Sunday, August 24, 2008

A Time When Men Were Men and Women...ummm...Weren't...Men

I hate camping. To tell the truth, I have always hated camping. I've just never grasped the concept: you leave a perfectly good house with all your stuff and on purpose go to a place where you have to haul your own water, endure ferocious insects and pee outside.

Don't get me wrong: I find the idea of squatting around a campfire bristling with male outdoorsyness at the end of a long day riding herd on a gaggle of cattle, sipping cowboy coffee and trading tales of loves lost and conquests made quite appealing. But camping is never like that. It's sticky and nasty...the food usually stinks...there's generally something small and furry trying to crawl into my mouth while I am sleeping.

Em Te Town ( is kinda like that. It's about two hours out of Edmonton. The sign says "Step Back into the 1800's." It's a western theme town someone built out at the end of a long gravel road very close to the place marked "Nowhere" on your map.

We drove up, my wife and three grandchildren and me, and saw a bunch of old buildings. There's a church and a saloon (where you can get real beer!) and a creek and a ton of antiques. Someone spent a lot of time building this place.

We walked into the Saloon (because this is where you have to check in) and got the key to our cabin. It is the most expensive lodging on the whole site. It has electricity and has been presented to us as the "penthouse" of accommodations available in Em Te Town. So it was with no small anticipation that we piled into our car and drove to Cabin 6.

We know it is Cabin 6 because someone has scrawled "Cabin 6" on the door with a big black marker. The key is to a lock that hangs very importantly on a hinge. Said hinge is on the OUTSIDE of the door and could be removed with a screwdriver quite easily, despite the really big lock. This security flaw aside, I am still about half hopeful that the inside won't suck.

We open the door and look in, all of us standing on the old wooden porch, peeking into the cabin. It's rustic, alright. There's a swaybacked couch against a window that looks like something most people would throw out. Along the window sill are candles with a Christmas-like Three Wise Men motif. It's August. There are three tiny (read this as "coffin-like") rooms with really small beds along the back and a big wood burning stove.

We enter the cabin with much talk of this and that and I am already thinking about the spiders living in the couch and the possibility of venomous snakes lurking under the covers of the bed, just waiting for a warm body to slither up against.

I see a sign posted on the wall about the Rules of Em Te Town and this particular cabin. These rules reference a furnace and give detailed instructions on how to turn the furnace on. Being male and reasonably sure I can recognize a furnace, I start poking around the cabin. I can't see it. I don't want to raise the issue with Sheree because I have the idea that she will just point and I will see a furnace spring into existance.

So I go to look for Sid, the affable groundskeeper guy, to ask him where it is. Sid is a skinny older man who wears a lot of plaid and has a hat that looks like it has been passed down through at least five generations.

He comes into the cabin and peers around.

"No furnace," he declares. "We had to tear it out."

I look at Sid for a long moment.

"Furnace was condemned after we took the place over. So we tore it out. Haven't replaced it yet," he says as though that explains everything.

"," I start.

"You gotcha a good wood burning stove though," says Sid crossing the room and patting the iron antique with a certain affection. "Tell you what. Why don't I bring you some wood?"

I am not sure how to make a fire. This is one of the most closely held secrets of my life. I have never known how to build a fire. And the idea of having to build a fire inside my own HOUSE isn't attractive. Sid, who has already delivered a very small pile of firewood which we purchased upon arrival for seven dollars, goes off to get the wood and I look at Sheree.

Sometimes I think Sheree expects she married Grizzly Adams. She expects that guys know how to do outdoors stuff. She certainly does. It's a reasonable assumption, I suppose. But I don't. Never said I did. Never wanted to. I feel a long weekend coming on.

When we finally go to bed, stalked by several flies who buzz around our heads, we find the mattress is hard and thin and where it isn't hard, there are springs. The cabin is too hot and then too cold and I have decided to simply endure the night.

After seven years the night passes and I realize Sheree hasn't slept much at all. I know this because neither did I. This means neither of us is going to be in a very good mood today. I hate it when that happens.

"Why don't you build a fire?" suggests Sheree.

Shit. I briefly consider pretending I didn't hear her. But that never works on her. Never.

"...a fire?" I start, definately not Grizzly Adams. "I don't know how to build a fire."

"Every guy knows how to build a fire," she says. "I can't believe you never learned."

She looks at me for a long moment and then walks away. I set my jaw and go about building my first fire. I have an idea of how it's done. But in practice it's not unlike trying to perform brain surgery after seeing Boris Karloff in a mad scientist movie. I have a vague notion that you need paper and little twigs and that you need to spend a lot of time blowing on it. After a while the fire simply happens.

I do this and watch the embers die -- probably because I have dumped optomistically huge logs on them. Not the way. I go back into the cabin uncertainly, feeling like a dork. But I really have no idea what to do. My father always started a fire with liberal amounts of lighter fluid.

Sheree notices me standing there and, after a long-suffering look, tells me to take paper and twist it into an "8" shape and then put twigs on it.

"Ah," I say as though that explains everything. I go out to twist the damn paper.

Caedmon, my ten year old grandson, comes out to help and eventually we get a blazing fire going. I am eagerly awaiting Sheree's return from the shower to show her that I am, in fact, male and able to generate fire.

When she comes back she looks at the fire and then looks at me. Then she goes inside. I sigh and determine to enjoy this little rite of passage on my own.

We spent the rest of the weekend looking at stuff. We went into Buck Lake to buy marshmallows and other necessities and we looked at the two horses. One of them came to Caedmon, ignoring the rest of us, and did the oddest thing.The mare goes directly to him and greets him like an old friend. It is a sweet and unexpectedly tender moment. I see his face soften and watch as he gently touches the horse and the horse presses its head into him. The moment makes me feel something powerful and proud deep inside where the grandpa part of me lives. It is a magic moment that almost makes up for the sleepless nights. Almost.

Our last morning greeted us with thunder and lighting and buckets of rain. My oldest grandson, Perrin, returned from a trip to the outhouse with a "why oh why did you bring me here?" look on his face.

As we drive away from Cabin 6 one of the kids asks if we can do it next year. I suppress a shudder. Then I remember that I can now actually build a fire...and the pics turned out well...and there's the very off chance that I will develop some survival skills within the next year.


But they can keep Cabin 6.

And the spiders.

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