Background & heart behind the series:
I’ve been recently obsessed with The Real Life podcast by Jeff and Alyssa Bethke. Most episodes are an hour or less, are quite intellectually stimulating (for me, anyway), and cover topics related to everyday life, faith, and culture at large. I listened to a couple of episodes while out running a while ago (links HERE and HERE) where they talked about expertise, personal growth, and the power of story. I adored it for all sorts of reasons, but most predominantly because stories are one of my favorite things.
Our brains are wired to find connection and pattern, so storytelling lights us up like little else can. Stories help us actually learn and retain information. Stories help us remember, and they help us belong. Good stories have an element of transcendence; they live beyond themselves. Coming into my late twenties has only deepened my appreciation for and love of stories. Those podcast episodes solidified and gave words to something I’ve understood for a while at an intuitive level: our stories are so important.
That being said, I’ve decided to dedicate a year to sharing my own stories here, on my blog. Stories from my childhood, memories from long ago… or from not very long at all. It will be a mix: heartfelt and hard; humorous and horrendous. Each month I’ll reach into my mind and share a memory I hold from that exact month.
This first one is a memory from October. Or, more accurately, memories from many, many Octobers throughout my years growing up. The story I’m about to tell reminisces on the annual camping trips that my extended family would take each October. I have so many memories from these trips. I have only captured the very tip of the iceberg. Those crisp days and cold nights played a huge role in shaping who I am today, by carving out a time dedicated to wildness, adventure, and the outdoors. I hope this story brings you joy (and maybe a couple of laughs).
Darkness still hung in the sky as my dad snuck into Renee’s and my room. Our sleep was light, but the early wake up was still unwelcome. The stars beamed gladly outside our shared window. We yawned.
And this was how our trips would always begin.
Next, our dad would leave our room. He’d weave down the shadowed hallway to top off his coffee in the kitchen. Renee and I would dress without a word, blinking away dreams and rubbing crusty eyelashes. Brush our teeth. Pack our toothbrushes. Make our beds and grab our pillows. Then, the three of us together once more, would shuffle out the front door and into the truck.
Our dad let us skip school for these trips, so we’d pack up on a Wednesday or Thursday and return on a Sunday. We’d drive, drive, drive, racing the sun rising east as we went northwest. We’d stop at McDonalds on the way for orange juice, hash browns, and bathroom breaks. And as we passed by trees and city limits, I’d wonder if my dad’s foot ever got tired from holding down the gas.
When neighborhoods thinned to sporadic houses that popped up like weeds rather than rows, when streetlights were replaced with yield signs and four-way stops, we knew we were getting close. Our eyes kept scanning. Then suddenly, there they’d be, rising from the dirt like Midwestern cacti: the power lines. The markers on the horizon that pointed our way to camp. And running alongside them: the sandy, two-tracked road. The road that would lead to our site by the lake. Turning, our spirits would soar.
Northern Michigan. Here at last.
Our October camping trips were everything camping should be: rural, rowdy, and completely unsanitary. Only dads and kids attended: no moms allowed. Our days were never dull. We’d scout for firewood and drag it from the forest with cables tied to the hitch of our dad’s old truck. We’d hike and ride bikes and tell campfire stories. We’d eat candy any time we wanted. And breakfast meant apple pancakes cooked fresh on the griddle. Us kids were always charged with dishwashing duty – which meant scrambling down the dunes to wash up in the lake, using sand to scrub away bacon grease from cast iron pans. Upon our return, it would be inspection time. We’d present our work to Uncle Bob on duty, as he twisted his head and squinted his eyes, holding our dishes up to the sun. If they weren’t up to par, he’d send us all the way back down to clean them again. We’d flail, groan, and drag our feet. Then run back down in record time.
In between meals, we’d roast s’mores and have fire building competitions. My cousins and I would invent crazy concoctions in our makeshift outdoor kitchen, filling red solo cups with crushed hot dog buns, barbeque chips, Pepsi, Three Musketeers bars, and mustard. Stir them up real good with a stick. Giddy and filthy, we’d run to Grandpa Joe, who’d be sitting around the campfire in his vest and bucket hat, taking in the madness. We’d thrust our cups in front of him exclaiming, “Drink it! Drink it!” And true to form, he’d pucker his lips, touch them to the rim, and toss back the cup. Grimace playfully. He’d put down the cup, but there’d always be leftovers. To this day, I still don’t know whether or not it was all a show – how much he drank or how much he didn’t.
