The Camp

August 1, 2022

Sleeping in the woods isn’t for everyone. Most folks don’t care for lugging camping gear, setting up a tent, lighting a campfire, sleeping on hard ground, freeze-dried food, insects, forest noises, late-night and early morning chill. Not to mention using campground restrooms, or the forest as restroom.

Still, any of us may at some time be moved to walk in the woods, breathe the sweet air among tall trees, and bed down listening to the wildlife. The forest makes no promises. It may, or may not, transport us from our present moment, convey mystery, purity, the impulse to good. It may lighten our burdens and carry us to grace.

Table Rock State Park is near us, astride the craggy south profile of Pinnacle Peak, the state’s second-highest, at 3,428 feet. I thought our grandsons, ages eight and five, would enjoy camping out. For memory’s sake, if nothing else. They liked the idea. Mom came along to ride herd.

If you were a Boy Scout or Girl Scout you’ve done it. Camping with friends may leave fond memories or nightmares. The adult Scout troop leaders soldier on, some enjoying, others dreading those nights in the woods, recalling their own experiences. Once the tent is up, the sleeping bags rolled out, the evening meal finished, the camper sits, maybe with others next to a warming fire, maybe shivering alone or with a buddy in his or her tent in the dim glow of a flashlight. The forest night closes in.

The local residents, the tree frogs, Junebugs, katydids, hoot owls, other things, start their evening concert. It can be raucous, deafening. The wind moans in the treetops. Looking up, the camper sees the dark silhouettes of tree limbs swaying against the dying light. Then, unless there’s moonlight, only blackness. Others may be lying asleep in their tents nearby, but the darkness of midforest can be a lonely darkness. Then too, it may rain.

As a high-school kid I went to the big Philmont Scout Ranch near Raton, in northern New Mexico. Ten of us hiked steep mountainsides and bright aspen forest for twelve days, collapsing each afternoon at a scheduled campground, scooping water from mountain streams and adding, when we remembered, the water-purification tabs we carried to counter the water’s high metallic content. Most of us got sick anyway. We were glad when it ended.

I camped out for a week along the Finger Lakes in northern New York, years later in Tennessee and around Virginia, with my son’s Scout troop in Goshen near the state’s western boundary, solo near Edinburg in the Massanuttens. Sandy and I camped in springtime at a pretty spot called Caroline Furnace in Fort Valley, between Luray and Front Royal. I slept in a tent two or three times in deep West Virginia woods. On our long road trips we camped in West Virginia, Illinois, Oklahoma, Arizona, Texas, Missouri, and South Dakota. I’ve slept in tents in bone-chilling cold and pouring rain.

We set up camp, the four of us, on the best site we could find at Table Rock. We were at a high point well away from others. We had two tents, one for the guys and Marie, a smaller one for me. We walked downhill to a spur of the Palmetto Trail, which crisscrosses the state. The boys led us on a hike until they got tired and hot and turned around. I lit the camper stove to scorch my freeze-dried dinner, the kids wanted sandwiches. Afterward we stopped at the lake, a few visitors still swam and waded. Beyond the swim area the lake shimmered in the fading sunlight.

Back at camp we stuck marshmallows on sticks and cooked them for s’mores, the traditional fun camping treat. I lit the lantern, we talked for a while. The boys know school starts in three weeks. We turned in with the darkness.

The night air hung densely, the woods was still. At dawn I heated water for coffee. Campers stirred at nearby sites. We ate breakfast, packed, then stopped again at the lake and walked a bit. I hiked alone up a trail among the tall oaks and sycamores along Carrick Creek, which rushes down Table Rock mountain to the lake. No one else appeared. The forest remained, true to its nature, a chapel, a place of peace.

At home as I unpacked I thought of a night seven or eight years ago, high in Virginia forest, far from the nearest town. It was May but the night air felt like December. It can be like that in mountains. We huddled together in our sleeping bags, but I couldn’t sleep. I stepped out of the tent, shivering, stamping my feet, my breath forming vapor in the cold. Brilliant starlight reflected on treetops. I lit a fire and rubbed my hands together. Soon dawn broke, the sun rose high and golden.

