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Cheaha State Park

(I never tried to sell this piece; I thought it was a little too quirky for mainstream media, but I like it anyway. It is quite representative of my writing style, untouched by an editor. Is that good or bad? You decide.)

Written in 2003

If you ever want to get outside yourself and just observe human nature, there’s no better place than an RV park. We take along our tent, a 35-year-old relic my dad bought on a whim when his marriage was bright and shiny and his understanding of my mother was surging toward its high water mark. To my memory we never used it. I didn’t even know we had it, in fact, until my parents divorced and honored me with a explorer’s pass to the physical detritus of their marriage. It’s boxy and square and makes a lot of noise assembling the aluminum poles. I’m quite fond of it.

Throw the campstove in the back -- an artifact of my millenium paranoia -- some coathangers, sleeping bags, marshmallows and a coil of rope, and we’re ready to roll. Two hours of travel later, and we’re pulling up alongside the camp store at Cheaha State Park. We’ve followed close on the heels of a bicycle race (up Alabama’s highest mountain? What kind of masochist...nevermind) so there are lots of lean flanks in spandex to observe. Curiously, there are also a lot of middle-aged couples on motorcycles, usually big, brawny bikes with capacious saddlebags ad cushy seats. Me and my two kids swoop down on the camp store without mercy, eyeing choice bits of plastic to purchase as a reminder of our stay in the Great Outdoors.

My brain conjures up varied unpleasant reasons why they want the names and ages of all campers in our party (to know how many perished in that unfortunate rock slide, help in identifying our charred bodies after a forest fire, to run an FBI check, you pick one) but we are back in the van soon enough, clutching a piece of cardboard that identifies a little slice of state park that’s “ours” for the next few days.

The parking gate arm that’s supposed to keep out the great unwashed unauthorized crowds is busted off and lies abandoned in a thicket of weeds. The road is crumbling asphalt and every direction there are wide expanses of rutted deep orange Alabama clay. Somebody has tried to shroud these scars with a sprinkling of hay, and some new grass is struggling through, optimistic green against the golden hay and red dirt.

Our goal is a nice view of the lake or the woods, not too close to any other campsite. We forget about the importance of close proximity to the bathhouse until the tent is pitched, and by then it’s too late. We’ve snagged the corner site; only three of the twenty or so sites are occupied, so we have no close neighbors. The tent is sited away from the parking pad with its gray power box and white sewer stub sharing a concrete pad with the water connection. Under some immensely tall pines, a few scrubby short needled evergreens and graced with twenty-foot beeches, the tent window frames a spectacular view of the lake, the mountain towering above it, its stony framework nudging through the soil like bones through flesh.

I realize my subconscious has been at work as I gaze at the peak in front of me. I’m here for some distraction-free time to work on a book project that’s three years old and aging every day. I want the leisure to recall why, exactly, this project grabbed ahold of me and still won’t let go.* So I have a mountain yet to scale; maybe when I’m polishing up the last chapter I can camp on top of the mountain and look down upon the rest of the world.

But actually, an RV camp, no matter how isolated or shabby, is no place to find solitude. I know this. Within minutes of our own arrival, a pickup pulling a popup camper slides into the space nearest ours. Two guys hop out, and with a crank and a flourish they have accomplished what takes us another hour to achieve: a comfy home-away-from-home, complete with astroturf at the front steps and plastic lawnchairs by the grill. I covet a popup myself, but will have to settle for an antique tent until my first bestseller.

The couple is gay, and I am momentarily pleased that my daughter is too old and savvy to comment, while my son is still too young to care. On our stroll to the bathhouse, we spy a 32-foot pull-behind trailer belonging to a retired couple. We wave, exhange friendly greetings. There seem to be four or five campsites occupied only by a trailer or popups folded closed, and I see more sites are full than I originally thought. What’s more, a lot of these traveling homes are sporting Harley-Davidson stickers. It takes me a few hours to register the significance of this.

As dusk begins to fall, unnaturally early because of the mountain’s shadow, another popup pulled by a mini SUV cruises slowly past our site. They choose the site right next to ours and are also indecently quick putting up their campsite, complete with a strand of blinking christmas lights outlining their porch roof. The low animal grumbling of a few motorcycles arriving are only a temporary distraction from the immediate needs to provide food and entertainment to my offspring. We are treated to a stereo rendition of the Alabama-Georgia game, blasting from car radios on either side of us and up the hill. Alabama loses.

Next morning, after an argument about naming lizards and the proper uses of a pine branch, I am ready for my hard-won solitude to begin. My husband picks up the kids and takes them home. I flip open my laptop and await the muse.

(The piece was left unfinished)

*Note from an older me: the book was written and sent to the publisher in August 2009. It's due out in 2010 under the title "My Girl, Mary Pearl."