I spent the last weekend on an Appalachian Trail backpacking trip with my hiking partner, Sawyer, The Trail Wonder Dog. While we were lying in our
two man one man/one dog tent in the dead of the night, all alone in the wilderness, I remembered a story about the time I went camping a few years ago with my sons and thought it would be a good blog topic. Then I got slightly distracted when I heard about 42 coyotes (not even sure they have coyotes in the mountains of Virginia*) start howling all around the tent. I looked to Sawyer for protection. He looked back at me as if to say Me? What the fuck are you going to do about this situation? Well the first thing I did was to turn on my phone and jot down a note so I wouldn’t forget about this blog post. Then I closed my eyes and pretended the walls of the tent were made of vibranium. Sawyer was less than impressed with this solution, but apparently it worked, as we were not devoured, or even slightly scratched, and I was able to write this post. You’re welcome.
The Trail Wonder Dog
My sons and I went for a week long camping trip at a well established campground called Loft Mountain in the Shenandoah National Park. Even though it was a normal campground that you drive to, they had some sites that were called “hike in” spots as they were more secluded and you had to walk a bit from the parking area to get to them. We chose one of these spots because it was in close proximity to the Appalachian Trail and we planned on doing quite a bit of hiking during the trip. Here in this beautiful mountainside paradise we had the most non-paradisey encounter with the head ranger (please feel free to insert dick in front of that title).
I’ll take a second here to say that most rangers that I’ve encountered in my life are truly selfless servants that try to strike a balance between preserving nature and enjoying it, for not much pay. We usually call these individuals Ranger Rick from the magazine that the National Wildlife Federation created for kids. Also, it’s alliterative, and feels nice rolling off the tongue. However, by the time our trip was done, we were referring to this guy as Ranger Dick, for reasons which I’m sure you will agree. Unless, of course, you are him, or his immediate family. Although if I was his kid I would probably think he was a dick too. OK, I am getting off track. Let’s continue…
When we checked in we were given a list of rules by Ranger Rick Jr. This guy couldn’t have been any older than my two sons who were in their 20’s. He was a nice guy and very pleasantly pointed out two major rules on the list.
- Quiet time began at 10 PM.
- This was bear country and all food must be locked up in the provided steel bear box at each campsite when you were not present or when you are in your tent.
I was no stranger to the first rule. It was pretty standard among many of the campgrounds I had visited. The second rule was new to me. I had never camped in bear country before. It sounded pretty straight forward and quite sensible. Put all my food in a steel box so bears don’t come sniffing around for pic-a-nic baskets.
We got our site all set up and put Sawyer (did I mention the Trail Wonder Dog was on this trip as well?) on a leash as that was also one of the rules. Because we all lived in different places, I hadn’t visited with both of my sons at the same time for several years. So we were having a good time, cooking out, playing cards, and yes, drinking some alcoholic beverages. Nothing out of control though. I had brought my iPod and a Bluetooth speaker and we were playing some music, but not loud at all.
Promptly at 10 PM we turned the music off. We put the Rubbermaid plastic bin with all our food in the bear box. We put the cooler with the cold food in the bear box. Then we went into the tent where we quietly played one more game of cards then went to sleep by 11 PM. So to my way of thinking, we’d complied with both the major rules. Slightly after midnight I was dreaming about the fun we were going to have hiking the next day when I was rudely shaken awake by my eldest son. When I got my eyes open I saw a light being shined directly into the tent.
“Who is out there?” I asked.
“It’s the campground hosts,” I heard an elderly voice say, “We need you to come out of the tent.”
“OK. Give me a second.”
“Sir, we need you to come out now!”
Now it was a warm summer night and I was sleeping in nothing but my underwear. “I have to get dressed. Be out in a sec.”
