By Monday afternoon I knew something had to be done. Work was beginning to take its toll, and I still had the rest of the week to go.
“Jason, you working all day Friday?”
My co-worker checked the schedule and looked up from his computer. “Looks like we could finish up by noon. What do you have in mind?”
“A quick overnight, up the ridge behind my house. You in?”
I called my brother Andy and he agreed to meet us at my house around two o’clock Friday afternoon. We could load most of the gear on his sidecar and Jason would ride up with me. With a plan made and a camping trip to look forward to, the work-week fairly flew by.
Friday afternoon found us at my house, eager to go. Jason squeezed into the narrow confines of the Sputnik bolted to my Triumph and we closed the lid, locking him in place. The homebuilt sidecar on Andy’s KLR was buried under a pile of packs, sleeping bags, ice chests and water jugs. It looked like a busload of kids off for a week at summer camp, not three adults roughing it for one night.
I live in a narrow draw along the east side of the Cascade Mountains, a few miles from the nearest town. The woods start right behind my house, a patchwork of county land, private timber company holdings and the Mt. Hood National Forest. They cover a high plateau, furrowed with arroyos cut by snowmelt rushing down to the valley floor. This plateau is crisscrossed by a maze of gravel roads and dirt spurs; logging roads punched through the forest to harvest a tract of timber, then abandoned to the brush and second growth. We headed up one of these roads to a hidden spot, nestled beside a mountain stream which flowed through a cleft in the ridge. Only about eight miles up Neal Creek Canyon, the road to the campsite is steep, rough, and little used.
We clawed our way to the top of the ridge, our engines growling, wheels kicking gravel as we throttled through the corners and manhandled the overloaded rigs over the deeply rutted road. Reaching the summit we turned left, onto an overgrown, almost invisible dirt track; dense firs pressed in to form a shadowy green tunnel. We pushed through the brush, using a bucksaw and a machete to cut deadfall out of our path, dragging the slash to the edge of the ruts. After thirty minutes of banging through the trees we arrived at the bottom of a narrow draw cut by an unnamed tributary of Neal Creek. We had made good time and there was still plenty of daylight left to set up camp and gather some firewood.
Andy had forgotten his tent and his sleeping bag so I lent him a blanket and a Thermarest camp pad. Using a cot, a mylar survival blanket and a web woven from about three miles of jute twine he began erecting a shiny cocoon that looked like a cross between an alien space station and a reflector oven; it rattled and crackled with the slightest breeze.
With Andy still macraméing his shelter, Jason and I set about collecting firewood. There was a tangle of dead limbs beneath the alders along the stream. The wood was dry and snapped easily. We stomped on the smaller branches to break them in half and sawed the larger ones into convenient lengths; soon we had a respectable pile of fuel. Breaking off dead twigs from the trunk of a fir and adding bits of dead leaves and Spanish moss, Jason formed a tinder bundle. I lit a candle and applied the flame to the bottom of the tinder, adding kindling as it caught. Candle wax dripped over bigger branches encouraged them to burn. A large boulder provided a windscreen and reflected the heat back at us. We had the fire burning merrily as the evening began to cool. Time to crack open a beer and kick back.
Andy started up the camp-stove and stir-fried summer squash and asparagus with onion, garlic, and fresh herbs in a cast iron skillet. He produced some bratwursts and skewers and we pulled our chairs up close to the fire. The sausages blistered and sizzled in the flames, drippings igniting in flaring bursts of light. The aroma of dinner cooking wafted through the trees. Jason poured himself some wine.
After our meal we hung a pail of water over the fire and brought it to a rolling boil. We did the dishes and locked the food up in my sidecar, out of reach of bears and raccoons. Then we leaned back in our chairs and stared at the stars, twinkling above us in a narrow ribbon of dark blue night as the yellow light of the fire flickered up and down the trees. The sound of the creek tumbling past our camp washed away the last vestiges of work and all was right in the world.
The birds began to sing with first light, and I unzipped my tent and rolled out, refreshed by a serene night’s rest. My brother hadn’t slept so well, wrapped in his noisy mylar pupa. Jason had the worst of it: his open tarp faced a deer trail which traversed the loose rock slope behind him and passed through camp to the stream where they watered. When the deer had left, Jason heard the coyotes slink by; he lay awake a good portion of the night wondering if a bear or a cougar might be next.
I put the kettle on for tea while Andy, needing something stronger, got out his coffee press. With a load of caffeine aboard we were all able to appreciate the dawn of a new day – a day improved considerably by breakfast. I don’t know how Andy ended up doing all the cooking that trip, but it certainly worked out well. He whipped up scrambled eggs with bacon and hash browns.
After breakfast Jason and I did the dishes. Then we struck camp and packed the bikes. I rolled the rocks from our fire ring into the brush, carried the charcoal down to the creek and brought back a bucket of water to soak the ground where the fire had been. We left nothing behind but a sooty spot next to a large rock, and our cares and worries, composting next to a burbling stream in the shadows of the forest.