…life on the synaptic firing range

Location: Los Angeles, United States

Bent but unbroken Southern California native seeks understanding, companionship, and resonance along and off the beaten path. Teresa plays well with others and makes every effort to perform to her potential. Usually. *processed in a facility that processes nuts and nut products

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

notes on camp

Heh heh, look, a lesbian roasting wieners.

This was the funnest camping trip ever! Funner even than the time a horse dumped me on my head at Girl Scout camp. Funner even than when my whole extended family convinced me that my mother had gone missing in the woods.

Come to think of it, why do I even like camping?

It’s 1976. I’m 9 years old and crying inconsolably in the living room of a rented cabin in Coffee Creek, a wilderness area in Northern California. That afternoon I had been riding shotgun in my uncle Merlyn’s camper when we passed my mom and her two sisters walking along the road. They had been out picking blackberries and were heading back to our cabin. When they saw Merlyn’s camper they jokingly stuck out their thumbs to hitch a ride. Merlyn answered the joke with his own, yelling out the window, “Sorry, ladies, I don’t pick up strangers,” then sped down the road. I laughed along with him because the cabin wasn’t very far down the road, and also because he was the grown-up. It’s best to laugh along with grown-ups.

Hours later my mom and her sisters still haven't arrived back at the cabin and I get this feeling in the pit of my stomach: I have to remind myself to breathe. As time drags on I can’t believe my father and uncles haven’t gone out to look for them. Instead they drink beer and tell stories about their dingbat wives and their terrible sense of direction. Merlyn says he hopes they haven’t fallen into the river, adding that the current is running strong. Uncle Gordon says he saw a bear not far from the cabin that afternoon.

As they banter back and forth I’m certain that I’ll never see my mother alive again, and I think about how sorry the men will be when they hear the bad news, whether their wives have been eaten alive by animals or kidnapped and killed by terrible men. I know about terrible men. My mother had prepared me for this world by telling me all about serial killers and rapists, “sickos” who get their “jollies” by torturing and murdering innocent girls and women. When she was alive—back before this camping trip—she used to put newspaper articles next my cereal dish, and along with my Honey Nut Cheerios I digested details of the latest local killings—nipples twisted off with locking pliers, desecrated vaginas, faces brutalized beyond recognition.

I angrily put on my jacket and head for the cabin door, not because I feel that I can do anything about my mother’s fate but because I can’t listen to my father and uncles anymore. Before I reach the door Merlyn, failing to stifle his laughter at my undoubtedly red and pouty face, says, “OK, kiddo, hold on. Your mom’s around back; she’s been there the whole time.” I race out the door and run around to the back of the cabin, where my mother and her sisters are sitting in folding chairs, chatting casually and eating blackberries. I should feel relieved. Instead I feel confused and humiliated. I turn around and walk into the woods, thinking that I might just disappear forever, teach my mom and dad a lesson, but I soon get scared and go back.

Years later I’ll recount the experience to my mother as one of the most unsettling moments of my life, but she won’t remember it.

My favorite camping activity is river-walking, stepping from stone to stone—and into the drink when necessary—navigating my way to some far-flung boulder, my own personal island, where I can lose myself amid the white noise of rushing water. River-walking was limited on this trip, in part due to the icy conditions that chilled my feet and made the riverbed feel like a field of broken glass, and not least due to my partner’s pleas for caution. A ranger told us on the way in that a “young girl”—hard to say whether he meant a girl or a woman—had disappeared while swimming in the river a few days earlier. He warned us that the current was particularly strong—late thaw this year—and a Sequoia National Park bulletin appealed to campers to keep an eye out for her body.

I heeded my partner’s concerns and stuck close to shore, though I was hell-bent on finding a silky-smooth river rock for her work desk, a multitasking souvenir to remind her of the trip and maybe pin down a few loose papers all at once. I picked up and rejected rock after rock, staring into the water and trying in vain to train my eyes to flicker at the same frequency as the current so as to bring the riverbed into sharper focus. I finally settled on a couple of candidates. As I climbed up the riverbank I retrieved the rocks from my pockets with a witty reference to Virginia Woolf’s suicide, a bit of gallows humor that maybe didn’t play so well given the missing, presumed-dead girl.

