While I can’t remember the date precisely (it was probably late April or May of 1960) I do vividly recall my first camping trip.
I was eleven years old and had just joined the Richland, PA, troop of the boy scouts after several years as a cub scout, and I was very excited. Mr. Pennypacker, our scout leader, had promised to take us on a weekend trip to the mountains where he would frighten us with ghost stories around the camp fire. In particular he was going to give us the full story of Old Cyrus (or Silas? That’s another detail that escapes me) whose ghost was alleged to still haunt his isolated mountain cabin. I couldn’t wait.
To make sure I was prepared for the outing, my parents bought me a knapsack, a canteen, and a mess kit, and of course, I packed that staple of any decent camping trip: Spam.
We set out early Saturday morning for our destination, a small clearing in the mountains somewhere on the other side of Schaefferstown. It was a dreary, rainy day, but that didn’t dampen our spirits; it just added to the adventure.
Arriving at the camp site, we pitched our tents; I probably shared a tent with Reed (my uncle, who was just three years my senior) and Buddy (one of Reed’s best friends and the son of our scout leader).
As the day wore on the rain, a long slow drizzle, never seemed to let up for more than a few minutes at a time, but as I said, that didn’t faze us.
What did bother us were the tent caterpillars, seemingly thousands of them, descending practically non-stop, each on its own thread, from the trees.
They got into our hair, they got into our clothes, and they got into our food.
That’s what put a damper on my first camping trip.
By the time darkness descended, we were so sick of the caterpillars (and to be fair, we were a bit soggy too), that most of us stayed in our tents. Although we did have a roaring campfire going, Mr. Pennypacker opted to postpone his ghost stories for another time, so I never did find out about old Cyrus (or Silas). Perhaps he was eaten by the caterpillars.
Over the next few years I did go on several more camping trips, and I always packed a can or two of Spam, but first impressions linger on. These days, whenever I think of Spam, I think of thousands of little green worms descending from the trees.
Postscript: While doing research for this article, I learned that it might not have been tent caterpillars that spoiled that trip for us. My recollection is that the little monsters were green, and the closest picture I can find is of the Oak Leaf Roller; since those critters are blamed for causing millions of dollars in damages in Pennsylvania in the 1960s, it’s quite plausible they were the culprits. But I continue to think of them as tent caterpillars.