Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: A Found Tent

Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

In the spacious front hall closet I was rearranging toppled baseball caps, a pair of  hiking boots, three IKEA folding chairs, two camp chairs, a small storage unit for more hats/gloves/scarves and a box of Architectural Legos so a new vacuum would fit behind crammed coats when it jumped out at me: a Three Person Wedge Dome Tent snug in its plastic casing.

“Huh,” I said to no one, since I was alone. “How come this is still here?”

Never mind that the corners are shadowy even with a hall light on. It seemed nonsensical that a full-sized tent could be hiding out in there. You see, we don’t camp. The “camp chairs” are what we take to an outdoor concert, or for a restful afternoon by a lake–not for hanging out in the woods for several days. Then I recalled dishes on the shelf above, the pine green enamel service for two plus stainless pot that are good for…camping. We do have basement storage. Yet here this stuff sat.

“We don’t ever camp, likely will not camp again, so what the heck?”

I pulled it out. It almost pained me, looking at it. The tent was beautiful with its lightweight royal blue water repellent fabric and polyethylene floor, the mesh door to bar insects yet allow ventilation. It’d look great with camp chairs and green enamel ware out there in the misty cool mornings under a canopy of Oregon evergreens and big leaf maples and so on and on, with eagles soaring above in hunt mode, owls hooting in velvety depths of night, and a campfire charging up the storyteller in us, even a few songs rolling out as we sipped soup from mugs…But not to be, I mused wryly.

I used to camp a great deal, with enthusiasm. I camped out as a child when at various summer camp programs, of course. And with my parents during  my teens (though not too often) with a simple pop-up camper they towed behind their Chrysler and then the Plymouth. We even camped in Canada which was more interesting to me then the camping with parents.

My first husband, Ned, and I went “primitive”; areas we camped around northern Michigan had no electricity or flush toilets with few other tenters around. When we had a family, we took our babies along, I nursed on the go. We backpacked along overgrown trails, branches reaching down as we made our way. We scavenged kindling, chopped and split “downed and dead” logs and cooked simplest fare over an open fire. I had married a man who was at perhaps most at home in the woods and the solitude found there. I wasn’t so far behind with willingness and appreciation. At first there were more skills to learn but it was fulfilling to work alongside him. It was peaceable out there and we and our kids felt good.

My current husband, Marc (who camped as a kid on Lake Michigan during summers with grandparents), and I camped at times with our combined five kids, borrowing my parents’ camper until they sold it. We tended to do this for other purposes, i.e. we were visiting a certain person “up north”, attending a folk or bluegrass music or similar event or were on our own Canadian sojourn. It was more economical and fun to camp rather than throw away money on hotel rooms. Not all the children were thrilled–hotels were luxurious playgrounds, unlike home–but most adapted. Naomi and Joshua, my children with Ned, were at ease, happy, helpful. Alexandra, our youngest, was excited to try anything new and adventurous. My stepdaughters were more skeptical. But Cait easily embraced the beauty of nature, loved finding wild berries, cooking with us. Aimee loathed it. She insisted she was genetically programmed to be a city person and to drag her out into any wilderness–despite flush toilets, showers, electricity: near civilization–was a true injustice and perhaps neglect of our responsible parental duties. (This never changed–she adores the concrete jungle and generally avoids being in dirt or in spitting distance of bugs unless required.)

Over time camping was less and less a family activity choice. A few grandchildren still went, however, with my parents–even when Mom and Dad were in their seventies. They were good at the more comfortable style of outdoors living. My dad had talents one would never suspect when he was in his tuxedo, conducting a symphony. He’d set up camp with simplicity and speed. My mother was a farm girl-turned-teacher and organized, efficient, if not thrilled with constant dirt in her makeshift home, under her nails–hadn’t she been done with all that? But they both respected, even seemingly revered what nature offered and taught the children more valuable lessons with each trip. Among which was cooperation with others–a love of familial fellowship. Those who enjoyed those trips still recall them fondly.

