New York Kindling

NYCO's Blog in Exile. Northeastern camping and notes from the field.

December 15, 2012
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They must have been sacrifices

The world is ending next week, so let’s talk about the Maya.

We have only the archaeological facts to go on when it comes to many ancient civilizations, and in the case of the Maya, we don’t even fully know how their writing system worked. So we try to fill in the gaps by imagining that everyone in Maya society was well programmed to fulfill their social and religious roles, like wound-up toys. That Mayan citizens, slaves, priests and kings didn’t really have private thoughts about anything that they did, or watched other people do — that they were automatons concerned only with fulfilling ceremonial duties which they of course deeply and constantly believed were good and right.

What was good and right, to the Maya? (Actually, there were a lot of different Maya kingdoms that fought against each other at any one time, so presumably there were a lot of different ideas of goodness and rightness.) What was piety to them? How were the gods best served? It couldn’t have just been as simple as acting out rituals. In bed at night, Maya movers and shakers, and even ordinary slaves, must have had definite conceptions of why their people and way of life were better than all other Maya, and what had to be done and organized to ensure the survival of their way of life. Since we can’t decipher some of their writings, and because their writings were not personally expressive in any case (there were no Mayan blogs), we will probably never know for sure.

When it came time for the most important, God-affirming rituals of Maya society, there had to be special people to carry them out. Where did these special groups of people come from? Who chose them, back in the beginning? It’s probably safe to guess that as in any human society, the first priests chose themselves, although they might not have been called priests at the start. They studied the stars, read the most ancient writings, and came up with the ceremonial innovations, ones that had certain values at their core.

At first, the priests must have enacted these rituals alone. But as Mayan society grew bigger and more complicated and as the importance of faithfulness to the Gods deepened, they must have needed some help in keeping the holy rituals, which became more and more important.

By the time the holy rituals had evolved from sacrifices of food or animals and into human sacrifices of prisoners, some of those Maya in the audience must have had some private misgivings as to the turn things were taking – if we are to believe they were humans, and not just stone characters in an eternal frieze. They must have noticed that actual psychopaths were turning up in the ranks of the ceremonial executioners – people who liked the work because it satisfied their blood lust. And as the human sacrifices turned into child sacrifices, people might have become too afraid or too desensitized to question the desires of the gods. It was an enormous engine that fed on itself. It was a shame how the victims struggled, but the greater good meant they had to die.

So the little bodies piled up in the pits and behind the temples, and would be found by archaeologists a thousand years later. No record of thoughts or misgivings were ever found, so there are assumed to be none.

In 21st century America, even those who scoff at the idea of a God are often quite content to worship the U.S. Constitution. The Maya were opaque, their notions of goodness and rightness and human progress unknown, but Americans know what they’re about. The shining ideals of the founding fathers. Freedom, a light unto all peoples. Self-evident truths. And, if some psychopaths get in to the ranks of the guardians of freedom sometimes, yes, occasionally some batches of innocent victims will die, but… but… the Bill of Rights! The founding fathers! The American Way!

This all makes a lot of sense to a lot of people today. Or if it doesn’t, they are content to cling to the presumed will of the founding fathers and not think about it too hard. If the holy brotherhood of American semiautomatic weapon owners – defenders of the Faith – occasionally attract the odd psychopath who murders a score of innocent people, what of it, really?

But in a thousand years — even if human history is any guide, and that we can assume that neither stone obelisks nor data storage centers will be legible forever — some kind of evidence of what happened at the school in Connecticut today may be left behind for future people to puzzle over. They will have pieced together the rudiments of our religion, and they will assume that we were all unquestioning automatons fully devoted to our gods, without any inkling of what the American Way meant to us or what we thought about it, just like we have no inkling of what the Mayan Way was about. And they will look up from what record remains of these children, and say to each other,

“They must have been sacrifices.”

December 1, 2011
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Why go winter camping?

Nice to see that Wintercampers, the upstate-based winter camping website, is still around. I lost track of them and thought mistakenly that they went out of business – or finally froze to death.

