My mother tells me that we only went to camp a few times before the tornadoes came. How can this be? I remember it all so vividly. Then again, how could I forget a place so full of real and imaginary bears? I was only a young child.
‘Camp’ was my Uncle Davey and Aunt Sue’s hunting cabin in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania, generously shared with extended family like me, my mom, dad, and two little brothers. It was about a two hour drive, due north, on winding Allegheny mountain roads, and as a town kid from a smallish city, it was my very definition of middle of nowhere.
When dad turned off the paved road and onto gravel, I knew we were almost there. Now the real adventure began–the rutted road was barely driveable, and our van inched and bounced along until the green and white cabin was in sight. Camp! Camp! Let us out! We pulled onto the grass (there was no driveway), fell out of the van, and begged my parents to hurry-up-and-unlock-the-door. Inside the musty smell of damp wood, un-aired linens and old furniture filled our nostrils, and my brothers and I ran through the three small rooms, drinking in everything familiar and forgotten.
At camp, there was no running water, so we carried jugs down to and up from the spring. At camp, there was no television, so we hiked to the big rocks, went spotting for deer, and cooked mountain pies in the campfire coals. At camp, there was an outhouse, so you ‘held it’ through the night and held your breath during the day.
And just behind this outhouse there were berry bushes, frequented–it was said–by black bears. Early in the morning, I would wake up, wishing-with-all-my-might for an indoor bathroom, and picture them–hiding behind the outhouse, waiting for me.
Despite the rumors, I never saw a bear in those berry bushes, or (thank the Lord in heaven) in the outhouse. To see a real Pennsylvanian black bear, I had to wait until we ran out of milk and bread. Then we climbed back into the van and bounced our way to the store.
The closest convenience store doubled as a mini-zoo, with animals in cages in the parking lot. There was a fox who was always hiding, and friendly deer you could feed. There were several other smaller animals I have forgotten completely, and there were… bears. Two bears, in steel cages, pacing back and forth, tracking us with small round eyes. Stay close to us, my parents warned, though the bars were thick and the bears well-fed. We stayed close. For a time.
When I was about seven, the bears were suddenly gone, and my parents said they heard someone shot them ‘out of pity.’ Shot them out of pity? This made absolutely no sense to me. If someone was so worried about the bears, why didn’t they just let them go? My parents just shook their heads sadly and let go of their tight grip on our hands. Go on, they said gently, go see the deer. After that, we still came to get our bread and milk, but the parking lot wasn’t so magical anymore.
I was left only with the rumor of bears. And soon, I was left only with the rumor of camp.
On the last day of May in 1985, a week before my eighth birthday, twenty-one tornadoes touched down in Eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania. One of these raced through the woods behind my aunt and uncle’s hunting property, shifting the cabin two feet on its foundation, disappearing the outhouse, and turning over the berry bushes. The cabin was spared, but ‘camp’ was ruined.
We visited only once after the tornadoes came, and I can still see it all with my eight-year old eyes. The mountains, stripped bare. Trees turned into toothpicks; trailers flung like toys across the fields. The root balls of the trees towered above my head, ugly and unbelievable, and we couldn’t hike to our beloved big rocks because of all the destruction, blocking every trail. Thirty years later, I’m still not sure I’ve gotten over the shock.
Where can the bears live in a such a world?
Photo by Jethro Taylor