I cannot bring to mind the precise location of the campout. A repression, I suggest, resulting from proximity to death. For direction to the scene I can offer only this: southern Adirondacks, circa 1980, winter. Bruce and Dean and I planned a road trip, winter camping, to this now mercifully blurry place.
Dean, a lanky Swede, and ever more attuned to sporting trends than Bruce and I, strapped on a pair of skiis, and with his snowshod brothers, hoisted packs and set out open minded over several feet of snow. I was cautiously equipped with both a cotton sleeping bag, and in deference to the season, a woolen blanket, hat and gloves, and some quickly turning damp long underwear. We entertained a vague idea that it was going to be a cold night out, but I am certain that not one of us had looked into a weather forcast further than to ascertain it would be “clear”. Proceeding for an hour, at least, and well into the afternoon, we chose our spot, a lovely copse of spruce that spoke to us of shelter. Once unburdened, we proceeded with our first and most important job, building a fire. The spruce was full of resin and the blaze took nicely, melting quickly through the snowpack into a recess two feet deep. More wood was gathered, and that task gave way to making beds of spruce boughs, first packing down our chosen spots, then filling them with tender branchlets, a luxury of texture and of smell.
Ensconced, we turned to food and drink, and here again details escape me, but I do recall that it was during this repast that cold became the foremost topic. With twilight nearing, we were finally motionless, much closer to the fire than our beds were, and quite cold. A certain clarity of situation seized upon us; that there would be no sleep, only huddling and gathering of wood throughout the night, with a possibility that lack of sleep might prove the least of our concerns. Talk turned to strategies, as Dean and I expressed our worries about health and happiness, and Bruce, sensing a budding mutiny, scoffed at our fears and offered: “This is what we’ll do…we’ll do what we have to.” This level of to and fro continued for a short while until I feared we might be on the verge of some discussion about “zipping sleeping bags together,” a tactical advantage often spelled out in both sleeping bag ads and tales of Himalayan misadventure. I had practiced zipping bags together, testing their compatibility, always imagining a partner quite unlike my shivering comrades.
Dean became the first to openly suggest retreat. He thought we should go. Bruce, decidedly, did not think we should go; it was anathema to him to leave behind as folly all our preparations, and to turn our backs on what was shaping up to be a genuine adventure.
Bruce and I were bonded in a work relationship. A daily striving force together, physical and focused. We made a joyful game of testing each others’ limits; lifting, climbing, balancing and flipping off the rain. Dean was Bruce’s buddy too, from one career removed, a fellow teacher at a local college. I didn’t know him well at all. He was inquisitive and bright, and not without a crazy streak, as far as I could tell.
Our number lent itself to democratic law, and there was one vote left uncast. I do believe that Bruce and Dean agreed, aloud, that the decision lay with me, and did resign all but the privilege of complaint. I’d been leaning toward an early exit for some time, and in that time, our Sun had slipped behind a bluish hill. I voted “we should go,” and that we did, abandoning both fire and our array of aromatic nests.
It was a rueful time, with parting from the place, the wind out of our sails, adventure lost and limping to the car. We found a motel, watched a little TV, and Dean and I absorbed a little more of Bruce’s lingering regret, one that I’m sure lives to this day. We got a good night’s sleep, and in the morning piled into the car. The radio came on, and by coincidence, the weather: “Clear and cold this morning, with a temperature of minus thirty two.”