The Last Laugh: Lost Campers

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ILLUSTRATION: RICK KIRKMAN
The lost campers were equipped with everything they needed for a sojourn in nature: motor home, two motorcycles, and a powerboat.

Soon as the rosy-fingered dawn appears, Joy and I grab long-handed tools to toil in the soil and comb the loam. A
hummingbird twinkles down a curving flight path to the end
of my shovel, looks me in the eye and whirs away like a
tiny electric motor. All is peaceful for an hour or so. But
then our dogs bark madly in the dooryard when a white
dinosaur lumbers up the driveway, its well-muffled engine
rising up like a submarine breaching water, and then it
slams down, engine idling.

We get a few lost campers every spring. Considering how
many vehicles are represented, this one counts for a whole
season: one motor home, with two motorcycles mounted on the
rear bumper, towing a powerboat. From behind a windshield
the size of a picture window, two harried faces stare down.
As campers go, these two do not look happy; something has
disgruntled them. It’s a good bet they are having a marital
fight, postponed while they stop for directions. She points
at me and her mouth moves: “Ask him, Walter.”

Country people take their entertainment where they can get
it. Even so, rural Oregonians try to be helpful. Strangers
and outlanders, know this: It is a myth that Oregonian
country people are not friendly to tourists, especially
those from the neighboring state to the south. Anyone who
leaves tectonically unstable regions to seek high ground
and bedrock is using pure intellect. But privacy is the
sweetest and rarest commodity in the country, and houses
aren’t built near roads solely for motorists who cannot
read maps.

The man leans out his window while his wife continues
to micromanage him. “I’m lost,” he admits, flapping a
shut-up gesture over his shoulder at her. “Which way is the
ocean?”
 

I pitch my lower lip between thumb and forefinger. It’s
a momentous question. Even the dogs look at me
expectantly. In 11 years at this location giving directions
to lost tourists, that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever been
asked. We ought to have some kind of commemorative
celebration for it, perhaps a little award ceremony. But
when differing lifestyles intersect, we should all exercise
patience and charity.
 

So I point down our driveway. “Okay, if you get back on
that highway…” I begin. Obviously this fellow has no
mystical connection with the mother ocean that spawned his
first cellular ancestor. Every drop of fluid in his body
has the same salinity as the Pacific Ocean–the largest body
of water on the planet and the one he can’t locate. You can
smell it from here, when the wind is right. This highway
leads directly to the coast and directly away from it. Far
to the east is the Atlantic, another entire ocean. Ergo,
there can be no wrong way if they just keep going.

Should I tell him all this, answering the larger and more
germane philosophical issues, or would he think I was trying to get the last laugh at his expense?
So many answers, all of them true. Meantime, I supply
simple, easy directions: “…and then you turn left, which
is west ….” Why do they want to go to the ocean? Nothing
there but ozone, as Bernard Shaw observed, to give one
fearful appetitre and prolong one’s life unduly.

“Was I right? What does he say?” she asks him, obviously
unhappy with the speed of my reply. Joy drifts over from
the garden, looking sensible; so the woman opens the window
on her side and speaks to my wife, probably asking her the
same question. It may be a mistake. Joy is the very
incarnation of hospitality and an expert in the art of
country harmony, but a transplanted Vermonter to the core.
When asked directions, Vermonters give monosyllabic
responses with zero information value: another old myth,
but it happens to be true.

I point, dramatically, in the direction of the Pacific:
“…And then you keep going until you see something big,
blue, and wet. That’s it.” He nods curtly and turns around,
quite a feat with a rig that size. He misses our shed and
drives over the hump without bending his drive shaft too
badly.

Joy looks at me. We walk to the bluff, watching them go.
The motor home stops at the front of the drive, hesitates,
and turns in the correct direction. They will reach the sea
in one hour. Godspeed.