I’d like to try winter camping someday, but doubt I could find anyone to do it with. It’s hard enough finding people who like summer camping. It’s even hard to find people who think suburbia is interesting, and that’s the most basic camping activity of all.

November 27, 2011
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More on camping and public space

A few months ago, I posted about camping and control (“A Free Private Campground“). It so happens that current events have come around to make the issue of camping and public/private space sort of important now, so here are some items of interest about OWS and space.

#OWS and Public Space
“If we do decide that public space can’t be monopolized by groups, there comes the question of how we prevent that from happening. Camping out at a park, or on a campus, strikes me as a crime slightly worse than jaywalking and decidedly below speeding in a car, which I do all the time.”

After Zuccotti Park, It’s Decision Time for Occupy Wall Street Organizers
“What exactly Occupy Wall Street is, in that regard, hinges on the question of space. While the protesters still have access to Zuccotti Park, they can longer set up tables or tents there… If the movement organizers can’t find more space to meet and plan, they may simply stop getting together.”

And a quote from David Farber’s Chicago ’68 on how Mayor Daley saw (or didn’t see) camping out in Chicago’s parks:

The Mayor knew full well that some Chicagoans did sleep in the parks on hot summer nights… The poor Chicagoans who slept along the lakefront were not permitted to do so; they asked no one for permission and they had none. They acted sub rosa; their presence in the park was not “real” because they had not been, up until the convention, in a space where they could be noticed. Public laws had not been invoked. The Mayor believed in privacy, even on public land, just so long as it stayed private. For the act to remain private, however, the actors must remember to stay out of the public notice and to avoid turning an immediate response to concrete conditions (the weather) into an abstract statement about power relations (the parks belong to the people). As long as people respected the public laws when the public authorities needed to invoke them, then people had not broken city ordinances and thus had not formally, declaratively slept in the city parks after curfew.

November 27, 2011
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Humor of the Early Post-9/11 Era: A Short Retrospective

Now that I’ve seen my first piece of genuine Occupy Wall Street humor (other than on protest signs), it’s time for a post I always wanted to write: a fond look back at what passed for funny in the early years of the reign of Bush II (approximately 2001 through 2005).

The political humor of those days was not like the political humor of today. It was crude. It was unsophisticated. But despite that, it served a truly vital purpose. It freed the fear-paralyzed Internet commentariat to say things that you literally weren’t allowed to say aloud in polite company — not with the horrors of a massive terror attack still so fresh, the fears about national security, even the censorship of “Freedom Fries.” And of course you couldn’t say anything bad about our two righteous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In other words, it was real humor, somewhat like the sort you get in wartime, or in the midst of a repressive Communist regime. (The Russians were famous for their humor, but many people think it was the East Germans who had the best jokes.)

Some oldies, but goodies, included:

Get Your War On. It’s kind of hard to see a lot of the humor in this now, but I assure you that back in October 2001 it was funny as hell, not to mention liberating. And sharper and angrier than today’s protesters could really be, because back in 2001, it wasn’t a stretch to imagine that you might actually get in trouble for laughing at it. That Tom Ridge’s goons might actually show up at your door, or something. parodies. When the White House came out with, everyone and their brother made fun of those bizarre little infographics. This was in early 2003, right around the time that everyone started to suspect that the color-coded terror alerts were full of shit, and it’s probably the first time in history that a government website was mocked so hard that they had to revamp it just a short time later. Although some parody sites were put out that skewered the entire website, they were never quite as funny as the random spoofs that got posted on bulletin boards and forums. Sadly, many of those discussion threads have gone to the great Internet trashcan in the sky, so the truly funniest stuff is now lost forever. But here’s an example of that sort of amusement.

Real Hussein. Everyone remembers JibJab, right? JibJab really wasn’t very funny. For Flash-based political humor, the Real Hussein series was a lot funnier, mainly because it somehow managed to use Saddam as a better political and social critic than any of the presidential candidates (not difficult, I know). Also, unlike JibJab’s stuff, the sequel to Real Hussein was even funnier than the original. (“Well they fought me, everybody’s glad they caught me/For the hundred million bucks they spent, they could have bought me…”)

And then there was the stuff you couldn’t make up, like John Ashcroft’s unforgettable “Let the Eagle Soar” or the Bush/Blair duet, “Endless Love.”

