“I called the cops on you.”
The little man was animated, even gleeful. He was encased in plastic raingear that covered everything but his face, so he looked like a gray sausage. I was camped at Hog Island Point, a tiny roadside spot between highway 2 and Lake Michigan in the Upper Peninsula. At the moment, I was standing ankle-deep in freezing water, and I was worried that my rig might be stuck.
“Now why’d you do a thing like that?” I asked.
He became even more excited, and his voice squeaked, “Because you’re cheating the system! I’m from Wisconsin, and I had to pay $210 to camp here for two weeks!”
I had pulled into the campground late the previous afternoon and had scouted around for a nice spot to camp that wouldn’t require backing into. I planned to leave in the morning, and I didn’t even want to fully unhitch the truck. The spot I found was in a parking area, but so what? It was mid-September, and the park was all but deserted.
I had leveled the rig, partly unhitched it, and was comfortably settled inside when the little man knocked at my door. His eyes were bright, and he held a red-and-white striped umbrella against the drizzle that had begun.
“You know this isn’t a real campsite,” he began. “If the DNR comes through, the fine will cost you more than the camping fee. You might want to move to a campsite.”
I thanked him and thought about what he’d said. Actually, I’d been wrestling with a little moral conundrum that he’d put his finger on: Should I pay the $15 camping fee? Chances were very good that no one would come through to check, and I was only going to be there for the night. Still, it was right that I pay, and I really wanted to support our fantastic park system. In the end, I paid the very reasonable fee, but didn’t move to a campsite. It was still raining, and I was all set up for the night. I taped my receipt to the truck window.
Rain lashed the trailer all night, and wind blew off the lake that was only a few feet away. In the morning, I, too, was in the middle of a lake. Apparently, the parking lot was in a depression, which the rain had handily filled during the night. Why, oh why, hadn’t I camped in a regular site?
“So, how am I cheating the system?” I asked the man. “I paid for the night.”
The little plastic man wavered for a moment.
“Where’s your receipt?”
“It’s on my window.”
“Well, you’re breaking the rules. You’re supposed to park in a campsite,” he crowed. “And I got your picture and license plate number, too.”
I realized that the little man had spent all night gnawing on this bone, this gristly bit of disorder that had tilted his universe. That he had tossed and planned and rehearsed his speech to the police (who, I’m sure, could have cared less.) And here he was, on the verge of triumph, having caught someone redhanded in a transgression, and no one cared.
The moral lesson for me? I’m glad I didn’t try to cheat the system. Then I would have been caught redhanded as a hypocrite.
“You can go away now,” I said. “I have bigger problems to worry about.”