My first and only tent-camping trip happened when I was in the sixth grade in the mid-1980s. The two teachers for our large class at the gifted elementary school I attended took the whole thing very seriously. We were rated on our successful execution of things we had learned in preparation for spending a couple of nights outdoors. “Camp Ligon”, which is located in Clio, Michigan, has become a catchall phrase among us who are still friends from that time for how to suck every last iota of fun out of something that people usually do for recreation. Usage: “Way to ‘Ligon’ that experience, friend.” Okay. Maybe it’s just me who says that. Many of my elementary school cohorts maintain that they had really enjoyed going there.
It wasn’t like I hadn’t camped or been to a camp before that episode. The previous summer, I had spent a week at YMCA-sponsored Camp Copneconic in Fenton, Michigan, which was about fourteen miles (depending on route) from my house in Flint. I was housed in a cabin with three sets of bunk beds, with five other guys roughly my age from various ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. I have occasionally wondered what ever happened to those dudes.
We did stupid stuff that was mostly harmless, until the day we decided to play a game where one of us would hold our breath while another would push on our chest to see if we would pass out. Of course, I was the first guy to hit the concrete, which earned me a trip to the camp nurse, and then immediately afterward to the office of the Camp Coordinator, a stern but likeable gentleman named Fritz. Generally being the rule-follower that I was, I was more freaked out by being in trouble than the pain of my slight injuries. Ultimately, though, all I got was a stern talking-to, and a lesson in not necessarily needing to go along with what others are doing, a lesson that has continued to serve me well into adulthood.
Your author in the sixth grade, in the mid-1980s.
Among the more wholesome and fun activities included during my time at Camp Copneconic were archery, swimming, the making of various crafts, horseback riding, and frisbee golf. This was what I imagine to be a good representation of what summer camp looks like for much of middle America. Ligon was different. In advance of the trip, we had to learn how to build fires, how to plot courses and navigate trails using a compass, and also how to plan and prepare meals and dried fruit. We were assessed on our abilities not only to put up the tent, but also how to choose the best spot for it based on (if I recall correctly) dryness and slope.
A Boy Scout I wasn’t, and I felt that I hadn’t signed up for this by simply going to school. I’m not fussy, and in fact, I think I’m pretty low-key, if a bit cerebral at times. I have the receipts to prove I have well-developed skills in adapting to challenging situations out of necessity. However, I had felt that perhaps the school curriculum had gone just a step or two too far with everything associated with Ligon. It didn’t help that one of my sixth grade teachers who was co-hosting this trip used to tell me I did some things “like a girl” – which was true, but he shouldn’t have said it. No sixth grade boy is a paragon of manliness.
A couple of years prior when my family had lived in rural, upcountry Liberia for a year, we resided in a concrete block house that at least had an indoor toilet (which was flushed using a bucket of collected rainwater) and a Honda power generator that worked enough of the time. I’m all about appreciating the positives. Back at Camp Ligon, aside from being good friends with my tentmates and the occasional laughter out of utter resignation at the ridiculousness of certain situations, the experience wasn’t my favorite and probably the defining moment that put me off of camping for another twenty years. I look back at Ligon with fondness now, simply because it has become the source of so many jokes with my fellow classmates.
With all of that said, when I had spotted this vintage Jeep CJ-7 a couple of summers ago in the Chicago neighborhood just north of mine, the thing that struck me immediately was just what a contrast it provided with Jeep’s modern offerings. This thing just looks so spartan, especially compared with a brand new Wrangler Willys in which some friends had showed up the night of this year’s July 4th fireworks. “Nav”-what? Leather? Pshaw. I wonder what the original seats in this machine would have looked like.
I’m completely unclear on the model year of this example, even after researching what I had hoped would be reasonably easy, telltale signs. The CJ-7 was introduced for ’76 on a wheelbase that added about a foot to that of the CJ-5 on which it was based (93.3″ versus 81″). This stretch allowed for an automatic transmission, among other things, which broadened appeal for more types of buyers. Production would continue through ’86, after which it was replaced by the Wrangler. Over 379,000 CJ-7s were made over its eleven model years.
A print ad from 1979, as sourced from the internet.
Available engines were myriad over its production run, ranging from two four-cylinder units both displacing 2.5 liters (AMC’s own unit, and also Pontiac’s “Iron Duke”), AMC’s two sixes displacing 232 and 258 cubic inches, and then their range-topping 304 cubic inch V8. Manual transmissions were available with three, four, and five gears, though the newly-available automatic was predictably a three-speed unit. The CJ-7 was the first Jeep with an automatic, and other firsts for a CJ were steel doors and an available molded plastic top. The optional Quadra-Trac automatic four-wheel-drive system was another selling point for Jeeps of this era, which allowed the 4WD system to engage without the separate step of locking the hubs. All CJs were 4WD.
If this CJ-7 was the equivalent of camping out in a tent, then modern Wranglers, with their modern styling and relatively luxurious range of equipment, both standard and optional, seem to be more like “glamping”. This is a coined term that is a portmanteau of “glam” and “camping”, and it sometimes includes things like Wi-Fi, mimosas, and running water. I like the new Wranglers, which are very capable machines. Aside from a two-hour highway ride in one in the mid-’90s that almost jarred my fillings loose, I’ve got nothing but respect for them and their sustained and well-deserved popularity as an American icon. It’s just that seeing this particular example, once the archetype that used to be so common, brought to mind the contrast between this make’s offerings between then and now. As it used to be said in print advertisements for Virginia Slims, “You’ve come a long way, Baby.” Maybe it’s time for me to give camping another try.
Rogers Park, Chicago, Illinois.
Sunday, August 4, 2019.