This article appears in the July edition of Dakola Country magazine, which will be on the stands this week.
I’m a camper. I started camping as a Boy Scout. My dad was scoutmaster for Troop 34 in Hettinger, North Dakota, and loved to take his Scouts to his favorite campsite, beside the Grand River just across the state line in South Dakota, where he’d help us pitch his big old green army tents and teach us how to cook over an open fire.
In my life, I’m sure I’ve spent 500 nights sleeping on the ground. Probably more That’s only an average of about ten nights a year in the 49 years, 5 months, 5 days, 22 hours and 11 minutes (as I write this) since I stepped off the gangplank of the USS Oriskany, CVA 34, an attack aircraft carrier, after returning from a long deployment in the Gulf of Tonkin. That’s when I really began my camping career.
I said to myself that afternoon, 2:10 p.m., PST, December 18, 1971, on the dock in Alameda, California (some things you never forget), that I was moving back to North Dakota, that I was going camping in the North Dakota Bad Lands as soon as it was warm enough, and I said, somewhat foolishly, that my feet were never going to step off U.S. soil again, after spending the better part of the previous two years floating around the Pacific Ocean. I’ve slept under a lot of Badlands stars since then.
I’ve pretty much kept to that somewhat foolish pledge about staying home, though, the only exceptions being a Panama Canal cruise and a few dozen forays across the border into Canada, mostly fishing and camping trips and a few music concerts (Neil Young and Paul McCartney in Winnipeg, for example).
Ah, yes, soon it will be 50 years since that afternoon in December 1971 that I completed my 4-year hitch in the Navy, half of it in the South Pacific. I was one of the lucky ones—I came home. And I had a pretty good, safe, job. Before I joined, my dad, who spent his World War II years in the Navy flying around the Pacific as an aircraft radioman, told me “Ask for the Air Corps. You won’t spend your time swabbing the decks.”
I had spent the two years prior to joining the Navy working for a newspaper as a writer and photographer, and I knew photographers were assigned to the Air Corps, so I requested that, and became a U.S. Navy photographer. My duty stations after boot camp were the Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida, Point Mugu Naval Air Station in California, and the aircraft carrier Oriskany.
There was another young man from southwest North Dakota on my ship, who became my lifelong friend, Rick Maixner, a bomber pilot assigned to the Oriskany to provide air support to our ground troops in Vietnam. His job, flying off the ship, which was floating 50 miles or so off the Vietnam coast, was to disrupt the Viet Cong supply lines by dropping 500-pound bombs on the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. He flew 150 missions.
Rick was raised on a ranch on the east end of the North Dakota Bad Lands and returned there after the war, and just a few years later was elected to the North Dakota Legislature. He organized his fellow ranchers to fight something called West River Diversion, a scheme to divert Missouri River water and build massive dams on Little Missouri River tributaries, to provide water for coal gasification plants all over western North Dakota. His group, the United Plainsmen, is now the Dakota Resource Council, North Dakota’s leading environmental watchdog.
In the Legislature, Rick took the lead in passing a coal severance tax and wrote the most comprehensive mined-land reclamation act in the country, to force coal companies to reclaim land when they were done strip mining it. It remains in effect today. He truly was the godfather of the conservation movement in North Dakota.
But after some hard, dry years on the ranch in the 1980s, Rick decided on law school. He left the ranch and practiced law in Bismarck for a number of years and served as a natural resource consultant to Sen. Byron Dorgan before being felled in his 50s by a severe stroke. He’s in a Mandan nursing home now, and we visit frequently. Rick and I reminisced recently:
“So, it’s been 50 years since we left for Vietnam,” I said.
“May 14, 1971,” Rick replied.
“How did you remember the date?” I asked.
“Some things you never forget,” he responded.
But I digress. Boy, do I ever. This is supposed to be about camping, and nights on the ground. Well, those nights on the ground have come to an end. Lillian and I were sitting at the supper table one cold night last winter, having been cooped up for almost a year because of the pandemic, and Lillian said casually (for about the 50th time) “I think we should buy a camper.” This time I relented, and we went shopping.
Now, Lillian loves sleeping under the stars as much as I do. In fact, when we started dating almost 20 years ago, I was a bit intimidated, because she had better camping gear than I did. That’s not the way it’s supposed to work. But she’s been an outdoors woman all her life, having been raised on a Badlands ranch, and she’s probably booked 500 nights beside a campfire too.
