Camping for dummies
From Pennsylvania, south – into the heat of a Virginia summer. I don’t quite know what I’d expected this part of America to look like, but it’s beautiful. Rolling hills, woods, even vineyards – I keep comparing it to the Marne or the hillier bits of Champagne in France.
I’m going to see an old friend. Bob moved back to the States after his wife passed away. He found a nice house, a nice bike (a BMW K1300S Sport) and, eventually, a nice lady – and remarried. He also confessed that he’d found plenty of nice roads, too…
I’m here so he can show them to me, also harvesting a story for Motorcycle News as Bob lives close to Skyline Drive. We have a great day on some of the most amazing, quiet and twisty roads – including a stretch of the Drive (which is a toll road: $25 for a seven day pass).
As ever, I learn plenty from Bob. He’s a gravelly voiced former fighter pilot and an unsuspecting font of wisdom. His attitude to life, love and being happy inspires me – which is part of what this trip’s about. His attitude to enjoying the roads without losing your licence is also educational: don’t do more than 80mph or it’s dangerous driving; don’t go crazy near other vehicles; but basically enjoy yourself and don't worry about the speed limit…
I say farewell to Bob and Mei, his lovely wife, after two nights and head south along the Skyline Drive again, sticking with it as it becomes the Blue Ridge Parkway. This is a huge road – nearly 500 miles of scenic tourist attraction – so there’s no way I’ll get that done in one sitting. I break my journey at Buchanan, just north of Roanoak, heading out into the woods to camp.
Now, the theory is that you can camp for free in American national forests, but I’ve seen enough signs talking about bears not to want to see what they do in the woods. Besides, it’s so hot that I can’t face the thought of going without a shower. That means paying for a proper camp site, with facilities.
This is my first night camping on the trip and I admit I’m a bit daunted. Partly because I’m a very lightweight camper – fair-weather only, very irregular – and all my kit is new for this trip. And I didn’t get a chance to try it out before leaving. So I have no idea how any of it works or if it’s all there.
I needn’t have worried. This is all high-spec Robens kit and as well as being compact and lightweight, it’s very easy to use. Three shock-cord poles and five minutes with the pegs gets the Osprey 2EX tent up. The Outpost bed clicks together rapidly and then two minutes’ gentle puffing inflates the Primacore 90 airbed to go on top of it. Click the Hiker chair together and I’m set.
Or I would be if I could cook… I have an excellent-looking Firemoth system of burner, stand and pot. But the wrong kind of gas cylinder. The camp-site shop has closed so I can’t buy the right one, so it looks like dinner tonight will be Nutrigrain bars and Samuel Adams… I’ve had worse meals.
I sit in the gathering dark, with no other tents around me. It’s my own private valley, a stream burbling gently and fireflies flickering fleetingly in the twilight. I’ve never seen them before – they’re like tiny sparks blown from a bonfire, winking out almost as soon as they’re seen. It’s magical.
I get the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had in a tent. That’s not the beer (can’t drink too much – I’m not getting up in the night). Partly it’s the luxurious Couloir 500 sleeping bag but I think mostly it’s the combination of the cot bed and the air mat. I wake with the sun and some irritating local bird that sounds like an Eigties Trimphone. Great, I think – an early start.
Er… no. There’s not too much dew on the outside of the tent but there’s plenty of condensation on the inner surface. Idiot camper that I am, I’m not really sure how to deal with it. I shake the tent, knocking the water from the outer flysheet to the inner tent. Doh! I pack everything else up and move the tent to a sunnier spot, turning it over periodically and hoping this will dry it out.
While I’m waiting, I sit at a picnic table with my laptop and write half my MCN story about the Skyline Drive. By half nine I’ve run out of patience and pack the almost-but-not-quite-dry tent up and by 10am I finally get going. I wouldn’t mind the late start, but I have a very long way to go, to complete the Blue Ridge Parkway. Camping’s probably going to be best when I haven’t put myself under pressure to get somewhere else. And when I can cook…