I know these woods — the long drive to get here through the countryside; the dirt roads that can periodically almost jolt the teeth out of one’s head; the leaves falling to the ground thick as thieves stealing away the greenery as seasons change; the growing scent of smoke in the air as we near the spread-out campsites. Life is different here. It is simple.
* * *
I spent the weekend drinking strong, gritty coffee made over a wood-burning fire pit surrounded by a tight-knit group of friends and family discussing random things, like how to properly cook ground meat and which two celebrities we’d like to bring to camp. (I think the overall consensus was Tom Selleck and Katharine Hepburn, among several other greats.) I also slept in the back of my Jeep — seats folded down — for the first time, which is a (weird) dream come true. I enjoyed the most peaceful drive I’ve had alone in a long time and only mildly missed the huge car seats that normally occupy the entire back seat. Though I felt the slightest hint of mom-guilt for leaving my little family all weekend, I needed this break.
It wasn’t just having a break that made the difference; it was the nature of it. (No pun intended.) For a couple days, I was able to break away from everyday life, let the guard down, remember my own strength and abilities, and rekindle the roots that grew me. I laughed. Slept. Froze my butt off, despite smothering myself inside a mummy bag, and then re-learned to sleep with a hot rock under my feet. (It works!) Rode a four wheeler again. Ate whatever was offered without thinking about it. Didn’t care to be un-showered. (Truth be told, I appreciated the excuse to disregard shaving my legs. It’s such a chore!) Remembered how to load a gun and drive the back roads without a GPS. I stopped and took time to BREATHE the fresh air, and likely inhaled too much campfire smoke. I felt life again without computers and television, credit cards, traffic lights, HVAC systems, and (indoor) plumbing. I was fully present in the moment, only sending a short text (when cell signal was available) or saying a quick prayer here and there that everyone was well at home.
The perspective gained from spending a few days like this is unparalleled. It always makes me appreciate the things we possess, while also wishing half of it away. It is not impossible to live with LESS. In fact, it’s nice.
For a long time, I thought I enjoyed hunting — and I do — but all these years later, I’ve come to realize the hunting season is merely a good excuse to get outdoors and downshift. Though hunting has perks in itself, it is really the silence of the forest, the crisp air, the crunch of leaves beneath our feet, the warmth of an outdoor fire, food cooked on cast iron over flames, and the small adventures and lively stories shared among family and friends that bring me back.
* * *
At Deer Camp, there is an unspoken code. Life is simplified and decent. There is always opportunity for growth, second chances, and camaraderie. Even among familiar faces and life-long relationships, things seem habitually optimistic and people are generally helpful.
For instance, it is understood here that campsites, though the land is public, are claimed in advance of the hunting season usually with a name on a handwritten sign. Simple. Also, a common respect for others and their belongings is shared. Most people are neighborly, waving as they drive past or even introducing themselves around the area and offering to look out for each other. Decent.
Within our family camp, there are so-called “rules” by which everyone abides. The first person awake, rebuilds the campfire and makes a pot of coffee. If anyone sleeps in his/her car, the motor remains off. Each person brings his/her own tent, sleeping bag, toiletries, basic survival kit, firearms, ammo, etc., but things can also be shared. Hunting spots are first-come, first-serve, but can be shared, and everyone is aware of and respectful of each other for safety reasons. Set-up and break-down of camp is a group effort, as well as meals and clean-up. No littering! There is a trash can.
Simple. Decent. Fun.
Growth. Second chances. Camaraderie.
A refreshing ideal.
* * *
I’ve missed coming here. (When I became a mom, Camp was put on the back-burner for several years.) I’ve missed propping up against a tree or snuggling into a hillside at first light and learning the sounds of the wilderness — cities being far from this place — while daydreaming away the hours waiting for something in season to walk near; something that might provide dinner. It’s funny how quickly the senses learn to tell the difference between a squirrel rustling in the leaves and a deer prancing through them. It’s interesting to truly perceive how the trees are typically vertical, while the wildlife is horizontal. It is one of those lessons you never forget.
“You see, but you do not observe.”
I still often crave the lazy afternoons best for naps or light reading, a snack, and maybe even a horseback or ATV ride to become acquainted with the landscape. Hours of amusement are often spent exploring down, down into the creek bottoms and walking through abandoned, once-upon-a-time homes that probably existed a hundred years ago; then re-surfacing high up to the places with a view of the never ending mountains and valleys. This is part of Arkansas I barely knew existed until I joined Camp.
I look forward to the big dinners that occur on the night when the wives and children usually visit for a few hours or stay overnight. (I used to be the only girl to camp with the guys, thanks to my uncle/godfather taking me under his wing when I expressed interest, but now there are several of us.) It is like a family reunion of sorts. I love the stories told around the campfire, the fellowship that seems to happen when everyone “pitches in” to provide and cook dinner together, and I reminisce the music that drifts peacefully into the night. It puts a completely different spin on relaxation and happiness.
* * *
My husband and I were each exposed to hunting and/or camping in different ways, but all important. Whether the land is public or private; whether we hunt in a permanent ground blind, temporary tree stand, or sitting directly on top of a boulder; whether or not there are food plots and feeders, indoor amenities, and campfire cooking… The wilderness is our teacher. We have learned to respect it and manage it wisely and considerably; to be responsible, honest, and find value in life and each other; to enjoy the blessings and experiences offered and take them with us wherever we go.
Sometimes we travel together for these occasions and sometimes we go separately, but we return feeling more whole. These things are part of us and partly what brought us together. We have always agreed that spending time in nature brings us back to reality, back down to earth (in many ways), back to ourselves, and even to God when everything else feels overwhelming. It keeps us humble.
The woods are calling.