The older I get, the more I find the concept of linear time wholly insufficient. A little like I imagine the idea of the earth being flat felt in the age of the explorers. I had that experience of the present intersecting with several pasts a few days ago, when I made an unplanned visit to a place that’s awfully special to me.
It was my last day in North Dakota and I had a few hours without plans, so I borrowed my dad’s car to go for a drive. I figured I would troll some country roads with my camera, maybe head down toward my hometown in search of familiar scenes. The Girl Scout Camp was halfway between so maybe I’d swing by… “The Girl Scout Camp” was indeed where I attended scout camp but it was also where I spent nearly every weekend between Memorial Day and Labor Day for the first two decades of my life (my parents traded volunteer caretaking for access to the camp when it wasn’t in use). It was a couple hundred acres where life was simpler; where we ate outside, played in the lake, roamed freely through the shelterbelts of trees and across the prairie, and ended most days watching flames dance. In retrospect, it was the place where I felt most competent, most peaceful, most free, most myself. It was the place where I most felt I belonged, in a childhood when I so often ached to belong.
For all that, I can’t remember when I last visited – I moved west, my parents stopped using the camp, and then in 2012, the US Army Corps of Engineers rescinded the lease. It’s no longer a camp, just a wildlife area.
As I drove up, I encountered a new gate, maybe half a mile back from where the property was previously gated. I parked and got out, thinking this was perhaps the end of the line. But there was pedestrian access, and the signage didn’t preclude public access, so I immediately threw my camera in my pocket and set off up the road. It felt… fraught. The road was really overgrown, and I found myself searching for landmarks. As I walked on, I felt more and more anxious, worrying that it would be unrecognizable, worrying that I was walking into something better left alone.
When I got to the site of the old gate, the nature of the road changed abruptly. It went from “there might be a road under the weeds” to “there’s some grass growing up in these tracks”. It looked like it might have if we were opening up for the summer and hadn’t yet mowed. And the smell was unmistakable – dewey grass and sunshine, with a touch of dust and white sage. I stood there blinking, and I swear with each blink time flashed from 1990 to 2015 to 1983 to everything in between. I walked the last quarter mile or so into camp proper and wept at the sight of the rutted track and the old camp buildings. All those years of footsteps and tire tracks had left a mark in the very earth that time has not yet erased. It was real and tangible in a way I never imagined I would see it again.
I walked from one end of that camp to the other, letting the waves of time and place wash over me, every familiar detail coming back alive: the lilacs and the “units” cut into the shelterbelt where we slept in musty canvas tents during camp, the muddy beach where we whiled away endless summer days fueled by sunflower seeds and pop, the boat in perpetual motion pulling someone on water skis or a tube. I heard Taps sung around the flagpole, where the cactus still lurked to bite the unsuspecting who dared sit without a sit-upon. I looked across the field and saw the big tents erected for my dad’s company picnic, a child me competing in the gunny sack race and cheering the popcorn-eating contest. I stood at the fire pit overlooking the water and saw the Milky Way overhead, the glimmer of the northern lights shimmering over the treetops. I looked down the path through the archery field and felt worn jeans on sun-kissed legs as we took our twilight walk to see the deer feeding. Riding moped, walking on old electric spools, helping park the camper in its spot, the wheels settling into their holes dug into the ground so we could be assured it would be level.
There were signs that nature is slowly but surely reclaiming the camp. But right then, it felt like a time capsule, perfectly frozen, if it was possible to be perfectly frozen in every time I was there.
I’m struggling to tie this one up neatly, still processing what it all means to me now. But I’ve spent countless hours already reliving that visit with a smile and misty eyes. The universe is kind.