The last time spent hunkering down in a tent was autumn of 2010. Marc and I bought the tent when my son, Joshua, and his family (with two dogs) invited us to join them. I was thrilled he invited us. We didn’t ¬†have what we needed but he did. Joshua is a veteran camper and hiker, a woodsman-type like his father. He, his two children and their mother know how to manage the basic and arcane things one learns when spending much time in wilderness or close to it. By the time they were in school Avery and Asher could identify many animal signs via scat and tracks, bird calls and even wild plants. They could explain differences between poisonous and nontoxic ones for use as, say, poultices for injuries and bites as well as for teas and food. I looked this info to verify it and was stunned. And Joshua can start a crackling fire with little and no modern helps, spot a deer in the distance before anyone else, root out stones from water or earth and name the types found. He has made a peaceable connection with all bugs and even spiders, despite a few having bitten and infected him badly with venomous wounds made.

My son and I experience nature at a perhaps primitive core which also encompasses our highest sense of all things–but he knows more about the outdoor life by now. Hence, it would be good to tag along with him into Oregon’s forests in the Columbia Gorge.

If only I could¬† tell you it was an entirely satisfying time but our one night camping experience was rough at moments. For one, my husband snores and has sleep apnea and without his CPAP machine, even with pillows propping him up a bit…well, it was an even less restful sleep for me; he seems more adapted to his apnea. We inhabited two separate sleeping bags with thin foam cushioning beneath. Nonetheless I felt may stones, lumps of dirt and stray twigs every time I was awakened by the drone from my husband. And I sweated too much so threw off top half of the sleeping bag, then felt the chill of skin drying inch by inch.

Sightless in the seas of blackness, I listened to the wilderness’ darkened voice in between¬† the snores and coughs. Its enveloping presence was alternately soothing and disconcerting. Thoughts arose about cougars, my most feared (such hunting prowess with stealth and fierceness) wild thing in these parts. And bears which I knew tended to be avoidant of people if food was securely put away (it was).¬† I had long trusted deep forest when I’d camped before and that night it was like a familiar but also a stranger one. I had lived at the edges of a few woods, miles out in country, and rustlings and sighings and snappings and occasional unknown soundings of something, somewhere…yes, it was so recognizable. I was duly mesmerized. The trees were so alive–of course they were!–but they were so utterly alive even if sleeping–did they ever sleep?…What else was awake besides me? My blood coursed with adrenaline at odd moments despite sensible self-talk.¬† Heart rat-a-tat-tatted or harrumphed. Mostly I wanted to stop itching and sweating, feeling the uneven ground and hearing Marc emit snores. Wait, what was that landing on my forehead?¬† And why didn’t I just buy a second small tent? Pitch it on the other side of the site? Why didn’t he just find a happy pause in racket and lsnooze on? Likely scared off near anything out there.

But even the dogs were sleeping.

Breathe in the good magic, Cynthia, be at your ease.

It started to rain, fat drops smacking and sliding off  tent walls. A relief to hear its music. I closed my eyes and fell asleep a couple hours out of exhaustion. Dawn arrived with a whisper and sweetness that is unlike city mornings, not with a slap but a caress. And the fragrance of fire burning and oatmeal cooking and coffee simmering. I crawled out of my sleeping bag, sneaked outside and stretched sore muscles and bones, grateful for the new day. Mist hovered in the distance like a benign spirit gathering. I could hear the kids at the river, their voices soft. Joshua was tending to the fire, sitting on a log. He looked up and smiled his crooked smile. The dogs noted me, licked his hand and took off.

“It was a sort of rocky night, but glad to be here.” I wanted to be a great camper so I did not want complain to Joshua.

He chuckled quietly. “Good. You just have to get used to it again.” He gestured to the flickering fire. “I piled some wood in the tent. Found other kindling not too damp.”

I nodded, looked out into the wetness and light creeping into inside the cooled air, a persistent brightening of a dullish day. The forest was breathing its fresh breath and I took it in deeply. Damp earth radiated its musky goodness. How I loved woodlands after rainfall, how trees shook off their shower and other plants bathed and glistened. My grandchildren scampered about with muddy boots and clothes, hands full of stones and berries. I thought back to those other days when my children were their ages and life was woven of inexplicable beauty and sorrow, not unlike how it was, still. But now it was safer, freer, deeper for me in countless ways. And my son was cooking breakfast, hugging his two, quietly talking with me as I poured coffee into our mugs. I watched him and was startled, as I still always am, to glimpse his father.

