“Is she gonna say it?” I wondered out loud as we passed the Leaving Oregon sign posted halfway on the bridge over the Columbia River.
“Is who gonna say what?” Asked Benny from the passenger seat. From the backseat I heard my mom and Mina ooing and aweing about the river. The water sparkled in the morning light and a few boats dotted its surface. It was still early- we had managed to leave at 8:30 am, only half an hour later than our goal, after the obligatory bickering between Benny and I about the process of loading up the Subaru.
“Welcome to Washington,” said the robotic female voice of Google Maps, briefly interrupting the twanging banjo solo of a song by The Steeldrivers.
“There it is!” I rejoiced.
“Oh, you knew she was gonna say that,” said Benny, laughing.
Although the state line is only a ten minute drive from our house, we rarely cross over into Washington. This time we weren’t stopping at Lewisville State Park where we went swimming this summer, and we weren’t even aiming for Seattle as a destination. We were headed to a place an hour and a half North of Seattle- a little peninsula in the San Juan Island area off of Washington called Samish Island. We were headed to Camp Kirby.
Back in the spring of this year I saw a post by Camp Kirby, who I started following on Facebook when I put together the Venus de Milo story. They announced that they would be open for Family Camp over Memorial Weekend and Labor Day Weekend. That meant that we could stay at Camp Kirby if we wanted to, even though we weren’t staff or campers. I was thrilled and immediately booked a cabin for Labor Day weekend. (Unfortunately all the tree house cabins had already been booked.) So here we were, loaded up and headed North, to a place I hadn’t been to in 19 years- a place I thought I would never see again.
Half an hour after Seattle we drove past Everett, and I kept taking quick glances out the side window to see if I could spot anything recognizable. I remembered all the walking I did through the town, trying to avoid spending too much time at the cramped apartment with Scott’s family. I remembered fondly the library, the sunny parks, the natural food store where Scott worked.
It was a relief to divert from the 5 North after almost five hours and cruise along the winding, solitary highway through farmlands, getting closer and closer to the water. We saw fields of corn and cabbages, big horned steers, farmhouses and little markets. One stretch of road was a popular parking spot for fisherfolk, and we saw many people in big rubber overalls and floppy hats, carrying poles and nets. “Share the road,” said one sign with a picture of a tractor.
We turned off the highway onto a residential road, and eventually caught sight of the shining expanse of the bay through a line of trees. A little further and we came to the narrowest part of the peninsula where you can see water on both sides. A left, a right, and then another right, and there was the wooden Camp Kirby sign on the top of the hill.
As we descended the hill we saw the archery range on our right, and beside that a new rock climbing wall that wasn’t there when I had been there last. We kept creeping along the narrow dirt road and the treehouses came into view on our left, looking pretty much the same except for some new wooden steps up to the cabins to replace the ladders. Then down the steepest part of the hill into the main area of camp- the dining hall on the left, the basketball court, the big totem pole by the flagpole, and the various cabins scattered around the area.
We found Sandpiper, our cabin, which was located between Tayito, the counselor’s cabin, and Woodpecker, the cute little A frame. Our cabin was pretty basic, but it did have electricity and our own bathroom and the pads on the bunk beds were fairly comfortable. As soon as we parked and got out of the car it started to rain in big, haphazard drops. Mina fled to the safety of the cabin while the rest of us unloaded the gear.
We were visited by Kit Kat, the camp director, and she gave us a rundown of things and asked if we needed to buy anything. We needed propane and ice, so I followed her down to the little store. After buying the propane we made a stop at the Dining Hall where the ice was stored. It looked exactly the same, and even smelled the same- that smell of an old building, years of food cooked in huge batches, mop water, and cleaning supplies.
“What year did you work here?” She asked. I had mentioned that I had been a counselor here a long time ago.
“2002,” I replied.
“Did you make a wall plaque?” She wondered, peering up at the beams where there were painted signs posted.
