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The Camper of Oz

This is the post excerpt.

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This is my first blog post, but I’m updating it from time to time. This blog started out as an avenue for me to write about my love of Colorado, and to write a little bit about the Coleman lanterns I collect. Since that original concept, I’ve started adding a lot of camping gear “reviews” and occasional random deep-thought posts.

Right now I’m starting to explore the state of Kansas through camping — something I’ve never done. I still miss and love Colorado, but I’ve found out that Kansas has a lot of state parks worth exploring, and it gives me an excuse to go bass fishing. Camping then, is a must. So in short, this blog is remaining the same, but expanding. If that makes sense. I look forward to continuing my lame conversations-with-self about camping gear, writing about outdoor adventures in tents, and now more posts about bass fishing.

A Comprehensive Coleman 4-Person Cook Kit

$20 was the asking price, and after some contemplation, I decided I couldn’t leave the antique mall without this Coleman 4-Person Mess Kit. It looks like it hadn’t even been used once, and look at all the features inside:

The main cooking pot, with handles that fold over for easy packing and lid securement (is “securement” even a word?) …

Ah, the coffee cup! Very lightweight, it surely won’t keep your coffee or tea hot for very long, but that’s the bane of all lightweight camping gear.

A neat little ladle, with folding handle.

This is the prize of the whole kit: A tea kettle. I’m not exactly sure how it works. If you put loose-leaf tea or tea bags in the center, the water would still barely touch it. Pouring hot water over it is an idea, but that makes this device a Catch-22: you need the water from the kettle, or an additional kettle which would be pointless. I don’t know. It has a lid that covers the top, it’s just not in the photo.

Plates. I mean, we all need plates.

Last but certainly not least, a frying pan with folding handle. Notice the notch, which allows for easy pouring.

This thing is really, really cool! Imagine the space I’d save if I could just take this instead of the other cast iron or sturdier frying pans I bring. I doubt I’ll ever actually use this kit. Obviously it’s just not big enough to cook for two adults and three children, so I’d only ever really be able to use this on a solitary adventure. It sure is unique, though. It has the magic price tag of $20. That’s pretty much the sweet spot for most “used” Coleman stuff I look for in antique stores or estate sales. Plus if I can find it in mint condition like this, it’s a no-brainer.

The Impossible Balance of Cabin/Campsite Usage

There is something that has been weighing on my mind over the past few years when it comes to camping in far-off destinations. Last year it came to fruition in all of its uncomfortable glory, which I’ll explain shortly. There’s no word or phrase for it, other than: That feeling you get when you’re camping in a beautiful place but not at your campsite enough to enjoy it because you’re going off to other beautiful places to explore, fish, hike, etc. I’m not sure if I’m the first person to have anxiety over this but I’ll talk about it now, because it really bothers me. Another great example: You rent a $300 per night cabin in Estes Park, CO but all the meanwhile you’re off exploring Rocky Mountain National Park and not spending time in the place you’re spending huge cash on (photo below).  You get the idea.

This was never really an issue for me until last year. For some reason I really noticed it then. In fact, it even altered the way we spent the last day of our vacation in Colorado. We booked a cabin in Estes Park for two nights — a Wednesday afternoon 4:00 p.m. check-in through a Friday morning departure at 9:00 a.m. Wednesday afternoon/evening was spent unpacking and getting to know the place, take showers after three days of camping, and generally just be cozy mountain bums. Thursday was our only full day there, but it was at the base of Rocky Mountain National Park, so we thought we’d traipse around RMNP all day, then leave on Friday morning. Well, not so fast. Thursday morning we drove Trail Ridge Road through RMNP and stopped at the Visitor Center, about half-way into the park.  Everything was amazing, perfect. Until we started taking, and realized that if we continued on, we’d be abandoning our pricey cabin most of the day. The thing is, our cabin was spectacular, we loved just being there. We felt shitty for not continuing on through RMNP, and felt shitty for not using the cabin we were paying a lot of money for. We decided to end our RMNP adventure and go back and spend the rest of the day at the cabin. In the end, it was a good call, because my son and I fished on the Fall River that ran through the property and had a blast. Perfect afternoon, wouldn’t take it back for the world. However, we also realized we missed out on more amazing scenery on Trail Ridge Road, we could spend three full days in RMNP easily. See what I mean? It’s never going to be a win-win situation.

This year we are camping at a new campground we’ve never been to. Our “usual” campground was great, it was buried in the woods and offered more of a  stay-around-here vibe as there weren’t any fishing opportunities anywhere close by. This year is different as there are rivers and reservoirs nearby, and also many, many dirt roads into the deep wilderness that beg exploring (something we could never really do where we usually go).  In other words. Plenty of opportunity to be away from the campsite. Part of me loves the exploration but another part of me could sit in my camp chair by the tent, drink beer all day, and just sit there and talk, write, stare at the beauty, take occasional hikes, and just absorb every moment tentside.

I don’t know, it’s less of an issue with a campsite compared to an expensive, cozy cabin. The cabin we are staying at this year is in a different situation than last, so I’m not too concerned about having the same feelings as last year.

