HAPPY JOLEBRATION DAY!
As per my annual tradition, today is the day I share another story/adventure about my two BFFs: Sheila A. N. and the late, great Johannah Cantrell. It's my little way of remembering & celebrating Jo’s life on what would have been her birthday.
If you have read any of my previous Jolebration posts, then you know that Sheila, Johannah and I were major Party Animals—as in "Pajama Party Animals". Jo started our PJ Party tradition by hosting the first sleepover in honor of her own thirteenth birthday and we lived for them afterwards.
Eventually we decided to expand the frontiers of our PJ Parties by taking it outside, foolishly believing we would become “Happy Campers”. We attempted our first camp-out at Sheila’s grandma’s house on my sixteenth birthday. It began on a high note because Sheila’s handsome, older brother popped by and said he would help us get set up. As he led us to a clearing at the top of a small, wooded mountain, I found myself hoping that he was accompanying us because he secretly liked me. But it was really because he feared we’d burn the woods down if we tried to start a fire on our own.
After building our fire and giving us some Smokey the Bear tips, he left to go visit a girl—the one that he actually liked.
Now I should mention that it was still summer and pretty dang hot outside. So sitting by the fireside didn’t carry the same appeal that it would have on a chilly autumn evening. But we had to cook all the hot dogs and marshmallows somehow. So we sat around the fire toasting our food (and ourselves) and tried to pretend it was fun. At least all the black smoke that nearly burned our eyes kept the bugs at bay.
Night finally descended and we crawled into our sleeping bags and tried not to melt. Obviously we could have laid on top of them to stay cooler, but we were scared that spiders (and possibly snakes) might crawl on top of us as we slept. Not that we slept. Sleep was impossible because of (A) the temperature inside our sleeping bags (B) the temperature outside our sleeping bags and (C) the shrieks of Johannah—who had crawled out of her bag and, wielding a large broken branch, was engaged in guerrilla warfare with all the nearby spiders and bugs, imagined or real. Each time she thought she spotted a crawly thingy she’d screech to the top of her lungs while whacking the spindly creature (or mere shadow) into the ground.
“AAAAHHHH-YEEEEE!” Whump! Whump! Whump! "DIE YOU CREEPY THING!"
“Omigosh Jo! What are you bashing now?”
“Granddaddy long legggggsssss . . .” she’d rasp, close to tears. “Uuugghh.” Then with another shudder, she bang the dismembered remnants some more. Thunk! Thunk! Thunk!
“Jo! Just go to sleep. The spiders won’t get near the fire.”
“Yes they DO! I’m practically sitting IN THE FIRE. And they still keep comin’! WAAAHHH! Flying bug thingy!” she bellowed while swinging the stick above her head like a mace.
Sheila and I just pulled our heads inside our bags, like turtles, trying to mute the Johannah-noise. But then we couldn't breath, so we had no means of muffling Jo's incessant squeals of horror and combat maneuvers.
We lasted for about an hour before we gave up.
“Okay, this is NOT fun.”
“No, it’s not!” Jo practically sobbed.
“Let’s pack it up and go sleep in the house”.
And that was how our first camping adventure ended—with us lying unconscious on the living room floor in Sheila’s grandma’s house. But at least we didn't burn the woods down.
Our second camping attempt occurred during our Freshman year at West Virginia University. But that story requires a post all its own. Stay tuned for that one.
Our third attempt at camping was simply a by-product of a larger adventure: Spring Break during our Sophomore year of college.
Now previously we had never done anything special for Spring Break other than go home and mooch off our parents for a week. Honestly, we hadn’t even thought about making plans until our travel-savvy friend Doug asked us about it.
Doug: “So! Where are you three heading for Spring Break?”
Collective Response: Blank stares.
Sheila: “Um, we haven’t really talked about it.”
Doug: “Really? But it’s right around the corner.”
We looked at each other. He was right. We were losers. We hadn’t even thought to plan Spring Break and we had no idea where to go. A discussion ensued and suddenly Doug piped up with a grand idea.
“I know where you should go! Key West!”
“Key West?” we chimed together. “Where’s that?”
“It’s at the very southern tip of the islands off of Florida. You’ll love it! It’s enchanting.”
Honestly, that was all it took. That one word—enchanting—enchanted us.
“Enchanting . . .” the three of us murmured as one. “Okay, we are TOTALLY going to Key West for Spring Break.” And that was really the extent of our planning.
