The thirteenth annual camping trip was a success. It’s the camping trip that almost wasn’t. For the first twelve trips we mostly didn’t make any alterations to the format of the trip. During those twelve years the guys that come camping have changed dramatically, but the format of the trip did not change. The spirit of the trip was no longer in accord with our matured souls. I tried to ask people what would be some good changes that we could make to the trip, and using the feedback that I received and making some executive decisions I decided to make some changes to the trip. This led to a delay in booking the trip and introduced uncertainty as to whether the camping trip was still going to occur. A trip that was normally booked eleven months before hand was only officially confirmed about forty days before.
Normally the trip starts on a Friday, with check in at noon, and most people arriving after work on Friday night. You unpack on Friday, have the day on Saturday and leave with checkout at noon on Sunday. The time usually flies by and we’ve always said that we wish we could have an extra day of camping. This year I decided to get the extra day, so check in moved to Thursday at noon.
For the previous dozen years we used cabins, which I think technically doesn’t even count as camping. Electricity to charge cell phones and hook up the Xbox, running water to wash dishes and have shrimp boils, a stove to quickly cook food, refrigerators to store all of your fancy foods, hot showers and comfortable bathrooms, fireplaces for heat, beds with mattresses, a roof to protect you from the elements, locked doors to provide security. Not this year. Cabins were replaced by tents in hopes of getting in touch with nature and building character. Camping isn’t a time to come to complain about life and mope around sleeping for the entire weekend. It’s a time to grow your character, step into the nature that has all but passed us by, and share your soul with your buddies.
For the previous twelve years we went to three places, with the previous ten trips split between Stokes State Forest and Bass River State Forest. We know those forests and campgrounds well enough. This year we would be picking a new location to change things up. Wawayanda State Park was the selected destination, with the Stairway to Heaven hike along the Appalachian Trail being one of the draws. Originally the plan for the trip was to try to find hike-in campgrounds in the woods where you have to carry all of your gear into the woods, but these places were kind of hard to find in New Jersey. The Stairway to Heaven hike has an option for a 7.5 mile loop, but we ended up opting for the direct ascent and descent, about 3.6 miles round trip according to the Fitbit. The parking for this hike can be found at N41 13.169 W74 27.305.
Food was the fourth change from the previous years. The food situation over the years was to find out how many people were coming, and then to purchase all of the food for the trip before we left. This was my dad’s duty in the early years. He basically would buy the food, cook the food, and do the dishes because we were teenagers at the time and didn’t really know how much work those things can be. This role transitioned to me over the years and I guess I had enough of buying the food, cooking the food, and doing the dishes for everyone. There was definitely help but if I didn’t cook, I don’t know if people would have eaten all weekend. This year the rule was everyone brings his own food and cooks it. I was even willing to go out and eat a meal in town, which is something we never did in the previous dozen years. People arrived at different times, and we used a WhatsApp group to communicate as best as we could. The people coming up knew whether to eat or not. And when we knew for sure who would be there, we would just head out to the supermarket and grab burgers or whatever food was needed for the day.
My camping trip this year really was a three-part trip, and I will recount it in such a way.
PART 1: Sleeping in the car
Thursday night I cut out of work a little early to try to head up with some sunlight so that I could set up the tent. Everyone else had some excuse for not being there, so it would be Mikey, the Road Trip Warrior and myself for the night. I had received news that Nik’s Wunderbar in Whitehouse Station would have Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout and Goose Island Bourbon County Stout on tap that day starting at 11 AM. There was a single 8-ounce pour limit of the KBS, with apparently no limit on the Bourbon County. Both of these beers are fairly difficult to find. You don’t ever see them on tap or in bottles, and if you do they will likely be sold out by the end of the day. They are both rated as two of the top 15/20 beers in the world. A quick phone call to the place after I picked up Mikey confirmed that they had them and the supply would last until we got there. Seems like we were set on this 20 minute detour to drink some of the best beers in the world and enjoy some classic German style food.