Before long Marc followed his nose to join us. I held my tongue. He seemed more achy and groggy than I. He and Joshua talked wood, stones, fire building. Content to listen, I heard Avery and Asher chattering as if freed of a spell of enforced stillness. The dogs, a mess of mud and plant matter, caroused with them.

Sitting around a small sputtering morning fire, sipping hot percolated brew, hearing birds’ wings slice through a sprinkling of rain and our muted talk, I was nearly as pleased as when camping years ago. Just more sleepy and quite a bit older. But I felt perhaps even more alive than decades ago. Oh, I was flush with boundless energy and vivid talk and brave dreams then. But now…now I was more rounded at my sharp edges, more permeable, flexible. Able to welcome insights other than my own fragments. I was humbled. Enriched. In fact, I had stayed alive when more than once I thought I might not make it so long. And that was something.

Only the enormous, aged trees about us might grasp this and they seemed to lean toward me, branches graceful and strong, their lives enduring an opening of every new day and its progression in this communal place, then into nights. Events of import that seeped into them, slipped about them. I nodded at the forest and heavy sky that promised more rain.  A gratitude that filled my throat with tears a second. But, too, I wondered if I could do it again or if aging had begun to conspire against me. If I had what it took to be fearless and sturdy enough of body and soul to make a camp out there. If we would take another chance, just go out on our own s before.

We tore down our lively camp, hiked as light rain came and went. By the time we separated and said farewell, sunbeams were vanquishing soft fogginess and how it shone on us. My heart swelled with wonders even as my body griped a little.

 

I put the tent back in the closet, tuck it into its corner. Can we even think about camping again at 66 and 68? Maybe, maybe not. But I want to see it there when items need reordering or when I just want to pull it out and look it over. Or when we finally move from here. I want to know it has been done and done well enough. How it has nourished us all, made us let go and attend to the immediacy of life, venture just a little more into the wilder variations of what matters: love becoming even more visible within the realm of natural manifestations.

Still, I find myself dreaming of staking my claim to a spot amid the sentinel trees. And a sturdy blue tent–one for Marc, one for me.

Pastime (a Freshly Pressed Post)

I know, this is my fiction posting day but I’m starting out with real life stuff. The made up story comes after. The situation is this: maybe it’s the weather changing, how glossy sunshine has begun to fade and darkness, struck with a light chill, falls earlier. Or perhaps it’s my age that more adamantly rouses the chameleon nature of mysterious nighttime. It might be a few squiggles and knots in my life that can poke holes in my resolve to wake the heck up and get productive right now. Or all this and more puzzling unknowns.

But this afternoon I am floating on last gasps of a very small sleep.It’s a hazard of living a life. The fine tuning required to create even a small yet decent story I’d want to share with you is not operant yet so I hold back. I ruminated and started and stopped.

Then I decided to do something I’ve never done before: re-post a story from 3 years ago, August 2013. Well, I’ve been thinking of pictures, ¬†still or moving, and photographers, having corresponded with two fine ones recently. And I recalled my short story that was “Freshly Pressed” in 2013 entitled “Pastime”, about a photographer meeting up with blithe campers. What a happy moment it was– to be Freshly Pressed, and how surprised I was to see many readers stop by! I hadn’t the higher numbers of followers back then.

Today I re-read “Pastime” and thought: this is my post for today. Make that “reblog.” It’s a summery tale–do I admit to missing the season of heat and kaleidoscopic colors already?–and a little fun as well as very short for me (I often write 2000-4000 word stories, even on WordPress). All good for now.

So forgive my temporary laziness; I’ll be back soon with current, maybe even snappy, writing. First I need to get a genuine full cycle snooze in. Then I have to face a root canal tomorrow. I sure hope this story will suffice. I had fun writing it for your enjoyment back then and, it turns out, now as well.