We headed back to our lives in the suburbs, to the congestion, the commuting, the strip malls, the world we had lived in for 28 years. But I remembered that wilderness place and the sublime purity of the cold that mellowed and faded as the new day emerged. It brought to mind a day months earlier when I met a pair of hikers burrowed in their sleeping bags in a foot of snow along the Appalachian Trail. They crawled out of their tent and shook my hand, smiling.

Nature, God’s first creation, untouched by the rough handling of humanity, never abandons us. It may reveal both elegant and fearsome truths of our world. Forbearance, bearing up through bitter, bracing gusts of mountain winters and pungent warmth of hothouse Southern summers may yet teach the meaning of hope and faith. We may depart sustained and strengthened for a while, sometimes a long while. Then we return.

Dirty Dancing

July 25, 2022

I got a long-distance glimpse of western North Carolina’s Lake Lure last year when my daughter Marie and I took the grandsons to nearby Chimney Rock. Out on the Rock’s observation deck, at about 2,300 feet of elevation, I gripped the railing as I squinted. The lake gleamed in the distance.

It’s a pretty spot, semi-famous as one of the filming locations for the 1987 hit movie “Dirty Dancing,” in which Baby (Jennifer Grey) leaps into the outstretched arms of Johnny (Patrick Swayze) while he’s standing in the lake. They still talk about it up there.

In September the Lake Lure folks put on a Dirty Dancing Festival. For about 40 bucks you can wear period clothes like tight jeans and Keds, listen to the movie soundtrack music and, for girls, leap into your own Patrick Swayze’s overhead grasp while he stands in the water. Guys, good luck with that. You’ll have the time of your life.

Sandy likes the movie and Thursday was her birthday, so we went to the lake, about a 90-minute drive up U.S. 25 to I-26 then country roads through Bat Cave to Chimney Rock, at a place called Hickory Nut Gorge. The lake is just east of the Rock.   

We decided in advance we wouldn’t try the lake leap.

The lake is man-made, created by a physician named Lucius Morse, who in 1916 with his brother Asahel bought 8,000 acres around Chimney Rock Mountain and established the Chimney Rock resort. He pushed for construction of a dam on the Broad River to generate power for the resort. The dam flooded the low stretch the lake now occupies, submerging the town of Buffalo. The lake was born in 1927. Morse’s wife Elizabeth thought up the name “Lake Lure.”

That same year Morse built the sixty-room Lake Lure Inn and Spa in a so-called Mediterranean style. The Inn overlooks the lake, along with a nearby Architectural Commerce Building, the Haynes Hill Mansion, and the Lake Lure schoolhouse, which later burned down. During World War II Army officers came to the Inn for R&R, enlisted troops stayed at the architectural building. The owners call the Inn “the Little Waldorf of the South.”

After “Dirty Dancing” became a hit the locals took advantage. The rural spot where Johnny hoisted Baby was turned into a sandy tourist beach, admission $10. You can sunbathe and swim, kids can ride a water slide. Then too, in recent decades stories circulated that a young bride was murdered at the Inn and returns to haunt the place. A “paranormal investigative” outfit named the Heritage Hunters Society visited and took blurry photos, which tour guides say may show spirits wandering the hallways at night. You can find them on the internet!

This cute spot, a “sister city” of Italy’s Lake Como, nestles among rugged, sheer rock-faced western North Carolina mountains at the southern end of the Blue Ridge. Asheville is around 25 miles north, itself built into mountains. Here in northwestern South Carolina the TV weather people have a separate forecast for “mountains.” 

We had lunch at a place across the highway from the beach and got a table under an eave that shielded us from the sticky heat smothering the country. We enjoyed the fresh air and the view. Below was the western channel of the lake, which leads into a central bay. Another long channel extends north. The main road from Chimney Rock, Memorial Highway, bounds the lake on the south but only past the beach.

Flower Bridge

Birthdays are always fun, but they become more special the more you pile up. My last dozen or so flashed by in a blur. This one was big for Sandy, since three years ago she celebrated it—“observed” would be better—in a hospital ICU in Pennsylvania. It was a Sunday; first thing that morning she had an MRI. This year it would be Lake Lure.