It was an interesting experience. First up was the KBS, my favorite beer. The bar tenders were clearly under specific instruction to make sure the limit of one 8-ounce glass was strictly followed. You could see there was a specific pour that they had to follow to serve the beer. As we were waiting for our beer we heard talk behind us of a recent road trip to Vermont to score The Alchemist’s Heady Topper (which some people argue is the number 1 beer out). A distributor for North Coast Brewing chats us up about the Bourbon County, how it’s so good, and how we should check out the Bourbon Barrel Aged Old Rasputin that his company produces. It’s busy. The beer hype seems to be in effect.
The KBS arrives and its few sips are treasured. This beer is delicious. I was wondering if it was still my favorite after having beers such as Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout and Barleywine, Weyerbacher’s Sunday Morning Stout, Sierra Nevada’s Barrel Aged Narwhal Imperial Stout, etc. The direct comparison to the Bourbon County will be a good measurement. Our dinner is a mix of classic German brats, sauerkraut, and potato salad and the unbeatable happy hour deal of boneless wings and chicken fingers. The last drops of KBS go down and the Goose Island Bourbon County is the next drink ordered. It too is amazing, but not as good as the KBS for me.
It’s interesting to see people ordering the same boring tasteless beers. Guinness, Bud, Yuengling, etc. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m wondering if the decision to not order beers that are acclaimed as some of the best in the world stems from a lack of knowledge or an honest preference for a Budweiser. It’s probably a combination. We split a flight of North Coast Old Stock Cellar Reserve Whiskey Barrel Aged Barley wine, Allagash Odyssey Belgian Strong Ale, Great Divide Espresso Oak Aged Yeti, and Old Chub Nitro. Mikey scores a bonus KBS because bartenders rotated and the new one didn’t know us. I opt out since we still have a drive ahead of us.
I casually ask if it would be possible to get a growler of Goose Island Bourbon County and a half growler of Great Divide Espresso Oak Aged Yeti to go, not expecting to leave with 64 ounces of the Bourbon County considering it’s rarity and the strict 8 ounce limit on the KBS. The bartender says sure and so I run out to grab my two growlers and head inside. She insists it’s not a rush and that I can take my time but at this point I just want the beer to be poured out. She went off to talk to the manager to see if it was alright, and when she returns to the bar she says she has good news and bad news. We ask for the bad news first, I know it’s that I can’t get a growler of the Goose Island. At $10 for an 8-ounce and a $10 growler fee I’m expecting the price to be $90 for the growler of Bourbon County. She says the bad news is that the beer is expensive and it’s $10 a glass and that the total price would be $60. She proceeds with the same for the Yeti, which is $22 for 32 ounces. I’m still waiting on the bad news, but it doesn’t come. So this incredibly hard to get top beer in the world is a third cheaper than I thought it would be? Sounds good to me. At $60 for 64 ounces of 15% beer, you are essentially getting a drink’s worth of some of the best beer in the world for $3.75 a piece. A glass of mediocre wine will run you many times that price, with a taste of some of the best wine in the world being wildly expensive. You’re not drinking a top 15 wine in the world for $3.75 a glass.
By this point it’s late. It’s 9 PM. It’s dark out. It’s raining out. We spent much more than twenty minutes on our detour chatting up a bunch of people about beers and traveling and all sorts of various topics. We still have an hour drive up to Wawayanda. By the time we get to the park we drive around trying to find the campgrounds. We find them and opt out against building the tent. It’s pitch black. It’s raining. There’s mud. It’s cold. We decide to sleep in the car for old times sake. I’m quite happy. I love sleeping in the car. There’s something about getting a nights sleep in a vehicle that’s taking you on a grand adventure. Maybe it’s the memories of road tripping the States for two weeks. Maybe it’s the memories of exploring for a month and a half around fourteen countries in Europe. I’m not sure. For Mikey and I, this is an easy night of sleep. It’s a little cold, but it’s not Roswell, New Mexico sleeping in the car cold.
The raindrops pinging the roof of the car occasionally were loud enough to stir us, but they mostly provided a soothing soundtrack for our dreams. We woke only once, halfway through the night. We decided to mumble back and forth various sayings of “well, the bad news is… we didn’t get the tent up. The good news is… we have a comfortable place to sleep for the night,” and so on for about half an hour before we drifted back to sleep.
