Our destination did not actually exist all those years ago. The family was called to gather at a
Traversing this chasm involved two stages. The slope down from the trailer side of the ravine was steep, but it was one in which you could stay upright as you descended. That was not to say it was an easy trek. You stood and gathered your nerves before starting a run down the hill. The run was in no way controlled other than to try to stay on your feet as you accelerated faster and faster toward the bottom. There was usually a small stream trickling along the bottom, but the speed you acquired charging down easily carried you over this ditch and partially up the other side. Now gravity took over and slowed you until you stopped and started slipping back down towards the water. The opposite side was steeper than the first, and walking up its face was nearly impossible. Rather, you searched for exposed roots to grab and pull, and you kicked to plunge the toes of your shoes into the side of the hill for a foothold. Time and again, your feet would slip and you would suddenly fall forward supported only by a root or small sapling, or if not holding onto a root, you would slide until you were left standing in the muddy stream below. Bit by bit you clawed your way to the top. On the return trip, however, one employed a different tactic. To charge down this side was akin to running down the vertical side of a building. So rather than risking an out of control run, you simply squatted and skied down this part of the hill on your shoes and rump. The seat of my pants usually bore muddy witness to this maneuver, much to my mother's dismay.
|The trailers as seen from the cabins|
In the spring this hill was covered with wildflowers such as phlox, bloodroot, dog-toothed violet, trillium and hepatica. I gathered several of these plants and transplanted them into a little garden I had created on our lot. The flowers were still blooming in this little patch years after we had sold our trailer, but sadly that patch of ground has since been buried in fill as the current resident has changed the grade of the property. Although near the camp, the hill was a quiet retreat where I could be alone and commune with nature. I recall napping amongst those spring ephemerals in a little patch of sunlight. The light breeze, the warmth of the sun and the song of the birds lulled me to sleep. I can remember awakening to the sight of a kettle of vultures circling above me. At the time, I thought they had mistaken me for a dead body, but now I know better. I'm sure they just caught a good thermal radiating upwards from my sunny patch of woods. On another day, while sitting there, I heard movement in the leaves to my side. Startled and unsure of what was approaching, I froze in place watching the fallen leaves moving on the ground. Suddenly out popped a mole that had emerged from its burrow, looking blinkingly into the sun. Unaware of my presence, he made his way back into the leaf litter and was soon gone. It was one of my favorite areas in the woods, but today it is a gravel lane leading from the camp road all the way to the tip of the hill where 40 years ago I was gathering my nerve for the mad dash into the ravine. Sprinkled along this drive are four small cabins and a few surviving trees. Don't get me wrong, it is a very nice campground with a wonderful view of the lake, but it is not my wooded hill.
In my youth, as I explored the woods, there was always a point at which I would have to come off that hill. Again, I had a couple of choices. The hillside here was even steeper than that which had carried me out of the campground. To move down its side usually meant another long slide on my rump, and I was not always brave enough to even do that. I did feel emboldened one year and discovered a way to "hop" down the hill. I would stand at the precipice and leap off the top. With feet spread wide, as soon as I hit the ground, I would spring straight up in the air and land a few feet further down where the process was repeated. The movement resembled rappelling, but was done facing outward and without a rope. It was exhilarating and a very effective way of moving down the hill, but alas my magic bounce was but a fleeting skill. Not long after, I was hiking with my sister and her boyfriend, and I had explained my newly acquired talent. Her boyfriend was an amateur photographer, so he positioned himself with his camera so he could catch me in the air. Try as I may, I could not bounce down that hill, and sadly, I never did again.
The other way off the hill was to proceed to its end where the descent was much more subtle. Again, a stream, wider than the one we had simply hopped across behind the trailers, traced its way along the bottom of this ravine, creating yet another obstacle to be tackled. The answer was to look for a fallen log as a bridge. As there were usually several logs lying across the stream at any one time, this was not difficult. The challenge was to pick one that was not rotting and ready to break into two soggy halves or that did not threaten to shed your shoes with the slime mold that grew along its surface. My sister was more of a daredevil than me, so she would sometimes pick a tree spanning the ravine feet off the forest floor. Personally, I chose to stay no more than a foot off the ground.
Several hills sprouted from this central position in the woods, so there was any number of ways to proceed from that spot. In one direction, you would scale one or two more hills and emerge in Highland Acres, a small housing edition. I rarely took this path since it seemed like I was trespassing, and besides my goal was to avoid people. There was also a path that the camp owner had created that passed through this area. Trail 1 emerged just above the swimming pond on the camp road. It was the trail on which my dad would sometimes take me on my sister's Honda 70 minibike. Or you could just climb one more hill and emerge near the fishing pond that also sat next to the camp road. I did not like this path because the hill to the road was steep and there was thick undergrowth in that area.
|My boyhood bibles|
|Although not my original gear, this is an exact replica from the Military Antiques Museum|
materialized beyond that.
