Zak Of All Trades: Need to get away? I sure do!

The past few weeks, my column has been a bit less upbeat than I typically try to keep it, and for that I apologize.

It's just that there's been so much junk in the news and so much junk surrounding our personal lives that sometimes it's hard not to get swept up in it.

And that's why last weekend was exactly what I needed, as I escaped with Grandma for 36 hours to one of the places that makes me feel more OK than just about anywhere else — Deer Meadow Campground.

Now, I must admit that it's not the place itself that sweeps me away and makes me feel OK. It's the memories that the place holds and the people that I run into there.

Pulling through the front gate, which used to be an actual lock-and-key gate but has now become one of those automatic-swipe-your-key-card gates, I quickly drive past the camp store, game room and mini-golf course.

Growing up, my cousin, my brother and I were frequent visitors to these hot spots.

Right beside the store is the pavilion where the camp dances used to be held, and while I had many memories of my own there, I'll never forget my younger cousin busting a move in the center of that dance floor, dancing like nobody was watching.

The mini-golf course was a favorite spot for all of us if we could coax an adult into going and playing with us, and I remember it losing some of its flair once we were old enough to play on our own.

As it turned out, we enjoyed the company we were playing with more than we enjoyed the game itself.

That game room also holds lots of memories, from spending every last quarter in grandma's purse playing pool or pinball — my personal favorite — to watching Pap pull stuffed animal after stuffed animal out of the claw machine.

Growing up, I was quite the fan of stuffed animals — at times feeling like they were the only friends I could count on — and so this ability to pick and choose them at 50 cents a pop was fascinating to me.

Unfortunately, I did not inherit the skill Pap had at the claw machine.

And fortunately, I've learned that there are better friends in the world than stuffed animals — a lesson that camp helped me learn.

And who could forget the camp store? It's where I learned while I was growing up that the chocolate milk we had at the camper really was just as good as the chocolate milk they sold there, and it was a heckuva lot cheaper.

Don't get me wrong, though, I still enjoy convenience and novelty, and the store always offered plenty. Our favorite treat there was ice cream after a game of mini-golf or a slushy just because it was hot.

There are sad memories associated with the camp activities too, though, as a look down the hill reminds us of the old barn that used to be our favorite hangout of all.

The rustic arcade hosted enough air hockey tables and pinball machines to keep us all busy at the same time, and we loved that place. Today, not a game can be found in the building, and it reminds me that in life, all good things must come to an end.

These memories, though, are formed mostly around the things we did at camp, but those things are hardly the reason that going to camp is so enjoyable an experience these days.

The memories of the things we did usually only mean something when there are faces to them — when we shared them with others. And sharing camp with others is exactly what I've enjoyed the most about it over the

When we pull into grandma's current camp site, we drive right past the one where we spent so many years camping.

When I check in at the camp store as a visitor these days, I have to catch myself before I give the old site number, as it's that ingrained into me, even though we haven't camped there for years. But that site holds a lot of memories, and just driving past it brings back thoughts of late-night baseball games on the radio while we played cards on the porch and fighting over who got to sit on the big swing first when we got to camp. And these are such pleasant memories — ones I shared with family.

Right across the street from that old site, though, is our new site — nestled against the woodline and as comfortable a site as you could ask for.

When we were kids, the first thing we did was always start up a fire. Sometimes, we still do that, but often we join some of the other regulars for their fire instead.

No matter where the fire is, lots of stories and lots of "how have you beens?" are exchanged. And as fun as all those other memories are, when I think back on camping, it was sitting around the fire that I always remembered so fondly, because we got to do it with people we cared about.
Many of those folks are still there.

George and Martha and Ruth have watched me grow from the time I was a boy and have memories of me that are as old as I am. Connie, Bill and Donna and Mike came along later in our camping years, but they've all become good friends to us who do anything to take care of us.

New friends swing by the campfire each summer too, and it's all a part of the ongoing circle of friends that comes with camp.

Unfortunately for all of us, camp also reminds us of those we've lost or those we just don't run into anymore.

Camp can be especially emotional for me as a reminder of my grandfather, who I find in so many of those fond memories. Ronnie and my uncle Jim are in many of those memories, too, and while they are no longer with us to enjoy camp, they live on with us in our memories as we re-tell our stories.

Some just don't make it to camp anymore, and we miss them, as well, wondering how they're doing.

Last weekend, my great-aunt Kathy was especially on my mind, as she used to be the one who dispensed what we called "camp cookies" out her front
door for us.

She is a kind, loving woman, and I still hear from her on occasion, but at least once every weekend I'm out there, we remember her and wish she were there.

While Grandma and I sat in the trailer telling old stories and eating old camp meals that took me back to eating them as a kid, I realized just how lucky I am.

I'm lucky to have a place that holds such fond memories that carry over the years of my life, and I'm lucky that I still get to go back to that place to remember a simpler time and to remember the people who made it feel so magical.

And I'm lucky that some of those people are still there.

Life's a little busier these days than it was for me back in the 1980s, but I still hope to find the time to make it out to camp a few more weekends this year.

Because in a world that can be a little bit hectic and a little bit depressing, a little bit of escape to a place that still feels OK — and reminds me of a time when it all felt OK — might be just what I need.

Zak Lantz is the editor of The Spirit.