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Camping with Ken

‘What are you up to out there?’ said the tent. ‘I’m driving back to town,’ I said.

This article is part of our VICE Weekends summer series, presented by Weis

Max Olijnyk is the author of Some Stories, a book of short stories about his friends and things that happened to him. This story is like those ones in that it is also about things that happened to him. It all takes places in the countryside as Max and his family were making their way to a friend's place for New Year's. Then disaster strikes. 

Like many of you, I consider myself a pretty experienced camper. I've camped in different countries; I've camped at music festivals; I've camped in a hire van with a picture from the film V for Vendetta spray-painted on the side; and I've camped on the dirt next to some train tracks. But when I think about it, all that camping only adds up to a few weeks or so of experience—and I have plenty to learn. Here's what happened the last time I gave it a try. 

We drove down a dirt road to a campsite 

The camping grounds were perfect, like something from my imagination: a little outcrop of lawn nestled in a valley at the base of a densely forested mountain range. We had been worried that there would be no sites left, but there was hardly anyone there. We picked a spot between a few trees, right beside a little stream babbling away, and I started doing what I had been looking forward to doing for months: putting up the tents.

I put up the tents

I love putting up tents. It's a special job that allows you to work silently, effectively and happily, surrendering to a system greater than your silly thoughts, and magically transform a bag of fabric and sticks into a hardy shelter for you and your family. I love the exciting, musty plastic smell of tents, a smell that instantly transports you back to the last time you were in one—which was, almost certainly, a good time. I prefer to put up tents by myself, because I find that if anyone (Rosie) tries to help, we end up having an argument about how to do it. Rosie has learned this about me, and wisely took Fred for a walk to the stream. 'Wow!' said Fred upon their return, and they climbed into the larger one to set up the beds, leaving me to start work on the evening meal.

I forgot important things

As soon as I touched the camp stove, a series of terrible realisations hit me: I hadn't packed fuel for the stove; we didn't have anything to light the stove with; and I had forgotten to buy beer. 'What are you up to out there?' said the tent. 'I'm driving back to town,' I said. 'I just realised that we didn't bring matches, or fuel for the stove, or beer.' 'Shit!' said the tent. 'I'll see you in an hour or so,' I said, getting in the car. 'Daddy! Car!' said the tent.

I drove back to town

The drive wasn't so bad, really. A bit of time to myself on a dirt road, weaving through mountainous paddocks that were once covered in trees. Occasionally, I'd come to a single lane river crossing and think about how no one else was around for as far as I could see, but I'd still stop to check for oncoming traffic. They were talking about people's favourite childhood books on the radio. Only old people seemed to be calling in. 

I got the stuff

I drove to the town and bought some beer and a lighter, then stopped in at a hunting shop for a browse. I was in way over my head; the place was way too full on for me. It reminded me of a skate shop, but with guns and fishing rods and knives. 'You going to throw a line in on the weekend?' said one man. 'Ah, yeah, reckon I will,' replied another man, dressed head to toe in camouflage. I asked if they had any camp stove fuel and they directed me to the nearby paint shop. I went in there and bought a bottle of kerosene from a young chap who had moved to the town recently because he was getting into too much trouble in Wellington. I asked him if he liked living there and he looked at me as if I was joking. 'It's alright,' he said.

Disaster struck again

When I made it back to the camping grounds I was a hero again, and set to work with the camp stove straight away. I filled the burner with kerosene, and noticed it was a different colour to how I remembered. Then I thought about it for a second, and realised I had bought kerosene when I was supposed to buy methylated spirits. 'Shit!' I said. I walked over and explained my predicament to a guy who was camping in a fully kitted-out bus. He pointed out that while he was 'all on gas mate,' we could just have a regular campfire, like everyone else was. 

I built a fire

It didn't take long to gather a bunch of dead wood and bracken from the forest. I put some of it in a pile, poured some kerosene over it, and lit it. Fred and Rosie walked over, drawn by the ancient majesty of fire. A moment later, the flames died down completely, replaced by vast plumes of smoke. I managed to heat up some water to cook Fred some pasta, and he ate some of it while shouting 'NO!' at the smoke. 

Ken appeared

While Rosie put Fred to bed (I realise it sounds like Rosie is the only one who does any parenting, but I was busy pretending to be a camping expert), I carried on fiddling with the fire, waddling around its perimeter and poking at it with a stick, pausing to sip at my beer. This was as good as it was going to get. Then a funny old man hobbled up, holding a chainsaw on the end of a stick. 'I've got just the thing for you,' he said, in a friendly Yorkshire accent. 'Sorry?' I said, blinking through the smoke. 'I've got just the thing for you,' he said again. The accent and his cute little bug-eyed dog offset the shock of the chainsaw. 'This is Nemo,' he said, pointing at the dog, 'and I'm Ken.'

Ken showed me how it's done

After he had cut up all our wood to manageable pieces, and helped me fix the fire, I thanked Ken and offered him a beer. 'No beer for me,' he said, 'it gives me gout.' I offered a cup of tea instead and he accepted, told me he'd be back in a moment. He returned with a couple of foldout chairs and his own mug, then we sat looking at the fire and he told me about himself and Nemo. 'He's never growled once,' he said, 'Have you Nemo?' Ken had bought an old school in the middle of nowhere and was slowly restoring it to its former glory. 'It still has all the blackboards,' he told me, as a point of honour. He had built a miniature railway on the property, and he told me he had regular visitors who came out for a ride on it. He asked me what I did and I told him, embarrassed. 'Writer eh?' he said to the fire, 'Well, you'll be wanting to write a story about me.' I told him I probably would. Rosie emerged from the tent and sat down on one of the chairs, and Ken asked her a few questions about herself, before excusing himself for the evening and letting us sit on his chairs.

Breakfast

I slept reasonably well—probably better than Rosie and Fred—and got up early while the rest of the campers were still asleep. I blew on the coals to get the fire started again, but they were cold. I could remember leaving the lighter somewhere clever the night before; I just couldn't remember where that was, exactly. Where the hell was it? Eventually, I approached a woman as she was walking back from the toilet and asked to borrow some matches. If she was creeped out, she hid it well, and pretty soon I had the fire roaring again. I cooked us ham and eggs, and we ate them from the pan, washed down with hot tea (I would've preferred coffee, but I had forgotten my grinder). Fred ate blueberries. I looked up and waved to Ken, who was shuffling towards the toilet block with Nemo. He waved back.   

Epilogue

We packed up and left after breakfast. Ken hobbled over to say goodbye and gave us his details so we can go and visit his school one day. We drove out along the dirt road, and stopped at a supermarket in the next town for supplies. Upon plucking Fred from the back of the car, I noticed something jammed down in the side of his seat: the lighter. 

This article is presented by Weis