Kristen Gehrman, Writer

September 3, 2014

Rules for Camping, USA


 Rule 1: No nav allowed

We stood in line at the Walmart in Wassau, Wisconsin adding up the sum of our cart. “Do we really need this?” I asked holding up the 2014 American Road Atlas for $6.95–up until that point we were using some navigation app. Despite all of the penny pinching we did on our one month camping trip, this was the best 695 pennies we spent. This book of paper maps of all 50 states and Canada marked with all major and minor highways, scenic routes, state and national parks, campgrounds, and even roadside picnic tables was the most valuable item we had in our overloaded car. The problem with a navigation system is that you have to know where you are going. We didn’t know where we were going. But with an atlas we could weigh the possibilities. That is what made it an incredible trip.


 Rule 2: Always have wood

Last summer we camped in France where campfires are not part of the camping concept. The french are more into pâté and making crepes over a gas flame, but fires are strictly interdit. In the US however, camping just simply isn’t camping without a campfire and making a campfire requires wood. Fortunately, it is easy to buy bundles on the side of the road. We fell in love with the hazy smoke at dusk that filled the campground and the smell of burning pine and cedar. For dinner it’s wood-fired corn on the cob and hot potatos buried in the ashes. For breakfast it’s bacon, eggs and cowboy coffee.


Rule 3: Go non-electric

The best campsites are the ones that have no electric hookup. No hookup means no blenders, stereos, televisions, or  automatic air mattress pumps. Yes, there are people, particularly RV people, who associate these objects with the great outdoors. With just our two person tent, a clothes line and two folding chairs as “equipment,” we tried to avoid these people. At night we listened to the howling of the loons on the lake.

IMG_5564.JPGRule 4: Beware of bears

In Wisconsin, northern Michigan and especially Canada, there are bears. Like kind of a lot of them. Bears like sticky marshmallows that fall in the fire, chicken bones thrown into the woods, toothpaste left on the picnic table, and styrofoam trays that once had bratwursts in them. Even though we were very careful to put everything in our car at night, a drooling grunting black bear still paid us a visit at a campground near Sudbury, Ontario. He brushed along the side of our tent while we were inside and made his way over to our water bucket. Luckily he only wanted a little drink and he went on his way.


Rule 5: Await instruction

Listen. Camping in the United States, particularly in rural, non-electric, water-pump sites is pretty relaxed. The state park campgrounds are usually several miles into completely isolated forest. There are park rangers of course, but they have thousands of acres to take care of and especially during the week, they are not too worried about the campgrounds. They might ask you to pay the camping fee….or they might not. We found that the best route was to just wait and see.


Rule 6: Drop coordinates 

You might want to let someone know where you are from time to time. You know, for safety. In case someone wants to murder you. We left Door County, Wisconsin in a hurry as a thunderstorm rolled in across Lake Michigan. We thought that we could make it to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula without getting caught in it. Three hours later we were driving across a lonely highway under dark skies and roaring wind. We stopped and made camp at the first campground that we found. The place was completely empty save for two tents. As we were setting up under the creaking trees in the eerie pre-storm light, our fellow campers came over to meet us. They had nervous smiles and purple tinted lenses and said they weren’t up there to do any fishing. Maybe it was the macabre atmosphere or the fact that we were miles from any settlement, but the two guys gave me the creeps. In my mind, I started turning over all of the possible murder scenarios, always coming back to that woodchipper in the movie Fargo. Now it seems really funny and it became one of our favorite stories from the trip, but I didn’t sleep a wink that night. At 7am the next morning the rain had stopped. F wanted to go for a walk along the river, but I said “Oh hell no.” We packed up our tent in 5 minutes flat and left as the sun came up.


Rule 7: Pack less

It turns out you don’t need a shower everyday. You don’t really need clean clothes. You won’t need to worry about running out of milk. If the eggs aren’t refrigerated for a day or two, it’s no big deal. Your cell phone battery might die. You might need to use your t-shirt as a pillow case. It’s alright. Deodorant attracts mosquitos, so just don’t wear any. A bar of soap and water pumped from the well are good enough to wash your hair. There is no need for music, unless of course you want to listen to radio static or the only Johnny Cash album in the car for the twenty-fifth time. On this year’s camping trip, we kept things really simple. We just made do. Now that I’m back to my slightly more complicated real life, I realize it’s only complicated because I make it complicated. In my mind, I’m going to try to stay in a perpetual state of camping.