By 2004, the golden age of post-9/11 humor was already starting to wane. This is because presidential elections tend to both kill real political discussion (and therefore, jokes) and also provide their own unintentional humor.

Sadly, we are likely heading for another quadrennial humor desert in 2012. But I’m not sure it ever really came back; although Stephen Colbert’s White House Press Association dinner gig in 2006 will be long remembered, the election of Obama just about killed the jokes dead, because everyone really was expecting a revolution, and revolutions just are aggressively unfunny in general.

The Pepper Spray Cop meme is what got me thinking about the possible return of actual political humor. But while Pepper Spray Cop is genuinely funny, it feels more surreal than subversive. That too many American cops are overweight tough guys with large bellies and small consciences is not exactly a revelation. And watching him pepperspray bits of historical and cultural kitsch is more Warholian than anything else. He’s like Godzilla, which is funny (to Americans, anyway), indiscriminately zapping whatever he pleases — including a lot of stale American symbols that, let’s face it, we’re all sort of over (er, Twilight, anyone?). Pepper Spray Cop actually seems vaguely countercultural himself, if dumb and repulsive also — more like an SNL recurring skit character, or a Kilroy without street cred.

So, here’s hoping that the golden age of Internet political jokes is not as dead as it seems to be. Because without it, 2012 is probably going to be insufferable, especially for the little people.

July 11, 2011
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A free private campground…

…aka a high-end homeless camp, this one in Michigan.

Homeless camp near I-94 settles into neighborhood west of Ann Arbor

It’s only for a select, relative few that camping is about “man vs. nature.” For the fortunate, camping is about packing up your North Face gear and being transported to a pristine wilderness where one can test oneself against the elements or contemplate the mind of God by gazing into a still mountain lake. (If you are especially well-off, you can even renounce it all and become a famous hermit.)

But for the vast majority of humans, camping is about “man vs. man.” It’s about homeless encampments and refugee camps. It’s about people who don’t want to be outdoors, and about people who don’t want other people to be outdoors. It’s about freedom, and about being controlled.

We occasionally pay for permission to camp in various places; but at the end of the day, most of us are holders of the ultimate camping permit – a fixed home address. Ironically this gives us a certain carte blanche to come and go freely in the wilderness (or “wilderness” as it were). Without that fixed address, we become automatically suspicious to the powers that be whenever we park a truck or set up a tent.

I don’t feel one can rationally discuss urban plans and policy without discussing the impulse to “decamp.” I believe that “urban/suburban/rural” is a false dichotomy. When people intent on discussing urban policy talk about “rural” populations, what they really are talking about are rural communities vs. urban ones. They are skipping over the issue of community vs. not-community, civilization vs. wild. But if you don’t address why people don’t want to live in existing communities – why there is an instinct for dispersal – you will likely not understand the whole picture of why you can’t get cities held together, or restarted.

The existence of suburbs is essentially about a lack of faith that urban/village living can do anything good for you. I believe that at the core of the first wave of suburbanites was a feeling of wanting to turn away from urban communities that had left them with a sense of non-community. It was a decampment, enabled and fanned by all sorts of things, from lender schemes to politically motivated racial codewords and of course, the so-called American Dream.

We now have multiple generations of these half-wild creatures known as suburbanites (including yours truly). Many of them sit in their basements tapping out their harsh native calls on the comment boards and other such places.

I can only write about camping as an “issue,” from my own point of view – a housed, address-blessed suburbanite who exists uneasily on the edges of both a city/village and a beckoning wilderness. From my perspective, it’s all a continuum of the current American condition. Which increasingly includes the longterm homeless.

The good news is that civilization vs. wildness is a large continuum and that you can start examining it at any point along that vast grade.


July 10, 2011
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The Perfect Campground, Part 3

See Part 1, Part 2.

Our ultimate destination was the New River Gorge area in the south central part of West Virginia; after that, we weren’t sure of the itinerary exactly. This was to be primarily a road trip, which would preclude extended camping stays – and you can’t really get a feel for how a campground is run unless you stay a while. But I still hoped to find a nice spot where we could stop for at least two nights all the same.

