When I think of autumn, the first thing to which my mind invariably wanders is our annual dad/kids campout at Wild River State Park.
We started this tradition 22 years ago, when I was 6, and haven't stopped. Since graduating from high school, I haven't been able to participate every year, especially now that I've been out in Los Angeles for three years and counting, but this year I made it work.
The beauty of this campout is that even though we've all grown older, pretty much everything else has stayed the same. We park in the same lot, poop in the same outhouse, go on the same meandering afternoon walks, and eat under the same blue tarp. This year was a doozy, with lots of freezing rain and clouds, but we solved that problem by building a big fire, which the dads sat around while the "kids" (now all adults) huddled under the tarp and passed around a bottle of whiskey in the dusky light of the lanterns, taking pulls and telling stories and secretly, I think, reveling in the fact that after all this time, we are now all old enough to drink alcohol together.
I have gone through so many phases of my life at Wild River; each year, I brought a different set of problems and worries and loves and passions with me to the campground, always on the back of my mind as I went through the familiar motions of camping. It has always been a strange, lovely mix of the present mixed with nostalgia and tradition, all wrapped up in the smell of decaying leaves and rain and tents and the feeling of the brisk wind whipping across the prairie and through the barren trees.
We've built forts in these woods; in our teen years we brought speakers with us that we connected to our CD players so we could listen to music, hidden behind walls made of sticks, blasting the Backstreet Boys. We memorized trails and created mysteries for ourselves to solve, luring our younger siblings into traps and making them do the dirty work while we wrote out elaborate plans in notebooks. We biked and ran up and down the long, bumpy dirt road; played touch football in the small, random patch of flat field bordered by the tall prairie grasses; played Barbies in our tents for hours, creating whole worlds out of the mounds of sleeping bags and clothing. We didn't shower. Our dads, far from the influence of our mothers, let us eat all the junk food we wanted.
This camping trip is among a handful of traditions that I will cherish forever. It is experiences like these, full of love and good company, that make life wonderful.
Happy Monday, friends.