My advice to you is not to inquire why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it’s on your plate.Thornton Wilder
I was born in western Washington, as were both of my parents and two of my four grandparents. Whenever one’s roots go that deeply into the soggy soil of the northwest, it is likely that somewhere in the past there have been men and women who worked in the woods. My father’s uncles were loggers, and as a young boy he and his father would join them for hunting and fishing trips. Throughout my childhood, venison and elk were frequently served at the dinner table, even bear. Since bear is tough, most of it was ground into meat for burgers, and I remember how the awful smell of bear grease would drift through every corner of our large brick house, but the burgers themselves would be rich and flavorful. My mother would pour off the grease, which we saved to apply to our leather boots for waterproofing.
My mother’s father was an early timber cruiser in the northwest. Cruisers were the original foresters who walked the woodlands marking trees for cutting, noting diseased trees, and most importantly marking trees to leave standing for the future health of the forest. I never knew him, but I like to think of him as an early forest conservationist of sorts. He learned his trade not at a university but from walking in the woods, first with my Uncle Frank then for many years on his own, studying the trees. His blaze was a hoot owl, which he carved into tree trunks with a hatchet. Logging museums throughout western Washington and Oregon typically have a display of old cruiser blazes, and I always feel a surge of pride when I see the hoot owl left by my grandfather, C.J. Ross.
In the summer time my mother’s family would camp in the area where he was working. My grandmother did the cooking and camp chores and was an accomplished oil painter who brought the deep green solitude of the old growth forest onto the canvas before it was logged, another form of conservation, beautiful memories preserved of an ancient forest now clear cut.
I used to love hearing my mother’s stories of those camping adventures before there were improved campgrounds. One that I would ask her to retell often was of the time she abruptly awakened to the sound of a loud crack at the small of her back. “Don’t move,” my grandmother said. She had just shot a rattlesnake that was coiled next to my mother. I admit I sometimes questioned the accuracy of these stories, as she was known to exaggerate, but in this case it was corroborated by my grandmother, who added details about the pistil she had used.
It must have seemed the most natural thing in the world for my father and mother to bring their own young family camping. Much of the camping equipment we owned had belonged to my father’s father and had been used by his family for many decades. It included an old brown canvas Army tent with steel poles that were stored in a long wooden box when not in use and screwed into curved joins. The box provided rodent protection for food once the tent was set up. The tent had no floor, so my dad would spread canvases on the ground before we put our sleeping bags down. There were no zippers, and the front flaps closed with ties that wrapped around the pole. There was also no rainfly, and in a heavy rain a fine mist would make its way between the canvas fibers and fall lightly onto our faces and sleeping bags. Rarely did it leave us more than just a little damp. The tent was large enough for all four of us to spread out our sleeping bags on their air mattresses. There was room by the door for a small wooden table that folded up with the rest of our equipment when not in use.
On the table were folded newspapers into which my mother had torn holes to be used as toilet seat covers in the outhouse. She was a bit of a germaphobe. I would sit there on the newspaper, watching the “outhouse mouse” make its way across the floor. One time I noticed that my hands were black from the ink on the newsprint and wondered if my bare butt was the same. When I returned to the tent I made sure no one was around, then pulled down my pants and bent over in front of the mirror on the table, turning my head to see the reflection. Sure enough, there were the classifieds, perfectly transferred there, and with a 1957 Chevrolet for sale. It looked just as though I had come fresh from the printing press.
We slept in sleeping bags made of Dacron and lined with plaid flannel, so it was like slipping into a warm and comfortable old shirt at the end of the day. The bags were warm but heavy, rolling up like Tootsie Rolls about eight inches in diameter. On the last day of a trip, my father would get up before the rest of us and pull the plugs on the air mattresses, a sorry event, as I listened to the air hissing out of four mattresses and my body sinking to the floor gradually, an apt metaphor for my sagging spirits on the last day of a camping trip. The day would be spent packing and loading the car. It took a long time to pack up that old tent.
When my parents retired they sold the brick house in Tacoma and downsized to a smaller home. My brother and I were both out of the home by then, and the equipment had not been used for many years. It made sense that they needed to lighten their load, but it broke my heart when I learned that they had taken it all to the Goodwill.
I am an old woman now, reflecting on a life that has been filled with many camping trips using many different versions of equipment, becoming progressively lighter over the years. It has been a very long time since I rubbed bear grease into my leather boots. I do not even wear leather boots anymore but trail runners. I learned early that I preferred backpacking to car camping, and on such a trip when I have finished setting up my two pound Ultra-Lite tent I sometimes reminisce. Of course I do. I am old. Yes old. . . but still walking in the woods like my grandfather before me. It comes naturally.