PART 2: Sleeping in my bed
The morning comes pretty quick. It’s 7:30 AM and we have two more campers showing up at 9 AM. We know we have to get our tent set up before they get there. We don’t want it to look like we couldn’t get the tent up. We first decide to have another spin around the park, this time with sunlight so that we can see. Again, there is no one in the park other than us. We head down to the lake and stroll around a bit. The wind blowing off of the lake has picked up the cold temperature of the ice on the lake and it forces us to throw some extra layers on. It’s definitely cold. The sun can’t break the clouds so we’re pretty chilled. We hop back in the car and decided on grabbing some warm breakfast to fuel our tent building adventure.
There’s a McDonald’s a couple minutes away, so we head for it. We’re driving around lakes and little towns and listening to Lana Del Ray. We get to McDonald’s and grab some Egg McMuffins and hash browns and coffee. Time is ticking along. It’s 9 so we have to get back to the campsite and build this tent already.
As we’re pulling up to the campgrounds we see a pickup truck. It’s Senor David and Mr. Joey. They ask where the campgrounds are because they don’t see our tent. They think they’re in the wrong place and ask where we were and if we wanted to get food because they are starving but figured they would wait for us. To answer this question, I raise my cup of warm McDonald’s coffee to my mouth and take a sip. Ha, Dave is pissed. He rages a little saying something like “ok, I see how it is. I would wait to eat with my boys but you guys wanna go ahead and eat by yourselves then that’s fine. I’ll remember that. Pick your teams.” I tell him one of the new rules for camping this year was that everyone worries about their own food and Mikey and I share a giggle.
We head to the campgrounds and get to setting up the tents. It goes much faster than anyone expected. We pretty quickly get the tents up following some basic instructions. As we are wrapping up, we see three guys walking towards us. There is no one else in the park, or at least we thought. We drove around it the night before and we just circled it again only a little while previously. It’s Friday morning. Everyone who will use the park is at work. There are three black and Hispanic young guys walking towards us. Hoodies up. All that. Keep in mind that the area according to the 2010 census is 95% white. Ugg. I think we are done for. We call out to them asking if we can help them at all. They kind of don’t answer. They kind of mumble something. They get closer. Again we ask what’s up and if we can help them. They mumble something else, someone asks a weird question like “do you know where the entrance to the park is?” And we’re thinking, well you must have come through it, so that question makes no sense. I’m just waiting for these guys to pull out a gun and rob us, which could go disastrously bad because there is no one else around. They finally get close and start talking. I’m kind of hanging back, but then see the bag with the stakes that I know has a hammer in it. I grab the bag because having a hammer is better than nothing, I guess.
The whole conversation ends up going pretty awkwardly, but it turns out it’s three guys that run a youth organization and were scouting the place out as a potential site for hosting a camping trip for their group. We tell them some information and chat a little and they head off. Three gentlemen doing something great for the community and we (or at least three of us four) thought we were going to be robbed at gunpoint. I hate myself for allowing such untrue stereotypes to have such an imprint upon my mind, and I guess it’s something that I can try to work on controlling. After all, between the four of us I think we probably had three or four hoodies on ourselves, and two of us are Columbian and one is Puerto Rican.
So, we’re still alive and still have our buckaroos, and half of our group is hungry. Time to head out and grab some food. We figure we’ll grab something out and then pick up food at the supermarket to cook on the grill later. We get to a restaurant and ask if they’re open. By now it’s 11:20. The lady says they might be open at 11:30 or they might be open at 12:00. I’m not sure how she doesn’t know, but this is life in a mountain/lake town. Time don’t really mean a damn thing. We’re hungry so we hop in the truck and drive around looking for a spot. We don’t see anything immediately so we pull up a place in the GPS that sounds good. It’s about six or seven minutes away. We’re driving around. Getting closer to the place. We’re about a thousand feet away when we realize that the GPS is probably taking us back to the place that we were just at. Yup. Sure enough, we’re back where we started. Place still doesn’t look open. We see a mom coming out of a liquor store that is attached and we ask her what time the restaurant usually opens. She says probably 11:45ish. Looks like we’ll have to wait. She then says the bar is open and we all at the same time say “oh, great. We’ll just eat at the bar then.” Obviously.