We didn’t see much of the lake. As you approach the beach you pass acres of pontoon boats tied up, you can take a boat tour. Memorial Highway turns southeast away from the water, which I guessed is accessible from local streets. The lake was a one-day junket for us, in line with our tourist chops. I looked into staying at the Inn, but we shy away from resort vacations, even resort overnights. For us it’s generally see the place, take a photo, head home.

Not far from the lake we stumbled on the Flower Bridge. Across and on both sides of a stone bridge over the Broad River, which feeds the lake, local folks have donated their time and skills to planting and cultivating a vast garden that explodes with lush color. The brick path across the bridge winds past exotic but lighthearted artwork and statuary that conveys the gentility of mind and heart of a few dozen folks, young and not so young, who give their labor to the place.

We breathed the sweet air of the garden. In the blazing sunlight and stifling humidity the volunteers watered, hoed, pruned, and seeded, as we strolled in awe, enjoying the abundance of brilliant colors of every flowering plant native to Hickory Nut Gorge and surrounding forests. A few others passed us on our walk over the bridge and our return, nodding and smiling.

After not quite an hour we left the garden, looking to escape the heat. But it touched us as an achievement of nobility and beauty, humble yet passionate. It became Sandy’s birthday gift. The lake then looked to be what it is: a pretty manufactured and marketed tourist attraction.

We looked up and around again at the pine-covered rocky peaks towering above the Gorge. From the road we could see the flag that waves atop Chimney Rock. We turned to watch the sharp turns back through the mountains. Our jaunt across the Flower Bridge lifted our spirits and carried us past the souvenir shops, cafes, and ice-cream stands. We said so long to the Dirty Dancing memorial, without getting wet.

The Falls

July 18, 2022

Laurel Falls, well-hidden in South Carolina wilderness, isn’t much of a waterfall. It dumps Laurel Creek from a crest of rock about 80 feet high onto a long bed of more rocks to plunge into giant Lake Jocassee in the northwestern corner of the state. I’ve passed it three times, the third just last week.

From the east, the Falls is an eight-mile hike from a place called Laurel Valley, which is just a name for a wide, dense patch of forest. You find it about two miles north of a settlement called Rocky Bottom on U.S. 178 and about eight miles south of Rosman, N.C. From the west, the Falls is accessible by boat from the lake.

Laurel Falls

The Falls isn’t a tourist attraction. Really, it’s only a map reference point for the few hikers who pass through the massive Jocassee Gorges Management area, which sprawls across the North-South Carolina border region north of the lake. It’s one of probably a dozen waterfalls and water-roiling rock formations along the Horsepasture, Thompson, and Toxaway Rivers. Other wild rivers, smaller ones like Frozen Creek, Bearcamp Creek, and Coley Creek indent the area. Water thunders across rocks, it seems, everywhere in the forest. The big draw is Whitewater Falls, just across the line in North Carolina, the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi.

The first time I made it to the Falls, last summer, I tacked on a half-mile to the lake boat landing. I looked down at the clear, deep water. A small motorboat drifted offshore, the owner threw sticks, his dog leaped into the water to fetch them. Then in November my Virginia buddy Alex and I passed along the trail as we slogged the thirty miles from Bad Creek, near Whitewater, back to Laurel Valley. We stopped, took pictures, and plodded on as darkness closed in.

Last week, starting at Laurel Valley, I thought I’d turn back at the four-mile point. That meant a scramble up two steep mountain miles then a couple of fairly level miles to where the trail meets the rushing white-water creek, then the return for eight total, good enough for the day. But at four miles I thought I could go farther, and the remaining four to the Falls is mostly level single-track trail and fire road. I went on.

From the four-mile point the trail parallels and crisscrosses the creek over five or six narrow footbridges. Within another mile I passed Virginia Hawkins Falls, a stubby bunch of rocks that gets in the way of the water, which cascades angrily. I paused. Five miles out meant 10 miles total, six out meant 12, and so on, since I would have to backtrack my distance outbound. But I still felt strong, and 16 total seemed like a good day.

Thompson River

I pushed on around the curls in the trail, running the level stretches, hiking the climbs. Weeks sometimes passed with no foot traffic along the creek. The thickened underbrush, the vines and thorns, reached out at me, grabbing and scratching. Early morning had been cool, but I could feel the sun warming my back. Mosquitoes whined around my head. I brushed my trek poles against the growth and moved forward. In an hour I was at the Falls.

