I had not seen Mike in quite a while. He had been living in Los Angeles all the years but had come back to Chicago and had gotten married. Chuck--who I had met before and who I liked--was also married, but none of them had kids yet. First Daughter was but a year old or so. Anyway, I arranged the camping trip with them and had never been to the Shawnee before (though after this trip I'd return a number of times to camp solo and once with Fru and the girls to stay in a cabin) and I didn't have a big tent so I rented one and the guys showed up and after a night--I think--we got in the truck, all of us wearing different colored flannel shirts ("We look like a Kodak commercial," Chuck said) and did the long drive down to the Shawnee. This is way down in the southern smidgen of the state (Illinois is a surprisingly long state), where we turned east at the Carbondale exit (that small college town being west) and we stopped in Harrisburg for some foodstuffs and beer and such, then to a little hamlet called Herod--taking small roads in the hilly country--and then to the Garden of the Gods and a campsite there.
We hiked around, climbed the big rocks that jut out into a deep valley. I had a camera and took some photos and then the camera slipped out of my pocket when I jumped from a rock, it bounced, broke, fell down the steep wall into trees way below--but when it broke, the only thing to pop out was the film, so I saved that and had a few photos after all. Then we went to camp and had a fire and they played their guitars and we roasted dogs, drank beer. Evening came. It was peaceful. Nice. Woodsy. But, we ran out of beer.
Gotta have beer on a camping trip.
So, we got back into the car, drove back to Herod, stopped at a little store where the proprietor wore old clothes and had an old beard: he looked like some Amish guy.
"Do you have beer?" we asked.
"NO sir!" he said, almost offended. "You'll have to go to Harrisburg for that."
Okay then. A dry town, maybe a dry county then.
So, we drove all the way to Harrisburg for beer, then--night now--drove the dark roads back to camp.
And we had a good time. Food, beer, fire, jokes.
Mike told me that Chuck's father was dying. Chuck kept saying how this camping trip was what he needed and now I had an inkling why.
Then, that night, all three of us sleeping in this musty half-broken rented tent, I woke in my alcoholic-stupor-hangover-coming state and heard crying. I didn't say a thing, but there was no mistake it was crying. I pretended not to notice. I pretended to still be asleep. I mean, what are you going to do? We were guys. Camping. Guys camping don't cry.
In the morning we got up. Rekindled the fire. It was nice. Hungover but not too bad. made our jokes. Got ready for the long drive back (even longer for Mike and Chuck, who had to go to Chicago). No one mentioned the crying. I never even said a word to Mike. Knew it had been Chuck.
We took our time getting to the interstate, tried to take a side trip to see something called The Old Man in the Rock or something, but never saw it. Then we hit I-57 and that was a long ride (I remember the whole trip I was making noises, I could not stand still when I stood still but was always swaying, rocking, making weird noises--this was because I had a baby, and I told them so, said having a baby makes you go bonkers a bit, and because you're always holding said baby you're always moving your body, rocking and swaying and they took this without much comment [but they found out when they had their own babies, yes indeed]).
Anyway--that was it, the trip. I got home and they drove the last two hours back to Chi-town. Nothing was said of the crying. It hadn't happened.
I lost touch with Mike for a good long time, until about a year ago. he's divorced now. He's still in Chicago but travels. His two daughters are only a year or two behind mine. And not all that long ago--months ago--I asked him about Chuck.
"Chuck died," he wrote.
"Yeah, it's weird. I saw him one week and then next he'd died."
I forget what Mike said Chuck died from--heart attack, aneurysm, don't remember. But he was our age, probably a bit younger than me.
And so it goes. I'll have to ask Mike if he remembers that camping trip. If he recalls that night in the Garden of the Gods. Chuck was a good guy. Had a wife and two kids. His father died. He died. We all die.