Su Lum: Slumming
It was somewhere in the canyons of Utah, probably sometime in the late ’70s, that Remo, Gloria, Bruce, Robin and I stopped in the late afternoon to set up camp.We were in a lovely meadow by a river and Remo had pointed out bits of broken branches and debris high in the trees by the riverbank, showing the depth of a past flash flood. It was hard to imagine the gentle river ever rising that high, but Remo began setting up his tent far back from the river near the base of the cliffs behind us while Bruce and I had a couple of powdered lemonades with 150 proof grain alcohol (chosen for minimal weight). Bruce then thrashed me at Scrabble, a tiny magnetized set, easily scattered, as the wind began to rise and black clouds amassed in the far distance.Remo’s tent-raising process was an exercise in fastidiousness. He had to find the perfect spot, remove all rocks or other impediments (“See that little root? That could keep you awake all night!”) and, finally, he would pull a 6-inch level out of his hip pack and go over the entire area to make sure it was perfectly flat. If the site didn’t pass the level test, he’d move to another place.Bruce just had his sleeping bag and I had a little pop-up dome tent. We dallied over dinner, surprisingly good freeze-dried fare cooked over our tiny Gaz stoves and then Bruce went off to search for good sleeping places – high up, we both agreed, because the clouds were getting thicker and darker and the wind was whipping ominously.On the cliffs behind us, Bruce found a great ledge, flat and wide enough for my tent. He set up his minimal camp 100 yards below me and I wrestled and tangled with my tent, pegged it to the floor of the ledge, laid out my sleeping bag and pad, and unpacked the things I would need at hand: book, flashlight, reading glasses, cigarettes, an Everclear nightcap and my bag of snacks, which Bruce called The Piata, full (not full enough!) of M&Ms, nuts, dried fruits and homemade beef jerky.Remo came up to inspect our quarters and was typically disparaging. “Look where you’ve put your tent! See those black stains on that overhang?” I was parked next to a cave-like opening and the rim of it was, indeed, black. “If there’s a storm, that will turn into a waterfall. You too, Bruce.”It was starting to get dark and, tsk-tsking, Remo returned to his flat lair and soon his snores filled the forest. “Do you think we should move?” I called. Bruce said I could do as I liked, but he wasn’t going anywhere and the clouds seemed to be moving away.I nibbled from my Piata, read a chapter of Agatha Christie by wavering flashlight, snuggled into my sleeping bag and fell asleep, thinking, “Ah, the best campsite yet.”CRACK! A boom of thunder split the planet in half. FLASH, FLASH, FLASH, lightning lit the canyons on all sides, with no seconds to count before the thunder, it was one big flash and boom, the booms echoing up and down the canyon, almost drowned out by the din of the smashing rain, howling winds and the crash of rock slides.I sprang out of my sleeping bag and out of my tent, taking refuge in the shallow cave behind the teeming waterfall that was cascading over the (need I say) black stains of the overhang and smashing directly onto my tent, which was straining at its pegs, trying to fly off the ledge.Clad only in a T-shirt, sopping wet, freezing cold and scared senseless, my teeth were chattering like castanets and for the first and last time in my life (so far) my knees were knocking together, a phenomenon I had read about but didn’t believe possible.I don’t know how long I stood there, knocking and chattering behind the crashing waterfall. It was pitch dark except for the intermittent illumination of the lightning and the noise was horrific, especially the sounds of the rock falls, which started out loud, then receded as boulders bounced down the cliffs. Suddenly it was over. I could hear the storm moving down the canyons, more and more faint. The rain stopped. My tent was drenched but still in place. I saw Bruce flash an “are you all right?” signal and flashed back that I had survived. Exhausted, I crawled back into my tent and fell asleep on the sopping sleeping bag. Next morning we inspected the damage. The river had risen into a torrent, but had barely flooded its banks. Bruce and I hung our clothing and bags out to dry. Remo had slept through the whole thing. Su Lum is a longtime local who, as Remo pointed out, should have listened to him. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times.
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