by Asahel D. Church
2nd Place- 2017 Yorkfest Adult Literary Awards
I checked off each item on Dad’s “Ultimate Camping List” as he arranged our gear in the back of the Suburban. Matches, check. Sleeping bags, check. Bug spray, check. Hotdogs for dinner, check… Waving goodbye to Mom, I had the strangest feeling as the sound of silence engulfed me. With my father, it’s slim pickings when it comes to conversation. Maybe that’s partly because I am hardly sure of what to say. I’ve got a million thoughts running around in my head, but I can’t seem to sort them out.
By the time we reached the campground, dusk was coming on, so we hurriedly unpacked the car and set up. “Where should we put the tent?” asked Dad. “This spot looks good. What do you think?” I really couldn’t tell if one spot was any better than the other. But the grass did look a bit softer off to the left. I liked the way it seemed untouched. We put the tent down right where Dad suggested. I looked for extra tent stakes, left by careless campers before us. Dad had a rule; never leave a campground without an extra stake or two.
It was too late to make a campfire dinner, so we ate burgers at a small restaurant just outside the state park. Eating out is a luxury in my family. I wondered where Dad was getting the money. “Eh, we’ll put it on the plastic. I’ll just have to explain to your mother later,” Dad said with a grin. I guiltily ordered the Double Cheeseburger Deluxe and Dad didn’t seem to mind. On those rare occasions at home when Mom couldn’t bring herself to do any cooking we go to Taco Bell. 89 cent tacos and one large drink. Mom brings small cups from home for the kids. It’s embarrassing.
Back at the site, Dad got the lantern started and began to read his Bible aloud. I felt the nip of night air on my nose and watched as the moths gathered, burning themselves on the hot glass while the Scripture filtered down through my consciousness. Tomorrow night we would build a great big fire, and cook hotdogs and roast marshmallows. I don’t like marshmallows actually, but the real fun is in cooking them. Too far from the flame and they stay cold; too close and they burst into flames. Kind of like moths, I thought.
We walked in darkness to the washhouse. The air was now cold and the stars were gaining strength. Once my eyes adjusted, I could see everything: the stirring in the woods, the Milky Way glowing across the sky, the uneven rocks beneath our feet.
The next morning I woke up alone, my face sweaty against the sleeping bag. The campsite was deathly still except for the occasional drone of a cicada. The dew was already burning off under the sun. Dad wasn’t in sight. Maybe he’d gone for a walk, or to read, or to hunt mushrooms, or take a shower.
My father is the pastor of the “little white church on the corner.” That’s what the neighbors call it at least. But it’s not really small at all. Every summer, there’s a VBS (that’s Vacation Bible School) during the week before the fourth of July. Last year a neighborhood kid’s father accused me of ripping his son’s shirt during a relay race. That was the only time I remember Dad raising his voice at me. “I know my son and I know he can have a temper,” Dad huffed. That hurt. Maybe that’s why it sticks out so much in my mind. Dad was stuck in one of those father-but-pastor moments, and I was right there in the middle.
Dad isn’t always the pastor; sometimes he does other normal things. One time he let me play soccer with the big kids. Dad was the coach—he wore white shorts and oil-stained hand-me-down golf shirts. During the scrimmage I got the ball in a breakaway. I sprinted towards the goal and poked the ball with my toe. It rolled in slow motion past Joel Johnson, the tallest kid on the team. I was so happy when everyone cheered. Actually, now that I think about it, they might have let me score. I was really young then.
Dad suddenly appeared in front of me, whistling. His face was bright and covered with a healthy dose of white scruff. He had been at the washhouse, but of course he didn’t shave. We cooked breakfast on the camp stove. “What do you want to do?” Dad asked, as if it really was a question. We went on a hike, hunting for mushrooms.
There’s always mushrooms on these trips. “Ah-ah!” Dad exclaims when he identifies one, pronouncing the scientific name loudly. There’s the Amanita, the Agaricus, the Cortinarius…. I try hard to help with the hunting, but mostly find what Dad called LBM’s -little brown mushrooms. “Ooo- yeahhh,” Dad says, poking at the fungi with his shoe, “Some sort of Conocybe…” By lunch there was half a dozen mushroom caps, face down on white paper lining the picnic bench. The spores drop overnight leaving a pattern on the paper. Each mushroom has a unique mark.
The afternoon was hot and Dad suggested that we go swimming at the pool on the other side of the park. I felt bad because I knew how expensive it was but Dad insisted. I got into the water slowly, and then let myself drift down to the bottom. You have to let the air out of your lungs or you won’t sink. It’s sort of odd. The simple act of breathing suddenly becomes all you can think about. I had to keep coming up for air.
In the shallow end, kids were playing catch with a foam ball. Dad swam out ahead. He likes the water when it is very cold. I feel like going to the pool with friends makes the cold water feel ok because you run around. The pool was full of people that day but nobody I knew of course. Dad wasn’t really other people.
That night we made a great big campfire. The light from the flames made a cozy circle. When we got too hot, we could run off into the cool darkness. Dad showed me how to draw words and pictures in the air with a stick that had a coal on its end. He stood far away from the fire, out by the edge of the campsite. I tried to guess what Dad was writing, but I had no idea. “My turn, my turn!” I insisted. I made figure eights over and over again. Later, we stopped putting wood on the fire and let it die down. It was getting late. We walked to the washhouse to brush our teeth. My feet were heavy on the gravel path. I don’t remember falling asleep.
Suddenly I was awake. Dad was whispering for me to look out the front of the tent. “Psss! Look! We have a visitor!” he whispered. A set of beady eyes shot back at us, caught in the beam of Dad’s flashlight. There were other eyes in the woods too. “What’s that noise?” I asked nervously. There was a thump, and then the occasional sound of crinkled plastic and another thump as the cooler lid opened and shut. I thought it was best that we just stay in the tent, and Dad didn’t get up. He knew there wasn’t much of a point—it was pretty much over.
The raccoons had eaten most of our breakfast. A trail of half eaten hotdogs disappeared into the woods. It was alright, since we were headed home anyway, but Mom would be annoyed with the waste. I helped pack up the campsite. In the process we found four extra tent stakes which was more than a little bit lucky. So we had done pretty well this time.
As we finished packing up, I thought about having to start school again. Being homeschooled, there isn’t even the anticipation of a new teacher or seeing friends. I would daydream over my math lesson all morning, and Mom would yell and threaten to send me to public school. That was a completely idle threat.
I was looking forward to getting home. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the camping trip. I just wondered why I felt so familiar but strange at the same time.
“How did you sleep last night?” Dad asked cheerfully.
“Pretty good,” I mumbled.
“After the raccoons went away I heard a much larger animal moving around in the
“Really? Well, maybe it was a bear,” I said. I was hopeful that I might have a
good story to boast to my brothers about.
“I’ve heard that there are some small black bears around this area.”
I wondered about bears in the woods. I wondered what I would be when I grow up. Most of all I felt this undying need to thank Dad for taking me camping but I just didn’t know how. In my family, love is always understated.
The ride home was long and silent. The white stripes flashing and the drone of the old Silverado. It was just me and my dad. Everything felt fine.