Camping with the arrow.
"Sir," he said, "did you know you came in against the arrow?"
I leaned out my car window to look where he indicated. "What arrow might that be?" I asked.
"The big yellow one painted on the asphalt there," he said, indicating a big yellow one painted on the asphalt. "If you wish to camp in a national park, sir, you must abide by the rules."
"Sorry," I said. "Am I under arrest?"
The youthful ranger pushed his Smokey hat back on his head and scrutinized me from behind yellow-tinted sunglasses. Then he grunted. "Not just yet, sir, but we would certainly appreciate your cooperation here at Misty River National Park. Violators will not be tolerated."
"I'm trying to quit," I said. Just ahead, in campsite No. 1, I watched a red-faced man in a bathing suit strain to adjust the TV antenna atop a 45-foot trailer. Somewhere in the bowels of his silver-and-yellow getaway, his wife and children were "roughing it" with a Fred Flintstones rerun. A small white dog that looked like a rat with hyperthyroidism pushed his head out a window and growled at me, and I batted the air and hissed like a treed cougar, chuckling as he leaped back to safety with a squeaky yip.
"But tell me, son," I said, remembering the ranger, "is this a good place to camp?"
The sunglasses caught my reflection as he leaned out the window of his little booth. "That was extremely antisocial," he said with a frown. "Animal companions are most welcome here as long as they are well-mannered."
"Sorry--really," I said. "But what about it? Other than the 'yabba-dabba-dos' coming from that traveling hotel over there, is this a good place to camp?"
"The woods are lovely, dark, and deep," the ranger said softly.
"Frost?" I asked.
"Not for another month or so," he answered seriously. "Once in a while it rains this time of year, but it won't get that cold."
A commotion to the left caught my attention, and I looked out the window again just as a chipmunk wearing a yellow plastic radio transistor collar sped across the road. In close pursuit were approximately 300 children on skateboards, each with a dog. "Shouldn't they be on a leash?" I asked.
"Why, yes, they should," the ranger affirmed, leaning far out to evaluate the situation, "and it appears they are." He strained just a little farther. "Every dog is properly leashed," he said happily. "Per park policy."
"I was talking about the kids," I said, "but never mind. Guess I'll just mosey on down toward the water and look for a spot to throw my bag. I've been driving solid for two days, and I'm looking forward to holing up for awhile."
"Take these with you," the ranger said, handing me a stack of brochures. "You may have campsite 206. I'm sure you will find the accommodations lovely. The pay showers are to your right, the recreation hall to the left. There will be a nature walk after lunch, and don't forget the evening amphitheater program." He smiled and held out his hand. "That will be $12, please."
"Twelve dollars!" I exclaimed. "Just to throw down a sleeping bag?"
"In a designated camping spot only, of course," he said.
"You got anything for $2.50?" I asked.
"I'm a little short. My vacation lasted longer than I'd anticipated, see . . ."
The ranger shook his head slowly. "The fee is $12," he said. "Believe me, sir, the amphitheater program alone is worth the money."
"Well, how 'bout I just stay in my sleeping bag, forget about taking a shower, and let someone have my place in the recreation hall?" I asked. "I really just want to sleep about 12 hours and be on my way again." I--the man who had once set a North American record by going an entire summer in Alaska without washing--would not miss a little warm water now. And though my crustiness then had more to do with economics, the cost of mosquito dope, and the fact that during a three-month fishing frenzy I lost all track of time, place, and social civility, it certainly wouldn't hurt to save a couple of quarters at this juncture, either.
"Twelve dollars," the ranger repeated. "This is not a negotiable item, sir."
"All right, all right," I grumbled, digging out my last $15. "Does 206 have a fire pit? Looks like I'll be eating hotdogs again tonight."
"Fires are not allowed here, sir," the ranger said. "If you wish, however, you may purchase a burrito at the snackbar. Use of the microwave is free."
"Microwave?" I blurted incredulously. "Microwave! What happened to good old burned wienies and warm beans? What about the woodsmoke and the bug spray and the paper plate that gets all soggy and falls apart? You call this camping?"
Granted, I had not camped in a national park for many years, but what was a camping trip without unidentifiable sounds in the night that made you hold your breath at the bottom of your sleeping bag? What use a good book without a dying flashlight, shadows dancing on the wall of a canvas tent, and the musty smell of freedom and adventure? Had this camping become sanitized, regulated, and made so utterly bland that it was a pathetic extension of what I had hoped to escape?
"Our other guests haven't complained," he said. "Misty River has an excellent reputation."
"Oh?" I said, quickly thumbing through a brochure. "Is that based on your gourmet burritos or the accuracy of your marked nature trail?" I thumbed a little farther. "Perhaps it's the quality of your pine-needle baskets. It says here you employ some of the area's finest artisans to teach the class."
"That is correct," he said smugly. "And don't forget the fish-smoking demonstration or the porcupine quill art. We use liquid smoke and simulated quills. Why, some of our campers are here just to take the advanced leathercraft classes." He smiled. "Imitation leather, of course."
"Mister," I finally said, "all I want to do is sleep. Point me toward 206, and I won't bother you any more."
"Will you be wanting a wakeup call?" he asked. "There's a delightful wildflower seminar right after the nature walk."
"Thank you, but that won't be necessary," I assured him. "I'll probably wander down to the aerobics class on the beach and degrade myself instead, but that's not until late afternoon. I'll certainly be awake by then."
"Excellent choice, sir!" he said. "Excellent choice indeed. But do be careful to take the correct trail. Two roads diverge in the woods . . ."
"Frost?" I asked again, hopefully.
"Chance of rain," he said. "Haven't we been through this already?"
"Sorry," I said, "I guess we have." I started my car, lurched forward, and killed it as a bewhiskered man in a late-model truck pulled into the spot I had vacated.
"Sir," I heard the young ranger say to him, "did you know you came in against the arrow?"
Between his rugged outdoor excursions, humorist Alan Liere leads a civilized life in Spokane, Washington.
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|Title Annotation:||Humor; short story|
|Date:||Jul 1, 1993|
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