Thomas Wolfe didn’t go far enough

I took the extended family camping this past weekend. In so doing, I learned that Thomas Wolfe was only part-right when he said you can’t go home again.

In truth, you can’t go anywhere again.

Two years ago, when my newspaper job had me on the verge of physical and mental collapse, I took a solitary camping trip to South Carolina’s Table Rock State Park. It quickly became my favorite park to camp.

Granted, the circumstances on the two occasions were a little different. The first trip, I went the week after Labor Day, when the park was practically deserted and the staff were gearing down for the off-season. The swimming beach was closed, and the rental boats were locked away.

The rangers were the friendliest and most accommodating I’ve met anywhere. When I arrived to register at the Country Store near the main gate, the ranger invited me to drive around to pick out a site rather than holding me to the one I had chosen online. After I came back with a new selection, we chatted and I revealed that I was looking for a few days of solitude.

“You might be happier in our rustic area,” she said, pointing it out on a map. She explained that no groups had reserved any of the sites in that area, so I wouldn’t be disturbed. If I wanted to see wildlife, there would be more on that less-traveled side of the park. An easy trail would lead me to an area where she had seen bear cubs earlier in the season. But she assured me that bears were not often a problem in the camping areas, as long as I practiced common sense about food storage.

“But the brochure says there are no bathing facilities,” I said.

“There are so few people here, feel free to use one in the developed campgrounds,” she said. “If anybody says anything to you, just tell them you’re a friend of mine.”

Or, she told me, there’s a standpipe and pit toilet near the group camping area. You can bath there. Nobody’s likely to be anywhere around. She was right. The pit toilet turned out to be a little too ripe for my sensibilities, but the standpipe provided an undisturbed and refreshing al fresco bathing experience.

Table Rock is stunningly beautiful, especially from a kayak in the middle of the lake. My kayak was provided by another helpful ranger, who unlocked the storage building and told me to keep it as long as I liked (the modest rental fee covered a half-hour according to the posted signs), just to put it back and lock the building when I was finished.

So, for very little money I had the run of the whole park for the three days I spent there. I came back refreshed with hundreds of photos of the birds and late season flowers, as well as a continuing warm spot for the place.

This weekend, we decided to do a last minute camping trip. Laura, her husband John, and our granddaughter Emily drove up from Georgia to meet us, while Joyce and I packed most of the equipment into our new Outback.

Table Rock is almost perfectly situated between our starting points. I was excited to show the family this place they knew only from my pictures and stories.

July is different from September in Upstate South Carolina. It’s not quite high enough in the mountains to be all that cool. The weather forecast promised a break from the high 90’s and brutal humidity we had all the week before. True, the highs dropped to the low 90’s, and the first day’s humidity was down a few points.

The developed campgrounds weren’t full, but they weren’t anywhere close to empty either. The first night, every campsite seemed to have at least one kid with a newly acquired flashlight or headlamp. One family set up a brilliant floodlight that didn’t go out until after 11 p.m. and then came back on several times during the night.

Cicadas can be deafening in a forest in South Carolina in July. Fun fact, if you’re not trying to get a few hours of sleep in a tent located in said forest.

Roasting marshmallows over a campfire is, of course, one of the joys of family camping. But when you put dozens of smoky campfires in a single campground, the air becomes thick — almost lumpy, in fact.

We did a half-hour kayak trip around the lake, but we had to dodge a number of people fishing, and almost half our family got bored before we used up our allotted time. And I didn’t remember the obligatory flotation vests smelling like old gym socks on my previous trip.

Swimming was nice (especially for removing the smell of the vests that lingered on our bodies), but we don’t generally like to spend all day swimming. We sent Emily to the playground with Grandma while the other three took a hike. Emily reported the playground is “kinda fun,” with good swings and a nice play structure which she said had seen better days.

Hiking in Table Rock State Park is not for the faint-hearted or weak-kneed. Most trail hikes are of the 4-6 hour, strenuous variety. We took the Kerrick’s Creek loop, about a two-mile, one-hour affair. It’s certainly beautiful, with lots of native stone in and beside the clear, cool creek. Some sections involve climbing over stone steps, which I found can be rough on aging knees. Joyce was glad she had opted for playground duty.

After all this, John had to leave to go back home and rest up for his work week. All this relaxation had worn him out.

The rest of us had reserved the campsite for another night of marshmallow roasting, to be followed Monday morning by eggs cooked over our camp stove, then home. We took turns showering in the bathhouse — very well-maintained and clean with plenty of hot water.

By mid-afternoon the humidity had climbed again. We began to find it difficult to breathe, and napping in the tents was hardly an option. We went over our checklist of things to do — only the longer hikes up the mountains remained. With the clouds beginning to thicken, rain seemed likely by morning. We were faced with the possibility of breaking a rain-soaked camp.

We watched more and more campers drive by us on their way out. Because the park is closed on Mondays (like other South Carolina State Parks), many people plan their trips to end on Sunday.

About 4:00, the few remaining campers began starting their campfires for the evening. Apparently someone up the hill used copious amounts of lighter fluid. The fumes blended with the wood smoke and drifted down to our site. Soon we all had headaches and found our summer lethargy had increased exponentially.

When Emily said, as 7-year-olds always do on such occasions, she wanted to go home, we all looked at each other. Normally, we would tell her she just needed to find something to do and wait for the upcoming marshmallow roast.

This time, we started taking down the tents.

On the way home, we stopped for fresh peaches and ice cream at a roadside stand. No one was disappointed to sleep in his/her own bed.

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