Monday, August 02, 2010

Camp Bliss on Oak Knoll

by Zinta Aistars

I don't ever camp in the summer. Not ever. Not unless tied and dragged through the heat and humidity, wincing between the crowds of vacationers, screaming for cool. I will camp in summer, however, if accompanied by my son. For my boy, who hasn't been a "boy" in quite a few years now, I'd walk through summer hell. Or a state-owned campground.

Don't get me wrong. I love to camp. I have a deep need to camp. To get out into the woods, sleep under the stars, sit aimlessly by a crackling campfire and watch the sparks dizzy-dance their way up toward the tree tops, and leave civilization far, far, very far behind. Yes.

Just not in summer. I have a legendary low tolerance for heat. Let's state it here in public print firmly: I do not like summer. I barely tolerate it and not well. It is my least favorite and least productive season, the season I would be happy to do without, and I have no ability to comprehend those who speak of it with longing. How can one possibly enjoy sweltering heat under a blazing sun with air so thick it looks like milk? For me, fall is the most wonderful, although I will happily debate, with myself or others, if winter isn't tops. Air that is cool and crisp, leaves on the trees turning an array of colors, nights that refresh. And winter snows, lots and lots of that white stuff ... yes, by golly, I love it. My time living in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan holds memories of snow reaching half way up my bedroom window .... and my bedroom was on the second floor. Glorious.

Still, serendipity combined with an acceptable July weather forecast (Saturday in mid to high 70s Fahrenheit with overcast skies and slight possibility of showers, and Sunday in low 80s with blue skies), combined with a restlessness for a bit of adventure and that ever present need for green, combined with my 28-year-old son's cheery shrug, "Sure. I'll go," combined with a late cancellation that freed up my schedule, all came together to point toward a camping weekend.

The moment felt right, the stars had aligned, and I was excited to pack up the camping gear and GO.

State and county campgrounds, alas, as I quickly found out, were booked solid. My son and I weren't thinking of going far. We didn't want to spend precious time on the road. We aimed for about two hours north, along the Lake Michigan shoreline, and when I called the Muskegon State Park for a possible tent spot, I was told the campground was booked for July at least six months ahead, prime spots as much as a year. The voice on the other end of the wire sounded stunned that I hadn't thought of this.  

Apparently, the world thinks differently than I do, and heads en masse to the campgrounds in July, the hottest month of the year. I did a quick search for campgrounds off the beaten path - always a better idea. Oak Knoll Family Campground fit the request. They had spots, they promised they would reserve the quietest and most secluded one, and they were delightfully in the middle of nowhere, a short drive north of Muskegon and deeper into forest.

We were on our way. The morning was pleasantly cool, and I liked the overcast skies that kept the sun from getting overly enthused. We headed north of Kalamazoo to Plainwell, turned off the main drag toward Holland, then drew a nearly straight line north on US-31, more or less along Lake Michigan. Within a couple of hours, we were north of Muskegon, near tiny town of Holton, surrounded by forest.

A light rain pattered on our windshield. I glared at the sky and the rain stopped. Okay then.

The campground owners had kept their word, and our spot really was the best on the grounds, a corner area snuggled up against the woods. Not perfect (that category is reserved for Michigan's UP and nearly all Alaskan camping areas), but oak trees shaded us from three sides and the center of the campground was mostly pine. My son hadn't pitched a tent in many years, at least ten, and he was pleased to see how user-friendly camping equipment had become. We literally had the tent up in less than five minutes. Two flexible poles crisscrossed at center, and our home for the night popped up effortlessly with open door flapping and waving us in.

I had convinced my son that there was no need to be so manly when he kept insisting he would do just fine throwing his sleeping bag, or even just a blanket, on the tent floor and snoring through the night. Granted, my boy is made of hard and well-tested mettle. When he says he could sleep on a bed of nails, I believe him. He has adventure and misadventure stories most dudes wouldn't touch with a ten-foot tent pole. I'd slept in some pretty odd places, too, and had once given up my lease on an apartment and camped in a tent for three months solid, traversing ten states from Wisconsin to Maine, looking for a new place to settle (which is how I finally ended up in the UP of Michigan). I suppose I qualified as homeless back then, but never stopped long enough to think about it. But maybe it is precisely because of those adventures that I appreciate a little luxury with my rustic these days.

"Trust me on this one," I said. "Snap open the little cot, and you don't have to inflate any air mattress nor feel rocks and sticks biting your soft flesh all night, even through eggshell padding. Toss your bag and pillow on it, all set to snooze."

"Eh," he shrugged with a manly shrug.

"Trust your mama."

When he watched me open up my cot and set it in one end of our little blue tent, toss bag and pillow on top, he nodded in appreciation. He opened the box for his brand new one and set it up on the opposite side.