Food is pretty decent. We end up talking to the bar tender and she gives us advice on what to do and what not to do. She tells us were not from around there. We ask how she knows. She says because she’s never seen us before. Makes sense, everyone must know everyone up here. She said something about this place Surprise Lake where we probably should have went to camp instead of Wawayanda. She tells us of a place having music later that night, about some bowling alley place, about this and that. We ask what we should wear out to the place with the music since we are dressed in our camping gear. She says the clothes that we have on are perfect for a Friday night out on the town. We ask her about the different people in the area, who she is, how she’s different or similar to everyone else up there. She says she’s a mountain critter. Apparently that’s what people call themselves up there. It became a term we referred to throughout the trip.
Lunch wraps up and we say maybe we’ll check out the music later. We wish our critter best of luck on all of her adventures. Next up we need to head to Shop Rite and score some burgers. We pick up some stuff that we will need for later and head back to the campgrounds.
As we get about halfway we see that another bar has opened, and we figure we’ll stop in to check out whether it’s a spot that the guys might want to head back to later. We pull up, luckily in a pick up truck. Every single one of the other ten vehicles in the parking lot is a pick up. We head inside; keeping in mind this is about 2 PM or so on Friday. Inside, every single person is a male in their 50’s. Tough looking. Long hair and tats, and dressed this way or that way. I’m not sure if music was being played, but if it was, then it stopped. Everyone gives us a look. Everyone at the bar is drinking a Bud or a whiskey. We go to order from their six beers on tap. We’re taking forever. Finally end up picking a Guinness and an IPA. One of the guys comes back to the bar. We’re in his spot trying to order. Great. We apologize and he seems cool enough about it. The IPA we wanted was kicked. We spend another couple minutes deciding on the Cold Snap. Finally we get our beers and retreat as far away from the local critters (I’m not sure if these guys are considered critters or not) as possible into a corner of the bar.
But it works out perfectly because there’s a dartboard. And we’re all about the darts lately. We play some 300 to warm up. Eventually Dave and I are teammates in a game of darts called baseball. We lose a close first game. We blow out win big in the second game. Finally it’s the deciding game three. It’s close at first but we end up taking a decent lead. It’s getting late in the game. We should have this. We decide to take half of an inning off by lazily tossing darts and not getting any runs, talking some smack. We have a big enough lead. Out of nowhere the other guys rack up a ton of runs and we find ourselves down. I think we’re down seven and it’s the bottom of the ninth. I step up and grab a run and then a three run for a total of four runs, putting us within three. Dave’s been throwing well so he should be able to come up big for us. But it wasn’t meant to be. He can’t get there and we are done for.
Between the breaks in the games we chatted with a bunch of the guys at the bar. They were all really friendly and nice. They showed us pictures of bears in their backyards. They told us stories about the coyotes. They told us about this and that. About life up there. Gave us tips for camping. They talked about guns and told stories. They told us all would be well on our trip. You may think having a pickup truck and wearing camping clothes and respectfully keeping to ourselves by playing darts in the corner was what allowed these tatted up wild old men to be open and cool with us, but really it’s just because all people are generally cool people no matter who they are or what they look like. We may subconsciously judge based on what we see but we certainly reciprocate what is given to us.
Before leaving we ask the bar tender for a bag of ice. We get to talking about life up there once again. We ask about the place with the music. She says it’s pretty cool and she might be headed there later that night. We ask her if she’s a mountain critter. She laughs and asks how we know about that. We tell her because we pay attention. We listen to the quiet beat of the universe and seek out a deeper meaning in even the most ordinary of situations. We close out the tab and finally head back to the campgrounds.
At the campgrounds we get the fire going. Guys are collecting wood and adding it to the little fire. Eventually it’s time to get some bigger pieces. Dave and Joey get to swinging this huge axe to chop wood into smaller pieces for the fire. Personally, I prefer to use the wood saw but I guess it’s National Paul Bunyan Day. About a half hour into the chopping Joey goes down. A piece of wood chipped off of the log and smacks him right in the eye. No safety goggles (there will be next time) means his eye has taken a beating. His eye eventually swells up, tears up, and hurts a whole bunch. He tries to fight through it, hoping the pain will go away.
