In this latest delving into my memories of summer camp, I'd like to talk about what I think might've been a foundational place/event of my childhood. At Lake Erie, at the camp we went to every year, there was no easy way to get to the beach. It was an epic struggle to descend the cliff to the beach.
And that struggle was against the longest, most rickety, set of metal edged and wooden-treaded steps I think I've ever seen in my life. I'm afraid of heights and though thinking of these steps doesn't seem to resonate with that feeling, I almost don't know why it doesn't. I remember them as being hundreds of feet above the ground, but of course that is not possible. But 20 feet in places is certainly probable.
So, all the families would get together their beach paraphenalia, and the dads would generally carry the bulk of the larger flotational devices, and perhaps the chairs, and the descent to the beach would begin. I don't remember a specific time we'd go down, but when we came back up it was always just in time to take a shower and go to dinner with wet hair.
I think the journey inherent in these beach visits, the fact that it was so impossible to return to get something forgotten, forms an important piece of what mountain biking means to me The carrying along what you need or doing without it. The get-there-and-get-back act of riding. The rituals.
Because that's what the shower was. Somehow, when I smell the hot water of a shower, it still take me back to Camp Lambec. Perhaps this was memorable because I lived as an only child with a single mother. So the communal aspect of the whole group heading to the shower (after visiting our cabins for clean clothes), of the men heading one way, and the women another, produced a temporary new sort of family. Suddenly I had multiple fathers and my mother was a part of something else, somewhere else.
Or maybe it's just that we didn't have a shower for most of those years. Which is true.
Think about how different those trips to the beach would be today- are, since the camp is still there. If we had carried cell phones, imagine the change. Just call the people heading down and tell them to bring the sunblock, or the kool ade, or the truck innertube. Ask every minute exactly what is happening at the top of the cliff, so you can climb the stairs at the very last minute, or the most opportune time. I can tell you one sure difference: the steps may or may not still be there (I'm guessing not), but they built a nice wide road next to them, right down to the beach. It was probably a wise plan. There are people after all, who are not able to descend 100 steps then re-climb them to leave the beach. And those folk deserve to recreate next to the water, too. Still, something seems to me to have been lost.
I'm glad I had to face those stairs. I'm glad they were there to challenge me. As something to overcome on the way home. As something to face on the way to the goal of the journey. You often hear people say 'it isn't the destination, it's the journey' I think this captures part of what they're trying to say. These rituals: the path, the stairs, the climbing over the breakers and jumping off 'til we reach the right beach... they're worth something. I don't really remember the swimming. I truly don't. But I can walk the way there over and over in my mind.
And perhaps I do, every time I go for a long ride. Maybe every ride is those stairs. Maybe every shower is symbolically that shower, and I'm that little boy with my man-family again. Maybe food tastes so good after a ride because it's always at that dining hall, with wet hair, standing outside, smelling the food, and listening to that bell ring.