On The Road #2, New Jersey lessons

The New Jersey countryside was wooded hills and just-greening farms when I lit out from Princeton in the spring of 1969.

After a day of walking north on an obscure road the light began to fade and I started to look for a spot to sleep. The fields were too muddy and I wouldn’t have wanted to irk the farmers anyway. The forests were posted as private property with emphatic No Trespassing instructions.

It was all a quandary and getting darker when I saw smoke from a campfire across an abandoned field. There were a couple of young guys at the fire and they seemed to be waving me over. After some Who? Me? gestures I walked across the field, perhaps some two blocks distant from the road, and took my shoes off to cross a stream running swift and very cold from the spring thaw.

The guys turned out to be high school buddies enjoying a favorite camping spot. The stream I crossed was joined by another just west of their camp, making a tip of land caressed by the sound of rushing water. Complimenting the noisy atmosphere were all the amenities a young men’s camp needs— A few rocks to sit on. A campfire. A small tent. A few pots and pans. And a brand new electric lantern, the most modern kind available, with a short length of florescent bulb meant to light the entire camp. A vast improvement over flashlights.

I rolled out my sleeping bag beside their tent, confident it wouldn’t rain. The darkness gathered. Soon we were in a cocoon of flickering campfire conversation.

Then I hear a thud. Before I had time to think a thud in the night was rather odd my camping companions were on their feet, the florescent light was out, and a rusty stick of metal had materialized from their tent. I soon realized the rusty stick was an ancient BB gun, long since having lost its wooden stock but still perfectly capable of being pumped and shot.

As BB pellets volleyed into the darkness rocks began to rain into our campsite from several directions across the two streams.

“They better not break my new lantern,” was the only concern I heard as the two New Jersey campers grabbed the device and told me to follow them, still shooting blind into the woods. We retreated some hundred feet before they turned and said we’d be OK, “The rocks cant’ get this far.” Apparently the BBs could since pellets kept being pumped into the darkness.

The next morning we broke camp and the shooter insisted he carry me across the cold stream. It was awkward, me being a half a foot taller, hanging onto his back. The two guys walked off through the field headed southwest and I was just heading north when I saw the rusted stick of a BB gun where it had been dropped in the grass. I picked it up and called out. They were glad to have it found and I was glad for an adventurous camp.

And that’s how I learned two things. First, a highlight of New Jersey high school camping was waiting for your buddies to sneak up and throw rocks at you. Second, it certainly was wise to find a camping spot where swift, cold motes are too dangerous to cross in the dark.

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