The term “unconventional” was applied to my family and me for the first time in 2006 in the Guadalupe Mountains of Texas. We were camping with friends and the campground was packed. Their camper was parked in a large lot for campers and we were relegated to overflow tent camping, where neighboring tents were in physical contact. We asked the ranger if we could camp on the ground near our friend’s camper. His response was that this was “unconventional” but not against the rules.
My daughter Haley took this as a serious compliment and kept the term alive and well through today. Haley and I sleep out under the stars as much as possible and had done so for some time. Under the stars = no tent. Haley loves sleeping under the stars. I have the image of her ponytail in my mind, barely visible deep in her mummy bag on many a cold night under the stars. Indication to this Daddy that his girl was safe and warm during his many nightly checks on her. By the way, Tony, my son, thinks nothing of sleeping under the stars either.
They picked this habit up from me, as have many of my students. I developed the love for sleeping under the stars with my best friend Nick around 1982 or 1983. We were training for our future time in the army which occurred for each of us some 4 years later. We wanted a challenge and sought these where we could find them around my house in Casselberry Florida. Fortunately Gee Creek, dead space between developments, and swamps produced areas somewhat wild. We had alligators, lots of snakes, gopher tortoises, and even an occasional otter in our “woods”. All kids need woods.
We would dress in camouflage and outfit ourselves with military surplus equipment. I loved the old fanny packs, ponchos, poncho liners, ammo pouches, etc. We carried survival equipment, learned to make fires on even wet and rainy days with only a spark, and ate only what we could catch. Sometimes we had pellet rifles to help harvest squirrels, my favorite, and rabbits and doves. Other times we challenged ourselves by just taking a slingshot or going with only a knife. We ate interesting items like fresh water muscles, crayfish, frogs, snakes, turtles (not a favorite for either Nick or me), wild oranges, and palmetto hearts. We made shelters like the ones we studied in survival guides and eventually the palm-covered lean-to gave way to just lying on a poncho. I woke one morning to find that slugs had been busy exploring me in the night. Every inch of their travels could be retraced by following their slimy trail.
I have continued to sleep on the ground all over the country and even internationally. We didn’t bother with or even have tents most of the time in the army. The first field exercise for this Florida-grown outdoors man turned soldier was called Winter Warrior. Bad news. To this point I had yet to see snow that I remembered. I would see snow during exercise Winter Warrior in West Germany. I was new to the unit, just in from basic training, advanced infantry training, and airborne school (where I again crossed paths with Nick). We traveled for many hours in our armored vehicles and when we finally stopped things were quite different. Where it wasn’t packed by heavy armored vehicles, the snow was about knee-deep. I was in awe of the beauty and the novelty of the sight.
I became a bit perplexed when I had to go to the bathroom, the kind that requires a bit of squatting. They didn’t teach me about this in basic nor was this mentioned in the many survival manuals I spent hours reading as a kid. And I simply didn’t know snow. Well, I figured it out and as usual, go quite a kick out of my predicament. It was an adventure until I was told I had to sleep outside. The rule was, no one sleeps in the vehicles, or so they said. To me and my new section sergeant, this was the rule. I got a cot and found a protected place under a conifer. I dug out enough snow to accommodate the cot, set up my down-filled intermediate cold sleeping bag, emptied my bladder, slipped out of my boots and into my bag. I was completely dressed when I climbed into my bag. This is a terrible idea in the cold but I would learn this slowly over the next few years, along with a few other tough lessons.
I think this is what happened and in this order: I was cold getting in the bag but then overheated once the bag warmed up – should not have worn all my clothes in the bag. Hot turned to sweaty which turned to cold. I got cold, I curled up in an instinctive effort to reduce my surface to volume ratio. Then my bag got cold. Then I had to pee and got uncomfortable being balled up. When I extended my legs and feet in to the cold bottom of my sleeping bag, my feet got cold. So cold I took my wool sweater off and tied it around my feet. It was much too little and too late. I was chilled, frozen actually. My feet ached, my bladder was full, and I thought I was going to die.
My forethought and brilliance that night continued to impress me. Early in the night the armored vehicles started their engines. So much for no sleeping in the vehicles! I had to get to the warmth of the vehicle. Out of the bag I popped and I reached for my boots I had neatly placed under the cot. Turns out you can’t put frozen boots on frozen feet. Yes, this seems stupid now but as a kid I remember putting out bowls of water on really cold nights in Florida to see the water freeze. I was not experienced nor told how to survive this. I could only manage to slip my foot into the uppers of each boot and then had to walk on my tip toes through the deep snow, to the vehicle. I managed to stagger from tree to tree and made it to the vehicle. Time was an issue, I was dying from hypothermia (in my mind) and my bladder was close to exploding (in reality). The next thing I learned is that you can’t knock effectively on an armored vehicle! The door was combat locked; this keeps unwanted visitors from opening the door and placing a grenade inside and was also going to be the reason my sergeant would find me dead at the back door of the vehicle. I pounded with no effect and I am sure I hollered but not enough to be heard over the big diesel engine. Then I figured out if you rattle the latch against the lock it makes noise. Someone opened the cover on the periscope, saw it was me, and let me in. I gave them all the look of death as I moved to the hottest part of the vehicle. I finally got warm enough to use my hands, put my boots on, and work the button on my pants so I could pee which I did from the top of the vehicle through the gunners hatch.
