Camping With Harold

My family had its third family reunion this past week. We aren't, in general, family reunion type people, being rather aggressively unsentimental and iconoclastic. But the reunion coincided with my parents' 50th wedding anniversary year, which encouraged our better instincts. Astonishingly enough, all seven children, their spouses and subsequent grandchildren were all present on at least two occasions! Pleasant occasions, moreover!!

However, my blog is not about the vagaries of the Woodbury family but about popular culture. I'm going to write about the camp.

The camp is Silver Bay on Lake George, a YMCA camp that is family-oriented and vaguely Christian, in the way of things these days. The music at vespers was less traditional/classical and more experimental. A man came into the dining hall during lunch one afternoon and gave a prayer (in which, most appropriately, he requested God to keep people from getting too grumpy). It was the only time I heard a mealtime prayer during our stay. There is babysitting at Silver Bay and board games for borrowing in the recreation center. There are two beaches, with strange hours, a gym, shuffleboard, sailing, kayaking, rock climbing, a library that randomly closes, an ice cream and pizza parlor, a craft center, a small hall with a grand piano and--just when you think you have finally "gotten away from it all"--a business center with wireless access and phones.

We stayed in Paine Hall, which is one of those houses that inspire you to look for Wardrobes in every room. It was originally a family home, and many of the rooms have been split in twos (or thirds) and bathrooms slotted in, resulting in small, odd-shaped rooms and winding corridors. At the back of the house, a stone roofed patio has been built on. Over the stones, someone has marked out a labyrinth (it's the hot new "ancient" meditation technique) with tape. As my niece, Kezia, remarked, "It looks like something from Buffy." Which was a most appropriate remark, considering that the house also had bats.

One of which I named Harold.

Harold flew in almost every night. Looking for bugs probably. He would become disoriented once he was inside and twice ended up in a second floor bedroom. It was rather like having a big moth blundering all over the paintwork. Harold became part of the ambiance, which included peeling walls, a wrap-around porch (filled with at least twenty rocking chairs) and a tower. The house also tended to produce strangers: cleaning crews, passing visitors, individuals sliding in to use the bathroom. These people would appear at odd moments, rather like ghosts passing through. It's the sort of house that shows up in gothic novels, only nobody in gothic novels slouches off to the dining hall (down the admittedly secret path) when the dinner gong sounds.

The dining hall served basic camp fare (better, my niece told me, "than SUNY"). It may not be up to Nero Wolfe's standards but then Nero Wolfe doesn't prepare his own dishes (despite his commentary on Fritz's methods) or wash them for that matter. For those of us who find the mere process of making a decision ("What am I going to eat tonight?") a burden, this sort of thing is pure heaven.

What struck me principally about the camp was the silence. Silver Bay is north of Lake George Village. Growing up, I was familiar with southern Lake George, on the eastern shore, where a friend's family owned a camp. That camp was on the edge of a bay near ten or so other camps. Northern Lake George is both narrower and less inhabited. Standing by the Inn at Silver Bay, you could look over a rock wall and a sloping baseball field to the water. On the other side of the water, the trees heaped up, crowding against each other. This is the Adirondacks: humid and hilly with layers of green, green, green. No matter how many people one saw during the day, that particular view never lost its otherworldly quiet.

I do not, as it happens, often get sentimental over nature. I like my nature to have bathrooms and dinner gongs. I love the ocean, as in: I love driving past the ocean or looking at the ocean from a window in a hotel. But a place like Silver Bay allows you to feel as if you're getting back to nature (bugs, bats, trees, lake) without the trouble of having to pitch a tent. Or cook your own food. Because no matter how close we think we are to nature, we never are really. We create, as it were, holding patterns around the earth, like dipping one's toes in the shallow section.

This is good and right. Our ancestors, those grunting primates, knew sharks awaited in the deep. The camps of the early 1900s (of which Silver Bay is a type), like the National Parks, civilized the encounter between humans and nature. (And yes, shuffleboard is a fairly good indication of civilization.) Only as we progress technologically, do we pretend our ancestors would have felt differently, do we imagine we would want the barriers and complex sociological/educational crutches removed. A place like Silver Bay is perfect for combining nature-heavy sensations with safe civilized expectations and, as it happens, I quite like paddling in warm, bath-like water.


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