“You want to see me in nothing but my skivvies? I can assure you, you do not.” This seem to hold them at bay for the amount of time it took me to drag on some shorts and a T-shirt. I exited the tent to see nothing but a bright light being shoved in my face. “Could you lower the light please?” The light was slightly lowered to my upper chest area and I was then able to make out a couple who must have been in their 70’s. She was the one holding the interrogation light and her husband was standing there by her side. I had seen camp host before and they are usually older couples who get to camp for free as long as they look after the place when the rangers are not on duty.
“We’ve had some noise complaints about your party,” the lady informed me.
“Noise complaints? We turned the music off at 10 and went in the tent. When did you get this complaint?”
“About half an hour ago.”
“Impossible. We’ve been asleep for over an hour.”
“Nevertheless sir, we’ve gotten complaints.”
At this point I decided to just go along to get along. “OK, we’ll be sure to keep it down then.” I thought this would suffice to let me get back to sleep, but apparently the hostess with the mostest was not done yet.
“Sir, we also noticed that you did not use your bear box before you went in your tent.”
“Huh? We put all the food in the bear box.”
“What about this,” she said as she spotlighted a 12 pack of unopened beer.
“The beer? It’s unopened.”
“Doesn’t matter sir. It needs to go in the bear box.” Apparently there were some alcoholic bears in the area with a superursine ability to smell beer in sealed aluminum cans.
I shrugged and moved the 12 pack to the bear box. But she still wasn’t done yet. Without as much as a statement to her intentions, she began to rifle through the rest of our plastic bins that we had stored non-food items in. She pulled out bug spray, candles, matches, soap, pots, pans, and several other items that could not even be considered close to food items. When I inquired as to why these things needed to be in the bear box she explained that anything with a scent, or anything that had come into contact with food no matter how long ago and how many times it had been washed had to go into the box. Also, several times during the shake down she had pointed her light at a bag of charcoal and told me that my dog food needed to be in the box. Each time I informed her that it was charcoal and that the dog food was already in the box. She then admitted that charcoal didn’t need to go in but that my little smoky grill did need to go in because it had a history of food being cooked on it. After the first time, I put the grill in the box and then every time after had to keep reminding her that I had already put the grill in the box. After about a half hour of them ripping our campsite apart they were finally done.
“Sir, we will have to report this incident to the head ranger in the morning. He’ll want to come down and talk to you,” she told me with what looked like glee in her eye.
Exhausted, I just said, “OK.”
Then as they were leaving she shown her light on the charcoal again and told me I needed to put my dog food in the box. OMG! I face palmed myself and said rather tersely, “IT. IS. CHARCOAL!” She kind of flinched a bit and then they finally left.
I looked around my campsite and realized now that 80% of everything we had brought was now in the bear box. Now this required some creative packing because this bear box was not a dimensionally transcendental TARDIS. This is when I realized that the word “food” on the list of rules I got from Ranger Rick Jr. was a very relative term and should have been revised to the following:
- This is bear country. Everything that is not staked down or used as a place to rest your asses on should be placed in the steel bear box when you are not present or when you are in your tent. Good luck finding room for all that!
Bear Box: NON-TARDIS style (source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/reddirtkatie/4926489524)
The next morning I got up before my sons and made some breakfast. I noticed that there was a couple in one of the sites next to us with a very small tent and minimal equipment. I figured they were AT thru or section hikers. People that hiked the trail from beginning to end all in one trip or did long trips a section at a time. I walked over and introduced myself and confirmed that they were in fact, section hikers on a two week trip hiking the AT through the park. Hot meals are a rarity for these hikers so I invited them over to eat some scrambled eggs and sausage I had just cooked up. They graciously accepted and while we were eating I told them about last night’s drama. They told me they had hardly heard a sound from our site until the camp hosts had shown up. Of course, maybe they were the ones that complained but were not going to say anything about it after I fed them breakfast. I didn’t get that feeling though. They seemed genuine, so I took them at their word. After breakfast they quickly broke camp and headed on up the trail.
