Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College
Diana Z. Blaney-Silva
"Sweet Summer Memories"
For years, after the death of my dad, I thought my camping days were over. I wasn't brave enough to journey into the mountains on my own with my sons, but I wanted to go back to my summer childhood haunts to recapture the happy, carefree child I once was. The monumental granite mountains that surrounded the valley where my dad taught me the art of camping and fishing seemed like a distant dream. He taught me how to search for slippery hellgrammites under large rocks in the shallow streams, which was a daily task if you wanted to lure the biggest fish. I dreamt of the icy, cold river that seeped through my tennies, where I learned how to bait a hook and tie a spinner. I wanted to feel, again, the tug of a German Brown or Rainbow trout at the end of my fishing pole. Galloping on rented horses down the dusty, dirt road with mom and my two sisters, getting slapped in the face by branches, and trying not to fall off our steeds were great adventures we shared. Roasting marshmallows golden brown over a blazing campfire and singing songs with family and friends brought long days to an end. Were the stars really close enough to touch? The only way to find out was to venture back in time, to the Sierras, to share these memories with my sons.
I organized our little adventure to be as similar as possible to the ones dad had once planned for us. Leaving at daybreak, I ignored the new bypasses and drove through all the small towns along the way. We paused at the scenic lookouts of Lovers' Leap outside of Oakdale, and an old, wooden covered bridge at Knights Ferry. Forty years ago we could drive over the bridge. Now, only foot traffic is allowed. We drove down old streets in Jamestown and Sonora. Throughout the drive, I saw familiar sights. When we drove past the Pinecrest turnoff, over the bridge into Strawberry, and then into the parking lot of the Strawberry Inn, I began to feel butterflies in my stomach. I remembered that one of the highlights of our day long trip with mom and dad was when they treated us to a breakfast of hot waffles and maple syrup. In the fifties, eating out was a big deal because money and fast food restaurants were scarce. A new deck overlooking the Stanislaus River below was a recent addition and a perfect spot for us to eat breakfast outdoors. Blue jays swooped down on the ledge to steal tiny morsels the boys left for them. The birds never seemed to get enough. The roar of the Stanislaus River below hadn't changed, and it was music to my ears.
I was anxious as we drove away from Strawberry, and I wondered if the Dardanelle Mountains and resort would be the same. When I was a little girl, we knew we were getting close to Kennedy Meadows when we saw the awesome Dardanelle Mountains in the far distance. Mom and I nicknamed them "Our Mountains," and I had just started telling my sons about them when the thick forest of trees gave way to their grandeur in the distance, and tears came to my eyes. I had believed at one time I might never see them again. My thoughts traveled back in time to the laughter of three sweet, innocent little girls (my pre-tomboy days) running down the paths and through the forest. I wanted to go back before our hardships and tragedies, when my life was full, and we were a complete family.
Almost missing a curve on the road brought me back to my senses. I absorbed this unchanged vista through the trees and drove on, reaching Dardanelle Resort a few minutes later. Parking my car and looking out over the field of green grass, I could just make out dad and grandpa walking in their rubber boots across the meadow, attired from head-to-toe in their fishing gear ready to catch their daily limit of trout. I blinked my eyes, and they were gone. It was a precious moment from my past that I will always cherish. We walked up the creaky steps into the old wooden store to buy an ice cream, and I noticed nothing had changed. The same bare necessities were stacked on the shelves, even the old lures dad used for fishing. I just had to buy one for old-times-sake. Opening the squeaky screen door, we walked outside and found a quiet spot on a wooden bench. I looked around and inhaled the fresh scent of pine from the forest and realized again nothing had changed. The rustic cottages out back were still rustic. The hitch-posts outside the store were still there for the occasional rider. The dirt road was still dusty, and the green meadow was still swampy. I was excited. So far, so good!
On the road again, just a few minutes from the Kennedy Meadows turnoff, my mind swirled with memories. It was sad knowing that dad, grandpa, and grandma weren't around to share this with my sons. The towering mountains of granite sparkled in the bright sunlight. The rivers roared. The gentle meadows were lush and green. The narrow, curvy road wound its way back and forth, up and down through the valley. It was as if time stood still for twenty years.
A sign read Kennedy Meadows 3 mi. The palms of my hands were moist; I was giddy and nervous. It had been over twenty years. We turned off Highway 108 onto a dirt road, and half way to Kennedy Meadows we stopped at Deadman's Creek Campground. This was my special corner of the world where I spent all my summers fishing, swimming, hiking, loving nature and taking unsuspecting souls on snipe hunts. We would leave them abandoned on the mountainside at night holding a paper bag, waiting to trap the nonexistent birds that we were supposed to chase their way. We hit the bushes with clapping hands trying to scare the snipes to the bag holder, pretending to scour the hillside, but instead, we walked back to camp. A short time later (when it got quiet) they realized they had been duped and returned to camp only to find all of us sitting around the campfire, laughingly asking, "What took you so long? How many snipes did you catch?" We'd all have a good laugh before going to our tents. Tents? This was where we would pitch our tents, real canvas tents -- but all we found were wall-to-wall trailers in numbered campsites marked off with white-painted rocks which took away from the beauty of the campground. Where were the cozy campsites of yesterday?
The old outhouse on the hill had been replaced by a new, clean bathroom. So much for roughing it. I remembered waking during many cold nights and feeling an urgent need to use the outhouse. We would lie there curled up in our warm sleeping bags until the very last minute, and then we'd make a mad dash in the dark, flashlight in hand, running up the hill singing "Jingle Bells" to take our minds off our immediate problem (and it worked). we'd open the creaking door, hold our nose, check the flat, wooden board that represented a toilet seat, and sat down. Now that's what I call roughing it!
Walking around the campground, I found metal barbecues and gas stoves of all sizes but very few campfires. When we camped out years ago, mom cooked most of our meals on the campfire. She fried trout, potatoes, bacon, eggs, and even baked a peach cobbler on the campfire. Food tasted better cooked out-of-doors. At the end of the day we would cut thin, green branches off bushes along the edge of the river and use them to roast marshmallows. Staring at one of the empty campfires, I remembered an old song grandpa would sing to us as we ate our yummy s'mores.
Oh, don't you remember a long time ago
There were two little babes; their names I don't know.
They were stolen away on a bright summer's day
And lost in the woods I heard people say.
And when it was night so sad was the sight.
The moon it went down; the stars gave no light.
They sobbed and they sighed, and they bitterly cried.
The poor little babes, they laid down and died.
And when they were dead, a robin so red
Carried strawberry leaves and over them spread.
He sang them a song the whole night long,
The poor little babes . . . two poor little babes.
We loved listening to him sing in his deep, gentle voice. When grandpa died, we sang it to him at the cemetery.
It was time to move on. I looked forward with anticipation to our arrival at Kennedy Meadows where, hopefully, we would find the old grocery store, stables, and a peaceful meadow. After seeing all the trailers at Deadman's Creek Campground, I didn't know what I'd find.
My butterflies returned as we crossed over the one-way bridge. It was all there. The old Kennedy Meadows Store, the smell of alfalfa from the stables, the huge boulders on which we climbed, the one-room cabins, and the beautiful meadow or, what I could see of it. There were so many cars . . . trucks . . . and trailers! Kids were floating on rubber rafts down the river which would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. Fishing was the sport then . . . not rafting!! Dogs were everywhere. The meadow was trampled and not a fisherman in sight.
Disillusioned, we climbed back into the car, and I slowly drove away to find a new place to make new memories with my sons. I guess you can't go back, even for a day, but at least I have great childhood memories, and I was on my way to make new ones with my sons.