The world was not always as it is today. There were simpler times and simpler ways. They were not better; they were not worse — just different. And please, I beg you, forgive me for sounding a little bit like Clint Eastwood in the movie The Bridges of Madison County because there’s a bit in that movie very similar to the words I just wrote.
In my youth the closest place for family camping was a state park named Mauthe Lake. I have mentioned before that my dad worked rotating shifts for the Wisconsin electric power utility and that meant every 30 days he worked one week on every shift and ended up the month with a 5 day off cycle.
During those times, in the summer and fall we often went camping at Mauthe Lake. It was and is a lovely small lake, prohibiting motorboats, and stocked with fish. It’s still and quiet and an ideal getaway from Milwaukee.
In those days there wasn’t a very large ranger crew. To be honest, we only really saw one ranger with any regularity as the staff from that ranger station actually patrolled several parks and campgrounds and they were pretty thinly spread. But, over a lot of visits my dad and I got to know the ranger at that park pretty well.
Like a lot of other young boys, upon reaching 11 years of age I joined the Boy Scouts. I did ok there, we had an active troop with good adult leadership and we did several troop camping trips a year, as well as a couple 10 or 20 mile hikes as a group. It was all rather exciting as a boy. My point being that I learned the skills necessary to maintain a decent life outdoors with just a tent, some limited provisions, and time.
When I was 12 or 13 I started pestering my parents about going camping on my own. I know that today that sounds outrageous but it wasn’t such a crazy idea at the time. That first year as a scout — at age 11 — I camped out at my aunt’s house for several days. She lived in Hales Corners on a 2 1/2 acre place in a barely-there-suburb. I didn’t need electricity and I could carry water from a garden faucet when I needed it. I pitched my tent as far away as I could get from the house or the neighbor’s house and had a great old time all by myself. But the following years I had the urge to roam.
In my 13th year I had made enough of a nag of myself that I convinced my dad that I was “grown up” enough to go camping at the state park all by myself. Now, I don’t know if anyone else was doing that but I do know that my dad had a chat with the ranger there at the campground and we got the OK for me to spend a week out there all alone. I had a tent, provisions that my parents left me, a flashlight, matches, axe and hunting knife and my cousin’s bicycle. And I was good to go!
I’m sure to parents today that sounds like child abuse but I assure you it was nothing of the sort. And with that bike — not a fancy racing bike, but one of those old wide tire jobs with only one speed, no fancy friction brakes — just the push-the-pedals backwards old-fashioned brakes — I could bike into Kewaskum twice during the week to (a roundtrip of about 17 miles) for perishable groceries. I had enough change for the phone so that if I got into trouble and wanted to get picked up all I had to do was call home. And I was happy as a pig in mud.
My bike wasn’t all that fancy — not much better than this one –it had belonged to my cousin — 17 years older than myself — and it was well worn — though not as rusty as this one. I had a rucksack to wear on my back for my groceries and I was more than happy to be able to hop on board and cycle out of the park on my own as if I owned the world, off to the big city (really just a little town) like an adult.
I’ve never been a physical trouble maker. I kept my nose clean. The ranger did a few drive throughs each day, and for at least one of them I remember he would stop and just look to see what I was doing and that I was OK on my own. I’m not sure I even spoke with him during the week. I know that years later I got to be good friends with him but I was a few years older then.
I’m sure I went fishing a few times — can’t remember if I caught anything or not. Cooking took a good part of the day — I liked cooking even when I was young. The dutch oven was great for chicken and for peach cobblers. Of course cleaning up after myself took time too. And carrying water from the nearest faucet which was always a couple campsites away from wherever we managed to find a campsite.
I no longer fish. I haven’t been camping in a tent since Hector was a pup. But I loved those times. It wasn’t really risky. I never thought so. And there were no such things as child kidnappings then. People left their homes unlocked — heck I had friends who’s parents didn’t even own a key to their homes — but we never thought we needed to think about such things. I think the riots of ’67 changed that forever. For us the riots woke us up to the idea that we weren’t always safe.
In light of the protests about George Floyd I know now — have known for along while — that I was living in a cocoon. At that time even though we lived in what the banks called a “twilight” neighborhood we never worried about safety or security. That is not the case now, where even expensive elite neighborhoods are the subject of crime and violence. So, even if all other things were equal, the world has moved on and what I could do back then just isn’t possible now.
Too bad. The world is a less interesting place as a result.