Tent up, beds made, we headed for the water. For those who have not been to Michigan, land of the five great lakes, the name of Lake Michigan may bring to mind some small puddle of blue. Lake Michigan, however, is more like standing on the shores of the open sea. She's big. Her horizon is not visible, not even with binoculars in hand. Her waves plosh softly at your feet, or rile up for a fight in white foamy curl, depending on her mood. Her dunes rise like golden hills and ripple on for miles, and miles, and miles. And miles. My favorite of the great lakes is Lake Superior, aptly named, but Lake Michigan does me right when I am not quite on the ocean.

My son was more drawn to watching the boats and the ships, walking out to the Muskegon lighthouse, checking out the harbor and coast guard post, than he was with any sandy beaches. Like his mama, he tends to avoid too hot beaches and too bright sun and too big crowds. We passed through the state campground and shivered in unison when we saw the hundreds of campers, strung up like sardines in the woods, RVs with television antennaes out and strings of Japanese lanterns, tents raised side by side by side by side to hear each other snort and snore through the night.

"I thought camping was about communing with nature," my son muttered. "What the hell ..." and I just shrugged. Lucky there was no spot left for us. I might have turned around and gone back home.

We explored the Muskegon harbor. We walked the marina, peering at boats, picking our favorite names, admiring the tall masts, enjoying the graceful lines. My favorite was a sailboat called Mystery; his was a sleek racer in bright red called Nitemare.

We walked out to the lighthouse and watched the gulls swirl on the air current and settle in rows on the blue posts. We watched the fisherman wait for fish, and wait, and wait, gazing into the glistening water. We watched the boats sail, the jet skis rip through the waves. We watched the water in its eternal movement, washing in toward the shore, wash back out again, in its soothing rhythm.

"What is it about water ... "

"Our own rhythms?" I guessed. "Basic elements? Resonance to our own being, almost entirely water?"

He didn't answer. He was daydreaming blue, leaning on the blue post, eyes squinting out at the sparkle of a moving mirror, and I watched him as much as the water, both giving my heart ease and pleasure.

Fire is the same way. Primal and a basic element of the four needed for life. He built the campfire in the evening, and we sat in our canvas chairs, another nod to camping comfort, and stretched our legs out toward the fire, unable to look away from its dancing flames. The book I held in my lap never got opened. I couldn't look away: the crackling fire, my son's face in the moving light of the fire, and back to the fire again. And perhaps that is the best part of camping - that we remove ourselves from the rush and hurry, we remove ourselves, and we simply are. Doing nothing, but in some way doing what is most important of all: simply being. Sitting, breathing, daydreaming, mesmerized by the flames, resting our eyes on a loved one's face, momentarily tracing the line of surrounding trees to where the leafy limbs lead up to sky, and even the occasional slap of a buzzing mosquito does nothing to interrupt the reverie, that life can make sense, after all, and most of all when doing nothing. Just being. 

Just cooking is a special pleasure in the outdoors, too. We had treated ourselves to a good lunch at a Muskegon restaurant called Hearthstone, highly recommended by a friend, but it was the outdoor sizzle of meat on a cast iron pan that brought a grin to my son's face. We fried up slices of pork, roasted bratwursts until their rounded sides blistered and peeled away, tossed unpeeled corn cobs into the burning hot embers, and finished it all off with toasted marshmallows for our s'mores. Everything and anything cooked under the stars and over an open fire tastes better than anything in a proper restaurant, no contest.

And then we sat. Just sat. Just watched the fire. Just smoothed our full bellies, sipped our cool brews, watched the orange sparks flutter up to the treetops. We sat in silence. We didn't try to solve or understand any world problems. We left the politicians to wage their own battles for the evening. We let Chelsea and Marc have their grand wedding in peace, without us. We left festering tragedies and great human wrongs and minor gripes all be. The world turned without us. We let the work we left behind at home, the half painted upstairs bedroom, the pile of laundry, the unread submissions to The Smoking Poet, the novel I'm writing left at midsentence in mid chapter, the unweeded vegetable garden, the long unmown grass in the backyard, the unedited freelance assignment, the three book reviews still unwritten, the pile of week's mail unsorted on the counter, accrue a while longer. We didn't worry over chores left undone and errands unrun. We didn't even think about how short life is and how quickly it goes by. We dug our heels into rich earth and slowed it down.

We just sat. We just sat in silence. We just sat in silence and watched the fire, and felt the night fall slow and gentle and the birds exchange their last song for the day, and we slapped at the occasional mosquito and sat some more, saying nothing, doing nothing, just sitting. Now and then, I caught my son's eye or he caught mine and one of us smiled a little and the other one smiled a little back.

This kind of summer evening I can just about handle. In fact, I can handle it just fine.

The next morning, waking to the slow light seeping through the trees, we renewed the fire and cooked up slabs of bacon, scrambled brown eggs, toasted oatmeal bread on the grill, and sat back to sip coffee in our blue tin cups. And we watched the fire. All morning, we sat and watched the fire. In silence. Smiling just a little, a lazy smile. We had all Sunday ahead of us to do nothing.

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