Posted by: trevormeers | March 27, 2011

The Slumberjack Dilemma

Someone recently suggested I enter a piece in an online essay contest about a favorite outdoor memory from the last decade. That’s like asking a guy to single out one ratty T-shirt as his favorite. Ultimately, I wrote three contenders. This one didn’t make the cut because I was afraid the judges might suspect I made the whole thing up. But I have witnesses. As for how I know the details of what happened in the tent during the night, let’s just say there was a thorough interrogation of the participants the next morning. The whole thing taught me that little good can come from any trip proposal involving words like “junior high canoe trip” and “help lead.” Answer that phone call, and you may never wake in the woods again without wondering what’s waiting to greet you from the bushes.

It was probably around midnight that Kevin, 12 years old and facing his first night in the big woods, reached a mental crossroads that I’ve come to think of as The Slumberjack Dilemma. The moment any of us zip into a sleeping bag for the night, we set a one-way course to this devilish crux in time. Somewhere in the night’s small hours, the balance begins to tip between a sleeping bag’s cozy embrace and the urgent messages rising from your own internal plumbing system.

Kevin (on the left) plays it cool on the morning after, and his buddies wonder why Kevin's duffle bag seems lighter by the weight of roughly one pair of shorts.

When Kevin’s small intestine registered Code Slumberjack under a full moon, things were, as they always are in seventh grade, complex. It’s standard on these midnight runs to worry about pulling on damp shoes, crawling over tent mates and battling mosquitoes. But as Kevin’s stomach twisted on itself and he weighed his options, he realized he had a new problem. The only flashlight was under his buddy’s pillow.

“Hey,” he hissed to the boy by the door. “I need you to come with me to the bathroom.”

“Shut up,” the bag next to him hissed back.

“But I seriously have to go,” Kevin insisted. “C’mon and walk over there with me.”

“No way,” the bag said.

“Then give me the flashlight,” Kevin said, resigning himself to a tougher mission.

“Go to sleep,” his neighbor said. “Nobody uses my flashlight.”

Kevin settled back into his bag to review the situation. Having no experience with dark woods, he felt it was wise to assume that every ghost, werewolf and liquored-up hillbilly in the North Woods was lurking somewhere between his tent and the mercury-vapor beam lighting the outhouse 50 yards away. He could choose to face that gauntlet alone with no flashlight. Or he could resolve the dilemma in the safety of his sleeping bag.

A few seconds later, the tall pines filled briefly with the soft zipping sound of a tent door opening. Kevin stuck his hand out the tent door and hurled a weighted bundle far into the void.

In the morning, I was crawling from my tent when I heard the group’s leader shout from the bushes five feet from Kevin’s tent. “Whose shorts are these?” he choked out through a hand rising to his mouth. He poked a stick at something dangling from a low branch. Several boys stuck their heads through the tent door.

“Kevin!” the leader said. “Weren’t you wearing these shorts yesterday?”

Kevin furrowed his brow, staring hard at the bush. “Well,” he said, mustering all the shock he could so early in the day. “I think they may be. How did those get there?”

As I was rolling up my sleeping bag a few minutes later, I saw Kevin toting a small trash bag at arm’s length toward the Dumpster beside the latrine. The rest of the tent’s occupants were madly scrubbing at the tent floor with disinfectant wipes under the leader’s stiff-jawed supervision.

When we beached our canoes that evening, I quietly made sure Kevin had a powerful flashlight and pointed him to a tent with a generally stronger community spirit. Then I looked for a spot to drop my tent upwind from Kevin’s door. Even after a night of hard-won experience, you never know what bargains a man might make with his conscience when the moon rises full over the Wisconsin woods.



  1. Aaahhhh…youth camps. Is there anything worse? Youth camp with a bad case of muddy butt I guess is way down on the list of good times.

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