“I don’t remember…” I said. “Oh wait, here it is!” It was a round board painted with a sunset and included the names, both camp and legal names, of all the staff that year. Many of the people I had little memory of, but I lingered on the names of Water Rat, Feika, Maxx, Turbo, Luna, and of course Milo. For some reason it gave me comfort to know it was there, proof that I had made my mark on the place.
I headed back to the cabin with my supplies. Mom, Mina, and Benny were getting settled in. After getting unpacked, the first thing I wanted to do was head out to The Point. It had stopped raining but it was still a bit cold and windy so Mina wasn’t up for an adventure yet and Benny had forgotten to bring a jacket so just Mom and I ventured out there.
We walked along the gravel road that leads out there, passing Herman’s Hut, the last building before you get to the water. I remembered that that’s where Brian/Water Rat had stayed that summer. After that the finger of land gets narrower and closer to the water level until, if you go out far enough, you can stand on the very tip with water all around you. The ground is covered with an incredible variety of gorgeous little stones- spotted, striped, and plain- of all different colors. And shells everywhere- mostly big clam shells and some spiral ones too, a lot of them covered in little white barnacles. Seaweed and sea grass were clumped up in big piles from high tide and driftwood was strewn about everywhere. One big log I thought I recognized from when I was there before. Mom was delighted by all the shells and started collecting a few.
I kept looking around, trying to reconcile the fact that I was here in this place that, for many years, existed for me only in my mind. I kept flip flopping between feeling like it was normal to be here, and feeling like it was totally surreal and strange, like walking around in a memory. I couldn’t help feeling like it wasn’t as beautiful as I remembered, but I figured that was due to the fact that it was cloudy, making everything look flat and gray.
“It’s a lot more stunning out here when it’s sunny,” I told Mom, feeling like I was almost apologizing for the view.
“It’s a lot more sunny here when it’s sunny?” She asked, with a little smirk on her face.
I laughed. “No- it’s more stunning when it’s sunny,” I repeated. I remembered the sunsets out there were just otherworldly, beauty magnified by the flat mirror of the water, the rounded islands adding the perfect composition. I hoped tomorrow would be clear enough to allow for a nice sunset.
Out in front of the Dining Hall were a couple of ping pong tables and foosball and we had fun playing those. Mom was hilarious at foosball because she’d never played it much before and made a lot of wild noises and ridiculous moves.
In the evening I whipped up a nice fire in the fire pit, feeling pretty smug about my fire building skills. (Although I did cheat a little with a fire starter “tumbleweed”.) I thought about how Camp Kirby was where I really got good at building fires, where I developed the identity of “good fire builder.” It was one of the more useful skills I left the summer with.
For dinner we made a “shrimp boil” by filling foil packets with shrimp, andouille sausages, potatoes, and little ears of corn, and plopping them on the coals. We had a bit of a challenge pulling them out when they were done, because of the deep fire pit. We ended up hoisting them out with a shovel, puncturing one of the foil packets and losing a few potatoes in the process. And one of the packets had overcooked, revealing a pile of incinerated chunks- but overall, a pretty good dinner.
After dinner we got in our pajamas and played Go Fish in the cabin, listening to the cozy sound of wind and rain on the roof. Later I read to Mina from The Hobbit as we snuggled up on one of the top bunks. She fell asleep while I was reading, and I slowly climbed down into the bed under her and read from a book of stories called Tales From Nowhere– real travel stories from people who found themselves in remote, isolated places. I kept thinking my summer in Coldfoot would fit in perfectly, and wondered how I would condense it down into a much shorter story.
I slept deeply that night, and wasn’t quite ready to wake up when Mina climbed down and announced, “Good morning, Mom!” I groggily got out of bed and got her a bowl of Panda Puffs with milk which she ate in the cabin. I found the French press and bag of coffee, mugs, kettle, and lighter, and went outside to the picnic table to make coffee. The storm had passed- the ground and cars were wet but it was a nice day, partly cloudy with no wind. As I waited for water to boil Benny and Mina emerged, ready to go explore the beach. I wanted to go with them but stayed behind to make coffee, mostly just glad that Mina was up for some adventuring. Sometimes she can be stubbornly insistent about just holing up somewhere cozy and not going out. (That’s partly why I wanted to read her The Hobbit- I thought she’d be able to relate to Bilbo and his resistance to adventure.)