I learned many other lessons for cold-weather sleeping under the stars from my time in the army including the importance of a sleeping pad as insulation under your sleeping bag. Cold, into the teens at least, is no issue for me now and I prefer it to rain or bad mosquitoes. I have really only had one bad experience besides my steep learning curve in cold weather. I was sleeping on the ground in the mountains of eastern Arizona when I woke to the most amazing sound. It was awful, like nothing I had heard before, and it was inside my head! I was too dizzy to stand and was instantly nauseous. I figured out I had something crawling around on my tympanic membrane – my ear drum. I grabbed my canteen and filled the lid with water which I quickly used to flush my ear. I turned my head and dumped the water in my hand. Fortunately the trespasser was washed out and was wriggling in my palm. A harvester ant provided me with yet another war story and one hell of a wake-up call.
So I’m unconventional, I’ve earned the title. I have come to determine that normal people (“normies”) will have a hard time understanding me, what I do for a living, what brings me joy. And I love nothing more than beating the “normie” out of my students. I actually choose students often because I sense that their inner “normie” has only a precarious grasp on them and could be easily dislodged. This brings me to the present and my Christmas break trip to Florida. I was accompanied by Jessie and Maria, two students desperate enough for the outdoors that they would forgo the holidays with family and friends to help me scout for a graduate class next winter. If you get to know either of them you will likely agree that neither is normal. Of the three of us, Maria possessed the majority of the common sense. Jessie is already wonderfully insane and is quite a thrill seeker. I knew Jessie had potential the first time she accompanied me to the field. She dove and slid on a gravel road under my running truck while attempting to capture a pocket mouse. Sacrifice the body, I like it.
Our first two nights of camping were along the northern Gulf Coast of Florida. It was very cold for Florida and was windy and near freezing before sunset. Cold and no rain = no tent. The first night the crew got cold but I fixed that with better sleeping bags. They both loved sleeping under the stars. In our second campground, as in the first, most campers were in RVs. We were on cots. Normies happen, no big deal. And I am used to people looking at me strangely when they walk by. I even hear their comments. But this night you would have thought we were in the zoo as the first exhibit and public viewing of dinosaurs brought back Jurassic-Park style. We had the truck parked to block the strong wind and we sat and talked on our cots. Normies on a walk noticed us and apparently were so taken-aback by the sight that they felt compelled to shine their flashlights on us. They commented out loud as if we couldn’t understand their language because we sleep without tents. Maybe we were from a primitive culture and thought them to be Gods because they possessed lights while we sat in the dark. They kept their lights trained on us even when we looked back and shot them dirty looks.
We continued to get looks and hear comments as the trip progressed. In the everglades we went out in kayaks and canoes at night to see what was about and to see American crocodiles (we saw 16). Many cautioned us about being out after dark in our small craft. But we had headlamps and curiosity and managed to survive yet again. We went on to paddle with big black tip sharks in Florida Bay and my kayak rolled over their wake when they sped away. When it got dark in the keys we went out in a kayak and a canoe, again, people thought us “unconventional”. We saw and handled all manner of critters and night was a different world. More critters were out and about at night and the excitement level goes up too. Some of the splashes we heard would send normies for shore but we paddled in the direction of the commotion. I feel bad for Jessie’s wonderful and supportive mother. She called one night to find us out in the canoe. Her response to Jessie was simply, “you”re in a canoe, in the ocean, it’s dark”. Jessie soothed her concern be explaining we had headlamps. I later corrected Jessie because we weren’t technically in the ocean, we were on the Gulf side of the Keys.
I accept that I will never again be able to understand normies and normies will never understand me. I am certain that the folks that were so intrigued by our lack of tents probably called us something other than unconventional. Understand normies, that I am watching you from my camp, wondering what the hell is wrong with you. I draw comfort from your discomfort in the outdoors. You bring your generators and Christmas lights to my outdoors. You don’t have the common courtesy to be quite when the coyotes howl and your radios drown natural sounds of the night. Are all normies afraid of the dark? Do you leave your lanterns and lights on to benefit me? I’m just fine with the dark and have a headlamp for when I need light. Normies, you work hard to bring all the comforts of home outside. That is one way to avoid interacting with nature but it is not for me. I will continue to grow more and more unconventional and you normies will become more of an enigma to me. I am sorry that you don’t get to experience the outdoors as I do. What I see, hear, and understand continues to amaze me. And there is so much more to see and do. The loss is all yours.