A few years ago, I drove up to northern Arizona to bring back a travel trailer I had received as part of my divorce settlement. As I pulled into the campsite I had visited many times as a teenager and again with my own small children, twilight was rapidly descending as it seems to do in the woods at 7,000 feet. An eerie sensation swept over me, bringing with it a mixture of emotions as I listened to the ghosts of summers past all around me.
The memories came flooding back of a more innocent time in my life. During the ’70s my family spent a week each July in a small community just west of Flagstaff. We looked forward every year to getting out of the sweltering heat of Phoenix to commune with nature and other families and friends. As soon as the cactus gave way to junipers and San Francisco Peak came into view, we’d roll down the car windows and gulp in air heady with the sweet scent of pine sap and red clay. The crunch of tires on red cinder meant you were almost there.
This little community has an eclectic mixture of modest large homes, A-frames, and small lots dotted with mobile homes and camp trailers. Across the railroad tracks stood the ramshackle house of a little old lady who kept chickens and gave away eggs to anyone who would stop and chat. Taking a left for a quarter mile, we would inch carefully along to avoid small children, dogs, and fellow campers.
Stepping out of the car is immediate sensory overload – crisp, clean air wafting the smell of hot dogs cooking over an open fire. Rhythmic cries of “batter-batta-batter” echo from the meadow and the sky would be the color of blue jays that swoop down so close you can hear the flap of their wings.
For some families, getting settled involved just three steps: find a level site, park, and pop-up the camper top. Others simply roughed it with army surplus tents that smelled faintly of mold and pine tar. Rocks and pine cones seemed to cover every square inch of ground making clearing the site no easy task. There was one particular family though who worked together like a well-oiled machine to try to surpass their previous year’s tent-pitching speed record.
From an aerial view, the compound must have looked something like a three-ring circus. In center stage, the firepit: a galvanized steel ring surrounded by piles of wood and four long split-log benches. Three tree stumps, strategically placed for checker games or mumbly-peg, stood as monuments to the etched-in-bark names of previous champions. To the east, the red dirt volleyball court, marked and ready for tournament play, looked lonely and vacant. And beyond the softball meadow on the west: the train tracks, put there apparently for the sheer delight of the kids and to keep the adults awake most of the night. During the day, though, those trains entertained young and old alike. The under six- and over- sixty set never tired of signaling the caboose engineer to pull his whistle. And the older kids would spend hours there lying in wait for the train to flatten pennies on the track.
A typical morning would begin at the crack of dawn with a pancake breakfast and discussion about the annual talent-less show to be held the final evening. The favorite part of my day, though, was spent stretching out in a hammock slung between two trees with a small pink bundle lying asleep on my chest. I can still close my eyes and hear the sounds of horseshoes clinking and thudding into the dirt, children yelling “higher, higher” at the tire swing, and smelling the sizzle of steaks on the grill. Lazily rocking in that hammock with warm baby’s breath rhythmically flowing on my neck was a feeling of peace and contentment I will never forget.