Just click on the link below to see the rest; this one reads fast. Have yourselves a good-to-better Monday –I’ll work on mine.

Tales for Life

1950s-vintage-color-photo-man-with-bellows-camera-and-flash-outdoors-with-woman-in-apron

You would not believe the shock I felt when I passed by the gallery that winter during my lunch hour. I recognized his name right off. I pushed the door open and took it all in, wondering if it was true.

When we first met Sully was camping next to us, his tent sagging in the middle, his kerosene lamp throwing off a weak light. He was rooting around for something, I couldn’t tell what since he was half-in and half-out of his tent. Maybe that’s why it was about to cave in.

I walked over, licking my fingers clean after enjoying BBQ chicken legs I’d made for me and my two boys. He stuck his head out and looked at me, then the tent collapsed. I stood with hands on hips and watched it fall in on him, nothing more to do but see if he could put it back up right. I found it funny…

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Pastime

1950s-vintage-color-photo-man-with-bellows-camera-and-flash-outdoors-with-woman-in-apron

You would not believe the shock I felt when I passed by the gallery that winter during my lunch hour. I recognized his name right off. I pushed the door open and took it all in, wondering if it was true.

When we first met¬†Sully was camping next to us, his tent sagging in the middle, his kerosene lamp throwing off a weak light. He was rooting around for something, I couldn’t tell what since he was half-in and half-out of his tent. Maybe that’s why¬†it was about to cave in.

I walked over, licking my fingers clean after enjoying BBQ chicken legs I’d made for me and¬†my two boys. He¬†stuck his head out and looked¬†at me, then the tent collapsed. I stood¬†with hands on hips and watched it fall in on him, nothing more to do but see if he could put¬†it back up right. I found it funny, I admit. He fixed it okay and¬†held out his right¬†hand while his left grasped a camera. The suit coat he had on was as out-of-place as¬†a peacock¬†feathered hat would be for me. There were dirt, bugs and trees out here, not an office complex.

“Sullivan Chambers, Sully for short,” he said with a cheerful smile and nod of his well-shaped head. “I guess you¬†see I’m new at this. Just pulled in a few hours ago. You?”

I wiped my hands on my apron. I hadn’t changed since leaving the city¬†that morning and was a mess. I must have looked strange to him, too. “No, we’re used to it. This is how Tim and Jude and I spend our summers when we can get away.¬†Oh, right, name’s¬†Evie Windham.” I glanced back at the boys who were eyeing this stranger who was chatting me up. “Want to join in a cup of coffee? And a¬†chicken leg?”

Sully did, so we sat on the camp stools while Tim and Jude introduced themselves. After fifteen minutes¬†of chitchat, they were satisfied the man wasn’t a creeper or crook so took off for the river. I waved them off. I had lots of witnesses around.¬†The¬†boys¬†were meeting¬†other teen-aged kids for a big bonfire. I could see the riverbank¬†from where we sat and knew they’d be watching us off and on, too.

Sully and I gabbed easily. A shock. I wasn’t fond of suits and slicked back hair. My ex had a closet full of suits and he was bad business. But this guy was a photographer, said it had become more than a hobby, but not quite a full-time profession. He was here to photograph¬†nature all week-end. He’d left from¬†work and driven straight out, a long drive.

“A happy pastime,” I smiled. “We need those, I guess. I like making crafts.”

“We¬†need our hobbies for relaxation but I¬†have a passion for photography. It’s¬†magic, how you can capture or shape a split second of¬†something¬†and —voila–it’s immortal.”

“Never thought of it that way. I always felt pictures were sort of fake. Camera finding the best thing or making them a lot better, then freezing them in time so that nothing more happens. Kinda weird if you think about it.”

Sully frowned a little, swished¬†coffee around once in his mouth before swallowing it. “I¬†see what you mean. But there’s something nice about that, too,¬†sometimes, right? Makes things¬†more important than we usually think they are.”

