Each summer we’d load up the old diesel station wagon and leave our central Illinois farm, seeking adventure in some far-flung, exotic destination like Missouri or Wisconsin. Lodging on these fishing expeditions came in the form of an enormous canvas tent stitched together by a woman named Hillary, who felt entitled to plaster her name on the front door flap. This durable monstrosity was nothing like the sexy nylon “tents” on shelves today.
The Hillary was a fortress that would have served well as a portable tornado shelter. One could wisely abandon their mobile home for the safety of Fort Hillary. And, while a modern tent advertising sleeping quarters for six usually equates to a cozy night for three, Hillary’s canvas motel stated six and meant it, her projected carcass dimensions derived from the average span and heft of an NFL lineman.
Deployment of the Hillary was high entertainment. When we arrived at our campsite, we’d all find somewhere else to be while Dad negotiated with the tent. The conversation began in terse whispers and ended with a crescendo of animated gestures and kicking motions needed to get the poles in place. And there were always extra poles, just in case.
Inside the tent, air circulation was minimal. Strategic placement of mesh remained an engineering problem yet unresolved, and sleeping bag design had not advanced beyond applying copious layers of flannel as a main ingredient. We’d roast off to sleep with hopes of an early frost. But the tent and our flannel cocoons provided affordable means to travel this fine country in search of fish and family bonding, always in the sweltering depths of summer when there was little hope that anything had the spunk to actually strike a lure.
Near the end of middle school, the resolve of the adult faction began to fade. Word around the campfire suggested we’d spend the week bivouacked somewhere and then merely drive off, tents standing, swimsu it s st i l l d r ippi ng from a clothesline sagging between two trees. There’d be one of everything from the Coleman line left for the taking. The next party of victims (a.k.a. campers) would notify the authorities of our disappearance, certain that no one would willfully abandon a tent of this caliber.
The last campout finally came, without the proposed drive-off. We arrived in the vicinity of Mark Twain Lake down there in Missoura territory, with daytime temps projected to be above 90 for the duration of our trip.
We were dutifully informed that the sites we reserved weeks in advance had been reassigned to an unruly mob of Shriners out of St. Louie (or some similar absurdity), who had probably threatened to overrun camp with an endless parade of funny cars and fez hats unless their demands were met. We were more than welcome to head down there right now and sort things out in a diplomatic manner, or, there were still several lovely sites available on the backside of the campground, strung out along Brzzlmmm Ridge. The buxom woman running the gate had purposefully let her voice drone off in an indecipherable mumble when naming the ridge.
“I’m sorry, did you say Brazil Elm Ridge?” my father asked as he handed over a small fortune for the open sites. “Yep, just keep taking left turns until you see the sign for sites 4,623 to 4,657,” replied the woman, who had already disappeared into the foliage.
A brown governmental sign made it clear that Brzzlmmm was local parlance for rattlesnake. Our tents were soon standing amidst some of the finest snake habitat in North America, yet we saw no rattlers. All of God’s creatures avoided the profusion of poison ivy that constituted Rattlesnake Ridge, a botanical avalanche of the dreaded leaves of three.
By dawn of day two, my face was a swollen mass of rash, my eyes swollen shut until around noon when a sliver of daylight emerged and I could see the glimmer of all my Beetle Spins hanging in the bankside shrubbery. Suddenly, from somewhere up on ole’ Rattlesnake, one of my younger cousins yodeled out, “There’s a tick on my @%$#!”—a rhyming revelation that reverberated across the lake.
Later that evening my uncle fired up both the lantern and the picnic table simultaneously, the rather impressive ball of flame convincing the only group camped in our immediate vicinity to pack up and leave sometime after midnight. Their ample supply of firewood kept us in burnt marshmallows for the rest of the week. And that was that—the Hillary was never erected again.
Eventually the old tent was sold during one of our annual garbage sales (I mean garage, of course) and our large family outings underwent an extensive evolution. When we can manage the logistics of getting 40-some-odd people together, we huddle in the confines of some corporate-style retreat with extravagant amenities like running water and electricity. I feel it’s my obligation to take my wife and daughters “tent” camping each summer, always somewhere within 30 minutes of the house, so my wife can run home to sleep in her own bed.
As I unfurl our swishy nylon three-season tent with the indestructible graphite poles that weigh only ounces, I see Hillary’s name is still on the front. I use my dad’s time-honored methods and colorful language to erect our flimsy shelter. When we first bought the tent, I was confused by the 37 Sears tags sewn on the inside, all of which suggest that our family tent is an imminent death trap and I should not remove the tags to start the fire. Sears? Well, it appears Miss Hillary had finally struck it big, done gone corporate like Martha and Oprah. And to save you some trouble, the tags become semi-flammable after an ample dousing of lighter fluid.