When the coffee was ready I handed a mug to Mom who was in the cabin writing in her journal. She gasped and said, “I love you!!” As she reached for the mug with both hands. “I mean, I loved you before too.”
I picked up the other two mugs and went after Benny and Mina, thinking it would be nice to drink the coffee out at The Point. We spent a good hour out there, inspecting shells and rocks and just walking around. Benny was awestruck by a crane that was fishing in the shallow part of the water, surrounded by seagulls, and Mina gathered more treasures than she could carry. After a while we went back to the cabin and cooked up some egg, cheese, and sausage burritos, then the three of them went to play more ping pong while I got dressed and did some journal writing.
I wrote, “I’m not sure if I feel more connected to my past self here or farther away from her. Maybe more connected, actually. Like the land is a direct tie between us, without the intervening space and time. Like I could run into her here.”
It was true- I found that when I was alone for a few minutes, away from my family, I could easily trick myself into believing it was 2002. The camp looked almost exactly the same as it was 19 years ago. I kept seeing the ghosts of kids lining up outside the Dining Hall, or marching up the hill arm in arm back up to the treehouses. Out of the corner of my eye I could almost see my 20 year old self, lugging a bag of laundry into the laundry room, balancing on a log by the water, emerging from Tayito with a stack of letters. She seemed like a physical presence, not just a wisp of memory smoke.
I wrote about half a page before they returned from ping pong. After hanging out at the cabin a while we packed some snacks and headed up the hill to explore the forest trails. I was delighted when we arrived at Chapel- I had almost forgotten about it although it had been one of my favorite spots in camp. It looked the same, of course- rows of log benches arranged in a half circle facing a breathtaking view through the trees of the bay and land across the water. Mina found an injured moth and made a little twig house for it, while we sat and snacked on apples and I drew the scene in my journal. Before we left I remembered the Chapel ritual of wishing on a rock, so I found a rock and we sat side by side, each holding the rock for a moment to make our wish, then Benny tossed it over the railing to the water below.
“I have too many things to wish for,” I said, thinking of all the problems in our lives and the catastrophes of the world. But I wished for the first thing that came into my head which was, “I wish to be outside in the morning more often.” Which is kind of a funny wish but I’ve found that if I can get outside early it just makes for a better day, and in turn, a better life. It connects me to mindfulness and gratitude.
After a lunch of crackers, salami, and cheese by the water I was feeling strangely lethargic. I’d had a mild headache since we left Portland and it seemed to be getting worse. It was still cloudy and the air was heavy with moisture. It felt late in the day but when I checked the time it was only 12:30. “What are we going to do the rest of the day?” I wondered. We had already done the two things I was looking forward to- hanging out by the water and hiking the forest trails. I was also feeling like I desperately needed some alone time- I found that I was getting cranky around my family, tired of talking and interacting and making decisions together in a group.
“When I was a counselor I thought a two hour break was nothing,” I thought grumpily. “What I wouldn’t give for just one uninterrupted hour.”
“I’m going to go take a nap,” I announced, leaving the three of them on the beach.
Mom and Mina ended up playing ping pong and Benny came back to the cabin to nap also. I felt better after the nap but we were still sort of just aimlessly wandering around, not sure what to do. There were other families nearby playing volleyball, going kayaking, biking around. Part of me wanted to make friends with them, wanted Mina to find some other kids to play with. But I also just felt tired and sort of vacant. I realized that, although I planned this as a family getaway, my main reason for coming here was some kind of self reckoning, a hope of gaining a bit of closure with my past. I wanted to have a moment with my past self- not a goodbye exactly, but more of a “Hey- thanks for everything you’ve done for me. Now maybe can you give me some space and let me live my own life?” But I wasn’t sure how to invoke her or create that moment. I knew she wouldn’t approach me if I was around my family, but at the end of the day I still hadn’t given myself enough time alone to fully allow for her presence.