We put the axe down. We play a little bit of cornhole. Dave and I lose a couple tight games again. Joey decides to try to sleep it off. I decide to take control of the fire to get it ready for some burgers. We have a fire pit and with a grill on top. The fire is going nicely but too hot. I move a couple logs around and get some nice embers. Get the flame to die down. Clean off the grill grate with a long stick that I’m using to control this fire. We throw on some Bubba burgers. They’re not my first choice but they really are a decent burger. Six 1/3-pound burger come in a pack. They go on the grill. I have a nice couple of torched logs that I can use to move close to the burgers to crank the heat if I need to. It’s dark, but with flashlights and instinct I should be able to get these burgers cooked up. It’s getting close to time to take them off. We ask Mr. One Eye if he wants a burger and he says he’s not up to eating. Between the three of us we decide to go with double cheeseburgers. One cheese is pepper jack and one is cheddar. Two of these burgers go on to one bun, the kind that comes from the bakery at a supermarket. We add a whole bunch of ketchup on and get to eating. It’s one of the best burgers I’ve made. The taste from cooking off of forest wood is amazing. The fire was controlled perfectly so the burgers are perfectly cooked and quite juicy. It’s the perfect ratio of bun, burger, cheese and ketchup. If I were every going to try to make the world’s best burger I think the two 1/3 pounders is the right choice. Adding any quality ingredients to this simple burger would just make them sing. They’re so good that we throw the other six on and each crush down another 2/3-pound burger.
By this time the other four guys who are coming up are getting close. The first three finally show up, all in one car. We add an Eagle Scout, an original gangster who has been to every camping trip since the first trip, and a new guy who was a surprise last minute addition. They had some problems finding the entrance since the GPS put them at the wrong entrance to the park. We greet them with hugs and they get to unpacking and joining the fire that we have going. A little while later, the last guy is having the same issues finding the place that the previous group had. O.G. decides to be man and drive out to meet him on the road.
By this time Joey is just in terrible pain. He finally admits to heading to the hospital to have his eye checked out. It’s about 10 PM. I hop in my car and take him there. Immediately I notice an enormous spider type crack in my windshield. Something definitely hit my windshield and cracked it, which is weird because there was nothing outside of my car. I’ll just blame it on one of those huge wood chips that came from the axe. Maybe it’s even the one that hit off of my buddies eye. Either way it’s a huge crack and something I probably have to take care of quick.
The wait at the hospital isn’t too bad. They flush the eye out. They add some numbing drops. They check for any foreign debris but don’t see anything. They add some stain to eye that illuminates a neon color when UV light is applied. These neon colors will show if there is any scratches or debris on the eye. The doctor sees some scratches. He asks if I want to see, and I say sure, I guess. It’s pretty cool. Joey’s eye is purple from the UV ray but the scratches are a neon yellow color. He’s pointing out all these scratches and showing that Joey got whacked pretty badly. The doctor gives him drops and prescriptions and tells him to have a check up in a couple days. The doctor says the bad news is the eye is one of the most sensitive parts of the human but the good news is that it’s one of the fastest healing parts. We get out of there after midnight.
At this point Joey is starving. We grab some Burger King. We agree that I’ll drive him all the way home. It’s a pain, but probably best as I should try to get this windshield taken care of. We get back to the camp. By this time everyone is there. New guy number two shows up with his dog, which is a camping first. We say hi and then quickly say bye. People think we’re joking about heading home since it’s 1 in the morning but unfortunately not. We grab some stuff, leave the tents and head out, unsure of what tomorrow holds for this camping trip.
The ride home is pretty uneventful. It’s a little tiring. It’s a little sad to be leaving. It’s a little weird spending the second night of the camping trip at home. I drop Joey off at his place and head back to hop into bed for the night. This actually happens to be the last night in my old home. I just grabbed a new place down by the work and the beach, but this night is the final night I end up staying at a place I’ve lived at for my whole life. I’m too tired to acknowledge the significance. By this point it’s about three in the morning. The warmth and comfort of my bed makes that ice cold breeze from of the frozen lake seem like forever ago.
