When I was a kid I used to go camping with my grandpa out on the central deserts of Utah, mostly the San Rafel Swell area. Grandpa had grown up in that place, in the little town of Emery. He herded cattle out in that range. At just thirteen years old he was a teamster, the original type of teamster, hauling freight in a wagon pulled by a team of horses. His dad and some of the family had community department stores in several towns on the frontier. The freight he hauled was to supply those stores. Growing up I heard many a story of adventures on the wagon roads through that territory. A teamster in those days was fully exposed to the elements, those plains were hot as an oven in the summer, blistering sun. Hard driving winds, with no trees to stop them, assaulted the driver like a giant sand blaster. At over 6200′ elevation the area could get pretty cold in the winter too, heavy snow and high winds just added to the excitement. Still the freight must roll.
He knew the area like the back of his hand. A new story was told around every bend. When he was growing up that place was not only dangerous due to the harshness of the elements if you weren’t prepared, but it was also a popular place for outlaws to hide out. Folks like Butch Cassidy and many others much less well known and far more dangerous.
Grandpa used to take me out in “the swell” or the the San Rafel as they would call it, hunting for twisted narly cedars to make lamps and tables out of. Or we might go looking for interesting rocks to bring back. Grandpa learned camping while working; herding cattle, working in the desert, and hauling wagon freight. For grandpa campfire cooking meant cooking up whatever you might eat at home. His cookware was old kitchen utensils, the grill for the pans was a couple of irons across the fire.
One time when I was young I was out with him and we had set up camp. We were in his old Ford, “three on the tree” pickup with a shell on the bed. He made a camper out of it by taking and old iron bed frame with the metal springs and a thin mattress on top, it just fit in the bed of the truck. That was our bed, pretty comfortable actually. The space under the bed frame he used for storing all the camping supplies. He made a fire by the side of the truck, our chairs were the old folding lawn chairs popular in those days.
I wore Levis jeans, cowboy boots and hat, and a plaid western shirt. Grandpa wore what he always wore, khaki pants and a matching long sleeved shirt, on his feet leather boots with gum rubber soles and to top it off a hat similar to what I wear now.
I’ve always been inquisitive and at the time was telling him all about how I had read that you could eat Prickly Pear Cactus, and he was giving me the old, “ya can huh?” And watching to see what I’d do. So I went and got a pad off a nearby cactus, then went over to the fire and explained to him how I had to singe off the prickly needles over the fire so I could peel it and eat it. Grandpa watched me, intrigued to see what I was doing. I got a stick off a Juniper tree, sharpened the end with my pocket knife and stuck it into the cactus pad. I felt so proud showing grandpa my skills, roasting the cactus over the fire. When it looked like I had burnt the needles off I cut into it and peeled off the outside. My mouth was watering as I imagined biting into this delectable treat nature provided us. It sure looked good. “See grandpa, I’ve got a prickly pear, fruit on the desert!” Grandpa smiled at me with a crooked grin. I popped a chunk into my mouth and bit down. Well to my surprise not only did it not taste at all like a pear, it was more like a cucumber, a cucumber filled with Elmer’s Glue. And that wasn’t the only thing wrong with my treat, apparently I had not singed off all the needles or had got them onto the part I was eating, my tongue and gums had an odd sensation, as if I had bitten down on a porcupine, to me at that moment, it was a terrible feeling. Grandpa about died laughing at my adventure. I suppose I was quite the sight to see.
Things have changed a lot since those days when I’d go out with grandpa, and with dad too at times. We even used to camp right in the midst of Goblin Valley, now it’s all fenced off and restricted, probably a good idea I suppose with all the people that go there these days. Camping was simple then, and it was inexpensive for the most part. You got there however you could, you used whatever you had, and you ate pretty much the same food as at home. I look back now and in some ways yearn for that simplicity again. Not that I’m a complicated guy, I still am pretty simple with things, make most of my own gear, and make it multipurpose when I can. The important thing to me is…to get out there. An evening around the campfire is heaven. The crackling sounds, the faint whistling of gasses rushing out of the hot logs, the white, blue and red flames, the aroma of cedar and sage burning in the cool night air. It doesn’t take much to make me happy, just being out there will do it for me, a bonus is to share it with someone else.
Until next time this is Perry Peacock for, “Simplifying Survival”