The Foothills Trail runs along a precipice 100 feet above the creek, the Falls embankment is inaccessible except by a steep, dangerous descent. From a narrow overlook you can hear the explosion of water. The roar rose from below, a lonely, hollow sound. Tracking west, the trail quickly disappears into the thicket. To the east is a sign pointing to a campground, a small clearing with scattered evidence of old campfires.

I dropped my hydration pack, leaned against a tree, and caught my breath. In November the foliage had thinned a bit, allowing a better view of the rushing water. Now, in mid-summer, after a week’s rain the forest was thick and lush, the air heavy and damp. I ate some beef jerky and sipped water. I was looking at eight hard miles back to Laurel Valley. The contents of the hydration pack had to last eight miles. Running out: bad news.

Lake Jocassee, near Laurel Falls

The roar of the water over the rocks didn’t inspire thoughts of nature’s beauty or majesty. I felt in my solitude the nearness of wilderness, the loneliness of the place. Laurel Falls shows nothing like the postcard or calendar-photo view of Niagara Falls, or even nearby Whitewater. I recalled for a moment the disorder and chaos of the world outside Laurel Valley. But in the deep woods there was only nature’s way, the water relentlessly finding its path, the creek pitching wildly forward across huge fallen trees and massive boulders. The Falls doesn’t know whether anyone is admiring it and snapping photos. Nature doesn’t care.

The sound of the water echoed against the trees. Suddenly it prompted a thought of that other eternal roar of nature, surf crashing against a beach, in and out, back and forth, loud and mournful, waves breaking on hard sand, the water hissing as it retreats. Somehow I conjured up Matthew Arnold’s 1867 poem, Dover Beach. His narrator, standing along the cliffs above the sea, speaks to his companion, a wife or lover, warning her of the hint of mortality in the sound, the “melancholy, long withdrawing roar, retreating to the breath of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear and naked shingles of the world.”

Arnold’s soft pitch and cadence and his sad imagery remain with me. In the 1860s poor and lower-class British people suffered unspeakable abuses of rampant industrialization and government indifference to poverty, disease, nightmarish working conditions. Arnold calls out, “Oh love, let us be true to one another!” in the face of an indifferent, hostile world, “where ignorant armies class by night.”

I stood on the cliff and again looked down. The water crashed below, as it has through the distant mist of history and the years, decades, centuries of human experience, like the pounding surf of Arnold’s verse. Yet from his mid-nineteenth century world he offers a spark of comfort: love and faith as solace for the suffering of his day and now, perhaps, for the bitterness and alienation of our time.

I shook my head at the strange association, my brief moment at Laurel Falls, deep in mountain forest, with a sublime work of verse of a century and a half ago. It would not leave my mind. I shouldered my pack, turned, and moved up the trail.

The Rainbow

July 11, 2022

Mid-summer dawn breaks in northwestern South Carolina with a damp, delicate coolness. By midafternoon we’re close to or above 90F, a hot breeze wafts the heat. A few evenings ago it rained hard, raising steam on the asphalt. Thunder cracked, lightening flashed. Afterward a rainbow stretched across the sky. A rainbow—mythical beacon of hope, or odd atmospheric illusion. Depends on your point of view.

The parching heat is a small trial alongside the nightmares that afflict so many others. Here on our quiet street, we get off easy. We hardly ever think about someone showing up with an AR-15. That could change at any moment.

Our next idea for getting away is a visit to son Michael and daughter-in-law Caroline, near Philadelphia. We went three years ago, in July 2019, a weekend that turned into ten days when Sandy landed in Bryn Mawr Hospital with microstrokes. She felt numb, Caroline rushed her to the ER, then to the ICU. She’s still on the meds they gave her.

Portrait of Caroline Wyeth by Henriette Wyeth

We went up again for Thanksgiving that year and got a sweet taste of southeastern Pennsylvania at the Brandywine battlefield, where in September 1777 the Brits whipped the Yanks and seized Philly for a while. We couldn’t miss the Wyeth Gallery at Chadd’s Ford, which shows portraits and landscapes of Andrew Wyeth, America’s greatest realist with watercolor and tempera, and the work of his father, N.C. Wyeth and sisters Henriette and Caroline, all luminous in their gifts.

