What began as a prelude in our minds to the greater main course of our trip soon became an engrossing meeting of like minds in the Ozark woods. The past summer had taught me to expect this bonding, but Melissa and I were equally caught off guard at how quickly and easily she fell into the family of the staff at the Boy Scout Summer Camp.
In the heat and exclusivity of our job at Camp Gus Blass, friendships and rifts are forged with the ferocity that only thirty young idealists can muster. One week can make young men brothers, and six weeks mark girlfriends that might serve as maids of honour.
At a summer camp, there is a fire shared by young people charged with delivering a rambunctious week of program that is required constantly. In a setting which demands the best of everyone, infectious and intoxicating love is everywhere, and in almost everyone. It would be unbearable otherwise.
Meals are finished with songs that aim to be ridiculous, and performing in such a way brings an honesty out of people that allows their moments of repose to be ones that are as meaningful and more than those we share with most of our relations in the real world.
The friendships made in those two months were the opposite of those hammered out at war, built upon a similar trust that comes from that which is good in the world and that allows the camp to work. Much of the later journey was dreamt through our memories of Daniel, Ian, Jessica, Jake, Bristow, Swan, Millard and Johnny.
The knots they taught us also proved an invaluable asset.
The night seemed to stretch on forever with the highway rumbling under the weight of trucks and the spray of their tires in the rain. A loose stitch in Melissa’s corner of the tent had also become a problem, as it folded the nylon against itself and when the day broke finally, her feet had sunken in puddles at the end of her sleeping bag.
“Literally, I can splash my toes in there,” was the less-than-amiable response to my question about her sleep.
We opened the door to the tent and the muggy overcast brought a biblical storm of heavy mosquitoes in. We rushed to stuff the wet parachute back into its sack and the rain ran over our hastily-packed hatch. There was little wont for breakfast as the hairy devils assailed us and we began itching quickly. We took to the road quickly, and grumpily and with much fog in all of the windows.
Eventually the sky opened its deep shutters of cloud and the cotton tufts we’d become used to returned, lending deep contrast to the blue backdrop. We stopped briefly at the Chutes Provincial Park and gawked at the spate of falling water, stomachs grumbling for an early lunch. We pressed on in search of a better picnic spot.
Money was on our minds that day as the distance between the lakes seemed to stretch endlessly ahead of us. We drove through noon without reaching the southern edge of Lake Huron, but our patience was rewarded with a private stretch of sand and shallow water where we set our small barbecue and prepared a few plates of soup and instant coffees.
We sat in our lawn chairs and lolled at the endless ocean of lake before us, green bobs of island speckling the horizon. From meager beginnings our day was looking up.
We further pleased ourselves with brisk baths in the chilly water, soaping up for the first time in a few days.
The summer of 2004 sat perched above the gorge of humility and slander, protest songs and Springsteen tours in opposition to the dying young men in the Iraqi desert that would be the presidential election contested between George W. Bush and John Kerry. Arkansas being a state that was canvassed in the mid-west sweep of red on Election Day, Melissa and I were afforded a window into the increasingly conservative American populace.
By evening we had made it into the Lake Superior System of parks and stopped at the edge of Pancake Bay Provincial Park – so named because many of the settlers arriving by boat would have eaten through all but their rations for crepes by the time they reaches the sandy arc of beach in the northeast corner of the lake. The prospect of nabbing some of the land as our own was an appealing one as the sun fell behind the trees toward the water.
We pulled in again and again to spy the facilities in the many pay-sites in the government-controlled area, and things were looking grim in the department of free camping. The quality of our visit to the greatest of the Great Lakes was diminishing quickly, when we noticed a dusty lane falling away from the two-lane highway.
We cautiously brought the Ru (by now the nickname of our faithful auto) down into a sandy bog deep within the tree line. Melissa got out of the car and inspected the nature of the threat, and I eased the wheels down across the wet portion of apprehension and found it solid under the wheels. Continuing through the thrush for another ten meters, the path crested a bluff above a half-kilometer crescent of sandy beach. Tall grass rustled against the tree line and what had been afternoon on the highway, with the sun behind the trees and the depressing gray light of dusk, erupted into the blinding glare of sunset against the water.
I rushed to get out of the car and up the wide trail before Melissa could see the perfect oasis.
“I think this will do,” I shouted up to her.
She rounded the corner and gawked at the scene, her mouth falling open. I smiled and admired the beach and her reaction. It would be where we would wake up on Melissa’s twentieth birthday.
We strung a length of our rope between two trees and pitched the tent next to the line where we hung our clothes and tent fly to dry. The back of the car opened and we threw our lawn chairs in the sand and read. I was into the meaty parts of David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, and Melissa remarked constantly about Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley.
The sun fell toward Superior directly ahead of us, diving into the symmetrical center of the shining sea. The beach was warm and we were content, unable to think of anything that might eclipse this spot or moment. We grinned and the radio found a classic rock station out of Michigan that treated us to an endless stream of Pink Floyd and Zeppelin, Tom Petty, playing three songs apiece into the night.
When the sun was nearly down — impossibly far away now in the stretch of the lake — a wind blew in the shade creeping up the beach. We got up and explored the fun of the deep sand, exploring the deceptive distance as we walked toward the water. Our site seemed to shrink away, and we toed the clear water at the shore. The sun dipped into the water and the sky faded three shades. On a bluff at the other end of the beach, a family of three plus a dog had set a tent and clothes line as well. The smoke from their fire trailed white across the sky onto the lake.
There are times when a young camper must wonder if every place on earth such as this has been paved over or co-opted into some kind of business venture. Our trip had begun in such a way that we were beginning to think the same, but were rewarded on this third night where we lit a driftwood fire and read, slapping away the onset of mosquitoes.
The radio we were enjoying announced a meteor shower in the coming hours, and the clear sky winked at us again in conspiracy. But it was after nine and as our rhythm of sleep crept forward, the mosquitoes chased us, we wound up sleeping through what was touted as a remarkable display.