It was the summer of 2016.
Years from now, I’ll look back on this summer like my parents or grandparents would remember the fun they had in the summer of ’67 or the summer of ’39. I was twenty-one, an adult imbued with newly-discovered independence—the knowledge of a freedom that now allowed me to drive across the country, to rent a hotel room under my own name, to buy alcohol and stay out all night at bars. I rarely, if ever, did those things. But I could if I wanted to, and that was what mattered.
I was back in Virginia, in my hometown, after the end of my junior year at college. I hadn’t planned to return, but that’s a whole different story. This story involves the first time I ever went on a real camping trip.
You’re probably thinking something along the lines of you grew up in Virginia and you’ve never been camping? Yeah, I know. The house where I grew up was literally on the side of a mountain, so I guess sleeping out in the woods didn’t hold much excitement for me. Sometimes, when I was younger, my brothers and I would set up tents on one of our porches, or maybe out in the yard, but it wasn’t real camping. We were close to the bathroom and the kitchen, free to still utilize any of the amenities within our home.
My dad always wanted to get a camper, to actually go camping as a family, but the years passed and it never happened. It wasn’t until recently that he bought a camper, and thus came about the first time I went camping in the summer of 2016.
It was late June. We had a family reunion happening that weekend at a state park about an hour and a half drive from our house. My parents thought it would be cool to go a few days earlier and camp out beforehand, but I couldn’t go on Friday because I had work. Instead, my parents went first, leaving Friday afternoon, and my younger brother, Ben, and I joined them Saturday morning. The drive down to meet them was fun. Ben and I laughed and talked and listened to the multitude of podcast episodes I’d downloaded—all stuff like The Black Tapes and Welcome to Night Vale. We made a few bad decisions and got turned around a few times, but we made it there in under two hours regardless.
Fairy Stone State Park was the name of the place. There was a legend about the strange, cross-shaped stones and the trees they were scattered around, but no one could tell me the legend in full. I figured it was more a marketing thing anyway.
I pulled into the camping site around noon. My parents were eating lunch outside the camper, so we joined them after unloading our necessities from the car. We spent the rest of the afternoon talking and just hanging out. Around two o’ clock, Ben suggested we head down to the lake, so we grabbed our swimsuits, piled in the car, and went. It was a beautiful lake, complete with a sandy beach and a floating dock that sported a diving board. I wasn’t much interested in swimming, but my mom mentioned something about kayaks earlier.
“Sure, you guys can go kayaking,” my mom said.
She slipped me some money, and Ben and I ran to get our kayaks. I got a red one; he got a blue one. Our parents joined us later in a canoe, but we were faster than them—Ben literally rowed circles around their canoe at one point. I had tons of fun, but somehow we all forgot sunscreen, so my pale, Irish skin suffered a mild sunburn after the fact. It was worth it.
Afterwards, we went back to the campsite. My dad made a fire, and he and I smoked cigarillos as we cooked steaks. Ben and my mom went on a short walk; by the time they came back, food was ready. I hadn’t felt that relaxed or that close to my family in a long time. We laughed and talked and joked about things long past. I ate until I couldn’t eat anymore, then laid in the camper to read for a bit as my parents went fishing. Ben took a nap, and after about an hour or so, I decided to go on a walk down the trails.
Once I got deeper into the woods, where the thick trees blocked out all sounds of other families and their screaming children, I began to understand where the legends of fairies came from. Maybe it wasn’t just a marketing ploy, I thought. Maybe the Fae inhabited these woods once. My mind was full of Irish myths from the book I left back in the camper, and as I walked the green-laden trails, listening to the bubbling of a small creek somewhere deeper in the forest, I thought, if magic were real, it would exist here.
We cooked s’mores later that night. I fell asleep early, exhausted from the day and not really looking forward to the next. The family reunion was slated to begin at noon; I almost forgot it was the reason we were there. Thankfully, I needed to leave the reunion early because of work, and I managed to escape after only three hours or so of endless questions about college and my future.
Free to breathe again, I got in my mom’s car, alone this time, and started it up. Ben was going to head back with my parents because he wanted to stay longer. Good for him, I thought. I’d always wished I liked family reunions, but I just never could bring myself to. They were a blip in my daily life that did not exist among my favorite memories. The only one I ever enjoyed was so long ago, all I can remember is a white house full of windows, a soft carpet beneath my feet, and miles and miles of sunflowers amidst rolling hills.