I roused my sons up and fixed a second breakfast. My younger son, Dusty, and I then drove up to the camp store to resupply on ice while my older son, Decker stayed back in camp so we wouldn’t have to put everything in the bear box yet. When we got back there was a female ranger talking to Decker. As I came up she introduced herself and told us she had been notified of a noise complaint and wanted to talk to me. She was very nice and was only doing her job so I made sure to remain calm myself. I explained to her that I didn’t see how we could have been the cause of a noise complaint when we were asleep when the complaint was made, but that in any case we would keep it down. That seem to satisfy her and she left. The camp hosts had said HE when referring to the head ranger so she was obviously not the head ranger. I thought that maybe after the report was made by the camp hosts, the head ranger didn’t feel it was a big enough problem to see to it himself and had delegated that duty to the aforementioned ranger. WRONG.
A little while later we were gearing up to go on our first hike and were getting everything ready to put in the bear box when I saw a ranger and another guy coming down the trail to the site. Before either one of us had a chance to speak, Sawyer, who was on a leash that was tied around one leg of the bear box, looked up and uttered a single little “Woof”. I think he had some animal instinct that could already tell this guy was trouble. But that is all he did. He didn’t even get up. The ranger immediately unholstered a can of mace and pointed it at Sawyer as he yelled to the top of his lungs, “RESTRAIN YOUR ANIMAL! RESTRAIN YOUR ANIMAL! RESTRAIN YOUR ANIMAL!”
I just looked at him dumbfounded and walked over to where the big teddy bear of a Golden Retriever was lying there looking at this raving lunatic. I grabbed the leash and displayed it to him. “He is tied up,” I informed him.
He reholstered the can of mace and said, “Dogs must be on no longer than a 6 foot leash!”
That was true. I had read it on the list of rules that Ranger Rick Jr. gave to me. The leash that I had was 20 feet long because I like to give him freedom to roam without being unleashed when we went to certain places like the beach or a park. However, since there was the length restriction here, I had tied the leash off to the leg of the bear box so that he only had 6 feet in which to roam. I explained that to the ranger.
“Doesn’t matter. You can only have a six foot leash period,” he persisted.
“Yeah,” said the guy next to him. I would come to find out he was what they called a camp volunteer that came out and helped out the rangers. I immediately thought of him as a toady because after nearly every thing the ranger said the guy would say, “Yeah.” I’m not going to write anymore of the toady’s “yeahs” because even thinking about them is annoying me. Just imagine them after every sentence the ranger makes.
“OK,” I said, “I have a four foot walking leash I can put him on.”
“Also you are not allowed to tie him to the bear box.” I looked for that one on the rules list later on and it was not there. Big shocker there. But I complied with that one too and tied him up to the table.
He moved on to the next order of business. “We had no less than six noise complaints about your party last night.” Six noise complaints? I looked around. As I mentioned before, we were camped in “hike in” spots that were down hill from a parking lot and about a minute walk down a trail. Only the two sites on either side of us had been occupied that night and there is no way that anyone heard us at the regular camping spots over the hill, even if we were screaming our heads off.
At this point I was getting exhausted by the whole affair. I’m the kind of person that does not seek out confrontation and tries to get along with people the best I can, sometimes even to a fault. So I decided not to even try to defend ourselves anymore and just agree to everything he said and assure him we would comply with any and all rules. Oh, but that wasn’t good enough for him.
“You should know that I have the authority to kick you out of this park and you will not get a refund for the days you have already paid for.”
What was I supposed to say to that? “OK, hope it doesn’t come to that,” was my reply.
“We’ll see. Now I was also informed that you did not put your food in the bear box last night.”
“We put what we thought was our food in the bear box. We were informed by your camp hosts that there were more things that needed to go in. This is our first time in bear country so we were unaware of additional items that are considered food for bears.” MAYBE SAY SOMETHING ABOUT ANYTHING WITH A SCENT ON YOUR RULE LIST!** That’s what I wanted to shout but I restrained myself because I didn’t want to get us kicked out. At this point, he and his toady proceeded to go through all our stuff again pointing out the same exact things that the camp host had done the night before. He even found some additional items to add. Ibuprofen and band aids? Guess Yogi Bear would steal them for his Boo Boo. See what I did there?