September 1, 2014

Self Love and Parasites: An essay for Cordella

I had the pleasure of writing a personal essay for the premier issue of Cordella Magazine. Let me just say that this magazine is right on. Like right right on.

“Cordella seeks to record and share the creative voices of women from all walks of life, exploring the ways that our spirit and sense of self is engaged with our physical place and daily experiences…Our purpose is to encourage women to know themselves more deeply, to value the stories they have to tell, and to connect with a sense of feminine wisdom and community that has nourished women throughout history.”

You can read the first issue online and like their Facebook page here.

Here is an excerpt from my work:

“Kristen I’m telling you, there are aliens living in my body.  Little alien babies, I’m serious.  They are living in my gut and I can’t get them out.”

And she was serious, literal even. The weight in her voice, the furrows in her pale face, the nervous way her arms clung to her abdomen, it was clear that she wasn’t speaking in metaphor. She believed in the little aliens. This wasn’t my college friend Katie—my bicycle singing, beach yoga, farmers market Katie—this was someone else, someone much darker.

The last time I had seen her we were wearing white dresses and toasting our college graduation like the good Southern belles we weren’t. A little clique of over-achievers, we were all preparing for our next steps: AmeriCorps, grad school fellowships, research grants, start-up ideas, but Katie was the most enviable of all.  At 22 years old, she had a job offer at a top finance firm in Washington, D.C. with a starting salary that was more than what I will probably make in the next ten years. To me, she was this Louisiana pixie, a bubbly-ballerina-turned-enlightened-yogi with a perfect GPA in a double major. I had no idea how she did it, and what’s more—she made it all look so damn easy.  Now I know that it wasn’t.

After graduation, Katie spent a month backpacking in Peru before moving to DC, “to clear my head,” she said. Somewhere on the way up Machu Picchu, it sunk in that she could not continue on the path that she was on, that the fruits of her obsessive perfectionism would rot away if she let them ripen any longer, and the rest of her soul with them.

“It became so clear to me that all I had achieved up until that moment was only one kind of success,” she said. “A kind of success that can only be achieved through years of self-sabotage, of telling yourself that anything less than the highest possible score was failure.  And I couldn’t stop at one level of perfection, it was like an addiction, I had to be perfect on every possible level.”


August 28, 2014

A Hemingway Summer

I know I know Hemingway is a little, well… how do I put this? Over-marketed. He comes up everywhere–in schools, in bookstores, in bars where he might have had a drink, in hotels where he might have stayed, in summer houses where he might have slept with this lover or that lover. For a long time I had only read one Hemingway novel, The Old Man and the Sea, and only because it was on the seventh grade summer reading list. I remember that I thought it was stupid, even worse than O Pioneers! and The Pearl and Wuthering Heights and all the other summer reading books that were unanimously hated only because they were never thoroughly discussed with teenagers. At that age, I just couldn’t get over the simplicity of the plot. Old Man and the Sea was a whole book about a dead fish dragging behind a fishing boat and getting eaten by sharks. Pretty much nothing else happens. You could say that my love-hate relationship with Hemingway began in earnest upon my discovery of Martha Gellhorn, celebrated war reporter of over 90 foreign conflicts and one of the first to consider the “view from the ground,” as she calls it in her book. She also happened to be Hem’s third wife, though the marriage was short lived and she didn’t like to talk about it. My admiration for Martha fostered this sort of boiling, cynical fascination with Hemingway and after I finished Martha’s war columns, I started reading his other works.

Earlier this year, I had the happy chance of passing a poster for a trip to Venice to attend the Biannual International Hemingway Society Conference sponsored by the English Department. I am not actually in the English Department but I decided to just ask. Just asking is, in general, a very good idea.

The first week of June, I found myself in the company of eight other literature buffs, all equally as enthusiastic about Ern as they were about the free trip to Venice. The conference was held on San Servolo, a ten minute vaporetto ride across the Lagoon from San Marco, a setting very reminiscent of Across the River and Into the Trees. On the first evening of the conference, we made the journey with a boat full of Papa look-alikes (seriously, yes) and were greeted with a peachy Bellini as was Ern’s favorite. I shook hands with  an old Italian aristocrat in a Pucci suit and pointy leather shoes who I later learned was the brother of the real-life Renata, Hem’s way-too-young-for-him Venetian lover.

