Camping with the Northeast Corridor Social Club

The first year we went to the Berkshires. Labor Day weekend, 1999. The world was a little more innocent then.

Bacon, whose marriage was on the rocks, drove up from DC. Lane and Adriana drove up from New York with Karen and her son Ian, who was what, seven or eight? They came in Karen’s then-still-fabulous silver Jaguar — the interior lining on the roof hadn’t started to cave in yet. When they arrived, Lane got out of the driver’s seat, slammed the door, and said, “That’s what I call an automobile.”

If I’m not mixing up years or camping trips, Stephanie and our daughters drove out with Mark and Pandora and their boys. (But how could they all have fit in the Brewers’ Explorer?) Bacon and I followed later that day in our battered blue Accord hatchback. I’m pretty sure I remember trucking west on Route 2 with Bacon riding shotgun. The car stereo was blown, or maybe it had been stolen, and so we had a cheapass boombox on the floor. We listened to mixtapes from friends who weren’t there.

We had only started calling ourselves the Northeast Corridor Social Club earlier that summer, when a bunch of us got together in midtown Manhattan, where Stephanie had a hotel room for a work trip. I had been in the city for a month or so doing dissertation research, and our kids were in Washington with their grandparents. Bacon trekked up for the weekend, which consisted of several all-nighters of intense conversation, barhopping until we wound up dancing in a bad 80s bar, 4 a.m. fries in the meatpacking district, art outings (including a trip out to PS 1, where Lane was involved in some family fun day or another), and lots of pizza and beer.

Before we split up — Stephanie on her way to LaGuardia and back to Boston, Bacon on a train to DC, me on a train to Princeton, where I’d finish out my summer research — we’d settled on the plan to go camping over Labor Day.

Stephanie and I were campers. We’d both grown up with it, and when we lived in Cambridge we used it as a chance to get away from the stress of grad school, jobs, and the sheer poverty brought on by full-time childcare for two kids, a necessity for me to finish my dissertation. For daytrips, we’d drive the kids out to Walden Pond, to the North Shore beaches in the summer, but a couple times a year we liked to get even farther away, spend nights in a tent, cook on a campfire, look at the hills while the leaves just threatened to turn.

Some of our friends were not so sure. They agreed to the plan only if we found a campsite with warm showers and shopping nearby. Karen called around and made some reservations at a place that even had a road house. I wish I could remember the name, or even the closest town, but details like that are too far gone.

Here’s what I loved the most about camping with friends:

  • Getting away from TV, computers, and phones, especially for the kids. (We had no wi-fi or cellphones back then.)
  • The challenge of campfire cooking with friends who were all foodies and competitive in the kitchen — a deliberate decision to reduce the number of ingredients and methods at your disposal and still produce above average meals. (My mouth still waters at the mere thought of Mark Brewer’s slow-roasted eggplant steaks.)
  • Sitting around a campfire drinking Stepharitas (my wife’s signature poor man’s drink: sort of like a margarita, but with Fresca) and really just starting to get to know each other.
  • Retaining proximity to some culture. (We always made outings to MASS MoCA or just to shop in North Adams.)
  • Gaining exposure to what the rest of America was like outside our liberal urban utopian centers — enough to make us feel self-satisfied about our politics and taste.
  • Having space to enjoy one another’s company without being held prisoner in the same house — that and the fact that no one had to take responsibility to host.
  • And, of course, precocious kids who’d cover your back in an argument:

we will take you DOWN. just you watch us do it.

The first year was downright pleasant. Our incidents were few, but they made for great anecdotes:

Early on the campsite manager pulled up in his golf cart, slid out of the seat, and limped over to tell us he’d received some complaints about a silver Jaguar exceeding the 5mph speed limit in the campground.

A more serious brush with the locals came at the road house. A group of us went over one night for drinks and dancing to the live band they brought in. Most of the crowd consisted of bikers, a few hippies. The band wore beards, braids, shades. Big-bellied, they cut away their sleeves at the shoulders and sported assorted tattoos. They played classic rock with a hint of honky tonk. We settled in to dance the night away.

