Camping with Accident Man

by Joseph Sheeley

During college in the 1990’s my girlfriend then, now wife and I would go camping about four or five times per year during the summers. It started in Arizona when we were still just dating. There I would drive up from Tucson where I was going to school to her school in Flagstaff, car loaded with camping gear, then we would go camp at a place near Flagstaff. Because it was well over 7000 feet elevation up there, it was a good 20 to 30 degrees colder than in Tucson, so the weather was beautiful in the summers with days in the 70s and maybe low 80s. It was even a touch on the cold side at nights sometimes.

For grad school we were in California and started camping in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which were about three or four hours from our apartment in the Bay Area. I would get a topo map of an area and look for areas on forest roads in National Forests where it looked relatively flat and ideally close to a little creek or some sort of water. These forest roads were small dirt roads used for logging and forest maintenance. Once we found a few good candidate spots, we would then drive out there, go down the road, and look for a spot with enough cleared area to park and set up camp. Often it would be 9 or 10 o’clock at night when we would finally get out there, having fought traffic to get out of town after work. So, it could be quite an adventure, driving around, trying to find a spot in the dark until about midnight. One time we ended up setting up in a spot for the night just because it was getting late, then moving to another spot down the road in the morning. There were usually a few people camped somewhere near us, but everyone was really spread out so you didn’t feel like you were crowded in at all. There was also plenty of wood for the fire, which you never found at a regular campsite.

After we found a good camping place, we would remember where it was and return. There was one spot near Boards Crossing Road that had a tiny stream running through it. We used it to cool some melons we brought with us.

We would sometimes bring friends along, especially a friend named John and his girlfriend, Rita. They had never been camping, so this was a new experience for them. I would give them my tent and my wife and I would sleep in our Ford Explorer for these trips with them.

Now, I had an enormous survival knife that I would take along. It was sharpened on both sides and had a large saw blade. I’ve had it since high school and numerous people have cut themselves on it (including my father the day I got it). It came to the point where I started to think the knife was cursed. (I also cut myself on it, but that was usually when I was trying to juggle it.)

On our second trip together, it was just John, his girlfriend, and I camping the first night. We had a third friend coming the second day and I needed to go to the highway (about 10 miles away) and find a payphone to call him and tell him where to find us. As I was leaving, he asked if he could use the survival knife while I was gone. I said, “Sure,” but warned him about all the problems I had had with it. He said, ” No problem,” or something similar, so I drove off and made the call.

I returned an hour later to find him with a bandage wrapped around his hand. He explained that he was just pulling my survival knife out of the case and cut his thumb on the back of the knife near the hilt. He remembered that I’d said the knife was sharp, but didn’t realize it was sharpened on the backside too. That was the first of several accidents for that day.

After we’d sat around camp for a while, we decided to drive back to the road and to a little store. We got back in my Explorer and headed out. About a mile from our camp the road crossed a little creek and there was a little waterfall area on the uphill side of the road. John asked if we could stop there and check it out.

After we had been there for about three minutes, John wanted to get his picture with his girlfriend on a big rock in the middle of the creek. They stood there and I took a picture with my digital camera (Maybe it was a film camera. This was way before smart phones).

After I took the first picture, John saw a second rock out on the stream. ” Get a picture of me jumping to that rock,” he said. I wasn’t sure how he was going to get back from the rock, but I agreed, he jumped, and I took the picture. Once he got there, he realized his predicament, looked at another, tall rock further across the stream, and tried to leap to it and hang on.

He fell in the water, which was about 8 inches deep, got pushed downstream a few feet by the current, then got up, soaking wet and without his glasses. We searched for them in vain – they were never to be found, at least by us. This was accident number two for the trip.

Luckily, I happened to have a bathing suit in the car, which he borrowed and we headed for the store. Once there we looked around, bought a few things for the campout, then went back to the Explorer. As I started to drive off, John shouted to stop the car. He jumped out and danced around. Lifting up the bottom of his (my) swimsuit, a wasp came flying out. This was accident number three.

We had been listening to the They Might Be Giants Song, Particle Man, on the way up. We decided at this point that his name should be “Accident Man,” and sang about him to the tune of Particle Man. This nickname stuck with him for many years.

That was the last accident for that trip. Javier, our friend, arrived with his girlfriend that evening and built a huge fire that put our fire from the previous night to shame. Each time that you could get within about five feet of it, Javier would declare that the fire was dying and throw more wood on it. Another inside joke from that campout, the “Javier Fire,” emerged.

We all camped together several more times while we were in school. Accident Man got better, only having one other accident that I remember on a campout. In that case, he was breaking a limb with his foot wearing sandals and a jagged piece of wood from one of the ends went into his foot. We got to find the clinic in a small mountain town nearby after that one.

John and I both still camp to this day. I’m glad that I was able to teach a friend how to do something from which he continues to get so much enjoyment. I’ll always look back fondly to my days camping with Accident Man and the good times we had.