The houses seemed to be the only things that changed on those windy back roads. And even those changes were pretty subtle: a new porch, the crumbling barn finally collapsed, a few more kids’ toys scattered around the yard. For me, tracking the immutable qualities of the route was part of the ritual. If everything stayed the same then everything would stay the same. This is the slick and pretty lie we tell ourselves.
I’ve spent every summer of my life going to property that’s been in my family for going on four generations. In the early 1930s, my grandparents bought a large expanse of land on a lake and transformed it into a summer camp for boys. Think Meatballs, think Wet Hot American Summer minus the snogging and panty raids because, well, boys only. Duh.
My grandparents ran the camp for more than thirty years through the highest holy era of the summer camp movement. To put it another way, a lot of Richie rich one-percenters figured out how to get rid of their kids for the summer so they could hear themselves think in the comfort of their flats in Paris or on the decks of their cruise ships to Hawaii. And also, life lessons in resilience and fellowship and what not. Right. Sound. More caviar, Muffy? Camp activities ran the gamut from typical things—boating, swimming, tennis—to things that ring astonishingly ripe for a law suit now—archery, riflery, skeet shooting, and authentic Native American lore. We have photographs of boys in loin cloths and war paint sitting in a circle around a totem pole. Seriously. Parents couldn’t have been more delighted. “Look at Reginald’s headdress, Muffy! Our sweet, little injun Joe!” Yikes. But really I think it’s awesome, what my grandparents did for a living, the role they played in this part of American history, and the legacy they left to the rest of us.
Getting to camp was its own kind of odyssey that I looked forward to from the moment my parents circled our departure date on the calendar. The hour or so we spent on the highway was purgatory with toll booths. Linear. Borrr-ring. We’d make the turn off the interstate and follow the smooth curve of the off-ramp that gave way to quiet country roads lined with thick woods and houses perched on big tracts of land. It felt like entering Narnia. My brother and I would sit up on our knees (safety!) excitedly. Even my dad, who seemed suspended in life somewhere between unhappiness and weary resignation, underwent a shift. He’d roll the window down and the sweet, grassy, peaty air would pour through the car. He’d stick his arm out and hug the door. He’d even smile, I think.
Accelerator down, the car careened past the shoreline of a sizable lake. “Lake Koooollaaayyyymooook!” my dad called out in a goofy yodel, recognizing the first landmark on the route. My brother and I screeched it back, whooping out the window like those excitable monkeys at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey. There were other markers like this along the drive and they all had their own scripts. At the bottom of a hill to the right was a small, dirt parking area on the lip of a small pond with a dam at one end. “McElligot’s pool!” we’d shout from the back seat, referring to the Dr. Seuss book. I have no reliable memory of when my father started calling it that, only that for summers and summers we’d blow past that spot and he would bellow the lines, “You’ll never catch fish in McElligot’s pool!” I would stare at the water zipping past us and think about the weird and wonderful creatures living just underneath the ripples, about the book somehow made real just for me.
From McElligot’s the car climbed up a steep hill with wild fields on either side. At the top was a modest farmhouse. The land stretched out in all directions. The white peaks of one of the state’s mountain ranges were visible in the distance. I wondered at who lived there. Did they get scared in the dark nights of winter? Did they pile out on the back porch to watch storms sweep across the mountain? Did they see us zooming by season after season and wonder at us, too?
I know I hold too tightly to ritual. I know I invest it with poor man’s magic. If everything stayed the same then everything would stay the same.
* * *
We recently discovered a new way in to camp. Thanks to our creepy GPS robot overlords, we realized that there is a more direct way to get there from here, as the saying goes. It shaves maybe ten minutes off the clock and has fewer “take this right then that left” kind of turns to it. It is efficient. It is faster. It is terrible and I hate it.
There’s no Lake Kolelemook, no McElligot’s pool. No heavy perfume of honeysuckle and damp earth. No hilltop view of God’s backyard. No father at the wheel letting his troubles peel away with the dust and grit kicked up by the tires.
If I’m alone I refuse to take it, no matter how tired I am or anxious I am to get there. If I’m not, I’m outvoted because quicker, easier, better goes the rationale. I am unconvinced.
I’m just not ready to leave off the part of my childhood that lived in those storied winding roads. I’m not ready to ditch the family in the car who seemed genuinely happy for a spell, disappearing together in the arms of the countryside.