The morning of the third day of the trip was spent around Lake Arthur north of Pittsburgh, doing a mini-tour of the small town where my dad spent part of his childhood. This was nice, but the day got stressful after we were almost involved in what would have been a serious highway accident (some imbecile missed their exit and decided to stop dead in the middle of the road and back up… without hazard lights… thank God we were able to avoid rearending them at the last moment!) Then we got stuck in a Pittsburgh area traffic jam.

This is the sort of day when finding a cool green oasis to hide in becomes an imperative.

We reached Morgantown late in the afternoon, and really the only public camping choice was Coopers Rock State Forest (which, despite the name, is basically a state park with all the amenities thereof). The attendant wasn’t there on a Sunday afternoon, so we chose a site and paid via envelope. This is a small campground of about 25 sites — surprisingly, all electric — in an extremely attractive woodland setting. By the time I got back from paying for the site I had already decided I wanted this place to be the multiple-night stay.

I’m not sure if these were WV State Park system things, or just specific to this campground, but there were three things of note. First, a blanket no-alcohol policy, which you’ll never see in New York OPR or DEC campgrounds, though it’s not unusual elsewhere. Second, this campground had no dumpster, but provided an individual metal trash can for each site. Third, park staff were almost never at the check-in station, but were a constant presence on patrol, making the rounds no less than once an hour.

As for the campsites themselves, they couldn’t have been laid out any more thoughtfully. Even the most claustrophobic tent-snob couldn’t have found fault with the site spacing, and all sites were slightly built up for good drainage. I was pretty impressed with the place. West Virginia isn’t a wealthy state, but they seemed to be making the best use of what must be limited resources. (I understand that WV has branded some of their state campgrounds as “RV Resorts,” so I have a feeling that this attention to detail wasn’t just at Coopers Rock.)

Here’s a 360 panorama of the Coopers Rock campground. From what little I saw and experienced during the two days I stayed there, I have to say that WV made New York’s state campgrounds look… well, a little shabby.

As for the lack of a dumpster, it turns out that this particular campground is horribly “plagued” by raccoons (nothing else, just raccoons). We learned this from one of the park rangers who came by on an hourly round to say hello — something else you don’t get in New York. He had a raccoon in a trap back in his truck (sadly, it was marked for doom) and apparently the individual trash-can strategy works best for keeping the critters away, in their view. We also asked him about the frequent patrols. Coopers Rock is just outside of WVU-Morgantown (aka Party Central) and this is part of the reason why they do it, but I also had to wonder if the patrols were to keep non-collegiate drug users out as well, since WV like many other poor states has had a problem with meth.

In New York, you ordinarily just wouldn’t have an opportunity to chat with a park ranger. I know why that is, but I guess I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the opportunity. We also discussed Mountaineers football (obligatory discussion topic when in WV), bear problems, and upstate New York vs. West Virginia accents.

A backcountry camper would no doubt find Coopers Rock to be unacceptably suburban. But it pretty much fulfilled every criterion of “the perfect campground” for me, which shows my own lack of “wildness” I suppose. (I would have liked it just fine without electric service, though.) By the next morning I was wandering around mumbling things like “Damn, this is the nicest campground I have ever been to.” It certainly was the perfect place to recover from three days on the road.

I supposed that this would be the nicest place we would encounter for the rest of the trip – but I was mistaken (or was I?)…

July 9, 2011
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Summer camp in the 21st century

As a kid, I never was sent away to summer camp and I probably wouldn’t have liked such organized jollity anyway. Just passing on this link to a NYT story about summer camps, and you can pretty much predict what it’s about — moneyed parents demanding “amenities” for their children. Except that the amenities seem to now be about college-application-padding activities.

The story does focus on a summer camp that still tries to be traditional, however.

July 6, 2011
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News bits

Some followups on previous posts…

The New York Times reviews camp finder apps.

The plan for a 600-site campground at Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field is under criticism because of the condition of the airfield’s fire hydrants. (This story makes it sound like campgrounds all over New York State routinely burst into flame. I don’t even think they do that in California.)

