On Saturday morning I stood on the front porch of Cabin 11 and watched Jay run by. He had a large stick in his hand—ostensibly a sword, I would learn later—and he didn’t even glance my way. Instead his sights were set on the long-limbed four-year-old running up ahead, a boy who was, at that same moment, plunging down a steep bank into the dried creek bed where it was said the fairies lived.
The creek and the cabin were in Lost River State Park, a stretch of woods in Mathias, West Virginia that doesn’t call any particular attention to itself. I’d never heard of it until after Caroline and I started dating. In May 2004 she told me she was going to a state park for this annual camping trip her family took with two other families. I asked if I might come. She shook her head. “The families made a rule. No boyfriends or girlfriends allowed. We’d have to be engaged for you to come.” If I’d understood what Lost River is, I would have dropped to one knee right then and there.
Of course, what Lost River is is hard to say. We can start with the facts. Every year for 23 straight years these same three families have spent a weekend together at the park. The families are similar in composition: Two parents, two kids. And the kids are similar in age, ranging from 26-31 today, which means that when the tradition started the oldest (Caroline) was in first grade and the youngest was possibly still in diapers.
The activities for the weekend are the same every year: Speed croquet, a hike, a craft project, and all sorts of no-assembly-required games like Red Light, Green Light and Mafia. Food is big as you might imagine. The same family is responsible for breakfast every year and the dinners tend to be elaborate, particularly when you consider that everything has to be cooked using the dull knives, thumb-sized cutting boards and slow-boiling electric stoves supplied by the West Virginia Parks Department.
There have been some changes in the last 23 years. There are, I gather, fewer kid-produced talent shows than there were when Caroline and her running mate in the group were in their talent show primes, and there’s a lot more wine consumed now that there used to be. It is, it strikes me, somewhat surprising that these two things would move inversely with each other.
This year was technically Jay’s second Lost River but I consider it his debut. He celebrated his first birthday there two years ago and we missed last year’s trip because it coincided with Wally’s due date (and, as it turned out, his birthday). But at three-years-old Jay was a fuller participant in this year’s events, even if his memory isn’t quite ready to lay claim to them. As he went to sleep each night beneath the eaves of the cabin, it was easy to imagine Caroline, twenty-three years younger, lying down beside him.
The only hard part about parenting at Lost River is the combination of the late adult-nights and the early kid-mornings. Otherwise, it’s bliss. Jay and the other boy his age ran freely between the cabins and seemed to find inexhaustible potential in every little pebble and twig they encountered along the way. And Wally, should he start to walk anytime soon (and it seems that he might), will owe a debt to the many pairs of hands that joined with his this weekend as he walked, herky-jerky like a foal, over the tree roots in front of our cabin.
There is, I discovered this weekend, no end to the satisfaction a parent can take in watching other people enjoy the company of his children. I’ve glimpsed this before, during family holidays and when friends come to visit, but it was in particular relief this year at Lost River. For three days it felt like Jay and Wally were the community’s children (or maybe it felt to the community like Caroline and I were shirking our duties). Wally dazzled and snuggled with anyone who’d pick him up; Jay rolled pizza dough with Maia, played monsters with Greta, let Matt carry him home after he fell down a hill, shared conspiratorial smiles with Molly, and helped Kathy pack the cooler for lunch.
In a weekend saturated with good feelings, the strongest emotion for me was a sin: I just couldn’t help but feel proud watching those boys operate in the world.
On Monday morning, after the traditional farewell breakfast (oatmeal with all the fixins’) we drove home to Michigan. Caroline and I debriefed the weekend as we drove north through the farms and hills of western Maryland and southern Pennsylvania. As we merged onto the PA turnpike somewhere near Pittsburgh, real life began to settle back in and I could feel the West Virginia woods grow still.
Since we’ve been home Jay has continued to talk about Lost River and I’ve noticed a change in the way he says the words. A week ago Lost River didn’t mean anything to him. Now the name of the place is joined to memories of a group of people and a way of feeling about the world. I hope it stays like that for a long, long time.