At some point, though, Stephanie got a hankering for something by Neil Young and went to see what the band could do. The players consulted with one another, then launched into a total downer: “Ohio,” CSNY’s memorial anthem for the kids killed at Kent State. Within seconds the crowd had abandoned the floor, leaving us out there all alone, feeling obligated to dance, since we’d requested Neil Young, but guilty for dancing to a song about dead anti-war protesters. Bikers glared, shook their heads at our nerve, and when the song ended the lead singer let out a little cough into the mic and then sold us up the river. “Ahem,” he said. “Well. That was by request, but you bet we won’t be playing that one again.” We gathered our coats and slipped out the back door.

The trip must have done something for us, because we planned another the following year, this time on the beach in Rhode Island. Our crew expanded this time by a few — Karen’s friend Fabulous Brian came along with one of his roommates; Bacon had a new girlfriend — and the intervening year had brought the group together several more times, including Karen’s inaugural Thanskgiving event in Tribeca, where almost three dozen people crowded around a 9-foot square table. We all knew each other better — for better and worse. 

In Rhode Island our circumstances were a little less ideal than they had been the previous year: In the midst of a West Nile scare, we battled an endless army of mosquitoes. The neighbors seemed a little more gothic than our friends in western Massachusetts had been, including a neglected toddler in bloated brown pampers, his body covered with swollen insect bites, who constantly pestered us for food until his parents screamed at him to return to their trailer. (They seemed to be permanent residents.) Someone stole a set of camping knives Stephanie’s grandfather had given us for our wedding. And then there was the rain — at least one whole day’s worth of a downpour. Lane and I tried to string a tarp between the tents so we could at least get out and converse as a group, but the tarp filled with rain until it ran off in small waterfalls. On the beatup boombox, Paul McCartney reassured us that with a little luck, we could make this whole damn thing work out. We hoped it was true — and it turned out to be so. When the rain cleared we had at least one nice afternoon on the beach; just as the sun started to set someone found a fish and chips shack nearby. We wolfed down our food while the salt caked on our sunburned bodies.

Camping with the NECSC was only partly, if ever, about nature. Sure, Berkshires and beaches provided gorgeous settings for our holiday weekends. We found the vistas we were supposed to find, took our requisite number of photos. Hell, I even forced people to listen to Melville’s semi-satirical rhapsodies to the “most excellent purple majesty,” Mount Greylock.

who's that cat in the back with the shades?

I’d say camping’s draw — for me, at least — was more about primal drives than about an aesthetic or aestheticizing encounter with our surroundings, spiritual, replenishing, or otherwise. Earth, wind, fire, shelter, food (glorious food!). These were essentials, served up with style. More than any other of these elements, though, I’d call fire the key primal draw. Sitting around a campfire exchanging stories, sideways glances, and an occasional song — what could be more fundamentally human?

Our camping trips consolidated our friendships — in part by calling our various strengths and weaknesses into the open, by laying our quirks bare. I learned that more than one husband-wife relationship among us depended on carefully orchestrated coffee and breakfast rituals, without which some of my friends were unable to enter society. (A communal pan full of scrambled eggs was out of the question: things had to be just so.) I learned that Karen had a natural knack for entertaining kids with large group pageants and art projects. I learned that Lane was happy to get up earlier than everyone else to get a fire started. I learned that some among us were natural workers, others natural socializers who had to be whipped into shape.

One night in Rhode Island, Adriana worked like mad against the setting sun to get ingredients prepared for make-your-own gourmet hobo dinners. She chopped fennel and crumbled fresh herbs, prepared one little stack of diced goods after another, while everyone else stood around the fire stipping their Stepharitas and laughing, free and easy. The sun continued to set. After a while, the folks around the campfire, not so quietly tight, had all but forgotten about dinner, until Adriana’s voice emerged from the dark edges of camp, shaking the trees: “FUCK!” she shouted, sending campers scrambling, finally, to do their parts.

By the end of year two, some of the romance had worn away, and in 2001 we scrapped the Labor Day ritual, though several of us — this time including Farrell and Cedric and Dave — went camping that summer on the edge of a gorge outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, where we awoke in the morning to the hiss of hot air balloons filling and releasing, riding the line of the canyon. Some of the boys that summer took another camping trip to some hot springs farther south, though we somehow forgot to take anything to cook our food in. We wrapped whole onions in aluminum foil and ate them like the freshly butchered heart of a wild animal once they’d cooked all the way through. When we ran out of kindling, Lane insisted we burn his copy of Air Guitar.

