Camping Inspired Art – AN ARTSTY JOURNEY #8
“Ye-haw!” I sang out.
It was four in the morning, and I was kicking up my heels, square-dancing with a broom, as I swept the kitchen floor waiting for a ride to the airport. I was off to see my family. My sons, Brian, though the oldest and more serious was ten, while Adam, nine, seemed to be the one to lead his brother into a mishap or two.
Once a month, I’d been able to fly home to visit the boys. I had become a great negotiator with the local travel agent. I wheeled and dealed on flights, hotels and car rental prices. I accumulated and redeemed free miles every way imaginable. I even bartered art. The trips were not only appealing, but necessary. Mandatory.
Until now, the school-year trips only gave us a week together – several nights at a local hotel and then off to Detroit to stay with my mom and dad for the weekend. But this trip was summer vacation. I would have three weeks of wrestling with my loveable rascals. Plus we’d get an even longer vacation next month! I dipped the broom and do-si-doed in a circle.
Then my heart did a two-step in the wrong direction. I was standing in the empty cracker-box of the basement apartment kitchen. Alone. This was not how I had envisioned my life. Yes, I had gotten myself back to college, cultivating my marketing knowledge. I had a flexible schedule from a medley of art related jobs to visit the kids. But, in between, I was alone. And it was lonely.
My goal was to move back to Michigan, but if I left Bismarck now it meant all my income, except for the Dahl Fine Arts Center in Rapid City would stop. Yes, I had thought about swallowing my foolish pride and moving sooner. I could go back to the hospital working the night-shift —the only available position for someone with my low-seniority. However, doing that meant I would need to hire a nighttime sitter while I worked; and daytime child care while I slept. Nursing didn’t pay that well. So here I was, still in Bismarck, slowly nursing my own fragile, wounded pride back to health one small step at at time.
Suddenly there was a rap on my back door. My friend, Cindy, was here to give me a ride. I shook off the overwhelming sullen thoughts to a place I wouldn’t have to worry about them.
The plane out of Bismarck had mechanical issues. I paced around the airport for more than an hour, waiting. The delays escalated in Minneapolis. Humidity from Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes, and a heat wave created thunderstorms. It was dusk by the time I landed in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Luckily I wasn’t scheduled to pick up the boys until the next day. And even luckier, my dad had set up their camper for us to borrow at Muskegon State Park.
All I had to do was pick up the rental car and cruise to the campsite. It was more than an hour drive but nighttime driving didn’t bother me. I had overnighted at the campsite with the boys before so I was familiar with the layout.
The South Channel campground sits about a quarter mile from Lake Michigan and has two loops. The First Loop runs along the boardwalk. It has 105 campsites and in my excitement I’d forgotten to get the number from Dad.
“No big deal,” I said to myself, certain I could recognize my folks Terry Traveler. By the time I motored into the campsite it was almost midnight. I puttered along in the economy rental compact, slowly passing camper after camper. I squinted into the black moonless night. Every camper was a shadowy tin box, too dark to tell color or read brands.
The only light was from the mercury-vapor lamp that buzzed above the camp restrooms. It casted a faded yellow light that didn’t come close to illuminating any of the campsites. I flicked to high-beam headlights and circled a second time, but the road was parallel to the campsites so it didn’t help. “Maybe I could spot my dad’s truck,” I thought, then I remembered he had dropped the camper off. No truck.
“Hmmm. I could look for a camper without a vehicle.” The thought was uplifting until I circled for the third time and realized parking was a premium in the tightly-packed campground. In the hodge-podge it looked like every camper had a vehicle.
“What if Dad’s camper was in the Second Loop of the South Channel Campground?” I suddenly thought of another possibility.
I nudged the compact out of First Loop and took the main road to the second entrance farther east. I couldn’t believe it. It was even darker here. The lots ran along the shores of Muskegon Lake and in the starless night the water was a black hole.
Dad had named his trailer, proudly: The Days Inn. The name honored me because he knew I liked camping as much as cod liver oil. I only camped because the boys loved the muck of frog ponds, the stench of smoke-filled campfires, and freedom to blaze sand dunes.
I inched by each of the additional 34 lots straining to read the names on the trailers.
I circled back to First Loop.
Maybe he backed the trailer into the lot and the nickname wasn’t facing the street. If that was true, I was really sunk. Tiptoeing around 139 campsites in the murky midnight hour would get me arrested.