It is an interesting issue. One I never have to face in Kansas: Wherever I put my tent near the lake, that’s where I’ll be. I’m hopeful I can find the proper balance this year in Colorado.

Camping Dessert: Poor Man’s Donut Holes

My mom made a passing comment one day about how she used to make fried cinnamon balls using biscuit dough for a dessert while camping in Colorado in the late 70’s. I thought that sounded pretty simple to do, and I like the old-school nostalgia of it, so I thought I’d try to make it myself.

I will admit I hate baking or frying things involving dough of any kind. A few months ago on a Friday night, I tried to make homemade bannock. It went horribly wrong. What ended up happening was the oil got too hot and the dough got burned up instantly on the outside while the inside was raw,

So without a thermometer, I got back to work. Let’s see how it went:

First of all, I bought the cheapest biscuit dough I could find. $1 for two rolls of a generic brand. That’s 20 biscuits for $1. Now, you can look on You Tube and get many different ideas on how to do this. Most people will use an apple corer and cut out the center of the biscuit, thus making both donuts and donut holes. I chose my mom’s version, I just rolled each biscuit into a ball, and dropped it in the oil. What happened is this: the first several turned out okay. The remaining ones got fried black on the outside and stayed raw in the middle (I didn’t learn from my bannock mistakes). The oil got way too hot. I let the oil cool down and the last few biscuits turned out good.

After they are golden brown in the oil (I just poured a few cups (?) of vegetable oil in a pan) I put them on a paper towel to cool. After cooling, I roll them around in cinnamon sugar. One cup of sugar with 1.5 teaspoons of cinnamon make WAY too much for the two rolls of biscuits, but the measurements make for a good cinnamon sugar mix, you can always add more or use less cinnamon.

The final product, when not burnt, is pretty good. Nice and crispy on the outside, the inside is soft and bready. The cinnamon sugar is perfect.

I don’t know the name for these. For all I care they are just homemade donut holes. It was just an experiment based on something my parents used to make in the mountains at their campsite. As a general rule, I hate cooking with oil as it is messy and too many things can go wrong. And I don’t think I’ll ever attempt this while camping, but it is very easy (and cheap!) to do. I’ve read that the oil temp is supposed to be 350 degrees. Maybe if I buy a food thermometer I’ll know.

Thoreau Shall Comfort Me —Sunday Morning Thoughts

There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of Nature and has his senses still.

– Henry David Thoreau

I’ve had a rough couple of weeks, mentally/emotionally. However, I’ve found myself sitting outside a lot lately, watching the birds. The birds are tireless workers. I admire them. I never used to care for them, but lately it just seems like they are the one constant I can always rely on in the out-of-doors. They are everlasting. And as I’ve visited more state parks, I’ve come across more different, unique birds, which causes me to appreciate them even more.

But more to my original point, sitting near trees, and the sound of birds is a calming influence. My backyard is shitty, but the presence of my three newly planted trees bring me great joy. I hope they make it. I’m well aware that at a 1-2 feet per year growth rate, my yard won’t be transformed for many years, but at least I started something. One of my black walnut trees is starting to really shine:

The arc of my life is following Richard Proenneke’s. He worked his ass off all of his life until at around age 51 he built his cabin in Alaska and retired from the grind, because like me, he was just sick of it all.  I’m only 42 and I’m ready to do that now, which is not possible, but Proenneke gives me hope (however fantasy-laden it is).

All of my newfound heroes are isolationist in Nature. Thoreau, Proenneke, and Olson just to name a few. I just read a passage from Sigurd F. Olson where he talks about the virtues of being alone in Nature, yet how important it is to share that experience with others. Well I have a family and so I agree, I couldn’t traipse off into the woods alone. Sometimes I do feel the need for a solitary camping trip, just to see how I’d feel about it, I think it may help me, but I would feel selfish without sharing that experience with my son at least. I’m very aloof and am in my own world most of the time but I couldn’t imagine being without my dog at my side offering me companionship. It is that kind of dichotomy of aloneness and needing that I’ve always lived.

My upcoming trip to Colorado has me filled with anxiety and unbridled excitement. We are camping in a different part of the state, still in the mountains but the topography is just going to be different. More rivers, lakes, dusty roads, blue skies. More spread out. More freedom, in a sense. More vastness. It’s hard to explain. No Denver. For the first time since we’ve been going to Colorado starting in 2006, we won’t be in the Mile High City. We won’t miss the traffic.

Nature Badges, How to Earn Them

My fictional-Naturalist TAMTOK life needs rewards. Badges. To identify progress.

Here are the categories:

• Bird identification – I’m getting better, I have a bird guide book but I’m still at Level 0. I think 10 birds will qualify for level 1. I’m probably close then.

• Tree identification – I’m at Level -47. Seriously, trees seem so easy to identify but they are not. I literally see trees everyday that I’m clueless about. I also have a tree guide book and it’s still difficult.

• Mammal identification – For strictly Kansas wildlife, I’ve still only seen about 8 different wild animals and half of those are in the city like skunks, raccoons, etc. I have seen some other fascinating creatures like woodchucks and beavers at state parks. I’m still just below Level 1.