Some papers examined Hemingway’s work in support of a timeless social commentary on issues like sexism, masculinity, identity development, etc and others were more of an over-the-top love affair with a dead guy, always toddling somewhere between “Ok ok I see what you’re getting at” and “Who cares?” For me, the passion for a Hemingway the man was the real topic of interest.







Then in July, F and I were “up in Michigan” visiting my mom and grandparents in Petosky where the Hemingway’s had their summer home on Waloon Lake. Ernest spent the first 20 summers of his life there and even though he only returned once in his adult life, it remained a recurring theme in his work and the inspiration for The Nick Adams Stories. Petosky is incredibly proud of the fact that it happened to be the closest town to the Hemingway summer home, so proud that they have a portrait of Ern as their logo. And a walking tour. And a 1920′s bar with a secret speakeasy in the basement that Hemingway supposedly frequented (though it seems he would have been a little young ??). And then there’s this guy, the owner of the bookshop in Horton’s Creek, completely devoted to Hemingway. He tried to sell us all of his independent research on Hemingway’s Michigan life, typed up on an electric typewriter and bound in dusty copy shop jackets. In the picture below he is scolding Friso for snapping our picture and lamenting that “young people think everything in this world is free.”



Finally, we ended in Oak Park, Chicago, Hemingway’s birthplace. By this time F expected me to sprawl out across the porch of the old Victorian and proclaim my undying, earnest devotion to Papa. But that didn’t happen. In the end, I fell back into my cynical suspicion that Hem is really just a gimmick for book people like me. Maybe I’ll read the copy of The Nick Adams Stories that I bought in Petosky, maybe I’ll just pretend to have read it. Either way, I’m a sucker for the mystère behind the man who moved around and re-established himself again and again and again all over the world, always with delight and sadness, the women he loved, the lives he ruined—and of course the marrowy way he wrote about it.


July 25, 2014

Morning Mourning: MH17

We were sitting at a fries stand in the center of Rotterdam on the corner of a large commercial intersection in Rotterdam. The church bells snuck up on us. Of course we knew they were coming, everyone knew. They rang to tell us the plane had landed, the first one carrying the bodies. “Oh it’s starting,” F said and he looked at his phone: 15:48. We watched in silence as more and more people noticed the bells. It was strange to listen to them ring together to no particular tune, a sad cacophony that stretched across the country growing louder and louder. Usually I associate church bells with weddings and Christmas Eve services, but these vibrated much heavier. At 16:00 the ringing reached its peak volume and the busy intersection went into slow motion. People assumed a position–on a bench, against a lamp post, under the flagpole, leaning along the hood of their car— and observed the national moment of silence for the 298 victims, 193 of which were Dutch. Mopeds pulled over to the side of the road, taxis parked on the sidewalk, people climbed off of their bikes. I think all of the traffic lights must have turned red because all of a sudden there were no cars. For one minute everyone looked up at the flag waving at half mast, consumed by the mournful song of the bells. One guy strutted in front of us, chatting loud with someone on a cell phone– he didn’t get the memo. But everyone else stopped and closed their lips and turned their eyes to the sky. When the minute was over, everything went back into motion. That was the strangest part, the collective pause followed by the collective motion, the reminder that time does not stop.

Unless of course is does, as it did for the people in the plane, as it will for all of us at a certain point. All we really have is the moment that we have.

July 3, 2014

Toscana fireflies

Toscana was one of those very good bad ideas. Right in the thick of exams in Lausanne, a group of Dutch friends rent a villa in San Gimignano, the medieval city of skyscrapers towering over hills and valleys of vines. My friends are like “Oh yeah, sure, you should join.” The temptation was too great to bear. I dwelled on the decision– should I or shouldn’t I go? The train happened to be cheap, the weather happened to be warm, the fifth of seven papers happened to be finished, I decided not to think so much about it. Heart over head, matter over mind, easier done than said. I went. Hardly anyone knew I was gone.




What I remember most are the Tuscan fireflies, the one thing you can’t really take a picture of. Like feisty Italians buzzing through traffic on sewing machine scooters, these lightening bugs hummed and flickered. I tried to compare them to the lazy Michigan fireflies of my youth, the kind we used to catch and seal in Ball jars only to find dead in the morning. But no, these bugs were not the same. Not the same at all. They were much more fiery.