As I pulled out of the state park and headed home, I felt that newfound sense of freedom I mentioned earlier. It was this bubbling, giddy feeling—similar to the feeling that overpowered me when I entered the forest and discovered the likely source of the fairy stone legends.
If magic were real, it would exist here.
I don’t remember the drive as long, really. Most of it was overshadowed by the podcast episodes that kept me company—I was listening to Alice Isn’t Dead this time, a narrative that followed the cross-country drive of a trucker. She spoke as if someone injected her with liquid Coleridge; everything is a simile, a play of words that speak of distant town lights like ships on a sea and factories that consume lives until you’re pushed out into the ocean in a coffin of your own making. It was strange, but also wonderful, and it made something click inside my chest—some writer’s instinct that had me monologuing every strange thing I saw in my head.
And I saw many strange things.
The first was this: imagine you’re driving home from a weekend vacation through unknown areas. There are no towns in sight, nothing but mountains and forest and rivers dotted occasionally by houses that were often more rundown than anything. The only reason you know where to go is because of the GPS on your dashboard.
You come to a crossroads and drive straight ahead. The road you’re on now bends and dips, and you see two buildings rise up out of the endless forests. One is small, made of old wood that looks like oak, and it has a ridiculous amount of American paraphernalia decorating it; statues and stars and even a confederate flag. A larger, two-story building sits next to the house. It looks like a tavern, like something out of a Western film. Across the top, written on a decaying wooden sign, you read the name of the establishment.
The Wormy Chestnut.
It was so strange, I almost pulled over to make sure I read it right. The building was dilapidated, definitely not inhabited in many years. I wondered if it actually had been a tavern in some forgotten decade. Now, it was empty, the possible-town that had surrounded it overtaken by forests. The only other building remaining was an equally as dilapidated house.
After that, I began to notice the multitude of other strange things that somehow escaped my notice on the drive to the park, things like an abandoned satellite dish in the middle of the woods covered in vines, or a church that was way too new and nice in the middle of a dying town. I always hated to see beautiful church buildings amidst half-dead towns. It felt wrong. Churches were supposed to give back to their community, not construct a gleaming palace that sucked what life remained from the town around it. As I continued driving, I came to another crossroads, this one with a stop sign to separate the main road from the service road.
Actually, there were four stop signs.
Four stop signs stood on either side of the service road like disapproving sentinels, daring the driver not to stop. They were stacked, two on each side, as if one would have trouble picking out the bright red marker amongst all the flat, green landscape.
I continued on after a moment, the narrator of Alice Isn’t Dead keeping me company until I pulled into the town of Floyd. It was a sad town; not much to its name save a few local restaurants and some gas stations. I picked the least-dingy one I could, an Exxon, and parked next to a gas pump. After pumping fifteen dollars’ worth of gas, I ran inside to grab a coffee.
Gas station coffee is some of my favorite. My best friend Christian asked me why it was so good once, rhetorically, but I had an answer anyway:
“The main clientele of gas stations are truck drivers, right? And truck drivers need coffee to keep them awake on their long trips. They want it to be good coffee that’s not too expensive, or else they’ll tell all their trucker buddies to stay away, so gas stations make sure the coffee is always good and always fresh. They also always have a great variety of roasts and sugars and creamers, and that makes it even better.”
Thankfully, this Exxon did not disappoint. I got a medium-sized coffee, Colombian roast with Irish Cream creamer and eight packets of sugar, and then a bag of peanut M&Ms before heading to the register to pay. The guy there looked like he should be behind a truck, or maybe working in a construction yard. He had stringy hair, a scruffy beard dotted with gray, and wore a stained wife-beater. He eyed me with something akin to suspicion in his eyes as I put my coffee and M&Ms on the counter, and my customary “hey, how are you?” died in my throat.
The cashier continued to stare me down as he rang everything up and I dug through my wallet for the cash. When he gave me my change, I managed a “thank you” before I turned to go, but it was quiet enough that I doubt he heard it. I stuffed the change in my wallet and grabbed my things, aware now that the gas station was full of people who all sported a similar look to the cashier—none of them were creepy, really, they just looked tired, and maybe a bit curious. Maybe I was strange to them. Maybe the town of Floyd rarely got outsiders. Either way, I was glad to get back in my car and start driving home again.
Home smelled the same when I got to it—like lavender fabric softener, clean linen scented candles, and Pledge wipes. The weekend was fun, but it was good to be home, back with AC and electronics and food to snack on whenever I got hungry.
Still, I would always remember that camping trip in June of the summer of 2016, and the odd drive home that accompanied it.