I’m covered in so many bites that I look like I have the measles. It’s temping to say that if I had a tent, the whole experience would’ve been different. But buying a tent is a slippery slope that eventually leads to growing a beard and carrying metal cups on your backpack. I think I’ll stick with my prior policy, which is sleeping indoors. You know what makes a great window to nature? A window.