At physical therapy, the therapist made a startling suggestion. “Why don’t we go outside?” she said. Apparently, there’s a garden behind the rehabilitation hospital where North has aqua therapy and regular physical therapy. There are picnic tables there and some people were eating there on that warm late September afternoon, but it’s also used for therapy. There’s an asphalt path, some stairs, and a small grassy square. So North walked forwards, backwards, sideways, up and downhill, up and down stairs, and across the grass (while tossing a ball back and forth with the therapist to test their balance). I walked alongside the two of them for most of the session to observe but also because I’d had such a busy day I’d skipped my customary weekday morning walk. It was very cheering to see them do all this without crutches or a cane, somehow more cheering than watching them do similar exercises in the big PT gym. I guess it looked more like real life and it made it easier to imagine North making their way through life without any sticks at their side. Although, as North observed, walking sideways downhill is not exactly a “skill for everyday life.”
We grabbed two iced chais and some chips at the hospital “coffeeshop” (the espresso machine has been broken since we started going to physical therapy there in late August so I’m not sure it deserves the title) and met Beth outside. She was driving us home so we wouldn’t have to wend our way home on public transportation. We were about to leave on a church retreat to Catoctin Mountain Park. The Unitarian church Beth and North attend has been holding this retreat at this location for over forty years, but it was our first time going. (It’s North and Beth’s second fall at the church and last year North probably had play rehearsals that conflicted with the trip. And speaking of that, Highwood is “permanently closed” according to Google, though there’s been no official announcement to the actors and their parents.)
We drove home, packed, and hit the road around 6:20. There was a beautiful pink, purple, and orange sunset that seemed to go on and on, and with a stop for pizza, we arrived at the park around 8:45. There are multiple camps in the park and in fact, last November Beth and Noah camped at Misty Mount (without Unitarians) on their annual fall camping trip. The Unitarians camp at Greentop. If you’ve ever been to summer camp or to a national park built by the CCC during the 1930s, you have an idea what it looks like. There are rustic log cabins of various sizes, bathhouses, a dining hall made partially of stone with a high ceiling with wooden beams and a recreational hall with a stage. The two main halls are connected with a breezeway. There are also picnic tables, a fire pit, basketball courts, a baseball diamond, swings, and some facilities that are closed in the off-season, like a swimming pool and a horse stable and corral.
We signed in and got our cabin assignment. The cabin sleeps ten in two four-bunk rooms on either side and a two-bunk room in the middle. The bunks are built into the walls like window seats with mattresses about the thickness of yoga mats on them. We were in one wing, with another family in the other side and the middle left vacant. We unpacked and North and I headed to the bathhouse for showers. We had to figure out the system for flipping over laminated signs marking the showers as open to men only, women only, or temporarily private for the person or people showering there. We went with private. By ten we were all in bed, but I didn’t sleep much for the first half of the night because I’m sensitive to light and there were no blinds or curtains on the windows and a lamppost right outside our room.
Around two, when I got up to go to the restroom, I surveyed the room and realized the empty bunk was in a darker corner than mine. So I stripped my bed, remade the other one and switched beds. I slept better after that.
The next morning we got name tags with our names and pronouns and there was a hearty breakfast served in the dining hall at eight o’ clock. I had spinach strata, hash browns, vegetarian sausage, watermelon, and coffee with a scoop of hot chocolate mix stirred into it. After the meal, when the retreat coordinator stood up on a chair and said she had some announcements, the following song, forgotten for decades, and last heard circa 1980 (the last time I was in a summer camp dining hall) popped unbidden into my mind:
Announcements! Announcements! Announcements!
What a horrible way to die! What a horrible way to die!
What a horribly way to be talked to death! What a horrible way to die!
We sang this every time a counselor made announcements at the Quaker sleep-away camp I attended the summers I was eleven and thirteen. Perhaps they still do.
During said announcements we were asked to applaud for the breakfast crew, which we used to do in the dining co-ops at Oberlin so there was all kinds of nostalgia. We also heard about the activities for the day, the first couple of which were a hike with a geologist to a waterfall and a yoga class. We decided to hike on our own so we could go at our own pace and we chose the Blue Blazes Whiskey Still trail.
The trail was flat and went along a small stream in the woods. It had informative Park Service signs about insect and fish life in the stream. Reading them made me wonder about the process of writing the signs, how many people had their hands on it, how revisions it underwent, many layers of bureaucracy were involved, how long it took. Let’s just say working on EPA reports has made me sensitive to questions like this. There were also signs about the history of illegal whiskey-making during Prohibition because back then there was a large distillery hidden in the woods, which was the scene of a raid that turned violent. The trail ends with a still, a real one from the era, but not one of the ones that were surely destroyed after the raid and not preserved for twenty-first-century hikers.
It was mostly green along the trail, but I noticed a sprinkling of red leaves here and there. It felt peaceful to be walking in the woods. We stopped at the gift shop on the way home and bought a book of spooky campfire stories for North. Back at the cabin Beth set up the hammock and we rested and read until lunch.
