SURVEYOR'S NOTEBOOK

Pitching your Tent in Dogshit

By Rik van Hemmen

Living is nothing more than postponing the moment where you kill yourself.

So far so good, but I have come really close a number of times. And retrospectively, mostly due to a lack of attention to the details.

One that continues to stand out to me was when I was a student at Virginia Tech. A close friend of mine, Ricky, an Eagle scout who had just broken up with his girlfriend, called me and said: “Rik, I am climbing the walls here, and I just have to get out of town. I am thinking to climb Old Rag Mountain, stay overnight and fly some kites the next day. Want to join me?”

(BTW I don’t remember the actual mountain name, but I love the name Old Rag Mountain and it is in the general vicinity, so I will use it)

“Well Ricky, in principle I am game, but I suppose you are aware it is the middle of the winter and there is an impressive amount of snow up there. Moreover, my gear is at home.”

“Don’t worry, the mountain has a trail and I am sure the snow has been flattened by now. My uncle has excellent gear and you can use that”

“Well, I still need hiking boots, but I suppose I can get a new pair and I will meet you Friday at noon at Washington and Lee and that will get us to the foot of the mountain trail around 2 pm, which should give us enough time to get to the top and pitch our tent. But I can only bring the clothes I have here and the new boots, you have to put all the rest of the stuff together.”

At the foot of the trail under an overcast sky, Ricky handed me my pack out of the trunk of the car. It was a decent pack, nothing great. I put my spare clothes in the pack and saw there was a sleeping bag in it. He told me about the food he had packed, and he would carry the tent while I would carry the kites. We started on the trail, and it was OK, not great, but the snow had been flattened out by other hikers over the last few days. The air was starting to feel like more snow though.

“Ricky what is the weather forecast?”

“We might get a little snow tonight, but tomorrow will be crystal clear”

By 4 pm it was snowing and almost totally dark, and by the time we reached the summit around 530 we needed our flashlight. My feet were also hurting in those new hiking boots.

“OK, let’s get the tent up quick”

Ricky took out the tent and poles while I held the light. And something was not right. The tent was his uncle’s tent. He had never set it up, and did not even know what it really looked like.

Next I discovered my sleeping bag was a down summer bag, which in the Virginia slushy snow I could not quite keep dry and things just kept getting worse.

That was the beginning of a truly dangerous night, too long to explain here, but let’s say the night was very long and with first light I knew we had to get moving and get down the mountain.

I have to admit that Ricky was right. The sky was crystal clear that morning, and it was crystal cold too. There also was just short of two feet of fresh snow. In an effort to keep my bag just a little dry, I had not stuck my boots in my bag. I put the boots on and what little circulation I had in my feet stopped, since the boots themselves had effectively become two freezer packs.

We knocked down the tent, if that is the right word, since the tent never really stood up to start with, and headed down the mountain.

Two feet of fresh snow can very dramatically change a mountain landscape and we got lost. By the time we got back to the car we were in bad shape.

We also realized that with two feet of snow we could not get back over the ridge to Washington and Lee, but since Ricky went to an all boys’ college he had an immediate solution: “Let’s go downhill to Sweet Briar College”. Ricky pulled victory out of the jaws of defeat. Effectively we were saved by the hot showers in the boy’s visitation dorm. Or whatever those accommodations are called at all girls’ colleges.

I lived, and learned a lot. About snow camping, the ladder test, knowing your gear before you leave, and how to work the Virginia girl’s college circuit.

A few years later when working as a yacht designer, I provided engineering assistance to a guy who wanted to row from Chile to Antarctica. He had no money but, as a North Face rep, he comped me with a really nice tent.

The tent shows up and I knew exactly what I had to do to postpone the time of my eventual death:

“Pitch that damn tent when you don’t need it, so you know how to do it when you need it!”.

My girlfriend and I were living in Newport, RI in the Fifth Ward (now called “Yachting Village”) in an old colonial converted to four apartments that were occupied by other people of my ilk and dogs. One of the dogs was named Lucky, but he smelled so bad that the owner locked him up in the staircase at night. In the morning the Owner would let him out and when I walked to work, he would occasionally waddle with me for a couple of blocks. As long as he was downwind it was kinda cute.

I never had to go into the staircase, since we had a downstairs apartment and our main access was through the old kitchen door. Right out front of our apartment there was a little patch of grass.

The grass was nice and dry. So I take the tent out of the bag and pitch it.

I also made a note to myself: “Make sure to water proof it and get a ground cloth and pack it in the tent bag before it is put away.”

It was a self supporting dome tent, so it popped up once the poles were in. It was kinda cool to show my girlfriend how I could pick the whole thing up and move it around.

Lovely tent. I set it down, and we crawled inside and lounged around a little. This tent would have worked like a gun on Old Rag Mountain in two feet of snow!

Then I smelled dog shit.  Yes, I had dropped my tent into a pile of dog shit, and nicely smeared it out by lounging inside the tent. To this day I blame Lucky. Only he could produce a stench like that.

I scrubbed and scrubbed, but even years later, whenever I took that tent out of the bag, I would get a whiff of Lucky.

I have never been able to characterize that whiff as good or bad. Yeah it stank, but it also was an almost poetic reminder about the roll of the dice: Be prepared, but also make sure you pay attention when you prepare. A training exercise can go wrong as easily as the real thing.

Regardless, the dice never stop rolling.

Anne, my girlfriend in Newport, and now my wife, also was the girl who broke up with Ricky just before our ascent of Old Rag Mountain. Bizarrely, Ricky’s camping suggestion, his lack of preparation, and his suggestion to go to Sweet Briar, were all directly causal to my relationship with Anne. But the trail does not lead where you may think it leads.  Anne has never been to Sweet Briar and knows no one at Sweet Briar. There are about two dozen additional random causal steps scattered over most of the US East Coast between Anne breaking up with Ricky, and Anne and I ending up Newport seven years later. All incredibly coincidental, and it all started by being ill prepared.

Oh, and the guy who rowed to Antarctica? He made it, only to get killed by bandits on a camping trip in Kashmir a number of years later.