He still wasn’t done. When he saw the 12 pack of beer he looked at my sons and said, “Are you 21 or over?” My sons were 22 and 25 and they informed him of this. “You sure about that? I have the authority to write you a citation if I catch you underage drinking.”
“Their ID’s are in the truck up in the parking lot. They can go get them,” I told him.
He looked at me for a second and then said, “No, that won’t be necessary.” Then why did he just give that spiel about his authority to write citations? That’s when I pegged this asshole. He was the kid in school that got picked on a lot. I know, I suffered my fair share of bullying when I was that age. The difference between him and I though, was that he grew up and got a little bit of positional authority and let it go to his head. He was going to get back at the world for treating him like shit when he was a kid by showing us he was the big man on campus now.
“OK,” I said again to him.
He looked around a bit longer to see if he could harass us about anything else and when he didn’t find anything he announced, “I’m still trying to decide if you will be evicted from the park. I’ll come back in a few hours and let you know what I’ve decided.”
That wasn’t going to work. We had planned on hiking for most of the day and we wouldn’t be back until late that afternoon. At this point I decided I had had enough. “We won’t be here in a few hours. We will be out hiking all day. I’ve already told you that we were sorry about breaking any of the rules. Even the ones we were not aware of. We will comply with everything you have told us today. We are going to go hiking now. If you decide to kick us out it will have to wait until we get back unless you want to find us on the trail and inform us. I’m sure you have the authority to confiscate our stuff, so if we get back and it’s gone, I guess that means we’ve been evicted.”
He didn’t seem quite sure what to say next. He thought about it for a second and then said, “I’ll be back by to check up on you later this afternoon then.” With that, he and his toady moved on to harass other people.
“What a dick,” Dusty said when he was well out of hearing range.
“Yeah,” I said, “Ranger Dick!” And from then on out that was what we called him.
Let me return to Ranger Dick’s statement about how six people had complained about us. That was obviously bullshit, but I do believe there was one party that complained about us. It was the people who had been on the opposite side of our site from the ones I had had breakfast with that morning. When I saw them come in and set up the day before, I also surmised that they were either thru or section AT hikers. I have the upmost respect for these hikers as they are accomplishing a spectacular feat by being on the trail for weeks or months at a time with very little creature comforts. These hikers hike all day and are exhausted by the time they have scouted out a place to camp for the night. These places are usually near trail shelters erected along the AT or unestablished back country sites with no amenities whatsoever. They refer to “Hiker’s Midnight” as the time they are usually in their tent going to sleep, and it is around 8 or 9 PM. This is understandable when you have been hiking all day and you have been doing it for weeks on end. I believe the hikers next to us were perturbed that we were up past hiker’s midnight when we were camping in a “hike in” spot. They must have been the ones that complained. They had already been breaking camp when I got up that morning and I thought I caught an evil eye from one of the guys before they headed back out on the trail.
While I have the upmost respect for these hikers, here is my problem with this attitude. These hikers decided to stay at an established campground. This was not the back country or a trail shelter and they should have realized that some of us can’t afford (as much as we’d love too) to take off months at a time to hike. Carving a week out of our lives to come up to these campsites are about the best we can do to be able to get in some day hiking and camping of our own. We are not going to be going to bed at 8 O’clock when we only have a week to enjoy it. If we had been out backpacking on the trail, then sure, we would have observed the hiker’s midnight tradition. But we weren’t and they made the decision to stay at a campground who’s 10 PM quiet time rule we had observed.
So after Ranger Dick’s departure we continued to get ready for our hike and packed pretty much the whole site up into the bear box. My sons headed down to the AT while I was getting Sawyer ready to go. That was when I heard someone from up the trail to the parking lot yell, “THERE’S A BEAR COMING!”