• Lantern cleaning, repair, usage – Okay, I’ve earned this badge already. I can clean a lantern, repair it most of the time, change mantles, change the generator, change the leather pump cup, and identify most lanterns.  I can add camp stoves to this category. I don’t know how many levels I’d make but I’ve at least earned the basic badge on this one.

• Camp cooking – I don’t know what my standards are but I can percolate coffee, and cook a really, really good breakfast hash on cast iron. Breakfast is covered in any desire. I’ve done baked potatoes, soup, hot dogs. S’mores isn’t even a skill so that doesn’t count. Perhaps a dessert item is the one thing keeping me from a badge here.

• Tent Snobbery: Tent know-how — More like how many different kinds of tents one can pitch and deal with, along with some tarp skills. This is a category in the works still.

• Fishing: Various species caught — Well this is the most straight-forward badge I can think of yet the most unpredictable. I figure 5 different species should earn the badge. I’ve done that in my life, but not recently which is what this is about.

• Hiking – No idea how to define this badge. If I lived in Colorado I could just go by number of 14ers, but Kansas is different.

• First Aid Kit Usage – Any time it’s used to cure something a badge is earned. Luckily I’ve never even needed a band-aid.

• Clean Earth – Zero Trace – Not sure how to define it. I pick up trash at every campsite I go to, and leave it cleaner than when I arrived. That’s worth something.

This is a fluid situation. New badges can pop up at anytime, like a Mileage Badge for number of miles traveled on camping trips. Or the Neil Young Badge for number of Neil Young albums listened to.

Depression/Nature

I am prone to Depression. I just am. I watched my parents get divorced at the tender age of six years old, and it pretty much all went downhill from there. I was actually okay for awhile, until high school where the mood swings started. Violent mood swings. Then in college the real shit hit the fan. Like Depression 5.0. The heavy shit. The listening to Radiohead and drinking while google searching “depression” late at night shit, while crying.

Ah, the good ol’ days. I’m still not immune. I still hit spells. This month has been one. And there are no serious causes. It has made me avoid Instagram a bit. Drink a lot. Be in really shitty moods for three days in a row // every week.

May has been the absolute worst month of 2019 for me. And I realized I haven’t been camping yet in May. And I won’t. I was supposed to go this weekend but the entire state of Kansas is under severe weather threat, plus there is still flooding issues that would have ruined my trip anyway. The following weekend is Memorial Day Weekend in which case thousands of people flock to the lakes … I hate people. No, seriously, I do. I don’t want to be around them. So the month of May has been a washout. I guess this weekend I’ll drink and watch/hope my newly planted trees grow in my backyard.

I realized something. I have never, ever been depressed in Nature. Ever. One of the worst years of my depression was 1999. I lived in Denver, Colorado that year. I didn’t go into the mountains ONCE. Don’t even ask me how that is a possibility, although I know the answer, and it’s a long, long complicated story that nobody wants to read.

Anytime I have been camping or in the woods I have not been in a depressive state. Surely that cannot be coincidence.

I’ll hold onto it for now. Maybe June will be better.

Ordering Trees Online

This is what it looks like when you order trees online. There are actually four trees in that bundle — trees.com nicely sent me a roselow crabapple tree for free. This is such a TAMTOK (the aspiring modern Thoreau of Kansas) thing — to order a tree off the Internet. The “modern” really shines through. It’s very common apparently, as there are countless websites to order trees from.

The other three trees I have to plant are one eastern redbud, and two black walnuts. I just realized this morning that I had both of these kinds of trees in my front and back yard at the house I grew up at from 4th grade through high school. I literally ordered these two kinds of trees for separate reasons, not because I’ve lived with them before.

I wanted to channel TAMTOK by planting trees native to Kansas. There are eastern redbuds everywhere here, you cannot believe how many you see in springtime. I love their canopy shape, their heart-shaped leaves, and their brilliant lavender to pink to red to purple colors in bloom. The only black walnut tree I have ever knowingly seen in Kansas was the one in my backyard. The husk surrounding the actual walnut is extremely fragrant. I love the shape of the alternate, pinnately compound leaves. In the book Wildwood, Roger Deakin writes extensively about the walnut tree. I owe that book a great deal of credit for inspiring me to plant some black walnut trees.

Now the hard part: planting them and having them survive. You see, I have something I’ll call Death Hands. Every single thing I have ever planted at my current house (2011) has died. Some shrubs have lasted a few years but they eventually rotted. I do not have the green thumb, the natural touch. I don’t know why. I did plant one tree successfully, a weeping Norway spruce, but it was already pretty tall so there was a greater chance of it surviving. I still have it, and it’s quite pretty.

The trees I ordered arrived in a thin cardboard box. They are only two feet tall now so I’m pretty nervous. All I can do is try. I love trees, and I’m hopeful for their existence. My backyard had three huge silver maples in it when we moved in, and two of them promptly died. I miss all of the branches, leaves, and sunlight patterns on the lawn. It will take years to achieve that, but you have to start sometime.