A couple of weeks later we were packing our bags. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough money for a week of hotel rooms, so Sheila and Jo trotted across town to rent a tent from the WVU Mountainlair. I was shocked with what they brought back—a tent so large that it filled the entire trunk of Sheila’s Cutlass Oldsmobile.
“Omigosh! That tent is Huge! What did you do? Rent it from Barnum & Bailey’s Circus?”
“Shut up!” Jo snapped. “The Mountainlair didn’t have any small tents left to rent.”
“This was the only thing they had.” Sheila muttered. “I think it sleeps ten. Or maybe twenty. At least it will be big enough.”
“Yeah, But the back seat may not be big enough!” I grumbled as we stuffed all our bags into the back, where I had to sit for the first part of the drive. After wedging myself inside, Sheila took the wheel, Jo rode shotgun and we were off. And since Google Maps (or the internet) did not yet exist, we had to guesstimate the distance to Key West from northern West Virginia. It didn’t really dawn on us that Key West was practically in Cuba. Therefore we figured the drive would only be about fourteen hours. Maybe more.
It was more. With pit stops it was a good deal over twenty hours. And in typical fashion, we didn’t leave super early. It was well after 9:00 am when we set out. Poor Sheila drove forever.
“Do you want me to take over?” Jo inquired while munching on chips, somewhere waaaaayyy south of the Mason Dixon line.
“No. Just keep talking to keep me awake. The sun is making me sleepy.”
Indeed, the temperature was considerably warmer in states like South Carolina and Georgia, as evidenced by the slight sunburns on our arms draped over the open windows most of the day. Jo and I jabbered incessantly to keep Sheila awake until it began to get dark. Then we rotated counter-clockwise to position Jo behind the wheel, with me riding shotgun, and Sheila parked in the back seat for some much-needed shut eye. It was left to me alone to keep Jo awake as we drove in a never-ending straight line through complete darkness. I ran out of words around 2:00 a.m. (which almost never happens) and Jo ran out of steam. We traded places and was soon Jo was snoozing while I muttered to myself. "I can NOT believe they made me stay awake to keep them awake and now they want me to drive in the dead of the night after I've had ZERO sleep and can barely keep my eyes open and WHOA! Did I just drive off the road?"
But I forced my eyes to remain open for another hour or so before I started to drifting off the road again.
“Okay, wake up guys! Time to find a campsite. I’m exhausted and I’ll likely crash and kill us all if I keep driving.”
Jo and Sheila moaned and sat up, squinting to make out any signage that might indicate a campground. After a while we saw a sign and took a detour down a dark little road. We drove until we spotted the first sign of campage—a small camper parked beside a fire pit. We pulled into the space next to it and climbed out of the car to set up the tent.
After dragging the massive canvas and various poles of different heights out of the trunk, we stared at them cluelessly in our headlights.
“Where are the assembly directions?” I muttered in my sleep.
“Um, I don’t think they gave us any.” Sheila sighed.
“It’s a tent! How hard can it be?” Jo barked defensively.
“Hm. Guess the tallest one goes in the center?”
“Probably. How do we stick them in the ground? These poles have blunt ends.”
“We have some stakes. But I don’t think they are for the poles. I think they are for the staking the ends of the tent into the ground.”
We examined the poles and stakes. We could find no means of connection between the two.
“Well . . . maybe the weight of the canvas like, you know, holds the poles in place or something?” I ventured.
“Doubtful." sheila shrugged. "I still think we have to shove the poles in the ground first.”
“Okaaay . . . I’ll give it a go . . . “ Jo offered. Then, with a ninja battlecry, she proceeded to slam the blunt pole into the ground.
But it didn’t go in.
Normally, Sheila and I would have had a good laugh watching Jo vibrate like a human tuning fork from the reverberation of the blow traveling through her body. But we were too exhausted.
“CRAAAAP!” Jo growled. “This ground is NOT soft! I think it’s solid rock.”
Irritated and impatient, I snatched up my own pole. “Here! Let me try it.” Then I too suffered the shockwaves that are produced when two immutable objects collide. (I think we were experiencing that Law of Physics called head-on elastic collision. It goes something like:
[Translation: Momentum & Velocity of Object 1 (Tent Pole) meets Momentum & Velocity of Object 2 (Rock-Hard Ground) equals Object 3 (Us) Quivering Painfully—like Wiley Coyote.]
It was probably the combination of bright headlights, determined grunts and cries of pain from our continued attempts to stab the poles into the very solid earth that woke the sleeping neighbor next door.
