Friendships — like rose bushes, newborns and wimpy dogs — need to be nurtured.
But it’s good to know that, even when you’ve done a piss poor job at that, friendships have a kudzu-like ability to survive.
When I reunited with two college roommates on a camping trip in the mountains of North Carolina last week — one I’ve seen every five or so years, one I haven’t so much as exchanged words with in probably 20 — we picked up right where we likely left off, with a beer.
My ex-roommate George and I were originally planning to rent an RV and drive to Missouri. It was to be one of the final treks in my year of dogging it across America for Travels with Ace — a visit to Warrrensburg, where the phrase “man’s best friend” is said to have originated.
(Actually, what lawyer George Graham Vest said, in an 1870 courtroom speech, was that a dog was “the one absolutely unselfish friend that a man can have in this selfish world.” Over the years, it was made more sound-bite friendly.)
Vest was representing Charles Burden, whose black and tan hound, Old Drum, had been shot by a neighboring farmer. Burden was seeking recompense, and won. He was awarded $50. There’s a statue of Old Drum in Warrensburg at the Johnson County Courthouse, and I figured Ace and I should see it.
After checking the mileage to Warrensburg, the rates to rent an RV, and my bank account, I decided against the trip, and George and I came up with an alternate plan — camping for a few days in the mountains, and inviting our friend John, who we had planned to visit, to join us at the campground instead.
George drove down from Fredericksburg, Va. — leaving his elderly dog Puck at home. Remembering the soggy camping experience Ace and I had in Provincetown, Mass., I persuaded George that we should stay in Winston-Salem for a day, waiting for the rain to leave the mountains.
On Wednesday, we loaded up my car, putting, in deference to Ace, as much as we could on the roof, including, once he was loaded into the backseat, the handicapped ramp he has been using to get in and out since he was diagnosed with a herniated disc.
Not fully over that, despite two rounds of drugs, Ace, up until we left, had still been emitting the occasional wimper, and was still being very careful whenever he shook his head.
George, Ace and I checked into the Davidson River Campground in Pisgah National Forest, which had been recommended by John, who lives in nearby Waynesville. We pitched, with some difficulty, my tent, sat back proudly to admire it despite some slight lopsidedness, then headed to nearby Brevard for provisions.
We picked up three steaks, some corn on the cob and, at George’s insistence, some make-your-own salads. To give you some idea of the kind of guy George is, he called John at work to ask him what ingredients he wanted in his salad. I would never have done that. Rather than ponder a friend’s salad preferences, I would have gotten macaroni and cheese.
I gave in to George’s carb-counting ways, built myself a salad and grabbed three different packets of salad dressing.
We got some charcoal, and beer, and a cherry pie, and bananas, and on our way back to the campground, where firewood was $5 a bundle, opted instead for some cheaper wood at a convenience store.
He went at it with great gusto and attention to detail, beginning a highly meticulous process of gathering kindling, and, much to Ace’s displeasure, snapping it into fire-pit-sized pieces.
Ace, who tends to get edgy when camping, freaked out about the noise of sticks being snapped and began seeking places to hide, jumping into the back of the car (without the aid of the ramp) and cowering in fear.
He’d have the same reaction every time the fire, once we got it burning, popped. His eyes would grow big, his curly upright tail would disappear between his legs and he’d slink back over to the car and hop in.
I attempted to reason with him, explaining he was in no danger, and he seemed to listen.
I told him to man up, or dog up, as the case may be — that we were tough and hearty campers, or at least pretending to be. But then the fire would crackle and he’d be back in the car again. He must have jumped in and out of the car 10 times, once squeezing through to sit in the front seat and be at a greater distance from the fire.
Eventually I gave up and let him rest there, figuring he would work up his courage and come out once the steaks hit the grill.
He brought his own firewood, which unlike that which we bought actually burned instead of just producing huge clouds of smoke. He brought a chair, an Arctic-rated sleeping bag, a bottle of wine, corkscrew and wineglasses. We discovered the next day that he had cloaked himself in long underwear as well — a wise decision, as it turned out.
On top of that, our campsite was located right next to a construction project. Crews were sandblasting an old pedestrian bridge that crossed over the Davidson River and will be returned there when work is complete.
We missed most of the sandblasting, being out on another excursion, and only had to put up with about 30 minutes of noise and dust.
That’s what they get for letting the non-planner do the planning.
As my steaks approached doneness — we’d splurged on filets — and the corn turned a golden brown, we turned to the question of salad dressing. I’d picked up a packet of raspberry vinaigrette, a red pepper vinaigrette and a sesame-ginger at the grocery store, the only choices at the salad bar.
We spent a good ten minutes deciding who should get which salad dressing — an unusually long time considering two of us really didn’t care at all, or at least pretended we didn’t, while George voiced a distinct preference for the raspberry vinaigrette.
Eventually, we got the matter settled — George got raspberry, John got red pepper vinaigrette and I got sesame ginger — and enjoyed a fine dinner. (I really wanted that red pepper vinaigrette.)
After dinner, we talked, sat around the fire and drank — once the wine was gone — more beer. We got caught up on each other’s children, and worked to figure out who lived with whom when back in our college days.
John seemed to have the best memory for that kind of detail, I the worst. Still, it’s amazing how, with a little push from friends, memories can return, and then, like dry wood tossed in a fire, spark yet more.
Once our firewood supply — and reminiscence supply — began running low, we headed into the tent, joining Ace who had chosen to seek refuge there, coming out only for some steak handouts. He seemed happy that everyone was finally settling down in one place, and that it was away from the fire.
Lined up in a row, Ace next to me with his paw on my hand, we all went to sleep. I was first up in the morning and started making coffee. Ace peeked out of the opening in the tent, but decided to say there, settling in between John and George.
After a breakfast of bananas and cherry pie, we took a short hike along the river. Later we went into Brevard for lunch. George’s cell phone and mine didn’t get a signal at the campground — not a good thing for a doctor (both John and George are of the medical persuasion), but no big deal for me.
Besides, it was the price one pays when one ventures deep (about a half mile) into the woods and leaves civilization behind. We were too busy being rugged to let that bother us.
Whenever we went into town, service would kick in and reveal our messages, and during lunch George did get an important phone call. It was his hairdresser, informing him that the salon had gotten in some of the product he uses — transforming gel.
That led to a brief round of making fun of George, led by George himself.
Later in afternoon, we decided to wash our dishes from the night before, even though the campground urges people not to do so. We went to the nearby bathroom and I assumed a lookout position while George washed our three plates.
I stopped in my tracks, then backed up, quaking in my sneakers and having visions of finding the snake in my sleeping bag later that night. Just as I had with Ace the night before, I was now telling myself to “man up,” which is surprising because I really dislike that phrase.
George didn’t seem alarmed at all. He seemed pretty sure it was — though exceedingly large — a harmless black snake. But I wasn’t about to let a guy who uses raspberry vinaigrette and transforming gel be my field guide to snakes in the wild.
We took the long way back to the campsite to get the camera and seek out John’s opinion — he being mountain-born and the most wilderness-savvy among us.
John agreed that it probably wasn’t a killer. He, too, wasn’t the least bit bothered by it. Then again, he was leaving that afternoon.
When George and I, after some card-playing and beer-drinking, went to sleep that night — in my case not before a subtle patting down of my sleeping bag — I can assure you that snake was the most distant thing from my mind.
Or at least I pretended it was.