That evening after cooking pizza sandwiches over the fire in our pie pans we walked out to the West facing beach for the sunset. The sky was somewhat clear but a big chunk of cloud was wedged between two islands, blocking the sun’s final descent. The sun itself wasn’t so spectacular but the clouds themselves were lovely, smeared across the sky in rippled patterns reminding me of a salmon filet, pale blue and lavender, wispy white and hints of pink. After the sun had set, the low hung clouds burned like embers, a sizzling magenta glow.
Even after my nap, I was spent. I felt sedated, drained by the sun even though it had been overcast most of the day. I tried to write in my journal before bed and my hand felt stiff and heavy, laboring over the forming of words. I wondered if I was experiencing some kind of emotional fatigue, the result of coming to terms with my present overlapping my past. I curled up in bed early, before 9:00 even, reading my book. I begged Benny to do book time with Mina because I couldn’t imagine getting out of bed to climb up the ladder and reading aloud for half an hour. I fell asleep listening to Benny read about swords and goblins, and Bilbo lost in the damp darkness of caves.
In the morning I woke up fresh and alert, with new resolve. I would find some time to be alone this morning, after breakfast and before our archery lesson at 10:00 am. So after instant oatmeal, coffee, and a shower, I announced I would be taking a solo walk and would be gone 30-40 minutes. I encountered no opposition from the group.
I know I have to go out to The Point. We’ve spent a lot of time out there on this visit but this time will be different. I will be alone. It’s sunnier than yesterday- the sun warms the left half of me as I walk along the gravel, lifting my hand to wave to a man on the porch of Herman’s Hut. As I walk along I see a man and his daughter on the beach to my right. I think it would be nice to walk that way but I don’t want to risk having a conversation with anyone, so I continue on down the middle. On my left are two women walking together in the distance, causing seagulls to flap leisurely away from their fishing spot for a moment. The tide is very low, I can tell by the long expanse of exposed mud and seaweed between the shore and the water. Because the tide is so low, the tip of The Point extends much farther out. I keep walking, my boots crunching the barnacle covered stones. I hope I’m not hurting the barnacles. The tip of the land is covered in white seagulls, all loitering there just looking around. I don’t feel compelled to disturb them so I stop before I get too close to them, then turn around to head back.
There’s that view that feels so achingly familiar. This is the way I most often remember this place- the widening strip of land with the water on either side, the speckling of half-hidden cabins and the dark green background of the tree covered hill. As I slowly walk back, I see someone coming towards me in a direct path. Even before she is close enough to recognize, I know who it is. She’s wearing the dark blue, green, and yellow Raffe ski jacket that I bought at that vintage store in Chico. I wore it so often I got sick to death of it and ended up leaving it in Brian’s truck when he dropped me off at the Greyhound station in Portland. I’ve thought of that jacket many times since then, wishing I hadn’t given it up so impulsively.
When she gets near enough to see her face I stop. My whole body tenses up and my face crumples, hot tears sliding fast down my cheeks. Her expression is soft, loving, and a little curious. She comes even closer, stopping in front of me.
It’s nice to be eye to eye with someone, I think, as I look her over- her unlined face, her un-grayed hair. My hair is about as long as hers, actually, though mine’s more of a mullet. Her slightly askew glasses- she needs to get new ones. Her cheeks and nose are pink with sunburn. I know she’s looking me over too, seeing how well I’ve fared over the last 19 years, reading between the lines of my wrinkles.
