Past Tents
The Way We Camped
Susan Snyder
Bancroft Library)
When we went camping at Seymour's Point in north Florida, up near Fernandina, it was feast time for the the horseflies, the mosquitoes, the gnats and the no-see-ums that made their home there near the mud-flats. We would arrive on a Saturday around noon, go fishing up the Nassau River, and arrive back at six or so to clean the catch and get bit.

There you are with a dozen half-dead drum, or grouper, or flounder, scale-scraper in hand, up to your eyes in mud and guts, and a midge buzzes your ear and you find yourself briefly wondering if this is the R&R you had promised yourself.

On Sunday, Uncle Ernest, who had far better sense than to be battling the bugs at dusk, appears on the dock at 6 A.M., bamboo fishing-pole in hand. He has gone down the clay bank to fiddler city and gathered ten or fifteen inch-long red-jointed crabs in a tin can for bait. He takes a fishhook and sticks the business end of it into the fiddlers at navel level. Then he lowers the whole wriggling and tiggling over the side of the dock into the swift-moving Nassau River. He's angling for sheepshead.

Ernest is patient, all Zen, alert to the smallest twitch at the business end of the pole. I had just discovered Ed Zern who had written about fishing as a silly tableau with a worm on one end and a nut-case on the other but Ernest is no idiot, doen't use worms and, besides, the chowders he concocts (onion, potato, filet of sheepshead, butter, Tabasco) are the stuff of heaven.

This is North Florida at mid-century, and it couldn't last. Seymour's Point was soon laid to waste by the St. Joe Paper Company: They built a pulp mill upstream from our fishing area and within a year, the oysters and blue crab and fishing grounds had fallen victim to the sulfuric acid dumped as waste in the river. The crackers --- the poor folk who poached the land and worked odd jobs to supplement their diet --- ended up going to work in the pulp mill, ruining their lungs and getting $1.50 an hour so that the rest of us would have all the writing paper we could ever want.

The last time I visited Seymour's Point, they had built a condo overlooking the waters with an architectural style best described as "Trump Bleak Functional," and I could only dream of the times we kids had camped there, boiling up crabs for supper, eating bluepoint oyster fresh from the shells, lying down to sleep in wobbly little pup tents complete with pump-it-up Coleman lanterns complete with the two little bags that hung down to fill the night with a stark white light. There would be a pine-knot root sticking in your back, the air would be filled with the scent of creosote and an undefinable scent from the mud-flats. You'd be under a mosquito net to protect you from the song of the anopheles and there'd be the inevitable spooky shadows, shadows of flying things and creepy things and the occasional cougars that still roamed in the rural Florida countryside. Sleep would come soon, that sweet sleep of youth and innocence, in that innocent land from so long ago.

§     §     §

Susan Snyder takes us back to these halcyon times. She opines that camping was slow to catch on in America because in the 19th Century, camping was all there was. When you wanted to get from West Virginia to Missouri, and from there to Oklahoma, and from there to the Nevada Territory and California, you camped your way across the country.

    Sleeping under the stars and cooking over an open fire had been matters of necessity and expediency in trackless wastes that concealed wild beasts and nightmare sounds. Wilderness had been the formless enemy to be conquered and crossed at all costs.

"Now," she writes, "the trailblazers became pleasure trekkers, and trails that had been the routes of arduous travail become the paths of holiday jaunts."

Ms. Snyder has collected here over a hundred photographs to delight the soul: people dressed to the nines, posed formally outside their white-and-blue striped tents; three young fellows on high-front-wheel bicycles of the times, their packs carefully hung from the steering bar; a booted ruffian in a pork-pie hat standing before a wood-plank lodge marked WELLS FLAT; a "Silver Dawn" Sauerkraut can cut at both ends to serve as smokestack.

She has also culled readings from camping books of the day, advertising copy from the magazines filled with hints ("To dry matches: Carefully blot off as much water as possible with a soft cloth and then pass them through the hair a dozen times"), and clippings from those who ventured out into the wild:

"We ate our supper of cold venison and bread, and whittled from the sides of the wooden barometer-case shavings enough to warm water for a cup of miserably tepid tea, and then, packing our provisions and instruments away at the head of the shelf, rolled ourselves into our blankets and lay down to enjoy the view."

    After such fatiguing exercises the mind has an almost abnormal clearness: whether this is from within, or due to the intensely vitalizing mountain air, I am not sure; probably both contribute to the state of exaltation in which all alpine climbers find themselves.

This entry by geologist Clarence King concludes: "The solid granite gave me a luxurious repose."

--- L. W. Milam
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