When I was about nineteen, I went tent camping with my family in the Smoky Mountains. It was summertime, the mountains were a cool, hushed oasis of mystery and shadow, and everyone else had a grand time—but I’m going to go ahead and confess that I could hardly wait to get back to civilization. I didn’t like washing dishes in cold water and sleeping on the ground and worrying about bears on the way to the bathhouse. I got sick, and the smoke from the campfire made me cough. One night there was a thunderstorm that threatened to blow my tent away and soaked my sleeping bag, and in between lightning flashes, I came as close to making a vow with God as I possibly could…
If You’ll just let me get home in one piece…if You’ll just let this week be over…
But I’m so glad I didn’t commit to anything that night. I feel quite certain that God only knew how much I would adore camping in my future. I would have laughed that night, shivering in my tent from cold and fear, to think I would sign up for such a thing again, much less actually suggest it. Among the delightful jokes of my life is the fact that the Airstream was my idea—and that I was more surprised than anyone! My sister reminded me before we embarked on this latest sojourn that Airstream camping is not necessarily what some people would consider camping proper.
“It’s glamping,” she avowed.
She’s right, of course. There is something rather glamorous about a hot shower, a soft nest of a bed, a tiny gas oven, a refrigerator and a little deep freezer for Bonnie Blue’s raw food—in the middle of the woods. I celebrated the daily ritual of afternoon tea served properly in my pale blue “Charm” teacups with even more appreciation than I often do at home (those cups were the very first items I bought for the Airstream, before we’d even found it!), seldom failing to take my tea out of doors under the awning. And it was lovely to get dressed up occasionally and run down to the lovely old hotel on the island for dinner or cocktails on the verandah. I was hugely amused one afternoon on a previous trip: I’d been wrestling mightily with a stubborn sonnet out on the verandah, and the sudden completion in a last tumble of words seemed cause for celebration. Our favorite bartender was working that day, so I went in to order a glass of wine, intending to savor it reflectively back out on the porch. As I was waiting, however, I couldn’t help overhearing the conversation of another couple at the bar, deploring the new hotel policy of half-price cocktails on Thursday nights, which evidently brings in a lot of non-hotel patrons.
“Ugh,” said the woman, with cool disdain. “Watch out for the RV set.”
The bartender and I exchanged a glance of flickering mirth. A friend and a hotel institution, he’s served us just as graciously over the years whether we were “RV set” or registered guests. But it absolutely amazes me, the misconceptions we all cherish towards those whose ideas of fun are different than our own. I can honestly say that the people I’ve met in the camping culture are some of the most sincerely kind and gracious souls I’ve ever encountered.
So, it’s been a blessed and beautiful month by the sea. We’ve worked hard and we’ve rested well in this place so dear to both of us. My soul has been restored in a profound way, and I have a new sense of clarity for the coming days. What’s more, a new season has unfolded: my Oxford studies commenced during our stay, and I spent my days divided between writing like the wind and navigating my way around the virtual learning environment. I actually attended my live, online University Induction one lovely sunny morning on the hotel verandah. The significance was not lost on me that just four months ago I’d had my application interview via Skype in the Victorian-era boardroom on the other side of the wall behind me, another kind hotel friend having secured it for me for that purpose. It means the world to me that this place has been home to such important experiences in my life. I’m still rather dazed by it all.
Our days have been full, and each one gemmed with their own sweet memories of fun: there was the night Philip suggested on a whim that we cover our dinner plates with foil for an impromptu beach picnic—the spaghetti was none the worse for the wear after a bouncing jaunt in the picnic basket on the back of my bike, and Philip, Bonnie and I all relished the privilege of a quick swim in the ocean before supper. Then there was the afternoon we hatched our unprecedented and extreme money-saving scheme for the boat fund during a walk along the fishing pier—we named it “The Land-locked Mariners Relief Fund,” and toasted it that night with cheap champagne. And, of course, the night we sauntered down to the marina to admire the sailboats and hopefully talk shop with a willing salt or two: no sooner had we stepped onto the dock than we were assailed by a small dog gang, the leader of which appeared to be a fiery little Yorkie whose name and reputation were known to everyone in the marina. “Miss Pearl” guided us back to her owner, who was hosting a dock party for the “live-aboards,” and, in keeping with all my hopes, they invited us to join them. We took our seats amid a bunch of strangers and their dogs (Bonnie Blue was a perfect lady, I might add—we were very proud of her) and starting flinging questions right and left like the eager novices that we are. One couple in their eighties had lived aboard their 41-foot junk for eight years, and, perhaps noticing my wistful glances at the paneled warmth of the lamp-lit cabin glimpsed from the open companionway, the wife invited me to come aboard and have a look around. We’ve heard of the famed friendliness of the sailing community, and that night confirmed it!
But best of all was the dinner dance down at the hotel this past Sunday night. I had a pretty vintage frock I’d brought just for the occasion, and Philip donned his seersucker suit for the last time, and we spent an enchanted evening dancing to all of our favorite standards and chatting with old friends—friends whose friendship we owe to the decade we’ve spent enjoying this dance at any chance we get. It’s so rare to find a really, truly, old-fashioned dance in this degenerate age!
And what about my novel? On Tuesday, the last day of September, I still had three scenes to go. I rode my bike down to the hotel that morning to sit on the verandah with a tall English Breakfast tea. And I wrote. And I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. Around three, I closed my laptop and stood up rather shakily. The ride back to the Airstream was a tumble of emotions—tenderness that we were leaving the next day being uppermost, I’m afraid. I exploded into the Airstream, where Philip and Bonnie were waiting for me.
“Well, did you finish?” he asked.
“I forgot to type The End,” I said. And promptly burst into tears.
It seems so strange to have come to the end of this draft at last. It was over two years ago on the beach of this island that I’d told Philip my idea in the first place. And now there’s an unwieldy and somewhat graceless sheaf of papers to show for it. Not at all what I want it to be, of course—not yet. But I have a frame in place; I know my characters better than I did when I started, and so many ideas and plot lines bubbled to the surface in the sheer mundane act of moving a pencil across paper or my fingers over a keyboard. I once heard Leif Enger say that “persistence is the landing strip of the Muse,” and I know there’ll be a lot more of that required of me in the coming days. For now I’m going to let it rest a bit–stew, percolate. But while I have no illusions of how hard it’s going to be, I’m very eager to get back to this work. I care about it so deeply.
Most people would say summer was over on Labor Day, or perhaps when the kids went back to school in August. But my summer ended last night as our Airstream lumbered back into the driveway. I got out to open the gate and I knew, in the cool, fragrant darkness, that autumn had come. The mistflowers were blooming along the front walk, and this morning there was no mistaking that tender new angle to the light.
I know I’ll settle in to the beauties of this dear season. But today I’m missing my island. I’m missing my golden marshes and my silver sands, my birds and trees and flowers and fragrances and the unique, sweet astonishment of being there.
Last week, Philip and I got into a playful argument over which artist did the best version of A la fin de l’été: Françoise Hardy or Brigitte Bardot. (I voted for Bardot; he went for Hardy.) But there’s one thing we agreed upon: we’ll remember this one forever.
(If you want to weigh in on the Bardot-Hardy debate, you can listen here:
I’d love to know what you think! )