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Traveling Light

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

My parents took me camping when I was only a few months old. I don’t remember that first
outdoor experience, of course, nor the next few. But I do remember waking up in a large
army-green tent when I was not yet 4 years old, the morning light slanting through the
pines and casting an eerie glow on the faces of my sleeping mother and father — and my
6-month-old brother, Brett. A couple of years later, my sister, Brigette, would join the
Leonards on our annual summer trips to central California’s Bass Lake. The tent was more
than an integral part of our camping excursions; it almost seemed like part of the family.
If memory serves, the tent was 10×13 feet and, once set up, proved more than adequate for
our sleeping needs. But the set-up process was far more complicated than it is for tents
today. Our old warhorse required teamwork to get it upright. Once we kids wrestled the
heavy canvas from the military duffel my father kept it in (my dad was never in the
service, but he’s quick to remind us that, many years ago, he was an undistinguished member
of Rutgers University’s Air Force ROTC), we would roll out the bundle like a giant green
carpet, then spastically try to figure out which poles locked off at which lengths, and
which part of the tent they were then supposed to erect. My dad eventually simplified this
dusty guessing game by color-coding the poles and marking their proper configurations. This
trip down memory lane springs from the fact that I recently shopped for a trailer, and the
process tripped my nostalgia switch. As I combed the Los Angeles Times
classifieds, the Internet and RV Trader looking for a rig my Explorer Sport could
tow safely — and one that was within my embarrassing budget — I asked myself what I like
about camping. Here is my list: conversations around a campfire, the grandeur of the
outdoors, s’mores, the sounds of nature interrupted by profound stretches of silence,
reading by lantern light, sporting pursuits, barbecues, snuggling in a sleeping bag,
drinking coffee by a stream, improvising and making-do. I recently toured an unbelievably
expensive motorhome, and instead of oohing-and-aahing, instead of turning green with envy,
I thought of my family’s old green tent and the countless belly laughs we’d had in it. Then
I said to myself, if campers want all the creature comforts of home — Italian-marble
floors, remote everything and his-and-hers flat-screen televisions — I hope they enjoy
their goodies. To seek comfort, however, is not why I go camping. Certainly, some people
may say that my attitude is simply sour grapes from a guy who could only afford a high-end
rig if he knocked off a few Wells Fargos. But I know I wouldn’t buy a million-dollar coach
if I got away with the spree. To each his own, I say. WHICH MAY EXPLAIN WHY I feel
perfectly comfortable as I write these words in my new-to-me trailer parked along the shore
of Diaz Lake, just south of Lone Pine, California, on State Highway 395. I knew the 1976
Coleman Valley Forge camping trailer was right for me as soon as I saw it. Only slightly
bruised here and there, the tan box opens into a 19-foot 4-inch expanse that seems
downright palatial compared to the jail-cell confines of my last trailer. The interior
decor — dinette seats and beds crosshatched in a brown, tan and rust plaid, rust-colored
drapes complemented by desert-sand canvas walls and faux-tile linoleum floors the color of
Grey Poupon — shouts “The Seventies” so loudly that I almost started to disco dance when I
walked inside. The owner showed me how the three-burner stove and small sink fold down into
the stowed position, demonstrated the straightforward raising and lowering process via a
crank and said everything worked on the pop-up but the electric converter. Something to
tinker with, I figured. Then we completed the transaction. I hooked up, and the trailer sat
level on my hitch. I drove away and, despite a strong wind, the trailer towed beautifully.
On the drive home, I wondered where my new buddy and I should go first. TO THE HARDWARE
STORE, IT turned out. I had chosen to head up Highway 395 to pursue a story about the
continental United States’ highest point (Mt. Whitney), its lowest point (Badwater Basin in
Death Valley) and the world’s oldest living creatures, the inhabitants of the Ancient
Bristlecone Pine Forest located in the White Mountains to the east of the Owens Valley. The
simple, scenic, $10-a-night campground at Diaz Lake seemed like the perfect place to pursue
the story, and to get to know my new rig. I picked a campsite near the reeds that line the
small lake, then popped up the tent. Happy as a clam, I filled the water tank and watched
the liquid gush out near my feet. No longer happy as a clam, I discovered that the valve
had snapped off in the open position and that the other side of the valve was leaking just
because. Expecting the plastic to shatter when I applied the full, frustrated force of the
pliers, I twisted for all I was worth, and the unit unthreaded without incident. Amazingly,
I found the plug I needed at the small hardware store in Lone Pine, then soon had a working
sink, complete with hand pump. The electrical wires that wound around each other and shot
out aimlessly underneath the trailer like a den of vipers, however, seemed like a project
for another time. Adventure was on the agenda. I climbed the first quarter of Mt. Whitney,
up to the pristine Lone Pine Lake, 2.8 miles of grueling effort that paid off in an amazing
surge of adrenaline. The next day, I negotiated the steep, winding road to Schulman Grove
in the White Mountains, where I bagged the 4.5-mile Methuselah Trail. That night I
barbecued burgers, read the newspaper by lantern light, luxuriated in the quiet and
snuggled in my sleeping bag. I slept wonderfully. Canvas and I get along just fine. Diaz
Lake Recreation Area, (760) 876-5656.

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