I blew out a heavy sigh. “One last pass,” I muttered and scouted for any recognizable sign of the Days Inn. Finally, with still no luck, I gave up and headed for the closest and cheapest motel.
Everything really did look brighter in the morning. Straight away, I drove to pick up the boys. The rental car bumped along the dirt drive of their dad’s house. Before I could crank the engine off, the boys darted out. Instantly I scooped them into a big bear hug, letting their wiggles and giggles seep deep into my soul.
My sons were as connected as peanut butter and jelly, yet different. Take Halloween, Adam would scarfed down every chocolate malted milk ball and licorice strip, while Brian would portion out his candy so it lasted until Thanksgiving.
We tossed in their gear and motored off to the South Channel campground. With their eagle eyes perched in the backseat and noses pressed to the window, the boys scouted for the beige and brown camper.
“There it is,” Brian, said. “Papa’s eighteen foot Terry Taurus, weight 3,500 pounds, and sleeping capacity of six.”
My ten-year-old was reciting facts from a plaque I’d long forgotten about that was mounted inside the camper. Instantly I wished Brian had been with me last night. He would have found the camper on the first go-around.
I pulled onto sandy Lot No. 22 along the Muskegon Channel. Sure enough, the cursive lettering of Day’s Inn was facing the water, out of sight from the road.
The boys scurried out of the compact. Brian beelined to the ice chest nestled under the front step. “Grandma has been here!” he cried out as he flipped the lid exposing a jam-packed cooler of chilled apple and orange juice boxes.
“And Papa brought the fishing gear,” Adam said snagging a pole for a pretend cast only to get the line tangled around the tackle box and himself.
“Can we head to the playground?” Adam asked, untangling the web of line.
“You can go once the car is unloaded,” I said with my head buried in the trunk. I snagged a backpack and hauled it out, turning around to face two goofy-toothy grins poking out down from a tree.
I squeaked in awe, overwhelmed with joy as my heart sang … all because of these kids. The tin box camper may not be much of a house, but it was home to us.
On this particular vacation, I had toted a three-foot tube of rolled watercolor paper. Usually I traveled with small projects, but since this was a longer visit I packed ambitiously. For the past couple days I had been layering washes to deepen the background of a large garden painting. Next I’d been adding detailed brushwork to the flowers.
I was lost in the embellishment when Adam asked, “Do you have any scrap paper?”
“Sure,” I said, and handed him a couple sheets of sketchbook paper. Off he went and I returned to miniature strokes.
In less than an hour I heard Adam’s voice, “Paintings for sale. Come get your paintings, while they last.”
I rose from the picnic table, following the faint voices, finding Brian and Adam next door at their friend Red’s campsite. Red’s cousin Caleb was sided up next to Adam, giving him rapid-fire elbow jabs.
“Hey, Mrs. Moynihan,” Caleb chirped, popping up and down on his bare feet looking like he could take flight. “We’ve been busy as bees coloring pictures of our own. Look at the box full of masterpieces we’ve been working - -”
Adam slaps a hand across Caleb’s mouth.
I arch my eyebrow to show interest, but I’m holding back a side-splitting grin. Caleb can rattle on and on.
Caleb flits about, freeing from Adam’s grasp. “We’re selling paintings just like when we sold water balloons,” Caleb blurts out. “We wanted to be just like you, Mrs. Moynihan and sell art, too.”
I had to admit the kid had spunk.
The four boys were lined up in front of me with their chest’s puffed up and chin’s raised high, proudly displaying a stack of drawings they carried inside a couple of cardboard boxes. Red and Caleb’s hands were stained with green and purple marker. Brian and Adam’s hands were clean so I assumed they had done the pencil drawings.
Adam had done his own interpretation of my floral watercolor. As I studied his drawing I had to admire the youngster’s attention to detail. He included the white trellis and vine-wrapped petunias. It was very impressive – truly a work of art.
“Adam, this is magnificent,” I said. “But why is there a whole in the middle?”
“I didn’t like that flower,” he said, without hesitation. Then he shrugged like it was no big deal. “Besides, I didn’t have an eraser.” Adam added, “Even though I cut a hole in the picture, I figured it would still sell because someone would like it.”
I decided right then I needed to be as confident as my nine-year-old! Even now, when things aren't quite going right, I think of his spunk and feel I can accomplish anything. It is why I still own this drawing twenty-four years later! I hope you have someone who encourages you.
If you enjoy family fun camping, I have a book full of stories: Beached in a Camper. Also, I'd love hearing your favorite kid-crazy, summer story.