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Checkout Time: A Reflective Essay

Chris practices free writing which often produces humorous or introspective results with practical applications to living life more fully.

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Wedding receptions are a great place to people watch, especially when it comes to dancing. You can usually spot a man or woman who appears to be dancing to a different song than everybody else—like Elaine on Seinfeld.

I often get the feeling that I’m living life one step out of time with the rest of the world. When I talk to people about events in my life, what I do for a living, and how I live on the road they look at me as if I’m one of Santa’s misfit toys. At least that’s how I interpret it.

I do a fair amount of camping as I travel. I enjoy the little tasks that make me comfortable in an environment of unpredictable weather, rocky ground, and wildlife prowling in the shadows. What I mean is that camping is setting up my tent or hanging my camping hammock. It’s gathering firewood, which can be the most time-consuming task depending on how big a fire I want and how long I want it to burn. Camping is starting the fire without the aid of paper or liquid fuels.

Camping and fishing go hand in hand. After I’ve caught a few, I stop and clean them. That’s camping as well. Then I cook them over the fire. I like to have just enough oil in the bottom of my cooking pot to cover a chunk of fish when I tilt it. It’s called shallow frying, and that is camping too.

Stargazing is camping. My first memorable experience with this was when I was about 19 years old. A friend’s family owned a small pond in a meadow. We all arrived at different times and carried our sleeping bags to the edge of the pond. Then we joined the rest of the gang, lying on the grass looking up at the spectacular sight. Today, it is fun and challenging to look for all those familiar constellations from different locations around the country as I travel and to know it is the same sky, filled with the same, glittery, old friends.

Night sounds are my favorite. Not the Snoopy night sounds of things going bump in the dark. I mean spring peepers and larger frogs. What a chorus they make. The sound can reach an unbelievable volume, and I can finally sleep.

I was out recently and experienced all of these aspects of camping. I’ve been working the night shift at a Dallas hospital and haven’t been sleeping well in the daytime. I ventured out into the National Grasslands and hung my hammock from two cedars. I could finally sleep.

After an evening and night of camping in all of its diverse forms, I woke up, not to the sound of frogs. They had grown silent with the rising of the sun. This new sound grabbed my consciousness and dragged it into the light of the day.

The sides of my hammock prevented me from seeing out. I unzipped the bug net and swung my legs out over the edge where my feet dangled and my toes searched for the ground. After I extricated myself from the cocoon-like shelter, I took in my surroundings. The sun blazed low in a cloudless sky of blue above the east end of the lake that rippled in a slight breeze.

There was that sound again, familiar, conjuring memories from my childhood on the farm. I slowly scanned the area until my eyes connected with another set of eyes. They were not the brown orbs of Darby, my dog. They were much larger than his puppy dog eyes. In fact, several pairs gazed on me with intensity and curiosity.

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The National Grasslands is federal land and the government makes a little extra cash by allowing ranchers to graze their cattle on the thousands of acres. It was the eyes of these cows and their calves that were so preoccupied with my every move. The mooing of the older cows and the maaing of their calves had awakened me. The camping spot I had chosen was clearly a favorite resting place for them, and we had been allowed to use it for one night. Apparently, this was checkout time.

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I busied myself with breakfast. When I turned around, a dozen cows and calves had moved considerably nearer to me and my camping equipment. I turned back to my tasks, and the cows moved even closer. Darby and I ate our breakfast under the scrutiny of those watchful bovine eyes. Then the bull showed up. Darby took the long way to the Jeep keeping an eye on the bull the entire way. I hauled my gear passing about twenty feet from 1800 pounds of black Angus testosterone.

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This whole camping scenario takes me back to the thought of being out of step with those around me. Family, friends, and new acquaintances looked at me much the same way these cows looked at me. I am a curiosity. They stood wide-eyed wondering what I was up to.

What am I up to? I’m just living life my way, day by day, going from place to place, working some and seeing what there is to see, doing all the wonderful and exciting things there are to do. What people should keep in mind is that I’m okay with this. If you already knew and accepted that, you are an even closer friend than you may have imagined.

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The Big Guy After He Moved Away About Twenty More Feet

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© 2019 Chris Mills