When the sun set, we’d cook hotdogs over the fire. Listen to the radio. Listen to the dads debating politics. Listen to the fire crackling. Nights were for layers, oil lanterns, and sleeping in socks. But, if mother nature let us, we’d roll our sleeping bags out by the fire and sleep under the stars. Like true cowboys, wild and rugged. And it was on a night just like this, at Billy Fitch campground, that one of our true adventures began.
It was the middle of the night. I remember waking to whispers and the quiet shuffle of sleeping bags. The flames of the fire were out; only ash and ember remained. My vision was restricted to silhouette and shadow, blurry tree limbs stretching fingers against a dark sky. I willed myself back to sleep, but the whispering continued. Suddenly, I heard my cousin Colin’s voice.
“Did you guys hear that?”
Hear what? I thought. My attention piqued. I freed one arm from the warmth of my sleeping bag and fumbled for my glasses. Once on my nose, they fogged immediately. I heard a voice to my left again, but this time it was closer.
“Yea.” It was Mara, who seemed already fully alert and facing Colin. I squinted. What on earth was going on?
“Yea, I heard something shuffling our food over there, like plastic bags and stuff.” Colin’s voice took on a tone of authority.
“Did you see it? What was it?! I heard it too,” Mara flopped over to Renee, now reluctantly waking and becoming involved. They started laughing and squealing, but Colin shushed them. We all knew this was bear country. We were far enough north. And the dads were fast asleep in the camper.
“Guys! Listen, shh!” Colin was in full suspense. All was quiet. “I think I saw something go up that tree. Right over there.”
The squealing erupted even further, as Mara proceeded to grab her shoes and tie them up in the warmth of her sleeping bag. “I’m ready to run, guys. If there’s something over there, I’m ready to run!” Renee and I just screeched and laughed, high on adrenaline and high on life. As we pulled our sleeping bags over our heads, Colin fetched his BB gun.
Colin crept just out of view, the darkness shrouding him. I only hoped, for all our sake – but at the moment, mostly his – that whatever was in those trees was not a bear. I heard the BBs pop as they left the barrel, and the squealing recommenced. Mara was the loudest, and threatened once more to flee her bag.
At this, the dads emerged from the camper, angry as bears before hibernation was over. They wore long johns and loose socks that pooled at the ankles. And they wanted to know what all the commotion was about.
“There’s something out here! It’s stealing our food, and it went up that tree!”
The dads stood dumbfounded and sleepy. We had a brief moment of validation when Uncle Bob made a joke to our dad, asking if he brought his shotgun. The decibel level increased. They strolled towards the tree line interrogating Colin, who still held his BBs. “Does anyone here have a flashlight? Someone get me flashlight.”
Mara, Renee, and I watched it all unfold from the safety of our bags – 1/3 of us shoe-d up and ready to go.
The light poured out in a single beam, dancing from branch to branch, flooding the leaves with color. Seconds felt like minutes as the dads surveyed the trees, searching for signs of our nighttime intruder. The light landed suddenly on a pair of glowing eyes.
“THERE! Got it.” Uncle Bob circled the trunk. “Look, right there. I think it’s a raccoon. Guys. It’s just a raccoon.”
Its beady eyes faded. Relief flooded my system. But, shortly after, so did a twinge of disappointment. Just a raccoon…
The creature scurried up the tree, out of sight. The dads, pleased with their work and satisfied with the outcome, went back to the camper. It didn’t take long for their snoring to restart. Our excitement settled down. Colin set down his BB gun. I took off my glasses and Mara took off her shoes. And we all went back to sleep. The next morning revealed torn up bread bags and half-eaten trash, and a tree line littered with BBs. We ate apple pancakes and the dads drank coffee. Mara complained the whole rest of the trip, stating that her sleeping bag was full of sand. We just laughed.
Our October camping trips were everything camping should be: the kind where smoke stains your skin for days, even after showering. And where the memories stain for even longer. I’d give anything to re-live some of those moments. Yet, with every story told, I do.