What? Did he just say what I thought he said? I looked up the trail and sure to shit there was a motherfucking bear ambling down the trail to our site. It was a medium size black bear. It was an amazing sight, but I didn’t have time to think that then. I was scared shitless! I was also worried that Sawyer would try to go after it. He had as of yet not noticed the impending ursine incursion, so I scooted him around to the back side of the tent that blocked his view. I was still able to see the bear, who came down into the site and started sniffing around. He had some bad timing though as we had just packed everything up. In his utter disappointment, he emitted a exasperated snarl and moved down to the next site. That’s when I was finally able to get my wits about me and we slowly slinked down the path to the AT where my sons wanted to know what took me so long. When I told them about the bear they didn’t believe me. Dusty even went back up the path to the site for a few minutes until I heard him running back the other way exclaiming there was a bear moving off to the other campsites. Hah, told you! If he scored any beer at the other sites I hope he didn’t get drunk, fall down, and scrape a knee, because he wasn’t getting any of our ibuprofen or band aids! You can thank Ranger Dick for that, bear!
We went on our hike that day and when we got back our stuff was still there. True to his word, Ranger Dick came back that afternoon and announced that in his graciousness he wasn’t kicking us out but we were herby put on notice that if there was even on more infraction we would be history. I think he honestly thought we were troublemakers when it was the furthest thing from the truth. Throughout the rest of our stay he or his toady would make a point of strolling through our site to see if we were fucking up. Sometimes we wouldn’t even know he was around and then he’d step out of the bushes like he had been hiding to see if he could catch us violating any of his rules.
Troublemakers on the trail
He must have been disappointed because we went above and beyond to make sure we stayed on the straight and narrow. As annoying as it was to constantly be worried about Ranger Dick, we didn’t let it spoil the overall experience of the trip. We went on several awesome hikes and one day we provided Trail Magic to the AT thru and section hikers. Trail Magic is basically feeding hungry hikers. We grilled up some hot dogs and had soda and beer for them. We got to meet some very interesting people.
Toward the end of our stay I think Ranger Dick finally figured out we weren’t the hooligans he thought we were. He didn’t come around as much and when he did he actually started to be pleasant and have normal conversations with us that didn’t involve reminding us who was in charge. We even thought we might stop calling him Ranger Dick. That was, until the last day, when he proved his Dickyness all over again.
We were breaking camp and when the time came to move all our stuff back up to the truck we were not looking forward to hauling it back up the hill to the parking lot. The campsites to one side of us had a different trail to a different parking lot that had a less steep uphill grade. You were supposed to park in the lot designated for your campsites but nobody was camped in the adjacent sites, so I had Dusty move the truck to the next lot so we could carry our stuff up the less steep trail. We had all taken turns carrying a few items up to the truck when I saw Dusty come walking back down the other steep trail. Ranger Dick had driven by when Dusty was putting some items in the truck and given him a ration of shit for parking in the wrong lot. Dusty had explained to him that there was no one camped in those spots and we were only using it temporarily to load the truck from the less steep path. Evidently that didn’t wash with him. He instructed Dusty to move the truck back to the other parking lot and use our “authorized” path to load the truck. So yea, he maintained his Ranger Dick title from that day forward. As we were rolling out of the front gate to go home I didn’t see Ranger Dick, but I did see his toady hanging around the gatehouse. I gave him the one finger salute as we passed by. “Yeah!”
Do you think I was justified in calling him Ranger Dick? Anyone have similar stories of abuse of positional authority? Anyone actually make it to the end of this ridiculously long post?
* They totally do have coyotes in Virginia. I looked it up on the internet and as we all know, if it’s on there it must be true.
** To be fair, I went to the Park website after writing this and noticed that they did update their rule list to include scented and food preparation items, but I swear it was not on the paper list given to us by Ranger Rick Jr.