“This can’t be it. Is this it?” Dad was leaning over the steering wheel, straining for a better view through the windshield. My siblings were huddled in the back seats of the 1994 Dodge Ram pickup truck, respectfully silent, appalled. Mom, in the front passenger’s side with a stack of papers and books she had been reading, was checking the address. We were up north. We were near the coast of one of Michigan’s Great Lakes. We were near, but not on Lake Michigan. Fife Lake, to be accurate, wasn’t a lake at all. We had a pond in our backyard comparable to this.
“This is really the place?” Corrine asked after the long silence, sensing the devastating reality in the situation. Her crossed arms and cold, glossy-eyed expression were wordlessly judging the incompetence responsible for our circumstances.
“Let me see that address.” Dad said. He took the papers from Mom and got out of the truck. As soon as the door slammed shut we all talked at once.
“Is this the place, Mom?”
“Isn’t it next door?”
“Look at how nice and big those cabins are, all that space…” It was true, the cabins to the right of us were beautiful. Fat, perfectly round logs were notched and stacked, holding their natural coloring, with a luminous glaze-like finish. The doors were a warm, rustic green, with dainty grills on the windowpanes and curtains and even real shudders that opened and closed.
“I want to stay there, Mom.”
My mother, acknowledging our concerns, did her best to affirm that in fact we had booked the lovely cottages next door, that the “tiny,” “dumpy,” “ugly,” “poopy” shacks (that we so adamantly described) on this lot were not our home for the next week. Yet it was apparent she was as unsure as we were.
Without a word, Dad came back. He turned the truck on and put it in reverse.
“This isn’t the place is it, Dad?” Corrine finally burst out.
My father, in an air of optimism and a hint indifference, cheerfully replied, “Yep. This is it.” He waited a moment to let the news sink in. “We’re over there on the left.”
We all immediately leaned over to the left side of the truck to see where Dad was pointing. Confirming our greatest fears, there sat the depleted remains of a cabin. It was hideous. Someone had painted it the color of vomit, an attempt to hide the decay of the logs underneath. Camping had never been a success for my family, and it wasn’t for lack of trying either. The first summer my dad brought home the pop-up camper straight off the lot commenced the beginning of some pretty terrible memories for all of us.
I can still remember the first morning I woke up in that trailer. We were at a state park in Michigan (we only went camping in Michigan). It had rained the night before, which wasn’t surprising. Dad used to joke that if there was ever severe drought in the area, we all needed to pile in the truck and go camping for the weekend. “One-hundred percent chance of rain!” He’d say, shaking his head. The night before, I had fallen asleep to the sound of rain pounding on our plastic roof. I felt afraid, and justifiably so. Either the plastic amplified the noise of the water to an incredible magnitude (which it did), or we were in the midst of a deluge (which we probably were). Either way, our poor shetland sheepdog had been left outside in its kennel. In the middle of the night I awoke to panic-stricken yelping. In a stroke of sleep-induced genius, my dad unfastened his side of the canvas-covered mattress to get outside and save the dog from the puddle of water filling up in its cage. Water that had piled on the top of the canvas flooded the camper. I still remember the image of my dad, soaked through, standing out in the mud with a flashlight in his whitey-tighties, fastening the side of the canvas back together. When I woke up, my pillow was wet and I could almost taste the stench of wet dog. Along with the pillow, my sleeping bag was damp, together with the pull-out mattress and the sides of the canvas. My clothes and hair clung to my body, sticking with this unfamiliar, all-intrusive wet adhesive. And it was still raining. In fact, it rained the entire weekend. I don’t remember how many games of Uno and Sorry we played, but it was enough to make us all a little more irritable.
Pop-up trailer camping and driving long distances were not the warmest of memories my family shared together, which was why we were all excited to try a rustic log cabin experience not too far from home. Mom was on the emailing list for the “Home School Connections,” a huge group of homeschoolers who collaborated together, buying and selling curriculum, organizing special events, and doing their best to provide social environments for their children. Mom came across a brochure advertising a log cabin in a quaint town in northern Michigan boasting “the best forth in the north.” The brochure had one photo of a bedroom and a brief description of the cabin and surrounding area. Mom showed Dad, contacted the lady, and the rest is history. Before the drive up, my parents did their best to pump us up for the occasion.
“We’re going on vacation!” Mom exclaimed to my two-year-old little sister, Brielle, lifting her up in the air.
“I want to go on vacation!” Brielle declared enthusiastically.
“Vacation!” We’d all echo together in the car. “Ye-e-eah! We’re going on vacation! We’re going on vacation!”
And here we were, appraising for the first time our one-stop vacation destination. Being eleven years old had taught me a lot about the world; pieces of adult reality were beginning to fit together like the underdeveloped neurons in my brain. I was starting to own my consciousness (for better or worse), and I was old enough to know we had just gotten incredibly ripped off.
After Dad put the truck in park, I got out with the rest of my family started unloading (we had packed an incredible amount of stuff). Dad unlocked the cabin’s front door and we followed him in. The first thing to hit me was the smell. Nathan dropped his duffle bag to cover his nose and I immediately followed suit. The stink was not of something dead or rotting, but of something living and growing: the unmistakable fetor of mildew. Even apart from the smell, the kitchen lacked any nostalgic, antiquated impression of bygone days. Not only was it old, it was old and cheap. The paint filming the walls looked like urine, the cupboards were made from tin pot thin plywood. Some of the hinges on the doors were loose, others were gone completely. There was an obvious bow in one corner of the ceiling with rodent feces on the floor directly beneath it. A collapsible design of dented metal served as the table, with only two chairs to match.
In an attempt to ease the reality of the situation, Mom mechanically continued unloading our things, commenting about the details on the website, how the cabin wasn’t like anything she anticipated, and how, well, the quilt in the bedroom really was actually quite lovely. Unhindered by our half-joking (yet actually completely serious) complaints of the ridiculous condition of the cabin, Brielle wandered around the living room with her blanket over her nose stating repeatedly, “I want to go on vacation…” We all politely avoided her, making momentary eye contact with each other, sadly chuckling about the irony of her declaration. None of us had the heart to tell her that’s exactly where we were.
“That's the paradox: the only time most people feel alive is when they're suffering, when something overwhelms their ordinary, careful armour...That's why the things that are worst to undergo are best to remember." - Ted Hughes