Lunch was various pastas with various sauces and salad. Afterward I took a sorely needed nap in the middle room of the cabin, which is the darkest room because it’s the only one with a door. It was so satisfactory, I decided I’d sleep there that night as well. Shortly after I woke up, Beth and North left for pumpkin carving, the first organized activity any of us took part in. I will carve no pumpkin before its time (which in my mind should be mid-October at the earliest) and Beth felt about the same, but she went along to keep North company. North’s pumpkin has the letters SCARY SZN (season) carved into it. When it got dark, the pumpkins were lit with tea lights.
I stayed behind and read in the hammock. I’ve been reading a book of French short stories for over a month (and it’s not even a very long book). Ever since Noah left and we haven’t been reading books together or reading poems at night, I’ve been reading a lot less. It also didn’t help that my book club postponed its September meeting until October. For context, Goodreads reports that this year, up to mid-August, I was reading books at a clip of about a book and a half a week, but in the past six weeks I haven’t finished even one. I miss it and I hope to get back into a reading groove. In the hour I was in the hammock, I read a story by Sartre and one by Camus, and I’m close to the end of the book now, so that’s a step in the right direction.
Around 4:20 I headed over to the dining hall because I had a 4:30 dinner prep shift. I got a little lost and arrived a few minutes late. Beth was already sautéing onions for an enchilada casserole and North was doing a babysitting shift. (I heard a scavenger hunt was involved.) The dinner crew made six big casseroles with various combinations of turkey and/or beans, and flour or corn tortillas and three big trays of salad. It was a bit disorganized at the beginning but we got ourselves sorted out into jobs and I spent an hour and fifteen minutes stirring onions and chopping scallions, cucumbers, and carrots. North was a server at the rice station, so Beth and I ate before them, then hung around chatting with people while we waited for North’s turn to eat.
Evening activities included Paper Bag Dramatics and a campfire. I’d never heard of the former and I was expecting a puppet show with puppets made from paper bags but it was something entirely different. Six teams of kids and adults were each given a bag of props and they had to write and perform a skit using all of them with only about fifteen minutes to prepare. Beth, North, and I all opted to be audience members.
The skits were fun. One of them solved the how-to-come-up-with-a-plot problem by making the skit about the process of brainstorming a skit. Another one was about a diverse group of people, including a fairy and several medical professionals trying to heal a sick baby. They all used different tools, which I thought was an elegant solution. The winning skit—there was voting at the end—was about a monster who tried to kidnap two children. It wasn’t my choice for overall best skit, but I thought it should have won for “best use of bag” because they managed to fit two small children in the bag that had contained their props. (It was a large canvas tote and not paper.) I think that honor went to the group that used theirs as a time machine. In that skit, people from the year 2050 come back to 2019 with the solutions to all our environmental and health care woes. The boy who played Donald Trump in that skit (a classmate of North’s) was nominated for “best portrayal of an inanimate object,” but the nomination was disallowed because Donald Trump is alive and the question of whether he’s animated in the sense of having a soul was cut short. (Possibly because it was not in the spirit of compassion and inclusivity.) The inanimate object prize went to the person who carried a lightbulb around the stage and ran over to hold it over the head of any character who was having an idea in the meta-skit. Also notable was “Animals at the Disco Restaurant” which had very little plot, mostly small children pretending to be animals, eating and dancing.
After the skits, we went to the campfire, but we only stayed long enough to make a S’more each and briefly listen to people singing and playing guitar and bongo drums. I was surprised North didn’t want to stay longer, but I guess they were worn out from hiking and chasing small children around.
I slept much better in the darker room. After a breakfast of leftovers from the previous breakfast, we packed up our cabin and attended a short church service in recreation hall, which was mostly music and people sharing their favorite memories of the weekend. I noted with some amusement that the first person who shared, an elderly woman, said, “Watching the children play,” and the next one, a preteen girl, said, “Being a child playing,” and several people later, a middle-aged dad said knowing the camp was a safe enough environment to let his kids roam (in others words not having to watch his kids play). There’s the circle of life right there.
After church, we had some free time before lunch so we sat at the picnic tables outside the dining hall. Beth read The New Yorker, North watched something on their phone, and I wrote a big chunk of this. Lunch was leftovers again and then everyone pitched in to clean up the camp. We were assigned to the dining hall, so we carried stray belongings out to the lost and found, wiped off tables with soapy water, folded them up and carried them into the recreation hall so the floors could be mopped. Unused food was for sale out on the lawn, and we bought two chocolate bars, a jug of orange juice, a bottle of ranch dressing, a box of spaghetti, an orange, a pear, and a huge mostly full jar of garlic powder. We finished up around two, piled in the car and drove home. North had today off for Rosh Hashanah and they spent part of the afternoon hanging out with friends after aqua therapy, but Beth and I dove back into work after our little holiday in the woods.