After Stephanie and I relocated to New York that fall, the large group camping trips gave way to more civilized reunions — in Bacon’s backyard, at Karen’s country house, at our place in the city — until a new crop of kids put an end even to those. The majority must have felt the labor wasn’t worth it, though we plan to take at least one camping trip this fall — maybe with a different group of friends, maybe just on our own.

On 4 September 2000 I wrote this in my diary:

It’s been quite a weekend — the friends’ camping trip to Rhode Island. Lane & Adriana, Mark & P and the boys, Karen, Ian, and her friend ‘Fabulous Brian’ (&, for one night, his roommate Kristi), and [Bacon], coupled with E__ A__. A mix like that & there are certainly stories to tell. Not sure how much detail I’ll get into. Certainly not tonight: it’s almost 11 and tomorrow is 1st day of school for the kids. Need to be up early to make sure they’re ready. We got home tonight tired, smelly, dirty, & mosquito-bitten, which is unsettling given the Rhode Island epicenter for West Nile Virus. While we were there, so the news reports, a horse was taken sick w/ it.

The next entry is dated two months later. I never filled in the details, told the stories there were to tell. Who knows what they all may have been? I do remember, though, an interesting verbal formula Lane offered one afternoon while we drove under a canopy of sunflecked New England trees, winding through country roads to some daytrip destination. A Joni Mitchell album I’d never heard was on the stereo. Or maybe it was Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions, which we seemed to listen to a lot back then: “Don’t You Worry Bout a Thing,” in particular. The car was traveling a little too fast. I can’t even remember who was driving or whose car it was, but we had too many people in the back seat, and each bump sent us airborne, our heads smacking the top of the car.

“What a great memory this is,” Lane said, as if the experience itself moved faster than we possibly could.

14 responses to “Camping with the Northeast Corridor Social Club”

  1. slade says:

    one of my favorite memories for the mass camping trip was lane going around talking about which celeb everyone would be if they were played in a movie. i don’t think i was, well, sober enough after a few stepharitas to recall exactly who got whom. but lane, is his insistent glory, assigning us all fabulousness, was in itself fabulous enough.

    i do miss that car of mine.

  2. Stephanie Wells says:

    What’s so great about this post is that, sort of like Farrell’s big lovefest, it helps to clarify the relationships between various (East Coast)TGWers for those of us not in that innermost Waterbarberman circle, yet it’s written in such a way as to be inclusive of everyone who reads it as it invites us to understand tiny things about you as well as some of your connections. For example: I don’t know how far back Bryan and Lane go, but now I understand it’s far; I didn’t know who brought Pandora in, but now I know she’s linked to both of them and also that there’s a Mark and two (?) boys; I already knew Adriana was a cook because of her website, but didn’t know SSW was such a cocktail mixtress; I’ve read Bacon’s comments all along but wasn’t sure of his ties; I only recently heard of Karen Slade from Bryan’s 9/11 post, but since then she’s all up in the mix too and now I see how. The recent addition (invasion) of TGW with a bunch of us left-coast hippies has made the site less insular, which I know may not be totally welcome to some of you, but I for one have loved getting to “know” a whole new group of people (only a few of whom–Bryan, Farrell, Trixie, and Cedric–I actually know and love). At Scott’s birthday party this weekend, he and Ruben and Jeremy and Tim and I (Lisa T was otherwise engaged–to John, ha ha) were surrounded by other people, yet couldn’t stop boring them with TGW talk because it’s such an enjoyable development in all of our lives. I like knowing how we are all connected, even those of us who aren’t literally so, and looking forward to a time when all of us really do know each other. Philly ‘07!

    p.s. It’s also hard not to read this as an antidote to Jeremy’s nature post, and though I still gotta vote urban, you make me get it a little more.

  3. well, a mild rejoinder or at least a response to jeremy’s, sure, though i went back and reread it yesterday morning and was even more impressed by what a great post it was. it really was. though i do think i enjoy the experience of being dirty in the woods more than jeremy i certainly see his points, and i love being simultaneously an urbanite and someone who like to catch, kill, and eat crabs on the Washington coast all at once.

    re: east coast/west coast TGW: all i can say for myself is that my introduction to the West Coasters has been the highlight of my last year, and an outcome i never could have foreseen when we started to plot this thing last December. You guys have actually been there from the beginning, Stephanie — I think you all were the earliest of the regular comment generators! and so i’m glad you got where i was going with the above — that this wasn’t about insularity as much as i wanted it to be a meditation on memory, friendship, and the primal connections that drive us.