Time has remodeled this little patch of woods, but I wanted desperately to once again explore it. If this weekend of time exploration was to be successful, I needed to find something that seemed familiar from my childhood. No longer was I able to charge down and up my old ravine. The lane on which the cabins sat already had carried me to the far side of that. The best way to head into the woods was through the lower approach. Here is one place where time has totally altered the landscape, but for once I can say it was for the better. The soggy area that had been full of jewelweed and pokeberry has be redesigned by both man and nature. Gone are all the maple saplings and willows that once choked the edges of the lake. Stacked stone along the shore minimizes erosion and creates a picturesque border. Over time, seeds of cypress trees from somewhere far across the lake have floated into the woods during periods of floods, and as the water receded, they have taken root and grown. Where once a stream began to cut into the woods, a gravel covered path now meanders. It begins under the soft shade of the cypress trees and winds deeper into the woods. Rather than walking logs over the streams (which I still chose to do) there are now wooden foot bridges. And scattered here and there along the gravel pathway amongst the trees were small boats and canoes. I guess their owners want easy access to the lake, but do not want to carry their boats down steep hills, so they have tucked them into the recesses of the woods.
|My "cave" keeping watch on the far side of the stream|
|My old campsite|
The woods did not disappoint, but the more public areas of camp were another story. It had begun on the drive into camp. The dusty gravel road that winds its way through the hills and woods to the top of the campground used to pass two ponds. The first of these was the old swimming hole. It was a cold pool of water with a floating dock where we kids would swim while dodging deer flies or scanning for water snakes. The second pond was just up a small hill from this and was the fishing pond. Here I would bring my little pole and can of worms and fish for bluegills and sunfish. The fish were small, but so was I, and that was all the excitement I needed. On this trip into camp, there were no ponds. Both had long since filled with silt and mature trees rose from the depressions that marked their previous existence.
|The old fishin' hole back in the day|
More troubling still was the camp itself. Many, if not most, of the trailers from our time there are now gone. In place of the larger mobile homes, there are now smaller campers and RV’s, usually with large decks build nearby. It makes sense there would be change over. We purchased our first trailer nearly a half century ago, and they were older models even then. Yet for someone who navigates by familiar landmarks, I felt totally lost in what was my second home for over two decades. All three of the trailers we had owned at one time or another were gone, and I was only positive of one of those sites.
|Our first lot now|
Our first trailer was the middle of three that sat in the bottom loop of the figure eight road the cut through the first hill of camp
The road still traces that same path, so picking out our old lot was relatively easy. The other two sat on the side of the road with no strong physical landmark tying them to their original positions. I could make out the general topography of one of our old lots, but my memory now fails me. I could not recall whether this was our second or last trailer. There was very little that looked familiar at all. My garden
of spring flowers was long since gone.
The tire swing that had hung behind the Gossman trailer was nowhere to
be seen. The path we took to where we
docked our boat had long since become overgrown in weeds, and erosion had
stripped part of the hill away. I felt
like a person with dementia lost in his own neighborhood. I should know where I was, but darn it, I
just couldn’t place myself for the life of me.
|Looking at our first trailer from the opposite side of the loop.|
|Looking up the road at the site of our second and third trailers|
|Our third and final trailer|
Continuing down the road, the trailers thinned and there were empty spaces where my mind told me a trailer should be sitting. The large turnaround at the end of the road was gone. Posts now sealed off the area where once we had parked to fish. The road ends at the tip of a hill which juts out into the lake. Beyond the turnaround was a small triangular patch of woods where I also would play. Sadly, years of flooding have killed nearly every tree on the point, transforming the entire area. The only thing familiar about this part of camp was what we had always considered our beach area.
|The turnaround as it now exists|
|Enjoying the beach 30 years ago|
|Pumpkin enjoying the water once upon a time|
I left the lake with mixed feelings. We are all familiar with Thomas Wolfe’s declaration that “you can’t go home again.” I understand, for try as I may to recapture those early days, they are gone. The camp has changed, the woods have changed, the wildlife has changed. The residents I knew are mostly dead now, their trailers have long ago been sold for scrap or hauled to the dump. Bulldozers and erosion have reshaped the land around the trailers. Only those things most intimately tied to the earth - the trees themselves, the stones, the play of light off the water, the smell and sound of burning wood, only those things have persisted. Equally important, I have changed. Gone is the carefree, agile, slip of a boy who could dart through the woods like a wild animal. In his place is a stiff, aging, overweight man with responsibilities and worries. I now trip over the roots, scratch my face on the low branches and heave for breath at the top of the hills. My mother is no longer around to scold me for muddy clothes, and Dad must stop to rest walking the camp road. Yet the memories are there, like ghosts prowling the hills. I can still see and hear them, but they are slowly fading into the vapor. And it was for that privilege - the chance to once again lie back and watch shooting stars, to touch my initials on an old beech tree, to feel the cool lake water on my skin - that I was thankful for the gift my niece had given the family. As imperfect as it was, it was still a trip back in time, and for that I will be forever grateful.