Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Family Reunion
Airydale, PA

photos by Kim Brown

Camping and Decamping, July 17 to 23

If we'd been feeling a bit more prosperous we probably would have rented a bigger car for our vacation.  We won't get the Suburban back from the school until it's time for Monica to start driving the students again, so we're down to our 97 Saturn station wagon.  That may be an environmental virtue on our part (the thing gets 34 miles to the gallon still), but it meant packing five of us, all our normal gear, plus camping gear into a little car.  Fortunately I'm very good at packing.

So Saturday noon we swung by Jiri and Sharka's, where the boys had slept overnight, paused for some iced expresso from Jiri, stopped again in New London at the Latin grocery for Alberto's bunuelo quesito - and by 1:30 were in the plaquey arteries of the interstate highway system.  Across Connecticut, up through the state to Danbury, then across New York, sweeping upwards toward the Catskills.  We stopped in Hancock for beer and dropped down into the Pennsylvania Poconos.

Lake Como was as usual except for the old white pine along the road, snapped off by a storm.  It crushed the old arbor vitae in its fall.  The ruin of a tree lay on its side, a russet-colored heap clashing with all the summer green.  The cottage was warm and dry, with the lake low and stagnant, as though it were the end of August rather than the middle of July.  The phoebes were nesting under the eaves and the beaver was active along the lake.  The blueberry bush in the font yard was laden despite constant depredation by the catbird and wrens.  A deer walked up the dirt road.

Sunday was a beautiful, cool morning in the 50's.  We fired up the toastolator and coffee was soon burbling in the antique percolator.  Monica tore out the fading daisies on the flagstone patio.  A hummingbird came to investigate.  We drove over to Scott Center to pick blueberries and raspberries, but the maples are shading out the bushes and picking by the handful is a thing of the past.  The boys and I hiked toward the hilltop, beyond George's fallen-down hunting cabin and up past the flagstone quarry.  Years ago the gypsy moths thinned the canopy and this time of year the trail is lost in thickets of goldenrod and briars.  As we blundered around growing lost and hot and weary, we ate all our berries for sustenance and had none to bring back to Monica and Alberto, who'd grown impatient and hungry waiting for us in the shade.

In the evening, back at Como we took the canoe to the Upper Lake.  The little vessel is still a bit flattened from last summer's Delaware River fiasco and for a little while a little fountain was jetting up from a hole in the bottom.  Nico plugged it with some grass and pine needles.  The shallow, swampy lake is rimmed by dead trees, a sign that the beavers must have been left to perfect their dam under the bridge that connect the lakes.  But now the water level is down and cool, green grass grows all around among the decaying roots.  Phoebes and waxwings hopped at the shallows; a kingfisher complained; a great blue heron watched us as Canada geese retreated.  As night fell, below the cottage, we built a fire in the fire circle and toasted marshmallows.  But the bats have died out and the mosquitos were voracious.

In the morning, Nico and I took a circuit of the lower lake.  The white water lilies that Dad planted years ago have spread all the way to Gene's Camp.  Below the lower bridge, there didn't seem to be any water at all going over the concrete dam.  Beavers were doing some work there, but to no purpose until there's more rain.  We locked the canoe, packed up, closed up the house and departed southwards.  Arrived at Mom and Dad's in the afternoon.  Dad was hobbling and grimacing from last week's surgery, when he'd had his left knee replaced.  The boys were soon into the pool, and Monica and I followed.  Scores of butterflies and hovering hawkmoths flickered in his plantation of bergamot, bee balm and ox-eye sunflowers.

On Tuesday we left Alberto and his gear in Mt. Gretna and departed for the Seven Mountains, the convoluted, corrugated heart of central Pennsylvania.  Chris was waiting for us there at Penn-Roosevelt State Park scoping out the sites.  We settled on #12 a walk-in back among the hemlocks and along a gurgling, mossy stream.  In the ridges and canyons of the 7 mountains, there is woods and water, streams and hidden springs, hemlock 500 years old, grouse and bear, and a million billion blueberries, with trails through it all.

Chris and I both have strong memories of going along with our grandfather in his cattle truck on Wednesday mornings to pick up livestock for transport to the Belleville sale. We'd stop at a farm and load up a dairy cow, then to the next for a half dozen pigs or a couple of sheep, and so on.  We'd unload the animals into the maze of stalls and passages at the sale barn.  Then linger as Grandpa talked farming and Valley gossip with other men in overalls and caps.

So there was some nostalgia in it for us on Wednesday as we pulled in along the line of tethered buggies to the hot, dusty parking lot of the Sale.  Flea market, baked goods stands, produce sellers, tool makers all in full swing.  Amish, Mennonite, English all mixed together, the gamut from browsing tourist to Anabaptists in dusty straw hats chatting in Dutch.  Mom had given the boys $20 each and they were intent on buying weaponry with it.  Porter a sword and Nico a survival knife (with fishing tackle, compass, matches and so on in the hollow metal handle).  And we bought pastries and little yellow plums.  They were auctioning off eggs inside: "For a white dozen, 55 cents - do I hear 65?"  Monica went searching for food and found a turkey dinner somewhere.  The boys and I ate fried food out in the heat.

At the livestock auction they were bidding on horses.  Just like I remembered, the auctioneer seemed to be telepathically able to read the twitches and tics of the audience enough to tell who was bidding against who.  There was a  9-year old Morgan that would need to be re-taught to pull a buggy.  A pair of half-sister mares that had never been asked to work.  A wild-eyed speckled gelding that fought the tight bridle-grip of the the beefy Amish youth who led him.  (That one went for $165 and probably condemned himself to a journey to a Mexican slaughterhouse.)  Nico was appalled at the switches they used on the piglets and he gasped and covered his face with his hat when a sluggish one was picked up by the hind leg.  We left before the dairy cattle came up for bidding.

After the heat of the Valley, we climbed up and over Stone Mountain to cool off at Greenwood Furnace State Park with a swim in the old reservoir.  A couple of weeks of heat and slow water means the lake is just cold rather than being the brutal springwater that I remembered.  We weren't the only ones splashing in.  Even an Amish family parked its buggy in the shade and took to the water -- a mother and eight kids -- from teenage girl down through toddler in a straw hat.  The straw hats and shoes came off, but otherwise the kids went in fully clothed, suspenders, bonnets and all.  On the other side of all the exposed American flesh, a Chinese family, presumably, by the look of their hosts, on some sort of mission exchange, also went in fully clothed.

On Thursday we climbed up the trail along Detweiler's Creek, then picnicked and gathered blueberries along Bear Meadow, but the trail there wound back into the woods rather than wending along the swamp itself so we didn't hike far.  I showed Monica and the boys a dead rattlesnake I found, which was probably a mistake.  The greenbottle flies were working away on it.  We left the Seven Mountains for the afternoon to drive into State College for ice cream.  Porter was smitten with the huge buildings and sprawling campus and declared confidently that this was where he was going to come to school to study either engineering or biology.  No quaint Colby College campus or UCC for him.  He's been asking questions about college ever since.

Back at camp the others slept off their ice cream and I went for a hike up Thickhead Mountain.

On our way out on Friday, we came across a timber rattler crossing the road. He was fat and sullen and yellow with dark markings.  He shook his thin black tail at us as he slunk through the undergrowth.  This was a hundred yards from where we'd been berry picking two days before.   Monica swore she'd not wade into these huckleberries and laurel again until she'd gotten herself some heavy boots.  In retrospect, I'd guess the Amish berry-pickers in their waders weren't just wearing them for the swamp water.