Ashes and Dust (First Person)

By Clare Bell-Fuller
Friday August 30, 2013 - 07:58:00 AM

Berkeley’s Family Camp was the proverbial village everyone says it takes to raise a kid.

This sweet spot, tucked along the south fork of the Tuolumne River, 155 miles from Berkeley and 7 miles from the entrance to Yosemite Park was, as corny as it sounds, a place of pure mountain air happiness.

The seeds of anticipation were planted when you made a reservation in April, for a spot in August….when, finally you made the long hot four hour drive and spotted the wooden sign. That specific unbridled thrill accompanied you as the car rolled into camp, filled to the brim with bedding, coolers, board games, swimming paraphernalia, books, sketch pads, water colors, cameras, flashlights, bug spray and sun screen. 

I remember that same feeling as a kid when we arrived for our annual two weeks in the Santa Cruz mountains, and I’m sure my mom experienced it when they took the train from the sweltering summer heat in Shanghai, up into the cooler mountains of Mokanshan. Sam always took a buddy, and the boys leapt out of the car like dogs at the Marina, oozing joy. We picked out one of the charmingly basic tent cabins, nestled among the trees, within earshot of the gentle river, and quickly set up our mountain refuge for the next 5 days. The boys soon headed for the glorious swimming hole, where the majority of their time would be spent. It was surrounded by huge smooth boulders, perfect for jumping from. Kids could be incredibly free in this place. Like feral foxes they tasted an unfettered independence, leaping and chasing, awakening primitive instincts long subdued by city living. They became Robin Hoods when they took archery class, artists making papier mache masks and the iconic camp lanyard [for mom]. Then there were the lovable outdoor plays they could act in, always hilarious and high spirited, with the parents guffawing in the audience, so proud of their talented offspring. 

Three hearty meals a day kept all this going, served in the generous old dining hall. 

After lunch was the brilliant concept of quiet time. You had to stay in your cabin while the staff hosed down the dusty trails, as the trees stood as sentinels, spying any escaping campers. This enforced time to be together, was an unsuspecting gift. We usually avoided naps, and played board games, drew pictures or read our books, the togetherness making all the difference….such an essential luxury, missing from our busy lives. 

Unsurprisingly, people seemed their best within this stress-free environment; brotherly good will floated throughout the camp, which served 250 campers a day and 4000 each summer. Before the camp opened in 1922, Bernard Maybeck himself had finalized the site. In those days it was $1 a day, 60 cents for kids. 

Sam loved it so much, he returned as a teenager, 3 years in a row, to be a counselor. His adventures as an older camper were just as free and wild as when he was younger, with the added bonus of sex, drugs and driving. There was the time he crashed a friend’s car taking a mountain turn too fast….fortunately crashing into the mountain, and not plummeting down the canyon into oblivion. 

It was a complete addiction, and one that actually worried him, since various friends had returned again and again for a few too many years. In an email he wrote after word of the fire, he stated: 

“I felt a sense of relief when I heard the news yesterday. The fire brings a forcible end to the nostalgia I felt whenever I visited. No more structures and spaces harkening back to wonderful past summers that are easy to long for again. It’s over.” 

Little does he know, it’s never over…that is, if the DNA in his heart is anything like mine. Those nostalgia threads wind themselves tight, linking our memories with love and loss…and we carry them around wherever we go. 

Maybe it’s fitting that Family Camp was carried away by the massive cleansing fire, all those remnants of years of shared good times floating into the atmosphere of dust and ash. The camp was like a 91-year old beloved patriarch, who existed for the benefit and happiness of others. It was thoughtful of him to leave at the end of summer. 

With gratitude we will always remember.