Camp Happy

Camp Happy
21W735 Paper 5
Erik Nygren
Instructor: Prof. Klingenstein

We had left the Milwaukee city limits less than an hour before. Now we were heading north. A flock of birds flapped in tight formation to our right, returning home from their winter retreat. On both sides, rolling fields of golden corn stretched out to flat horizons. Black and white cows, the world forgotten beyond the dry grass before them, blurred against the motion of our car. A few miles later we passed the remains of a lone barn, its brown boards beaten by uncounted years of harsh winters. Long ago it had given way to the wind and only a few frail props prevented it from finally collapsing out of weariness.

Soon after, we passed through a weathered fishing town. The atmosphere in this village was much older than what I was used to. For most of my life I had lived in a suburb just north of San Francisco. Recently I saw a photo of my high school, built less than 30 years ago, surrounded by undeveloped marsh land. Where herons once dove into the water searching for their dinners, cars, built overseas, now return to rows of identical, immaculately pained houses. But I was no longer on the west coast. Cottages of brick and weathered wood lined barely paved roads. Peeling paint revealed deeper layers, and it wasn't hard to imagine a coat at the bottom applied a hundred summers before. A wayside restaurant serving phosphates reminded my parents of their youth. But there were signs of change. Old canneries were giving way to yacht clubs and more gift shops for tourists were opening their doors each spring day.

Fields and towns and fields passed and finally we reached the birch forests. A canopy of yellow-green leaves shaded the gravel road, casting shadows shifting with the wind. Dust plumed up behind our car as we made our slow progress. Finally, we passed a sign on the roadside, neatly letter with the words ``Camp Happy''. We parked behind an old green Buick and started walking towards the cabin. An old black dog with drooping eyes and a violently wagging tail wobbled out to greet us, followed by my Great Uncle Russell. We followed dog and master to the cabin and passed through the crooked screen door onto the sun deck. My Great Aunt Sigrid, resting in her wicker chair, greeted us with a sparkle in her blue eyes and a grinning smile on her face.

The cabin and its contents appeared timeless. According to Uncle Russell, a relative had built it long ago modeled after a hunting lodge he had stayed in while passing through Austria. The great room's dark wooden walls were lined with bookcases. An embroidered antique sofa was the most comfortable place to sit, its cushions grown soft with age. In the center of the room, carefully placed stones composed a fireplace. An iron plaque of viking longboats and nordic symbols was set into the stone above the mantle. In the evening we would sit around the fire and talk, the flickering candelabra providing most of the light in the room. The shadows on the faces of my Great Aunt and Uncle danced with the warm glow of the fire as they told stories of times past. We leafed through old photo albums for many hours, but I wasn't keeping track of the time. The smiles on those sepia faces looked barely different from the smiles of today. Perhaps they were more content and true. On one page was a young school girl, her hair in locks, dressed in a neat black and white dress. On another page, faces without names stood around a heavy table and held burnished mugs in the air. In precious photo after photo, children skipped and their parents toasted. More recent photos were passed around as well. White flash had wiped out the warmth and contrast and people stood with flat faces in red and blue garments.

The next morning we hiked out to high bluff. The path doubled back and turned sharply and leaves rustled above. The air was crisp and smelled sharply of morning. The ground underfoot was still damp with dew and the sun's groggy rays barely managed to find their way through the canopy. The world was green and brown and yellow and the cracked white columns of birch rose close to one another. We climbed over a live oak which had fallen during a winter storm. Termites and blue and red fungi left it no chance to rest and had already begun the process of returning hundreds of years of life to the soil. Further on, the path branched. To the right one would find the remains of an old Bible camp. I had been there years before and it was in ruins even then. An archeologist of eight, I had found old \textit{People} magazines among ruins of windows, doors, and shattered walls. A rusting old pickup had rested without wheels in a clearing. But now the truck and the ruins were gone. Gravel covered the graves of old buildings plowed under. Back at the branch in the path, we turned left. Past a briar patch and past a large boulder we walked. Further into the woods, a fairy ring circled in a dark grove on ground thick with leaves. Further and further we walked until at last the shadows broke into a clearing and the sun flooded in. To the left the world disappeared and the air hung over water and rocks hundreds of feet below. Waves rippled white on a silvery lake beyond the edge of the bluff. Water stretched off to meet the sky, their union only prevented by the shore of Michigan, a thin line only visible on such perfect days. A gull drifted silently on the updraft just beyond the bluff. A small gray lizard sunned on a battered brown rock, only inches from the brink. I looked up as heard a challenger to the silence. Two loud power boats raced by.

Later that day we were back at the cabin. There was neatly trimmed terrace just beyond the porch. Down steps of carefully laid grey stone was a bench on a lawn and beyond that the lake. The sky had turned purple and the sun was half way through hiding itself for the dark night. I sat on the bench and stared raptly at the orange glory of clouds before me. I yearned to walk down that golden trail across the water and chase the brilliance forever around and around the Earth but reality held me and soon it would be dark.

The next morning I saw the dark smoke of Milwaukee's factories again filling the sky and turning the world to haze.

Erik Nygren (