Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Memorial Day Camping

I've mentioned this before, in "Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" Robert Pirsig talked about people sitting in front of the TV and then driving around on vacation watching but insulated from the world by a plate of glass. From one hermetically sealed environment to the other. Nowadays, we are surrounded, nay hypnotized, by images behind glass plates; we drive to work looking through the windshield, sit down at a desk behind a computer screen, drive home again and turn on a TV or another computer. We have people, I'm guilty, going to resturants or coffee shops and opening a laptop to stare at. Cellphones now allow people to wander through life staring at anything except the world around them. Its a wonder we know anyone else at all.

When I was a child, I was filled with wonder. All my trials and tribulations came later; self inflicted and self fulfilling. Our family was a camping/outdoor family. Back in the day when you would let kids wander around the woods of a gigantic state park without a second thought. I've been blessed, and cursed, with an Explorer's Mind and a Vagabond's Heart. This must be why I am always raving about the scenery. Oooh, the sunset on the water and the blinking lights, yeah I know, but it gets me going.

We were always camping on Memorial Day it seems. It was the first of several trips each summer. Almost before my memory, Mom and Dad took us camping. We had a trailer/tent combo thing. I can squint my mind's eye and almost recall. It was sheet metal and red. The tent folded off the side of the small trailer; bunk in the trailer and tent over it and on to the ground. There was storage under the bunk. It seems like it was from Sears. The kids were on the ground; Mom and Dad in the bunk. Years later an acquaintance showed up in the infield at a race with a completely restored version of the same unit; stripped, powdercoated, recanvassed. It was beautiful.

In addition to Memorial Day, Grandad and GG, as they are known now, took all the grandkids, between the ages of 6 and 12, camping for two weeks each summer. These were magical trips. Partly to make sure that Midwest and East Coast cousins knew each other. Perhaps even more important, but also catalyzed by hanging out with distant cousins in the woods, complete universes were opened to our young minds. There was exploring and discovery; play and creativity. We went to Ludington, Lake Champlain, New Jersey, Washington D.C., and Disney World. It opened our minds to so much. I could write volumes.

The visions come pouring back: wild blueberry pancakes; squirrel bread made from acorns and left over pancake batter; huge hikes; wildlife; calisthenics up on the tent platform, and just being in the world and soaking it up. Even the rain pounding down on the roof of a camper, while GG read to us from "The Wind in the Willows" or "the Happy Hollisters." I've probably written 10 pages in my notebook just describing Ludington State Park. I haven't even put any people in the story yet.

Another part of camping, oddly, was golf. I can't remember how many times "the guys" went off and played a round of golf. Clubs were essential camping gear it seemed. We had a natural foursome; my Dad, Grandad, Uncle Bob and myself. I felt so grown up going with them. My game never amounted to much but I learned so many things from all three of them.

Music was a part of camping too. Uncle Bob got me started on the guitar hanging around campfires. He and Aunt Chris sing so sweetly together. We had great singalongs. We would hang paperplate signs on bathroom mirrors around the park. "Campfire Singalong, bring your instruments. Admission: a log for the fire." Some years it was just all of us. Other years there were many. Or sometimes just at our own site, people would stop along the road to listen.

There was a special clearing at Ludington. On one end was a playground; on the other a fire ring that must have been 10 feet in diameter. We would start the fire, set up some chairs and tune up the guitars. The singing would begin. By the time night fell, we were surrounded by dark woods. The fire ring end was mostly grass; the playground was dirty sand. Above us was a large oval to the night sky and the stars. The green of the woods faded to a dark border. The stars stopped where you could no longer see the trees.

With much anticipation, we would hear whole families coming down the trail, crashing through the woods, to join us. One year, a bluegrass festival was in a nearby town. Several of the musicians were staying at the park. They came down through the woods, one of them pushing a dolly loaded with instrument cases. That was a great year for the singalong.

Although I have squandered much of it, it was such valuable experience for me to perform in front of people there. At first, I just had a guitar and was strumming off to one side. Later, I joined more of the festivities wholesale. What a life it was. I have been working now to get back to where I was; the chops, the confidence.

Memorial Day is close to my birthday. The family always went out of their way to do something for me while we were out and about. One of my favorite Memorial Day memories involves Clown Cupcakes [Mom is already laughing]. Mom knocked herself out that year. We were at a church camp, Six Lakes I think. It is a classic Michigan campground. Roads and sites are carved into of the woods. A large clearing made for a picnic area up near the woods and gradually becomes the beach. The Mid Michigan beach in the Woods is unique. There is more grass than sand. From the picnic area down to the lake, the tables, grills and shelters thin out. The large open area is for sunbathing and frisbee; maybe lawn darts or horseshoes. Then, right at the water, there is this ridge and a step down. Tufts of grass hang over a cut that drops down to sand. Most often, some plastic sheeting is coming up from under the sand. If you didn't lay down plastic and then sand, the grass would just take back over. Walking out into the water, you knew where the sand ended. The sand, dumped in place to create a beach, gave way to the natural muck of a Michigan Lake bottom; clay and dirt, sand and bluegill poop squeezes up between your toes. There's nothing like it.

So, that year, my Mom baked a couple hundered cupcakes. That would have been a lot, but she also planted a plastic clown head in the top and frosted each one to look like a clown suit. The clown head was a head and a daisy petal collar with a spike for a neck. Each cake had two or three frosting clown suit buttons down the front and some detail for arms on each side. They were works of art; individually frosted works of art. Lots of bright color; especially red frosting.

In grade school, we were given this pink chewable pill sponsored by Crest. The pill stained the plaque around your teeth and gums. The school nurse would look in everyone's mouth and she could tell what kids weren't brushing very well. Mom's red frosted clowns had the very same effect on the kids at camp; many of whom were apparently not brushing as well as they might at home. It looked like a pandemic of pediatric gingivitis.

I will always carry with me the experiences, the wonder, the joy and the love that I got while camping. There is nothing better for a kid than to be turned loose in the woods. To be able to find a squirrel skull or a twig that looks like a rifle or a pine cone that looks like Richard Nixon. There is pure joy in a child's discovery of little pieces of the world. You don't have to let your kids wander around a huge state park; let them run around your backyard or that little park down the road. Just let them get out there and get dirty. It's like planting their mind in good soil.

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