I talked a couple of blogs ago about gearing up for camping, and my slight obsession with the packs, tents, and stoves that go with us into the woods. The gear is very important, but I go through another gearing up, a different getting ready. As late spring leans towards summer, I begin to load the backpack of my mind, finding things I always put in from the past even as I load a real backpack in the present.
For a few decades now, in late spring before I camp for the first time, I re-read Ernest Hemingway’s short story Big Two-Hearted River. Nick Adams is the only character in the story and in it he is by himself on a camping and fishing trip. I was a junior in high school the first time I read it and I’ve read it every spring since. It gets my mind ready to camp, to see and smell, to be, as Hemingway writes of Nick, ” in the good place.”
Here is a taste of Big Two-Hearted River:: He started a fire with some chunks of pine he got with the ax from a stump. Over the fire he stuck a wire grill, pushing the tour legs down into the ground with his boot. Nick put the frying pan and a can of spaghetti on the grill over the flames. He was hungrier. The beans and spaghetti warmed. Nick stirred them and mixed them together. They began to bubble, making little bubbles that rose with difficulty to the surface- There was a good smell. Nick got out a bottle of tomato catchup and cut four slices of bread. The little bubbles were coming faster now. Nick sat down beside the fire and lifted the frying pan off. He poured about half the contents out into the tin plate. It spread slowly on the plate. Nick knew it was too hot. He poured on some tomato catchup. He knew the beans and spaghetti were still too hot. He looked at the fire, then at the tent, he was not going to spoil it all by burning his tongue. For years he had never enjoyed fried bananas because he had never been able to wait for them to cool. His tongue was very sensitive. He was very hungry. Across the river in the swamp, in the almost dark, he saw a mist rising. He looked at the tent once more. All right. He took a full spoonful from the plate.
“Chrise,” Nick said, “Geezus Chrise,” he said happily.
The writing is taut yet so descriptive I can taste Nick’s experiences as he makes his camp and then flyfishes in a cold northern river. Gets my blood going. Every year.
Big Two-Hearted River is about more than camping, but scholars seem to agree that a lot of it is about the restorative qualities Nick finds within nature. I, too, feel restored by the woods, by the deliberate making of a camp, by the simple cooking of food over a fire. A couple of weeks back we set up a camp for a photo shoot going in the July/August issue of Wisconsin Trails. As a cast iron skillet full of beans began to steam over the fire my editor Kristen said ” Those look good! “ I grinned on the outside, and on the inside I said to myself ” Yeah, Nick would think so, too.