Twelve hours into the drive, somewhere between the flat, empty part of Indiana and the flatter, emptier part of Illinois, Rob turned to me and said, “Kansas City. It’s in Missouri, right?”
Honestly, I wasn’t sure any more.
By air, Kansas City is 2 1/2 hours from Toronto. By road, it’s 15 hours. Okay, 17 hours. All right, 19 if you’re hauling 10,000 pounds of trailer.
It makes no sense to drive. So my Globe colleague, Robert MacLeod, and I drove.
All right, he drove and I kept saying things like, “Straight. Just keep going straight.”
We decided to take the trailer about six hours before the Jays clinched a spot in the American League Championship Series. It started as a joke. The Jays and Royals would both have to win for it to come together.
We cancelled our Kansas City hotel rooms. Then the Jays came back. Then the Royals came back. And then we were stuck.
While everyone else in the city was out in the streets high-fiving each other, we were rushing home to throw our crap in bags. We didn’t have to be in Missouri for 24 hours. We were already behind.
‘It can be a little tricky’
Baseball’s spring training and the phenomenon we recognize as ‘camping’ both started in the same year – 1869 – in unpromising circumstances.
That winter, the New York Mutuals became the first team to go south for professional development.
They stayed in New Orleans – a city not known for its salutary effect on work ethic. The Mutuals followed a long, Louisiana carouse with their worst-ever season. But the idea caught on.
Also in 1869, a Boston-based author, preacher and enthusiastic killer of living creatures named William H.H. (Adirondack) Murray persuaded a bunch of citified folk to spend a few weeks tromping through the swampier parts of New York state. It was a total disaster. Nobody enjoyed themselves. A few of them died. But, again, the idea appealed to people. Both had the whiff of romance.
On a Venn diagram, the intersection of camping and spring training is the sports-centric road trip.
All road trips are a sort of trial. You sleep poorly. You drink too much. Over the long term, your diet would be lethal. It’s like joining a Viking war party, but without spoils. The Holy Grail is a road trip that ends in narrowly averted disaster. Preferably the emergency dentist rather than the morgue.
The road trip is one of the last attempts to upset the modern safety cult.
Since the Blue Jays were rewiring what a city can expect of its franchises (i.e. the occasional bit of good news), we decided to unsettle our own habits. After doing this job for a while, all the cities, stadiums and Marriotts begin to look a lot alike.
There is a famous story in the biz about a bibulous writer for a Toronto daily travelling from Las Vegas to Bismarck, N.D., covering a pair of boxing matches.
He started drinking heavily after the fight in Nevada. He continued drinking heavily on the plane. He arrived stuporous at his hotel in Bismarck and passed out. The next morning, a colleague phoned his room and invited him to breakfast.
“Sure,” our hero said. “I’ll be there in 20 minutes.”
He got up and opened the curtains. He expected to see the bright neon of The Strip. Instead, he was staring at a snow-covered cornfield. He called the colleague back.
“I have a question.”
“Where the hell am I?”
It’s a great job, but that’s what it feels like sometimes.
So in order to remind yourself of what matters, you set off on an endless journey into the Midwest with no planning, supplies or sleep.
Rob offered just the one packing tip: “You’ll probably want to bring shoes that slip on and off, for coming in and out of the trailer.”
“What if I don’t own such a pair of shoes?”
He ignored the question.
Rob picked me up at midnight. The trailer was parked at a farm two hours north of the city. After we’d (i.e. he’d) finished hooking it to a pickup truck, I realized I’d forgotten my passport.
This is what happens when you “unsettle” routines.
I didn’t say that out loud because Rob was holding a wrench at the time. But I thought it.
So rather than get two crucially restorative hours of sleep, we drove back downtown. I should have spent that time feeling guilty. I dozed off instead.
We left Toronto at 4 a.m. I offered to do some of the driving.
“It can be a little tricky,” Rob said. Stung, I went back to sleep for a while.
You don’t really know anyone
I will not narrate you through the next 19 hours of driving. I will say that, by the end, Rob had been up for 40 hours. The man is a legend, and we should both be dead.
Some highlights from our trip, which became an increasingly delirious Hunter Thompson-esque tumble into sleep-deprived brain malfunction, minus the ether:
The time Rob said, “Dammit, I forgot my selfie stick.” And I laughed.
– The other time Rob talked about the selfie stick. And I realized he was serious.
– The U.S. border guard saying, “You got anything back there?” When we said, “No,” he said, “You sure? No dogs?”
– The time Rob suggested we listen to Howard Stern, when I accepted that you don’t really know anyone. Not really.
– The moment Howard Stern was really pressing Arnold Schwarzenegger about the choice to make Kindergarten Cop. It was aaaaaall starting to make sense, and things became fuzzy.
– The first time the truck started making that sound.
– When the sound got louder.