  4. or should that be the primal drivers that connect us?

  5. slade says:

    cal lane do a cut out of a GTW/NESC family tree?

    but it would have to be with the real members and not our celeb doppel-gangers.

  6. Jeremy says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with Steph’s comment here. And when I first started reading your post, Bryan, I was ready for the real “fuck all y’all” that you hinted was coming (from your comment on my post). Ready to take my nature-hatin’ lumps, I was instead so charmed by your recounting of these experiences, wishing I had been there.

    I’ve never been camping with my friends. I think I’d be willing to try it sometime.

    Just don’t ask me to find the nearest KOA.

    I loved reading this, Bryan.

  7. Adriana says:

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane, Bryan. Those were simpler times — at least from my perspective — and an ideal point in our lives to make these friendships.

    The past couple of years have been a little bittersweet for me as we’ve seen how having a child affects our friendships. Having Jasper has opened up a whole universe of new experiences and relationships and that’s been wonderful. But it’s changed the way we relate to and socialize with our old friends (as in, hardly ever!). Lane is always reminding me, though, that these are friendships made to last a long time, even if they change in intensity.

    Speaking of Lane, you point out one of Lane’s most endearing habits — memorializing the present. He’s constantly pointing out what a great time we’re having and how fondly we will look back on that moment. That and his exuberance — all over your post — are two of the things that make life with Lane so fun.

    Anyway, sorry if this is a little personal, but since it’s about so many of you. We’ve found out what it means when friends become family.

  8. Ruben Mancillas says:

    Another great post and pictures from Bryan (my Bowie buddy) but what’s with the perpetual lovefest?

    I’m spoiling for a beef.

    East Coast vs. West Coast.

    And Stephanie, those people loved us talking up TGW all night.

  9. Slade says:

    dear all — please forgive my forever typos.
    i’m a terrible typist and too old to leanr new tricks.

    my mom typed my term papers.
    yeh, i know.

  10. Adriana says:

    Ugh, I didn’t get to finish because Jasper woke up from a late nap and in a panic I hit the “Add” button.

    Ok, what I’m talking about is an ongoing conversation Lane and I have been having about how friendships evolve. There’s the honeymoon period where you discover each other and magic happens. But then time goes on, lives get complicated, you discover each others’ annoying/offensive/inexplicable quirks and suddenly you’re not even hanging out with each other.

    But then there’s a birthday party in the park and you’re with these people you’ve known for years and you remember why you all became friends in the first place. And you just want these people to always be in your life for many, many years to come.

    That’s what I loved this post. Thanks Bryan.

  11. Lane says:

    ” A Joni Mitchell album I’d never heard was on the stereo.”

    “I was a free man in Paris
    I felt unfettered and alive
    There was nobody calling me up for favors
    And no ones future to decide
    You know I’d go back there tomorrow
    But for the work Ive taken on . . .”

    Ah yes, fine memories. That little ’86 Corolla, the sunroof, and that winding road.

    Fine memories.

  12. Lisa Tremain says:

    Miss you too. 1970 rules. As does Bowie and camping.

  13. The commentor who dare not speak their name says:

    OK, my best memory from the RI trip. Lane mentoring me in my very first attempt at smoking weed in a bong made from tin foil and a pencil. The ocean, which I had never liked, was magical, every wave a wonder. I have been to the ocean before and after, but never like that day. It was perfect. Thank you Lane.
    And thank you Bryan, beautiful post.

  14. […] All that time I’ve both benefitted and suffered from a sort of self-consciousness about my participation in friendships and friendship circles of my own, with their own ups and downs, tensions, reconfiguations, likenesses, differences, expansions, contractions — and, not least, their frequent celebrations. From camping to holidays to collective blogging, my friends test me and push me and expand my tastes and experiences and play roles in my life in a more dramatic way than I remember friends playing in my parents’ lives. (Of course that may have had to do with the fact that they had five more children than I do, but still — it’s hard for me to imagine my parents, at my age, caught up in some of the friendly dramas that pepper my life.) Hear that, Robert Putnam? You won’t find any of my friends bowling alone. […]