PART 3: Sleeping in the tent
I wake up. Heading into the night I was unsure if I was going to make the trip all the way back up, but I’m glad I decided to. It’s a beautiful day. Time for some more Lana Del Ray, windows down and shades on. Even though I had used my GPS to get to the place several times at this point, the GPS decides to put me in the wrong entrance to the park, even though I selected the address from the previous locations. Nothing to worry about. I circle around the park and meet up with the guys. They were nice enough to wait for me for the hike.
We hop into a couple cars and head out to the parking lot for the hike. It’s pretty full, and rightfully so on such a beautiful day. We decide to approach the hike by doing the Stairway to Heaven hike. It’s almost two miles practically straight up a mountain along the Appalachian Trail. If we want, this hike overlaps as part of a 7.5-mile loop, and we leave the option open to take the loop if we so feel like it.
The hike starts off pretty well. We walk through a field leading up to the stairway and see what I believe is a red-tailed hawk. It’s sitting at the top of a tree. I switch my lens from short to long range and grab a picture. Just as I do the bird decides to dart off and I rapid fire several pictures. I was able to score a pretty decent shot. I love the classic New Jersey early fall trees and the blue sky in the background. Normally you see bird pictures that are shot with the bird against a boring sky background, but I think this shot is luckily framed nicer than that.
The hike continues on. It’s a decent workout. The trail is easy to follow and it’s basically a whole bunch of steps up to the top. The dog is keeping up fine. And he better be. Because as we are hiking up we see three beautiful little show dogs hiking down. Just hopping from rock to rock with perfect form. It’s motivation for us guys that we should be able to finish the hike if these dogs are able to. I’m sure our dog saw these three dogs and thought damn, I better act cool and finish this hike out.
Finally after a little while of hiking we get to the top. The wind is whipping around and it is so much colder at the overhang than the forest that we were just hiking in. The view is worth the hike. New Jersey does it’s thing up here with surprising scenes of beauty, although really New York has to take equal credit. Wawayanda is right on the border of both states and we were in and out of both states many times during the trip.
Pretty cool to hike a part of the Appalachian Trail.
The hike down goes well, although it is a little rough on our aging knees. It felt like the hike up was a good little workout, and the hike down is good for working your balance. Everyone is pretty hungry so we head back to the campgrounds. The guys went shopping earlier in the day while I was at home so we get back and get the grill going for some burgers and dogs. This time it’s a charcoal grill courteous of Franz, one of the new campers. He also brought a truckful of wood to burn, so much so that we couldn’t even burn it all during the trip. He manned the fire for a majority of the time.
We spent the night hanging around the campfire, talking about this or about that. We tasted some delicious beers. Had the Yeti and finally cracked open that growler of Goose Island Bourbon County Stout after a half hour of me wildly overhyping the beer so that everyone could understand how difficult that stuff is to find.
Fire is cool.
We played a game called three questions. The way the game works is it is a person’s turn to answer questions. The group is able to ask a total of three questions to the answerer and the answerer has to truthfully answer whatever three questions are asked. You don’t have to agree to play if you are scared, but once you agree you have to answer all questions truthfully. We past a bunch of time playing that. Eventually it was late enough and we retreated to our tents to sleep. I had heard people saying how their feet were so cold the night before, so I had anticipated that. I had on tons of layers and three pairs of socks and got to use my new Coleman zero degree rated mummy style sleeping bag. It worked wonders. I thought for sure I would be freezing in a tent but it was quite warm and comfortable. I slept easily through the night, thinking about how my camping trip unfolded as a three-part adventure. Filled with drama and humor and love and friendship and plot twists and tragedy and triumph.
The morning came quickly. It consisted of slowly repacking everything up, making sure to keep the tent and equipment as dry and clean as possible. We split a container of hummus and crackers for breakfast and said our goodbyes. We hopped back onto the road and headed home, leaving the woods greater men than we were when we entered.