It will be another road trip. The most direct route is I-85 to Petersburg, Va., then I-95, the north-south commercial grind. We’ll take our usual Southern escape route, I-26 to Johnson City, Tenn., then I-81 to Harrisburg. Then the Penn. Turnpike the rest of the way.

Like everyone else, we’re struggling to keep our lives carved out from the dreck of public life: automatic weapons for sale, no questions asked, to mentally ill teenagers; inflation wrecking budgets as people spend down two years of covid subsidies. The Supreme Court ruling killing off Roe v. Wade took over all the headlines and probably the talk shows, which I don’t watch. The Court then dumped EPA authority on “major policy questions” about climate change on Congress, promising more legal snarl, more polluted air.

One refuge from all that, in the cranky, obscure way I look at things, is Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean Well-Lighted Place.” It goes like this, more or less: two waiters, at their café late at night, talk about the last customer, an old deaf man. He was a little drunk.

“Last week he tried to commit suicide,” one waiter said.

“What about?”

“Nothing. He has plenty of money.”

The younger waiter went over to the old man.

“Another brandy,” the old man said.

“You’ll be drunk,” the waiter said.

The waiter poured a glass full of brandy. The old man motioned with his finger. “A little more,” he said. The waiter poured the brandy into the glass so that the brandy slopped over.

“Thank you,” the old man said.

The waiters talk about the old man, how he tried suicide with a rope, his niece cut him down.

“He must be eighty years old,” one waiter said. “He stays up because he likes it.”

“He’s lonely, I’m not lonely. I have a wife waiting in bed for me.”

“He had a wife once, too.”

“I wouldn’t want to be that old. An old man is a nasty thing.”

“This old man is clean. He drinks without spilling. Even now, while drunk. Look at him.”

The old man looked over at the waiters. “Another brandy,” he said. The waiter who was in a hurry came over. “Finished,” he said. “No more tonight. Close now.”

The old man stood up, took a leather coin purse from his pocket and paid for the drinks, leaving a half a peseta tip. The waiter watched him go down the street, a very old man, walking unsteadily but with dignity.

The unhurried waiter asks the younger one why he wouldn’t let the old man stay and drink. “I want to go home,” the man said.

“I am one of those who like to stay late at the café,” the older waiter said. “With all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night.”

He goes on. “This is a clean and pleasant café. It is well-lighted.”

“Good night,” says the younger waiter. “Good night,” the other said.

Turning off the electric light he continued the conversation with himself. What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing he knew all too well. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanliness and order.

The waiter descends into a sort of blackness. He understands the café matters, order, cleanliness, courtesy matter. A place to sit late at night and sip a quiet brandy matter, for those who come.

We all need our clean, well-lighted place. It could be a silent chapel that conveys the mystery of God’s grace to strengthen us against the bleakness and pretensions of public life. Then too, the humility of the old waiter, which is his power, can teach and sustain us.  

I thought of the waiter when I finished simple things: I wound new line onto the spinning reels I had given my grandsons, attached them to the rods, and stowed them carefully against the day I’ll take them fishing. A small thing done.

It was another warm morning. I took the compost out to the yard and stacked tools where they belong.  I stopped for a few moments and breathed deeply. It was quiet, no hint of a breeze. I remembered the rainbow that flashed briefly across the sky the day before. I looked around the yard, and shielded my eyes against the sun.

The Fourth

July 4, 2022

The neighbors came out in the evening of last year’s Fourth of July and set off fireworks in the street. We walked the block, introducing ourselves, we still were new and didn’t know anyone. They had all the do-it-yourself stuff, the rockets, sparklers, the Roman candles, and put on a show. We talked with folks who were out with their kids up and down our street and on the next block. The rockets soared and boomed well past midnight. It was good enough.

Last week we were still on the Wyoming trip when June raced to an end and summer settled in. I fought bronchitis, picked up somewhere in the Midwest, maybe while sleeping outdoors, maybe while caught in monsoon-like rain. The Fourth barely registers this year, we’re exhausted, the country is exhausted. Parades and fireworks used to buck us up, not this year. Rep. Liz Cheney, the Republican from Wyoming, speaking last week to young women, said that “for the most part, men are running the world and it is really not going well.”