July 6, 2011
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Some years ago, a friend of my dad’s remodeled his house up in Mexico. It’s a farmhouse built around 1850, and by the time the remodeling was done, he wound up with a lot of exceedingly thick, chopped wooden beams from the basement that he gave to my dad for camp wood.

Let’s just say this was some amazing firewood. Talk about well-seasoned! The like has never been seen before or since.

There was one particular unforgettable beam in this lot. We called it Megachunk, and it sustained us for an entire wet, four-day weekend in the Saratoga area. It took the whole weekend for the log to finally render down…

“How old do you think this wood is?”

“It’s from 1850 or thereabouts, and they’re huge beams, so… maybe that tree was 60 or 70 years old when it was cut.”

“So, maybe, 1780 or 1790?… Maybe George Washington was alive when this tree was alive.”

“So now we’re burning George Washington.

It took us a couple of years to completely burn Randy’s house, but we still remember Megachunk.

July 6, 2011
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The Perfect Campground, Part 2

See Part 1.

On Day 2 (Saturday, June 25), we headed south from Dunkirk into Pennsylvania toward Butler County, north of Pittsburgh. My dad grew up in a small town there called Prospect, and I’d wanted to see the location of some of the wild farm adventure stories he told me about when I was a kid. Prospect is located close to Lake Arthur and Moraine State Park – but even though this is a big park, no camping is offered by the Commonwealth, so visitors have to make their own camping accommodations. So we would be staying in one of the privately owned campgrounds in the area.

I have a natural prejudice against private campgrounds: too expensive, too kitschy, and you never really know how well they will be run. So this is why I generally stick to the pseudo-rustic yet (in their own way) cookie-cutter experience of state-run campgrounds. As with a McDonald’s, you always know what you are going to get – same check-in experience, same rule sheet, same facilities, etc. Plus, you usually get some nice trails to go on and an excuse to take pretty pictures. But on a road trip you sometimes don’t have a choice. (Pennsylvania is light on the state campgrounds in the western part of the state.)

We chose Bear Run Campground – $35 for a single night at an electric site. (By comparison, a New York State campground with electric is usually around $23.) Bear Run looks like a big travelers’ mecca, but the map is deceiving: half the sites are “seasonal” – although when we drove by them they appeared to be “permanent.” Fifth-wheelers are shoehorned in to lots the size of parking spaces, clinging to steep hillsides. A lot of them had wooden decks permanently attached, and landscaping out front. There were even a few “for sale” signs. (Here are some pictures taken by another visitor.)

In fact, transient campers (or just weekenders) were shunted to two areas – right at the campground entrance (noisy!) or way way down the back of beyond, which we chose. The check-in girl seemed confused when we said we wanted to see the sites and pick out our own. I guess they don’t get much of that.

If we had been towing the A-Liner as usual, I would have looked at the place and run away screaming due to maneuverability issues, but all we had was the Land Yacht so it was fine. The permanent trailers alone would have freaked me out (remember, I’m a private campground newbie) but for my understanding that camping is just another degree of suburbia and that I, as a suburbanite, shouldn’t judge. The place literally was Pittsburgh’s most distant burb.

Indeed, I wonder if in the event of a Peak Oil Rapture, places like this would be where civilization would really hide out. A pre-existing village with a self-contained sewer and water system next to a big reservoir (Lake Arthur) and a state park (hunting grounds), an already tight-knit community of seasonal campers who come to the area year after year. And presumably, a few of them knew some actual camping/survival techniques and weren’t afraid of pit toilets.

Would Bear Run be such a bad place to preserve civilization as we know it?

It really wasn’t all that bad. For our $35, we got a clean latrine right across the road, a clean shower building up the hill, and light entertainment from two horses in a big corral behind us. (See it in glorious 360 degrees.) I guess the proprietors thought that camping in the back of beyond would be a great hardship for their cash-cow seasonal folks and so that’s where they stuck the transients, but we were like “Yay!” (Truth be told, the smoothly functioning free WiFi didn’t hurt either.)

Yet, I longed for a “true” woods camping experience, and hoped to find a more congenial place to stay a couple of days when we got to West Virginia.