Going camping has always been a big part of my childhood. I was practically raised in the mountains of Kentucky. My family, immediate and distant, went camping at least twice a month on weekends. It was always so exciting packing everything into dad’s truck then climbing in the back and taking off to meet up with everyone. There would be aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins, all heading out together. We probably looked like a bunch of gypsies headed for the hills. Trucks were piled high with everything we needed for our weekend in the mountains, all lined up and driving slowly down the road to our intended destination.
Now, when we went camping, it wasn’t to a traditional campsite, this was out in the middle of the woods somewhere, with no other campers anywhere in sight. We took tarps, mattresses, pots, pans and lots of food. The kids always brought their bikes and other things they thought they might play with, this usually wasn’t much. We preferred to play in the woods climbing trees, exploring nearby caves and playing in the creek that ran nearby. There was also an old sawmill near the campsite and we loved playing in the big dunes of sawdust and sliding ourselves down the rollers of the old equipment. Finding an old board that had been left behind, we aligned it with the rollers, climbed on top and with a shove from someone we were off riding our homemade roller coaster for the short ride, careful to jump off just before reaching the end and collecting splinters if the board fell. Nonetheless, it was exciting and one of our favorite activities.
As soon as we arrived at our destination, all us kids would hit the ground running to explore the vast area surrounding our campsite while our parents and other family members set up camp. Everything was unloaded from the trucks and placed in various locations according to where each family chose to sleep. A big tarp was tied to some trees, pulling each corner tight, for protection from rain and anything that might fall from the trees where the women would be cooking. When everything was unloaded the men would gather wood to build a fire and keep a light throughout the night. The women, with their big pots and pans would begin preparing the evening meal as a unit. Everyone pitched in and done their part. The smell of a delicious supper would drift through the tall trees and touch our noses enticing us to return to camp. Supper usually didn’t come until it was almost dark and by then everyone was ready to eat.
After eating, we usually didn’t stray too far from camp because it was near dark and as young children we were naturally afraid of what was lurking in the darkness just beyond our sight. The only light we had would be what the fire put off. Anyone who has ever been in total darkness, with only a fire for light, will know what I mean when I say, the darkness hovered closely around the camp. Shadows danced across the trunks of trees and on the faces of everyone sitting nearby. I personally loved sitting around a warm glowing campfire listening to the adults telling their tall tales, swearing they were true stories. No camping trip is complete without ghost stories and my family sure knew how to tell them. I tried not to show it, but they always scared me and made me nervous about going to sleep.
At some point, we all began playing a words game, “I’m going camping and I’m taking with me….”. In succession, each person took their turn to choose 1 item they would take with them then the next person had to recite what the previous person took and then add what they would take. The list got long and remembering the order and even the items became difficult and quite hilarious at times. We always had a great time and everyone seemed happy to be just where they were.
After the stories were told and games played, everyone began settling in for the night. We did not sleep in tents. We had beds made on the ground in the open air with only a tarp hanging above us to protect us should it rain during the night. Some slept in the backs of their trucks with a mattress laid down, my family usually did this or at least my parents did. All of us kids usually slept in the same area. We would lie there picking at each other and giggling until the grown-ups got tired of hearing it and made us quiet down for the night.
One night after the fire had died down we were all awakened by the sounds of howling, barking and twigs breaking in the woods surrounding us. All the adults were immediately up and putting the kids in the vehicles for safety while they tried to see what the ominous sounds were coming from. Of course, we were scared half to death. Suddenly awakened in the middle of the night to sounds that would make even the bravest quiver in fear. The fire was quickly stoked back to life and soon there was a small circle of light around the camp.
Everyone strained their eyes to see what might be lurking just beyond the glow of the fire. Occasionally there would be a quick flash of glowing eyes moving through the darkness. The howling had stopped but the movement in the brush beyond our camp was almost steady like pacing. I heard one of the men, “I think they’re circling the camp, make sure all the kids are in the vehicles”. This scared me tremendously and I scooted as far down in the seat of the truck as I possibly could, squeezing my eyes tightly shut, thinking if I couldn’t see what was outside maybe it couldn’t see me either.
We spent the remainder of the night carefully watching and listening for the dangers we could not see but could hear. The adults cautiously watched and waited for what seemed like an eternity. Soon though, the sun began creeping over the horizon and the darkness was pushed away. The fear that once held us in captivity was now gone and we were all up and moving around the campsite. After breakfast we hurriedly went romping off into the woods once again, the light of day bringing bravery with it. The stalkers in the dark were gone and today we would investigate to see if our nighttime visitors had left any signs of their presence.
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