The Campout: A Comedy of Prophetic Metaphors
Falls Church was home in the spring of ’92, when I befriended a friend of a friend, a Bavarian named Jürgen. I don’t recall his Virginia connection. It had something to do with the German-UVA network. These Germans were clever. They got around economically. I recall one UVA German – a Swabian – who flew to Frankfurt on the cheap via (I think) an Afghan airline, which briefly served BWI. The airline’s ad in The Post featured a 747-100 à la 1970 – the old kind with the three windows on the upper deck – which could’ve used a power wash. Whatever airline it was, it had a moment’s fame in the late ‘80s when a snake sprung from an overhead en route to Kabul. The airline advertised cheap flights from the US to Frankfurt, a stopover on the way to Afghanistan. The Swabian booked it for $186, one-way, about what it cost me to get to New Orleans on U.ScAir. Obtaining the ticket involved calling the company’s Baltimore office, again and again, until someone showed up to work and then took the trouble to answer the phone. The Swabian persisted, got the ticket and flew to Frankfurt without a snakebite.
Jürgen was a friend of the friend who booked the Afghan ticket. He was just as adventurous because he agreed to go with me to West Virginia on an overnight camping trip. His mountain goat dexterity made up for my clumsy yet impulsive hankering to get out of NOVA. On the trails, he was hard to keep up with. Examining the map, we decided to tent-camp for a night somewhere around the Dolly Sods wilderness. We took my EMS tent, my map, my Ford Escort, my gas and my bourbon. Aside from that, he paid for his own meals.
Our first hike was at a park near Dolly Sods. I don’t recall the park’s name. But I remember steeply hiking up a mountain to some stone pinnacles, which looked like sandcastles rising from the mountaintop pines. The view was remarkable. But more memorable was what happened next. On the way down, Jürgen avoided the switchbacks and billy-goated straight and steeply down the mountain. I followed along, from a cautious distance. He was making fast headway until, when crisscrossing the trail, he encountered a tall woman with long, straight brown hair, sporting tinted eye glasses and khaki safari pants. Trailing her was a scraggly and bespectacled boyfriend who looked as if he was working on a PhD in Planetarium Management. She let Jürgen have it. Loudly and boldly, she chastised him with a lecture, delivered with academic overtones: “These mountains took billions of years to form and people like you are eroding them by running down the slopes off the trails. The signs say, ‘Stay On Trail.’ OBEY-THE-RULES! Inconsiderate people like you are ruining the ecosystem and crunching it up.” She concluded with a protruding lower lip, accentuating a pout. In retaliation, Jürgen pulled out his best weapon: his German accent. In appearance, Jürgen could have passed for any old slice of apple pie, like a clean-cut momma’s boy from Fargo. He’s the last person you’d expect to assault you with Germanic angst. As soon as she pouted, he fired back: “Das ist COMPLEEEEETELY reedikulus! Dees mountains vill not come down bekuzz I go down zee slopes in straight lines. I am from zee Alps!” Not missing a beat, like she knew that was coming, the tinted glasses boomed back: “STAY – ON – THE – TRAIL!” “Mind zee own bizness!” And Jürgen took off, straight down, twisting like a downhill skier, with me trailing, fumbling and grinning behind like a half-witted sidekick.
It was mid-afternoon when we got back to the car. Jürgen was still fuming, but nothing a little food and beer couldn’t cool down. Then we headed for the Dolly Sods wilderness. Using a detailed Forest Service map, we ventured through some dirt backcountry roads, winding hither and thither, until we arrived at a small parking lot. We weren’t planning to camp there, so we left the tent in the car. We hiked about five miles upon a remote plateau, through rocky bracken fields and dark forests, until it all opened up into a vast mountain-scape, overlooking a river valley, reaching into a distant horizon. The vista invited contemplation. But the setting sun suggested that we move on before it got too dark. Even then, it wasn’t likely that we’d make it back to the car before sunset. And the forested trail, by which we came, would be hard to follow in the gloaming, let alone in darkness. So – looking at the map – I suggested an off-trail shortcut to a dirt road, which we could easily follow back to the car, even in the dark. According to the map, it would involve about two miles of off-trail hiking before we got to the road, versus five miles on the trail to the parking lot. The westering sun would be our compass on our eastward trek through uncharted woods.