“Hey. You ok?” She asks. Her face blurs as my eyes keep welling up with tears, and I know that I’ll have a hard time stopping, especially with her looking at me with such love and concern. I feel a little embarrassed, like I’m supposed to be the one who has it together, who has the answers. I’m supposed to be helping her out, right? I should have some advice for her, something she can think back on during hard times. But at the moment I have nothing. I’m just so glad to see her, but I also don’t want her to know that her future self is so broken and unstable that she can’t withstand an encounter like this. I’m worried that she’ll think that there’s some upcoming tragedy to worry about.
I sniffle, wipe some tears away. “Yeah. I’m ok. Don’t get me wrong, everything’s fine. Life is fine. I just…” I search for the right words. “I mean, I guess I’m just struggling with getting older. I want to maintain my sense of freedom and adventure, you know? I want to stay wild and alive but it’s hard- it’s a constant battle.”
She looks at me wonderingly, like she’s not sure what I mean.
I try again. “When you’re younger, staying alive is like breathing- it’s just something you are, you do it without thinking. When you’re older it feels more like drowning, like barely staying above water. Life becomes less about enjoyment and more about survival. It’s exhausting!” I break down, sobbing this time, not even able to control the flow of tears. I cover my face with my hand, trying to hide. She shouldn’t see me like this.
I feel her step even closer, put her arms around me. I feel the heat of her cheek against my damp, cool one. Our bodies fit together perfectly, like no embrace I’ve ever felt before. I breathe in her musky, earthy scent. Our hair mingles together, black curls around black curls.
“It’s okay,” she tells me soothingly. I feel her breath on my ear. “It’s going to be okay.” There’s no way she could know this- how can she say it with such reassuring confidence? And yet somehow I believe her. For some reason she seems to know things I don’t, or maybe I just don’t remember. I wish I could help her too, like she’s helping me, but she doesn’t seem to need it. Even if I did have advice for her, it wouldn’t do her any good. She’s going to learn just the way I did- through experience.
“I think you’ve forgotten,” she says. “It’s not so easy for me, either. Staying alive, I mean.”
She’s right- I had forgotten. It’s always been a struggle, a fight to keep my head above water. My whole life has been lived in pursuit of authenticity, in the hopes of living a true, genuine, fully lived life. The nature of the obstacles changes, but they’re always there.
My crying subsides and I’m able to take a deep, slow breath. She takes one too, then pulls away, looking at me. “I have to go,” she says with a soft smile. “My break is almost over.”
I nod, wiping away tears. “Ok. Good luck with those kids.”
She grins and winces, gives a little shrug. “Thanks.” She puts her hands in her pockets and turns, starts walking back. As I watch her form get smaller and smaller I again take in the composition of the scene, the way it’s split into three- water, land, water. It’s like the solid, grounded present flanked by the fluid, shimmery past and future. It seems like separate elements until you turn and realize it’s all connected- the past and future flow into each other with the present rooted in between, a stable place to rest your feet. The past is bright with morning sun; the future is subdued and layered with silhouettes of islands, waiting to receive the sun as it makes its way across.
As I walk back to the cabin I think, “I don’t want to be a bitter old woman, mourning my lost youth. I want to be someone that my younger self would be proud of. I’m almost 40- it’s a good time to restart. It’s fine that I’ve been reliving these younger years, but it’s time to move on, make some new stories. I’m still young- I’ve got some adventure left in me somewhere.”
I get back to the cabin just in time to gather everyone and march up the hill to the archery range. The archery instructor gives us all a quick lesson and then we each choose a bow and step up to the firing line. I hold the bow out straight in front of me, notch the arrow and pull back on the bowstring. I feel strong and steady, enjoying the way that this pose requires your shoulders to open, exposing your heart as the muscles in your arms go taut with effort and focus. I’m surprised that my first few arrows make it to the target at all, since it’s been 19 years since I held a bow in my hands. I do even better on my second round, although my arm that holds the bow is getting tired.
Finally on my last one, I give it everything I’ve got. I hold my body still and strong, breathe in as I pull back on the string as far as I can, aim- and then breathe out as I let go, watching the arrow sail straight and sure, glowing for just a moment in the sun, to the bullseye.