I was headed to New Hampshire. The state where I spent 9 summers as a boy.
I have so many memories of those summers on Lake Winnipesaukee. As the landmarks became familiar, I began to feel a rush of different emotions. I passed the Old Country Store in Moultonboro, where my brother and I would drink root beer from dark brown bottles and pretend to smoke candy cigarettes when I was 8 and he was 10. I felt the first real rush of nostalgia. I passed Pier 19, the ice cream stand and grocery we would stop at after we got out of camp for all of those summers. I could see the main lodge and the dock of my summer camp from Pier 19 and my heart began to pump with anxiety and excitement.
I had not been back to my camp since the summer of 2005. It has always been one of the most important places in the world to me. It is a sacred space and I could see it again, across the lake.
Nostalgia is hard to trust. It can give you an idea of what was and can allow you to create a new history. It can glorify a place long gone and leave it as perfection in your mind. I feared that when I returned to camp after so many years the feelings would have changed, the connection would have faded, and the magic would be dead.
I turned right at the YMCA Camp Belknap sign and drove down the dirt road and smelled the familiar spruce and dirt in the air. I heard the sounds of the youngest group of campers practicing the camp cheers and I felt something I had not felt in almost 9 years. I felt the same joy I felt in 1996 when I pulled onto that dirt road for the first time.
I walked all around camp. I saw all the cabins I lived in all of those years ago. I sat in the chapel under the great white pines as I looked down on the lake. I walked down to the lake as the newest crop of campers were taking their swim tests to see two old friends. We were campers together back in the 90’s and leaders together in the early oughts. It had been 9 years since I had seen these two, but it felt like only a few months had passed. The spirit of friendship had rekindled as if the fire had never gone out. I continued to meander through the centuries old pine groves and through the woods where I learned some of life’s greatest lessons. I made my way to the the main lodge that has stood at the shores of Winnipesaukee for almost 100 years. I sat on the railings of the porch and looked over the water at the sailboats and at Farm Island in the distance. On the porch, a metal ring suspended by string hung down from overhead. I would spend hours as a kid trying to catch that ring on the nail hammered into the post of the porch railing. The simplicity of the game brought me back to some of the happiest days of my life. I entered the lodge and was overtaken by the smell of summers past. It was an old, piney, smokey and musty smell that lived for generations. Nostalgia hadn’t deceived me. This place was the same, and the magic was still alive.
In the lodge, I heard the sound of guitars strumming. A tune I had not head in years, “Closer to Fine” by the Indigo girls. I heard a group of 10 or so young men singing the song, as I once had. I stood in the doorway looking out on the lake as the boys played on and I sang quietly to myself as the memories for the past and hopes of my future flooded through my heart and mind. As I sang the final lines, “There’s more than one answer to these questions pointing me in a crooked line. The less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine…”, I walked through the pines one last time touched the bark with my palm, bent down, and collected a pine cone and walked to my car. I drove away from camp with the dirt road behind me, like I had in summers past, with a tear in my eye.
I headed North to get away and to breathe cool mountain air. I went to drink the best beer in the world with great people. I went to find my own quiet, a new experience and to feel the nostalgia of the bliss of my youth. I found something in the mountains, nostalgia and in the quiet. Something I have needed to find for a while but was too afraid to look. I found the person I used to be, the person and I am and the person I want to be living together in a single moment. I longed to be the child in the past swimming in the lake or tossing a ring on a nail. I looked to the person I want to be and the person I am now and I, for the life of me, am too afraid to do what it takes to connect those two selves.
I felt something real on the road. However, that moment where past, present and future selves aligned for a single moment did not provide some great clarity or direction. In fact, it only presented overgrown crooked paths to my unknown future. I can’t see down those roads, but each one is an adventure. How do I become that person I dream of being in the future while maintaining the integrity and passion of the person I used to be? How do I know which path to follow? How do I know if I am making the best or worst decision of my life?
I arrived home Sunday night with a full heart and a mind full of questions. I might not have it all figured out and I still have a long road ahead, but after all of it, I truly am, closer to fine.
Pack your bag with the essentials. Pack your car. Be alone with yourself. Be alone with the thoughts in your head and the feelings in your gut. Take the time to get away from the mundane and follow your compass to your next great adventure.