– The sound turning into an out-of-control-washing-machine shudder.
– Me saying, “I think it’s the road. There’s something wrong with the road.”
– The noise getting much louder just as we both lost cellphone service.
– Accepting that we are all destined to die. Maybe in Illinois.
– Rob refusing to stop at the J.H. Hawes Grain Elevator Museum in Atlanta, Ill., because of the sound. And the grain elevators.
– Me asking Rob if he was popping go-pills, and if I could have any. I don’t know if I believed him.
– Getting to a campground and realizing Rob really hadn’t secretly booked us into a hotel for a romantic guys’ getaway.
On the subject of camping, I will say this – I am against it.
Our ancestors spent thousands of years trying to get out of the wilderness. It’s filled with things that want to kill you. Now, a few oddballs are trying to get back in.
On the way down, Rob had tried to explain what was going to happen. What we were about to do was a large step up from living in a tent.
“When you’re regular camping, you … you do regular camp, right?
“Well, when you regular camp …”
Then he turned into Charlie Brown’s teacher and I thought about tornadoes.
We’d built a house in 15 minutes
Late Thursday night, we pulled into a trailer park just off I-70, about a half hour outside Kansas City proper. I was quite looking forward to seeing the feral dogs and children. Sadly, none were roaming about.
There were no gangs of hooligans out drinking moonshine over a garbage-can fire. This was all a real letdown.
We unhooked the trailer, extended a bunch of hoses and plugs, expanded the structure electronically, and turned on the lights.
We’d built a house in 15 minutes.
Rob got the only thing you’d call a bed. I got a two-foot-wide closet turned sideways tucked in behind the toilet. Thankfully, I have strong mole-like qualities. I am comforted by enclosed quarters.
One thing we forgot was heat. Waking up in bed at 4 in the morning able to see your own breath – oh, that’ll connect you to the majesty of nature in a really hateful way.
To the newcomer, camping offers so many of these exciting little surprises.
Like, the fact that there’s only one shower and everyone shares it. Like Communists.
Or that people will just drop by to complain that you haven’t parked your truck just so. Also like Communists.
Everyone is very interested in your business, and where you’re going, and how the trailer is holding up and “How’s that truck working out for you?”
I dunno. The wheels turn in proportion to the amount of accelerent injected into the firing chamber. Is that what you meant?
I did enjoy waving at people as they passed by, and having them wave back. It made me feel very Atticus Finch.
We headed to the ballpark, which was just down the highway a bit.
Our colleagues were concerned: “Is The Globe going broke?”
No, no. We did this ourselves.
“But … why?”
Newspaper journalist translator: ‘Thank you. No, really. Thanks for ruining my life. Now that you’ve covered the baseball playoffs from a trailer park, I’ll be covering the Super Bowl from a bus station. Maybe they’ll ask me to go to the Olympics on a bicycle.’ I suddenly felt very defensive about the trailer park. These are good people. Nomads, sure. Rootless vagrants? Well, that would be stretching it. Sure, there might be one serial killer among them, but he could just as well be a banker as a camper.
In fact, these were some of the soberest people I’d ever encountered. I expected fireside pagan bacchanals each night. As far as I can tell, worshipping a hoofed god is the only sensible reason to be in the forest after dark. But no such luck.
Every one of them early to bed and early to rise. I got a lot of sad looks schlepping to the shower at 10 a.m., which is the crack of dawn by my standards.
I had pictured camping as very active – climbing mountains and blazing trails and fighting animals. In fact, it’s a lot like your regular life, but much less convenient. Everything requires a special tool. And that special tool is always lost. So instead of going to the store to buy the thing you want – the cappuccino or cable TV or hot water – you go without it.
It’s a useful exercise in self-abnegation. That’s what monks are – permanent campers.
Rob and I developed a fruitful trailer routine. He did things. I pretended not to understand how to do them. So he kept doing them. Another victory for the dulling effects of urbanity.
In three days, I feel adapted well to my new mole life in the trailer. The hum of the nearby highway; the place where you burn things; hogging the shower.
Also, the Toronto Blue Jays played baseball. The less said about that, the better.
On the last night, a guy in overalls (probably the serial killer) wandered over. He was a little unsteady on his feet. He’d been drinking. Probably all day. Why do you only meet the really cool people when the trip’s almost over?
He said he admired Rob’s barbecue. I pretended it was my barbecue. We talked for a while about barbecuing. He got a strange look on his face, because plainly everything I was saying made absolutely no sense.
He went back to his own trailer, where his pals were sitting around a fire. He was pointing back toward us, probably telling them that he thought I might be a serial killer.
Rob and I got up Sunday morning at 3:30. That’s another camping thing – inhuman hours. The truck is still making that noise. It’s become another comforting thing.
If we break down, I’ll just live wherever we’re stranded. I’m now fully equipped for the pioneering life.
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