Wednesday, June 10, 2009

COLUMN: Camping

I like parties. I mean, who doesn't, right? I am, after all, a nightclub DJ on the side, so I like to think that I know my way around a good time or two. So when my girlfriend told me that an entire group of our more fun and hipster-ish friends were meeting this past weekend to celebrate one of their birthdays, I was more than eager to sign us up for attendance.

But where would such a suaree be held? Someplace called Eden Valley, I was told. Oooer, I thought to myself, what on Earth is that? A hip and trendy nightspot I was shamefully unaware of? A concert venue where cooler-than-thou bands play post-modern experimental art rock? Some sort of elitist and potentially illegal underground gathering spot?

Err, no. As it turns out, Eden Valley is a campground facility in the middle of a dark and creepy woods handily located in the middle of nowhere, Iowa. Just head for Maquoketa, look for the most isolated and backwoods stretch of highway you can find, and hang a left.

Now, I know that there are some people out there who refer to themselves as "camping enthusiasts." I prefer the term "crazy in the head." As far as I'm concerned, at the precise moment that primitive man discovered that he could put a door on his cave, an electric light in his ceiling, and ten different channels of HBO on his wall, camping immediately and forthwith should have lost its lustre.

There are a kajillion ways to have fun in this world -- watching TV, playing video games, reclining on a sofa, surfing the web, etc. Or MY approach: watching TV from the sofa while playing video games on the web. Camping is just like that, except that it's pretty much the exact opposite of that.

I recall camping once as a kid (keyword: once.) It was a weekend trip as part of my junior high's photography club. My dad, excited about the fact that his only son wanted to experience nature WITHOUT a protective pane of glass in the way, volunteered to be a chaperone. Biiig mistake. After getting out there and realizing right away that tents don't just automatically assemble themselves, I immediately abandoned my father amidst a pile of canvas and stakes to search out the kid with enough smarts to bring his ColecoVision Head-To-Head Football and an ample supply of 9-volt batteries.

Happily, my girlfriend shares my opinion on the overall fun-ness of camping, so we decided to raincheck the event. Still, we felt kinda guilty blowing off our friend's birthday, so we decided to drive up in the late afternoon and put in a cameo appearance at Eden Valley on the way to my DJ gig.

Step One, of course, was finding said valley. I didn't have the directions or a map handy, but how hard could it be, right? We set off towards Maquoketa. I assessed the situation and let my vast knowledge of navigation and tracking skill take over.

"Look for a buncha trees," I said.

Well, I can now safely confirm that there's more than one set of woods in Iowa -- and I'm pretty sure we just visited every single one of them. The paintings of Grant Woods have taught us all that the Iowa countryside is full of round little hills with the occasional round little tree, right? Well, Grant Woods lies. The Iowa countryside is full of crummy, low-maintenance, pothole-laden gravel roads, 70% of which dead-end at creepy abandoned farmhouses that inexplicably lean 20 degrees off their foundation while saying, "Please, step right in and get murdered in me."

After winding around these roads for an hour -- at one time having to stop to allow a GOAT to saunter across the road -- my keen ability to drive, shift, and use the GPS function on my iPhone led us to Eden Valley.

Finding our FRIENDS, however, was another matter altogether. Dear Verizon Wireless and/or AT&T, can you hear me now? Well, if you're in Eden Valley, the answer is a clear NO. Our phones were both dead to the world.

So, rather than call our woodland friends, we instead had to drive through the campgrounds reeeeally slowly, staring intently at every passing campsite in a desperate attempt to identify any human forms. Which, based on some of the looks we got, probably came across more like we were shopping for children to abduct. After casing the joint as best we could, we were seconds from giving up when we spied our friends' cars all in a row - at the entrance to a foreboding nature trail.

Based on a handy nearby map, the trail stretched from the parking lot to, oh, I think somewhere in Peru. And there on the map, at the very end of the trail, was a little icon of a teepee -- which either represented the campsite our friends were at or the ancient cliff civilization of Machu Picchu.

We sauntered down the trail for about a half a click (whatever a click is - I just think it sounds cool to say) before discovering that the "nature" part of the "nature trail" was, in fact, hordes of mosquitos -- and I'm pretty sure I could see the West Nile Virus in their tiny little eyes. Add to that the fact that we were now effectively hiking in dress shoes and nightclub-wear while holding our iPhones skyward in desperation for a signal -- let's just say we were NOT the poster children for Gander Mountain.

After looking at each other and realizing how ridiculous we were, we quickly gave up, placed an apologetic note on our friend's car, and made our way back to air-conditioned civilization while congratulating each other on a fine day of camping.

Our friend, meanwhile, just got back in town and updated her Facebook page with a status update of how "incredible" the weekend was, especially the "rafting mud party and getting shocked by the electric fence." Gee, drat my luck for missing out. Happy birthday regardless, Abby. What say we do the next one INSIDE? I know JUST the dance club...

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