Like everyone else, we’re looking for calm. We have the photos of forests, mountains, and ranchland we captured as we puttered along interstates. A few capture the richness of the rugged forestland and wide grazing land of Midwestern and Southeastern America, some of it tinged the pale green of grass struggling in dry soil, some of it dark and lush.

Meanwhile many Americans are lost to their addiction to the headlines and believe the whole country is, like them, in a perpetual rage over politics, or should be. It all disappears when you put down the phone and close the laptop. You can shut your eyes to it. You’ll feel better.

We stopped at the Hitching Post in Abilene, Kansas. The tables were filled with people having breakfast and coffee, most of whom looked to be regulars, in dungarees and overalls. They may have noticed us walk in and take a table, but they kept talking about the weather, town business, hunting, farm equipment problems, and so forth. Weather was big since it was raining buckets outside. No one preached about Trump or the Democrats.

The January 6 hearings weighed down the holiday weekend. Once-diehard Republicans reported on the mendacity of the former President and his gang of hangers-on and witness tamperers. I guessed it’s unlikely the Hitching Post diners would talk about that, but you can’t assume.

We fought all that off and looked for good around us. From Abilene we drove relentlessly. We passed Kansas City, staying on I-70, and finished the day at a hotel in Columbia, Mo. In the morning Sandy navigated through St. Louis then across Illinois into Indiana. We made a bad turn that led us into industrial Evansville, but we did see the stately old homes of downtown. We recrossed the broad, brown Ohio again, Sandy looking nervously away.

We dropped the plan of the straight-line shot to Lexington on I-64 and instead turned south toward Henderson, Ky., across the state line into Clarksville, Tenn., and took a local outer highway around downtown Nashville.

It was familiar turf. We set a course east on I-40 and called a campground near Crossville, 75 miles west of Knoxville and reserved the last site available. Past Lebanon the Tennessee forest grows thick and richly green, the craggy hills rise and fall. Just west of Cookeville we crossed the gorgeous, swift-flowing Caney Fork River, which rushes clear from the Cumberland, winding under the interstate four times.  It’s one of those wilderness (maybe near-wilderness) rivers I wish I had explored years ago. Things kept getting in the way.

Finally, the slapstick: we locked ourselves out of the van at a Stop ‘N Go in Smith County, near Gordonsville. My keys lay on the driver’s seat, where I tossed them while I pumped gas. Sandy stepped out, leaving her purse inside. We stared at each other.

The young woman at the register inside smiled and called the county sheriff. Within 20 minutes a young officer showed up with his unlocking tool and snapped the door open. We thanked him, embarrassed, and got back on the road.

We set up camp next to two families from Texas. They offered us beer and burgers, but we wanted some air-conditioning. The Crossville chain restaurant we picked reminded me of the Hitching Post, fewer farmers, more folks in shorts, more kids. The sky suddenly looked like rain, we rushed back to camp. With the gray of dawn we lurched into our morning drill: light the grill, make coffee and oatmeal, break down camp and go. The final leg was a blur. After Knoxville the highway meanders through the breathtaking Smokies. Then Asheville and the sign, the plain blue “Welcome to South Carolina.”

It’s the Fourth. We have photos of ourselves standing next to the Liberty Bell near Independence Hall in Philly with our son Michael and daughter-in-law Caroline some years ago. It actually was in January or February. But the crowd was there, celebrating those solemn places of 1776, the shrines of American liberty, that over the next century inspired others to throw over tyrants, first in France, then decades later, throughout Western Europe.

It’s not the fireworks and the parades that teach us that liberty simply is an aspiration of the heart, all hearts across all cultures, languages, continents. We know somehow, perhaps through the mysterious working of God’s grace, that liberty lifts and defines the human spirit. The sense of what it means remained with us while we crossed prairies, forests, and mountain ranges, then hunkered down in a humble tent next to a lake.

Meanwhile, we, all of us, are learning the dark lesson that liberty is fragile, and can be destroyed by seditionists among us. The memories of those carefree moments at the Liberty Bell cheer us. We’ll skip today’s downtown parade, the neighbors will help us celebrate. It should be a clear night. We’ll crane our necks with new friends and watch the homemade stuff fire off. Good enough, again.