But a few years ago, after watching me struggling to get up and get out of a tent after a night on the hard ground, she decided we needed to upgrade our camping experience. It took me a while, but I finally agreed. We did it. We found a friend whose grandkids had grown in number to the point they could no longer fit in his 19-foot pull-type camper trailer, and we bought it from him this spring.
One of the things that helped cement our decision, by the way, was an experience a couple of winters ago on the California coast. We were spending the better part of the winter in the south and west of our country, on our continuing quest to visit all the national parks (we’re approaching 50), tent-camping out of the back of our SUV. As we approached Southern California, we were looking for campsites and discovered that part of the Point Mugu Naval Air Station, where I had spent a year prior to my time aboard the Oriskany, had been turned over to the state of California, and they had created a five-mile-long oceanfront state park, called, naturally, Point Mugu State Park. Bingo!
We drove up to the Point Mugu State Park beach camping area in late afternoon, got out of the car, and discovered the ocean “breeze” was a stiff 40 mph wind, blowing sand all over the place. There was no way we were going to set up a tent there, that night. It was late in the day, too late to go looking for another campground, so we found a delightful little oceanside motel and camped inside that night, appreciating the soft bed and hot shower.
We spent the evening saying “It would have been nice out there on the beach beside the ocean. Maybe we should buy a camper before our next trip.”
It took a pandemic to convince us, a couple of years later. We didn’t camp at all last summer because we didn’t want to use public restrooms. Something had to change. The camper is the change.
So all this summer we’re going to SIT under the Bad Lands stars until it’s time for bed and then crawl into that nice comfortable queen-sized bed in Ed Gruchalla’s old camper, open the windows, and fall asleep in dreams of finding a new home for our tents (we have four), sleeping bags (we have seven), and air mattresses (we have 6). Well, probably not all of them—we might keep a couple of each in case we DO want to sleep under the stars a night or two sometime.
There are about a dozen campgrounds in the North Dakota Bad Lands, run by the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the North Dakota Parks Department, and a couple private operators. We’ve slept on the ground in all of them at least once, most of them many times. It might take us two summers, but we’ll park that camper in each of them as soon as we can. When we’re done, I’ll report on our most favorite and least favorite.
We’ve always liked the Forest Service campgrounds the best, because they’re in the most remote areas, far away from traffic. Our camper is equipped with a solar panel for recharging the batteries. If we park in the sun, we can hike all day and our batteries will be charged when we return. That keeps the refrigerator cold and, on cold spring and fall days, the camper warm.
So far, here’s what I like best about the camper: Getting up. When the first number in your age is 7, getting up is one of the hardest things you do. Getting up from anything. Anywhere. Especially the floor of a tent. Over the years, our tents have gotten bigger so I can at least pull my pants on standing up. Once I’m up. Which takes some work. Now, I can just swing my legs over the side of the bed, pull on my pants, step into my shoes, and my day is underway.
Here’s the second-best thing: The electric coffee maker. No more gathering wood to build a fire, or firing up the Coleman stove, to boil a pot of water into which I drop a handful of coffee grounds and make boiled campfire coffee. Now I just flick the switch on Mr. Coffee. Five minutes later I’m drinking. With no grounds in the bottom of my cup.
Here’s the third-best thing: I’ve learned a new word. Glamping. According to Wikipedia, “glamping” is a portmanteau of “glamorous” and “camping.” Camping with amenities. There’s even a website called glamping.com, which says “Glamping is where stunning nature meets modern luxury. It’s a way to experience the untamed and completely unique parts of the world—without having to sacrifice creature comforts.”
Well, maybe. But whatever it is, I‘ve decided I’m for it. I’ll hike all day with the best of my young friends and relatives, but I’m pretty much done sleeping on the ground. And I still consider myself a camper. See you in the Bad Lands.
P.S. Lillian and I depart on a camping adventure Tuesday morning, mostly pulling our camper up and down the Pacific Coast, visiting another half-dozen national parks. Back toward the end of July. Our friend Rick is at Sunset Nursing Home in Mandan. He loves company. If he’s your friend too, stop over and visit. He could use some company while we’re gone.