So off-trail we went. Before we got too far, though, we approached an encampment of about a dozen tents. We thought it was scouts. But as we cut through the campsite, we found out otherwise. It was a séance. Perhaps Druids. It was a party of playing bongos, chanting, howling and – so it seemed – conjuring spirits. I had the willies. Jürgen, who wasn’t religious, fell into a disapproving silence. “Vaht vas zat?” “Be quiet,” I said, “let’s get outta here.” Thoughts ran through my head. Were they into human sacrifice? Would we be impaled and roasted on skewers, apple in mouth, like pigs? Nah. Jürgen and I were slim. At most, we each might serve four. So we walked – quickly and without comment – for at least another half mile, not looking back, not talking, not checking the map. He later commented: “In America zer are weird people in zee woods. In Germany, zer are normal people in zee woods.” I didn’t argue.
When out of sound and sight, I checked the map to gauge our probable location and the setting sunlight behind us. I surmised where we were and how far we had to go. Moving onward and eastward, we encountered thickets and rock beds so dense that we considered turning back. The brush was merciless and the forest was more and more falling into shadow. Though the map indicated that a road was near, we never seemed to get there. I was haunted with doubts. Did I miscalculate? Were we lost? Would we find the road before dark? If not, it’d be a frightful night, between, nocturnal beasts and wandering Druids. But the map indicated that, if we continued eastward, we’d most certainly find a road. Sticking with plan was our only hope of escaping the woods before dark. We moved on. The rock beds became rugged mounds, demanding calculated footwork in the fast fading twilight. The brush and bracken became so thick that, with each step, it was hard to see if we were putting a foot onto a rock or into a hole. Visibility was murky. We moved on slowly and more slowly. Again, I considered turning back, fearing the terrain impassable. Perhaps we could make it back to the overlook and sleep on the rocks. I thought the better of it. We continued. The terrain got worse. Every inch of headway seemed like a major calculation. The foliage seemed to consume us. The rocks beds ascended into ragged mounds, steep and porous. For the third time, I was about to call it quits and backtrack to the cliffs. Then, all of sudden, the rocky mounds abruptly dropped like an embankment, and the brush cleared. Jürgen leaped like a deer onto the road. As soon as his feet hit the dust, a fast-driven car pulled a curve and avoided him by swerving left. The car was driven by a man who looked like a Planetarium Manager, accompanied by a pair of tinted glasses gazing through the passenger window. She stared right at Jürgen. “Deed’jou see zat? Das ist da same lady who chews me out!”
We hiked down the road, into the gloaming, back to the car. It was a blessed sight to see the white Escort – and even more blessed to feel its Mazda engine start and the gears shift as we left Dolly Sods in the dark. I studied the map for a camping spot. But my eye caught indications of a resort some miles away. The thought of splurging at a hotel with a bar and restaurant seemed like an apt follow-up to our adventure. So off we went, for about 45 minutes, only to find the resort eerily closed. It was late and pitch black. Again, I checked the map for nearby campsites. Nothing. So I drove down an unpaved forest road, searching for an inconspicuous place to park and pitch the tent. Meanwhile, Jürgen was laughing hysterically at country music lyrics on the radio. At around 11:00 pm, we found a level, grassy clearing. Perfect. Using headlights, we popped the tent, pulled the bourbon and talked into the wee hours before hitting the sleeping bags.
When sunrise gently warmed the tent, Jürgen got up and went out to take in nature. I was still in a groggy half-sleep. He flashed back into the tent. “LET’S GET OUWT OF HERE! VEE ARE IN SOMEVONE’S FRONT YARD!” I exploded out of my sleeping bag and launched out of the tent. Sure enough. This first thing I saw was a neighbor walking her dog down the dirt road. I whiplashed around. There was the white Escort and yellow tent, colors set off by the rising sun, prominently displayed on the panhandle of someone’s nicely mowed front yard, cater-corner to the house. The owners must have been away. The neighborhood looked recently subdivided along a quaint dirt road, with a few new houses alcoved in the forest. Without bothering to dismantle the tent, I loosened the poles and tossed the whole thing into the backseat. We made a hasty exit for Falls Church. We hit McDonald’s for breakfast, and I made it back for the Noon Mass at St. James.
I’ve often thought about this adventure. I always sensed that, somehow, the experience was a prophetic metaphor of life. Of a Christian life. Of history.
Fr. Frederick Edlefsen, Pastor