We had a deep thinker here, for whatever that was worth. He looked good, but then, I was at the point where any clean and courteous man was a treat. Not that I was seriously looking. I was past that point after surviving a divorce. Not many girls could say that in 1958 but I liked being on my own, in a way.

“Maybe so. Yes, sometimes. Like a memory you want to keep perfect. Special.”

“Right. And it’s art.” He looked around at the campground. “So, what are you three doing out here?”

It was more than a small question. It was¬†mini-investigation, like why was I out here without the boys’ father unless he was fishing and oddly okay with me being unaccompanied in the wilds? Except this was a family campground, tents and trailers and lots of nice Airstreams. Electricity. Running water. Who was this guy?

“Easy answer. We spend most of our time here in summer. It’s a nice vacation from my mother’s place. The boys have a dad; he lives in L.A. He prefers palm trees and glamour and¬†such. I¬†manage.”

Sully¬†laughed big and rumbly. “I see, well, you’re one brave lady, Evie. Two teen-aged boys and setting up house in the forest. This is quite a good tent, big. Me, I work at the water works office in Portland. No wife so I travel on my time off. You from there?”

“Have been,¬†will be¬†when summer is over again. Welcome to the camping life.” I felt fidgety and got up, took a stick to the small fire I’d started before he came over, strained to see the boys. They were getting a little rowdy already. There was a frostiness to the air since the sun started hovering closer to the horizon. I¬†let the damp, piney sweetness fill my nose.

Sully settled his camera on its metal legs,  tripod he said, and fiddled with the lens.

“Mind me snapping a few?”

I shrugged, smoothed my unruly waves¬†and half-turned to set more kindling. I placed bigger pieces of wood around the heart of the fire. It took off and our faces glowed a healthy amber.¬†Sully snapped away before I could stop him. It was embarrassing, me in my rumpled old house dress–the¬†one pair of¬†pants I’d packed¬†were no better. After that, we¬†sat and chatted about camping and the seasons,¬†how his summer had slipped by with a few weddings he was hired to do, a few portraits¬†and nature¬†trips like this one.¬†For me it was all about my mother, how she had a house we shared the last couple years but she was fussy and drank cocktails, one¬†too many, every day. The boys and I were between places until I got a better¬†job than selling housewares at¬†a department store. I knew how to type. He nodded either understanding or approval.

We could hear the kids whooping it up, people splashing in the river.  The fires all around us felt so friendly and Sully said as much. He snapped many more pictures but I was tired and yawned a big one despite wanting to be polite. I needed a long shower and my book. Sully stood and stretched, wiped the dust from his shoes.

He smiled as though we had become friends. “I’d better get back to my tent. Got an early day tomorrow, out to the mountain and then around the lakes.” He picked up his camera equipment. “I’m real glad we got to meet and talk. Maybe you could stop by¬†my office on Fifth and Renton sometime. Coffee is good in town, too.”

In the morning he was gone by the time I got up at¬†six. That was it, I thought. Strangers came and went out there. And¬†I knew little about him. Later I thought about Sully sometimes, but more like trying to figure out¬†a puzzle. I didn’t know what to make of the whole night and wondered if he had just made his life up.

So of course I wasn’t ready for what I saw that day at the gallery. The windows were full of his name and his pictures, the mountains, woods and lakes, people playing and working and camping. Then I stopped.

It was me, that’s right, me, standing before the crackling fire, my back to him so I was¬†a graceful¬†outline, then my face smiling at him in dusk, then my narrow hands¬†warmed by a¬†flickering fire. I saw¬†my¬†shoes cast off, dirty¬†and worn at the¬†heels.¬†But the last one was this: me sitting forward, intense, staring off at the¬†river, still as a creature watching and watched,¬†eyes lit by something unknown. I didn’t realize I had such a¬†lonely, serious¬†look. Yet¬†gentleness was¬†there, too.¬†I’d never guess I could be even a little¬†beautiful, resting in the peaceful dusk and twilight. I left the gallery. I’m not looking for him. What he can see scares me, a good scared, but still.¬†It was¬†so much more real than I imagined.

(Photograph courtesy of Patricia Ann McNair’s blog/photo writing prompts.)