“Are you girls okay out here?”
We whirled around and saw an older man leaning out the door of his camper.
“Oh! Sorry sir!”
“We didn’t mean to wake you!”
“We’re fine, we are just trying to get our tent set up and they didn’t give us any directions so it’s taking a while.”
“Do you want some help?”
“Nope, nope, we’re fine. Thank you.”
His kind expression looked a little dubious. “Well, since I’m up I think I’ll just sit a spell.” Then he made his way over to his folding chair and plopped down while pretending he wasn’t watching us. All amused-like.
Since our pole insertion wasn’t going well, we changed tactics. But After much fruitless effort spent trying to distinguish one pole’s placement from another, I decided that the tent’s design HAD to be based on some sort of tension provided by the canvas.
“Look, I’ll take the tallest pole. You guys hold the ends of the tent and whip it up into the air as high as you can. I’ll run under and hold the pole in the center. Forget the other stinking poles. Just stretch it out and stake it down around this single pole. That should stabilize it in place.”
I could hear Jo and Sheila rolling their eyes in the dark, but they complied because no one had a better idea. As I readied the pole like I was preparing to joust, They grasped the corners and did their best to flip the sagging middle into the air. but it was not quite the same as whipping out a sheet to hang on a clothesline. It was more like one of those “whip the giant rope” workouts that trainers force celebrities like Thor and Ironman to do to get ripped. Needless to say, it was like jousting in a low tunnel. Jo and Sheila would count it down—“One, two, three, GO!”—and I would run forward in a deep crouch, ready to plant my pole like the flag on the moon, only to be smothered by the heavy canvas before reaching center.
“Guys! Lemme out. I’m smothering.”
“This is stupid!” Sheila fumed.
“No! I can do it if you guys can just toss the canvas high enough for me to get all the way under it.”
“C’mon, Sheila,” Jo reasoned. “Let’s try it again.”
After about the sixth attempt, I crawled out from under the tent just in time to see our neighbor stand up to announce (while suppressing a laugh) “Girls, I can see that it’s gonna be a looooonnnng night. I’m going to make us all some coffee.” Then he went in his camper to get his coffee pot.
Thoroughly humiliated, we were determined to get the stupid tent set up before he had a chance to laugh at our expense any further. With all the strength they possessed, Sheila and Jo hurled the tent into the air, high enough for me to run inside almost upright.
“I got it! I got it!” I screeched in both joy and unbelief as I slammed the pole onto the ground at the center most point of the canvas.
The tent sank all around me and the weight pulled the pole sideways.
Our neighbor reappeared at that moment, just in time to see my struggling figure wrestling under the tent with the pole, desperately fighting against the heavy canvas to stand it upright again. And failing miserably. It was like raising the Iwo Jima flagpole with only one person.
By the time I had extricated myself from underneath the canvas I was DONE. So were Sheila and Jo, which had become painfully obvious to me because they had just stood there half-asleep and looking on while I struggled to escape the suffocating folds.
“SCREW THIS!” I bellowed. “I’d rather DRIVE all night. It'll be dawn soon anyway!"
Without another word, we stomped over to the car, and with much effort, managed to re-cram the tent and poles back into the trunk. We slammed our car doors shut as the smiling camper next door sipped his coffee and waved goodbye.
Sheila and Jo went promptly back to sleep. I drove for a couple of hours. But After running off the road for a second (maybe third? Fourth?) time I knew that it would be smart to just find a place to pull over. Eventually I came to a big truck stop. After coasting over to a spot between a lot of weeds (probably the Everglades) and a giant semi-truck I turned to wake my BFFs to warn them that we might die a grisly death when some crazed serial killer—the kind the press was always glamorizing with creepy nicknames—found us snoozing. But then I decided that I should just let them get a little shuteye before being murdered. That’s what good friends do. So I curled up against the window and steering wheel and passed out.
Surprisingly, no one killed us in the wee hours of the dawn, so basically, sleeping in the car at that godforsaken truck stop in the middle of Nowhere Florida was the hands-down the best camping experience we ever shared together. Once the blazing morning sun woke us (and Sheila and Jo realized where we had been sleeping) we all agreed that we were thrilled to still be alive. Happy Campers at last!
We never went camping again. At least we were smart enough to end things on a high note.
Happy Birthday Jo! I hope Heaven offers glamping instead of camping and that you have the most excellent tent.