Once upon a time, I worked at a camp called Chingachgook. It was a sprawling camp nestled in the southern Adirondacks with a 32.6 mile lake at one end and a 2,631-foot mountain at the other. It was home to squirrels and owls and eastern newts. It was home to dozens of staff members, their numbers fluctuating with the constellations. For four seasons, it was home to me.
I remember when I first arrived at Chingachgook. It was early evening and the world around me was tinged an atmospheric blue. I was given a golf cart tour around the campus and then moved temporarily into a yurt, which lingering summer camp staff tried to use as a hookup spot that night. It was the last week of camp, and it was strange to be welcomed to a place that was winding down, to be eager and new amidst a tired, sun-drained staff. I felt out of place and overwhelmed.
Flash forward a year and I was sterning a canoe full of college freshmen back to camp after a three-day trip down the lake. We bumped onto the shore and I began the process of de-boating the participants, holding the canoe even and steady as they clambered out. It was my last trip for the summer and already the fall staff had begun to arrive. I was sorry to see summer go. I felt like something had changed within me that summer—on the summit of Upper Wolf Jaw, in the swatches of Canadian wilderness, 100 feet below the lake—and I was scared that I would lose it with the shortening autumn days.
It is strange what you remember once an era is over. It is interesting which totems you take with you.
COVID has been a slow suffocation for a lot of camps and outdoor places, Chingachgook among them. The doors are closed. The people are gone. The woods grow wild with the absence of campers.
I’ve written a lot about the loss of places, and it’s tempting to do that again—to dissect my favorite Chingachgook spots and hold them close in memory—but that’s not the loss I’m feeling most acutely this time around. Because the wetlands will be there when I visit next. The billion-year-old rock will be perched by the brook. Red Fox Hollow will be shaded by its perpetual canopy of pine.
But the people? They are gone. Maybe for good. And certain places are only special because of the people who inhabit them, the memories forged in their presence. It’s like the hollowness I feel whenever I visit Pittsburgh: It’s not the dingy streets I miss, but sipping shandy on sagging front porches, or eating egg noodles at 1AM and forcing my few still-awake friends to watch Wild China with me. The city feels empty in their absence.
I thought I’d gotten good at impermanence; it was something I’d honed and practiced through seasonal work. I was always leaving, always moving on. But there was a self-centeredness to it all, a sense of agency. I was the one leaving. I was the one who chose to say goodbye.
And now I am the one who is left.
See, Chingachgook was a place I took for granted because I always assumed it would be there. I could go back whenever I wanted. Things would have changed, yes, but not very much. My bosses, my friends, they had full-time jobs and employee housing. The seasonal staff would change, but the bedrock people would still be there, of that I was certain.
When you go into the wardrobe, when you burst through the brick wall at Platform 9 and 3/4, you expect the world you left to keep existing in your absence. You are off on your own grand adventure, but the world will wait for you to come back. You can go off and vanquish the darkness and marry the prince and slay the dragon, and the world will be ready to welcome you back when the time comes. You don’t expect the world to leave you. You don’t expect the people you left behind to vanish.
What breaks my heart the most is that the community I existed on the periphery of is crumbling. I can only watch from a distance as this seemingly stable structure of people is forever altered. There is no going back. From my vantage point, they’d made it. They had those few coveted full-year positions in the outdoor world and a sense of community that held steadfast through the changing seasons. They were proof to me that you could have it all, that a life like that was possible.
Bereft. Such a formal, tight-laced word. To lose something you didn’t know you could lose and what to do with that sudden emptiness. That is something I’ve been learning throughout this pandemic—how to deal with the world when tectonic plates shift and certainty crumbles and you are left alone.
I’ve been fighting the urge to end this post with a happy, nostalgic memory—something wistful, something pleasant—but it feels disingenuous to the moment. This post is rather messy in construction, the metaphors are lopsided, and the flow is shaky. But that in itself feels authentic, true to the unspooled chaos of the moment and my own ragged thoughts. Not every wound can be turned into poetry. Sometimes things are just sad and it’s OK to let them be sad.