Back in the ’70s, a group of us went camping along a riverbank in the Ozark Mountains. After parking our cars along a dirt road, we made our way through some thick brush toward what was hopefully a good spot. One of us claimed he knew the way, and the rest followed.
Soon we came to the river and a low area that looked easy to cross, to the open field on the other side. K.M. had never camped out before, and she looked at me with distrusting eyes as we stepped along the rocks that stuck out of the cold water.
As we set up the camp, one of the girls asked about a tent. We told her we would be sleeping in the open air and tried to reassure her and the other girls by promising a roaring fire through the night.
“And we have Twinkies,” I told them, but they didn’t seem that impressed.
About 500 yards from us, I saw a cabin, and it wasn’t long before a group of people were heading toward us. It was a mother and her nine children, the oldest being nearly 6 feet tall and the youngest nursing from the woman’s breast. They looked very poor. “Mountain folk,” I thought to myself.
The woman asked if we had permission to be there. We said no, that we were just looking for a place to camp out.
“Where’s your tent?” she asked.
“That’s a great question,” K.M. said.
The woman told us that it wasn’t her land, that she and her husband worked it for the owner and when her husband returned, we could speak to him about staying. The children stood around her, quiet and unmoving, their eyes watching us. I offered them some Twinkies, but they weren’t impressed either and turned to go back home. When the husband showed up, he told us to go ahead and stay and to please take our trash with us when we left.
The girls seemed uneasy — they had all seen Deliverance. But we stayed, and after some cooking we pulled our sleeping bags around us and went to sleep by the fire.
I awoke at dawn — freezing. The roaring fire had departed hours before and left behind only some charred pieces of wood and a few puffs of smoke. There was heavy dew around us and on us. K.M. had moved as close to me as she could get. She was shivering. When she opened her eyes, I could see the tears. I didn’t blame her. It was miserable, so we quickly began rushing about to get out of there. We picked up our trash and hurried to the cars.
Fifteen years later, my memory about the trip had faded enough that I wanted to do it again. Our kids were about 8 and 5 then, and I headed down to Walmart to buy a big tent, plus a Coleman stove, a lantern, four heavily insulated sleeping bags and whatever else looked like camping stuff. I even bought some Twinkies. There was only one thing left to do — tell my wife about it.
K.M.’s memory was better than mine, but she knew how much the kids had wanted to go, so she gave in, and soon we headed out.
About halfway there, the sky darkened and it started spitting rain. By the time we arrived at the campsite below the dam, it was a steady rain. I asked someone who was driving out about the forecast, and they said it looked like more of the same.
We explained to the kids that we would have to come back another day because of the weather. They cried all the way home. I turned up the radio and began eating the Twinkies.