It’s 1979. I’m in the mounted unit of a Girl Scout camp in San Bernardino, Calif., and I’ve acquired the nickname “Noose,” a nod to my singular talent for making them out of the clothesline we were all instructed to bring. Most of the other girls think I’m weird, but they’re curiously drawn to my art: A couple of them ask me to make nooses for them, and I oblige. I’m soon approached by the head counselor, who says that the nooses are inappropriate and that I’m scaring the other girls, and she asks whether I can’t put my energies into something more artistic or productive, like macramé. Sure, I tell her. No problem. Instead I sulk in my bunk, reading some horror novel I had brought along.

The only counselor I really like, a solid woman named Deb who swaggers around camp and winks at me with kind understanding, is taken away by ambulance after a horse falls on her and crushes her leg during our second week. We later hear she’ll be in traction for at least two months. The other counselors won’t tell us which horse had injured her. I decide it must have been my horse, who had reared up and bucked me off just a few days earlier. I can’t help being nervous around him now, no matter how many times the counselors tell me horses can “smell” fear.

I fake sick one morning to get out of the pre-lunch trail ride, and I hike into some nearby woods to make my nooses in peace. I lose track of time and I’m discovered by one of my fellow campers, now back from the morning ride. When I look up she turns and runs back toward camp.

A short time later I trudge back into camp myself, and it quickly becomes clear that the snooper has been telling stories about me to all the other girls. I can smell their fear.

We didn’t find the dead girl. Maybe she’s not dead after all. Maybe she found a nice boulder in the middle of the rushing river and can’t bring herself to abandon it. Or maybe she’s out in the woods, hiding from her family, practicing some dark art the rest of us can’t understand, and wondering how long it will take before someone comes out to find her.


Blogger sporksforall said...

It has occured to me more than once that the sadistic streak deeply evident in your family, well, sucks. I'm glad you didn't run off, though. I don't know how I would have found you.

5:12 PM  
Blogger the only daughter said...

My mom and then gave away an opportunity for me to gon on my first camping trip as a child. The opportunity has not re-appeared. I'm pretty sure I'd pass if it did.
Your tales are both fascinating and scary. I'd like to think the girl has found a boulder she won't abandon...

9:59 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

Making a 9 year-old think her mother is dead, allow her to cry inconsolably - yep, that's a knee slapper.

My parents also made sure I knew all about the bad men. I still remember the 'bad man' talk my dad gave me. The 'bad men' will try to give me candy and take me in their car and then...? Then what? I was never told just what would happen but I was told it would be really bad. Twisted nipples and desecrated vagainas was only hinted at in my household.

4:41 AM  
Blogger WenWhit said...

Ah, parents. Gotta love 'em (or so I've been told.) Funny, I don't remember any "the bad man will get you" warnings from my 'rents - maybe they felt living with my brother was warning enough. Now that I know, the next time Suzanne gives me a nipple twist I'm calling my daddy to tattle.

6:11 AM  
Blogger WenWhit said...

Um, all kidding aside, that was very nicely written, Scout. Thanks for sharing.

6:13 AM  
Anonymous hopskipjump said...

This could be a nice little novel, scout! I didn't want the story to end. And it's beautifully written. In my humble opinion. (But, now the last book I read was Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theatre so I like to think I know good writing when I see it. She said humbly.)

What's really funny is how well-meaning the adults are. The men are just teasing you. And Mom just wants you to be safe.

The road to hell...

8:39 AM  
Blogger the only daughter said...

Ok, the first sentence should have read: My mom gifted and then gave away an opportunity for me to go on ... so and and so forth..

9:41 AM  
Blogger WordsRock said...

An awesome collection of vignettes.

Makes me appreciate my family even more.

And Wendy. My dear Wendy. You're going to tattle to your father the next time I tweak your nip? What are you going to tell him? How much you like it? ;p

10:35 AM  
Blogger WenWhit said...

Damn, where is Candidate Bailey when I need her?

10:43 AM  
Blogger sporksforall said...

How's CB going to protect you from nip tweaking (or liking it)? Hmm?

12:23 PM  
Blogger WenWhit said...

I think I was just looking for a smartass defender ;p

8:36 AM  

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