Ode to the Camp Chair (By Sean McNamara)

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There are many little surprises when camping out: the arc of a satellite in the night sky; the cry of an unfamiliar bird; the sugary smell of sweetgrass; how absolutely delicious, after a day of romping around, just about anything tastes; how good and safe it feels to be nestled into a sleeping bag. One of my favorite camping surprises – which happens more often than one might suppose – is when someone falls out of their chair around the campfire.

A glorious, sunny March day this spring was spent tramping around Chesler Park in the Needles District of Canyonlands Park. Returning to our camp, we ate a hearty spaghetti dinner and settled around a merry fire. The sun had long since gone down, the night grew chilly and we cozied up to the dancing blaze.

Among our party was a college professor, very professional in demeanor, who happened to have a minor leg injury, which precluded her being able to bend over very far. She set up her chair – a low-to-the-ground folding affair of French Canadian manufacture – turned to the fire and began her descent.

Had she been as meticulous setting up her chair as she is grading papers, she might have noticed that the chair was not fully unfolded. As it was, when she reached the limit of her range, she plopped down onto the chair, whose back and seat acted like a great spring-loaded mouth and chomped onto her rear end, upsetting her balance and swallowing her whole. The last we saw of her were the backs of her legs disappearing into the black of the night.

Once it was determined that she hadn’t lost any fingers in that death trap, there were laughs all around.

I once owned a wooden camp chair that was comprised of two components, a seat and a back, the seat fitting into a slot of the back to form the chair. The design was clever, but proved dainty when a friend flounced onto my lap with good intentions, causing a great “crack” and splintering noises, sending us both to Earth on our duffs, the wooden pieces of the chair spread around us on the ground in a perfect circle. Our friends laughed so hard they snorted like pigs.

On a rainy and snowy Deso-Gray trip many moons ago, I had my moon parked on an upturned pickle bucket one drizzly night, enjoying songs and conversation around the fire, which spit and hissed defiantly in the rain. It was a delightful evening, save the fact that my rear end was freezing.

After a couple hours I decided to investigate and found to my chagrin that the rim around the bottom of the bucket acted like a dam and I was seated in a round reservoir of constantly replenished chilly water. This sudden realization caused a startled reaction, spastic really, and off I went backwards, the saving grace being that at least I didn’t fall into the fire. More pig-snort laughing.

For backwards is the usual direction of crowd-pleasing pratfalls, maybe because they result in no burn victims, are highlighted dramatically by the flickering light of a wood fire and the inevitably astonished expression on the face of the victim is framed so squarely. Such was the case with Paul on a recent tour of the San Juan River Canyon.

Leaning backward on a sloping beach, he almost went ass over teakettle before regaining equilibrium, exclaiming: “At least I didn’t go over like Eugene the other night!” The conversation continued and he must have lost concentration for a split-second because about ten minutes later – wouldn’t you know it? – over he went, all windmilling arms and kicking legs. Unlike Johnny Cash, he fell out of a burning Ring of Fire. Again, guffaws and pig-snorts.

Which brings us to Eugene’s spill, unique in the annals of river running, rock climbing, cycling and camping in general, for it was a sideways ejection, performed in the middle of a performance, a rendition, to be exact, of Neil Diamond’s “I’m a Believer” by Smashmouth, made famous originally, decades earlier, by none other than The Monkees.

The face of his river guitar golden in firelight, his own face turned heavenward to the angels, Eugene was warbling, transfixed: “Love was out to get me; hey, hey, hey, hey” when the impossible happened. His chair was sideways to the slope of the beach and may have been tilted to begin with, yes, and maybe he was leaning into the strum pattern fully, committed with entire body and soul, but that doesn’t explain what happened next, for the trajectory of his flight was ascendant, defying all logic.

He was carried away by the song and then he was carried away by the night. It was as if the Hand of God came out of the darkness, plucked him from his chair and sucked him bodily into The Abyss. We saw two white flashes – the soles of his feet – and then he was gone, still rising.

What was truly amazing is that he never came back; he just disappeared. He’s still out there, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, floating above the river, wafted to and fro by a restless wind.

So, next time you’re on the San Juan, a little ways downstream from the Honaker Trail, and you hear among the towering cliffs an echo at once mournful and joyous that goes something like this: “Then I saw her face; now I’m a believer. Not a trace, of doubt in my mind: I’m in love, ooh, I’m a believer; I couldn’t leave her if I tried … ” you’ll know who it is.

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