When I was twelve, my aunt bought a trailer and dropped it in a gravel parking lot in Monticello, Indiana. It was her summer home. Every weekend she would drive the two and a half hours to sit in air conditioned gloom and read while my cousins bothered her for quarters to play at the arcade that was further up the lot.
The campground looked like an abandoned drive-in without the looming screen. Metal poles sprouted from the rocks and campers were able to plug in and suck electricity. At night, muted conversations and country music could be heard while bug zappers caught moths and sizzled them to death. I would listen; caught between the frigid air conditioning and the fresh sunburn I would wear from June ’til school.
We would go up for a week every summer whether we wanted to or not. My mom would bring my brother, my sister, and me for our dose of sun poisoning. My father would stay home, go to work, and starve.
A short drive or a lovely, brisk walk away was Indiana Beach. We’d always drive. It was an amusement park and boardwalk where people could eat chocolate covered frozen bananas or elephant ears while they received their sunburns. The rides were dangerous. It was an unspoken delight to know that the roller coaster could lose a few cars on the drop, or the tired safety belt could give way when the Sea Dragon was completely upside-down and riders could fall faster than the change in their pockets to the hard concrete.
The were-men operating these rides knew and waited patiently for the day they would get to provide a quote for the local newspaper.
“They came down and went splat. It sounded hollow and wet. Like if you were to hold a watermelon above your head and let it drop.”
One summer a tornado came and flipped my aunt’s trailer over. No one was in it at the time, but the trailer was demolished. They bought another one with the insurance money. Apparently, they had some pretty valuable belongings that were lost in the tornado and they were able to get an even nicer model. One with four bunk beds, a sleeper couch, a master bedroom with a double size mattress, and a kitchen nook that transformed into another spine-bending night of sleepless misery. It was longer, wider and colder. Perfect for plunging the air conditioning below Arctic, closing the curtains, and reading Stephen King.
Apparently, this new trailer was too good for Monticello, Indiana. The summer I turned fourteen, my aunt moved her summer home where it remains today: Woodsmoke Ranch and its 354 acres of driveway, trailers and trees. It’s a gated community eighty miles south of Chicago that one cannot enter unless one possesses a certain sticker or provides the proper paperwork to the angry Wal-mart greeter in the booth at the entrance. They always greet me like an unwelcome invader bringing my dust and city fumes to their quiet clean community. Even after sixteen years and ten cars. It’s a funny bit of arrogance, considering that almost everyone within Woodsmoke limits is from Chicago and her suburbs.
Kids run with impunity across the asphalt curves following dogs or balls or fleeing from a squirt gun assault. The roads have posted speed limits of ten miles per hour, so their parents never watch or worry. And dogs can do their worst on honest to goodness grass instead of the white gravel that keeps no secrets.
But people do take this campground seriously. Around their trailers, they build decks and fire pits and screen porches and elaborate monuments to racing legends. They keep their lawns groomed and decorated with rocks and flowers and ground lights. They also know when I’m doing eleven on their soft black roads. They glare at me in their Jeff Gordon racing shirts, holding beers in beer cozies with wit writ upon them.
My uncle bought a piece of land at Woodsmoke ten years after his sister. Apparently, the lure of burning wood and long, empty days was too much for him to bear. His land had a trailer, deck, fire pit, and ground lights on it, so all he had to do was cut the grass and drink. Since he isn’t a reader like my aunt, he also had cable installed.
My brother owned a trailer at a gravel campground in Antioch. By the channel lakes. I used to go up there with my Polaris wetbike and run from swans and cause wakes in no-wake zones. But when the spot next to my uncle went up for sale, my uncle offered to buy it and let my brother park his trailer on it for free. My brother turned down the offer and the lot was eventually sold. Immediately after the sale, my brother bought a Woodsmoke lot that was nowhere near my uncle. It was covered in poison oak and cost six thousand dollars more than free. It was a steal. He moved his trailer there and began building his deck.
Neither my brother nor his wife seem to like swimming. They have no use for the campground’s two pools and only form of recreation. I don’t think they bring my nieces to the pools, either. Whenever I visit, they are in the freezing trailer, eating ice cream and complaining about the summer heat.
Not that the pools are much fun with all the regulations they carry. You can’t run, use flotation devices, or freeze the water and skate on it. Every hour, at ten minutes before, everyone is ordered out of the pool and the water is tested. At the beginning of the next hour, a lifeguard (usually a grandchild of the entrance attendant) blows a whistle and swimmers are allowed to re-soak themselves.
Swimming and drinking and setting fires are about all that can be accomplished in a Woodsmoke day. Since there’s no point in having a fire unless it’s replacing the sun and there’s little reason to drink unless there’s a blaze to attend, much of the day is spent waiting for the sun to go down. In July, that’s about nine in the evening. At ten thirty, quiet time is in effect and it is enforced (giving the angry man at the gate a second chance to send me packing). So the hour and a half between is passed with beer and fire.
I want to open a bar at the ranch called El Mosquito Borracho. It would be completely outdoors, open from nine until ten thirty and would include one huge fire pit and a row of kegs. I’m not sure I’d be able to get any insurance, though.
After Labor Day the two pools are emptied and closed, signalling the beginning of the end of the season. Halloween is the big holiday among the wood-folk. It’s the last event before the cold is too much for even the biggest bonfires. (My dad was famous for blazes that could be viewed from space).
To celebrate, the men light fires and drink. Moms and kids go out to beg for treats. Moms get Jello shots and kids get forgotten. They crowd the lanes in their costumes pushing strollers and I’m forced to smile at them. It becomes my mask.
They operate a haunted house. It’s supposed to be scary. It contains a bunch of residents that line a hallway and jump out and scream at other residents as they pass through.
With so much family in this sun-fearing community, I’m invited up often. I go for the day, about twice every summer and I’m glad to see the people who share my DNA. The only other place I have more family gathered is at Holy Sepulcher Cemetery. No one minds when I drive over ten miles an hour there (theirs is a fifteen miles per hour speed limit), but it doesn’t have even one pool.
Woodsmoke is not far from everything, but it is not close to anything. It is camping without the sleeping bags and thin tents, camping that neither requires nor provides any love of nature. It is a backyard that over seven hundred trailers park on. It is a getaway that goes nowhere. The sun is too much. The poison oak is taking over. There’s not enough wood to burn. There’s never enough wood to burn. Satellite dishes have grown on the roofs of trailers and at night these last few summers there have been more glowing televisions than fire pits.
With more campers indoors, in better accommodations, who will be out to give the suspicious glare to the newcomer? Will the sacred time after nine thirty go unobserved? Who will populate the pools for fifty minutes every hour? Who will test for pee when swimmers remove their dripping bodies?
The future may be questionable, but I will continue my fair weather pilgrimage until the last of my wood-folk kin stops inviting me. Until no one remains to watch the embers compete with the fireflies. Until the air conditioning runs out.