When I was 12 years old, I was told I would be going camping with my family here in New York. I was a kid from the city’s public housing developments and camping was something far from my mind. The campsite was not far from the city, an hour away from Manhattan. I thought it sounded too close to be any good.
When I arrived, I was surprised to see that the tents were on wood platforms, at least in that section of the park. Most campers were using heavy canvas tents with visible framing. It was a lot of work to put up the tent let alone everything else needed to sustain us for four weeks. Four weeks, who goes camping for four weeks? My uncle did, he was fanatical about camping. My first thought was this was a crude place. But as the day progressed, I slowly began to see the appeal. After setting up the campsite, I began to explore the “A Section” of the campsite looking at the various families that were there in early July. It was a beautiful summer day and I marveled at the equipment being used by all the campers. Many had very large tarps that not only covered their tents but also the area around the platform. One campsite had a tarp so big that the family’s blue ford bronco monster truck was tucked neatly underneath it. I was happy to be away from the city and in the midst of the trees and greenery of the Harriman Forest. There were trails that led out of the campsite into the foliage. With some hesitation, I took a route that led me to a gravel fire road. I was led to the lake and onto what was a dam holding back the water from flowing down a small valley. It was Lake Welch, a beautiful oasis in the middle of Harriman State Park. There were small rowboats out on the water and in the distance, I saw swimmers and people on the beach. They were having a great time enjoying a small piece of the wild. I was smitten by what I saw, and the rest of the day began to look very positive. I quickly ran back to the camp after hearing my name being called. But I was struck by the state of nature I had been missing in New York City.
There were plenty of chores to do around the campsite. A pop-up canopy covered the kitchen complete with a green Coleman two-burner stove and several foldable tables for prepping food. We were all huddled around the wooden picnic table tucked under the canopy. There, we chopped potatoes seasoned meat and prepared everything for dinner. It was a jovial place where neighbors were clearly visible, and conversations were the norm. Everyone was friendly and I began to make some friends. As the sun went down and the valley began to get dark, I was once again reminded that I was outdoors. Thoughts of wild animals went through my mind and the lure of the forest quickly dissipated. After dinner, we gathered around a large campfire that my uncle had set up. He spent a good amount of time gathering wood in preparation for the night ahead. He was a short stocky man who seemed to know exactly what to do to survive. I was impressed with his knowledge of the outdoors. Looking into the fire I was mesmerized by its allure. I looked up but could not see the stars through the thick canopy of the trees. The smell of charring wood carried with it a mesquite flavor that would stir images in my mind. I thought of all the cowboys who must’ve roamed these hills and sat down to campfires just like that one. Later, I saw some of the kids walking around the campsite with flashlights giggling and talking to each other from afar. It was in my opinion a family affair on each and every campsite in that section. A small oasis of children enjoying a summer night in the woods.
My uncle Nelson turned on the kerosene lamps. I watched as he pumped air into the base of the lamp to generate the pressure needed to light the nodes. Our campsite quickly lit up to the soft tones of kerosene light. The camp had awoken, and I could see the other kids in the woods. I grabbed my flashlight to go on an adventure. I was immediately taken in by a small group of boys and girls that had already been there for weeks. They showed me the ropes as we walked up and down the small road that led to the A Section. We passed a ranger station where the forest rangers would check in campers on their way to their campsites. They were friendly and warned us about the dangers of walking at night in the forest. We kept walking until we entered a game room that had been set up by the State Parks agency. It was in a stone building right before you got to the B Section of the campsite. There was a foosball table along with other board games to entertain us. We were so excited just being at the campsite that we were not inclined to stay indoors for long. I made many friends that night and it was a very happy time. Shortly after, my parents came in to let me know they would be heading back to the city. My father needed to go to work in the morning and my mother had some errands to run. I would be staying with my uncle until my father got his vacation in a few weeks. I said my goodbyes and carried on with the fun.
My friends had been camping for several years and were intimately familiar with the area even at night. Of course, the lake was an area prime for discovery. We left the game room and walked past another stone building that was a laundry room on a gravel road toward the beach. As we came out from under the trees the night sky became apparent. There were thousands of stars and I gazed for a moment at the sheer size of the galaxy. My less impressed friends were running around the sand contemplating running into the water. We turned off our flashlights as we saw lights in the distance belonging to the park rangers. Maria, one of the friends I met that night was kind enough to explain things and show me the wonders of the park. She lived in lower Manhattan and her family had one of the most impressive campsites in the park. She and her sister were there for several weeks and stayed for more than a month. On the beach, we sat on the lifeguard chair and gazed at the stars, it was a wonderful night. Having run out of things to see there we walked past a gate that separates the “campers” beach from the public beach. One of the boys mentioned that we were probably not supposed to be there. We walked for about a quarter of a mile along a concrete path around the lake with the beach to our left. I could see all the Bar B Q pits used by beachgoers during the day and the hedges separating the beach from the picnic areas. It was surprisingly clean as the park workers had cleaned all the garbage in preparation for the next day. There were no lights, and we did not shine our flashlights for fear of drawing attention. But the bright moon lit our way as we walked to the concession area where they served hamburgers, hot dogs, and French fries during the day. A strong moonlight reflection was visible on the pond that separated the campsite from the beach and the lake.
Maria was a beautiful girl, and I was only too happy to spend my evening with her. Everyone else was running around having fun and trying to scare us into running onto the sand. We enjoyed another round of sitting on the lifeguard chairs before the long walk back to our campsites. Heading back, we saw several couples romantically enjoying the clear summer night. Oddly enough, I do not remember there being many insects during my excursion that night or maybe I was just too distracted to notice. Back at the campsite, the fire still burned as my uncle and his family enjoyed the night. There were sounds of people talking, enjoying the food and spirits that go with a night in the woods. The only thing missing were the horses the cowboys would ride into the morning sun. It was well into the night and the kerosene lamps had already been turned off. Only the fire lit the night as the yellow hues bounced off the tree canopy and dimly lit the area. There I was introduced to the ritual of roasting marshmallows on long wet branches. I did not see the allure but obliged them anyway. Of course, I learned that you needed to slightly char the marshmallows in order for them to taste right. I burned a few before I got it. But the experience of seeing their faces in the glow of the fire is one I will never forget. There is something soothing about that experience that I still remember to this day. We were from different places, from different socio and economic backgrounds. But none of that mattered, at that moment we were all the same. We were Latino, white, and black but in the camp, we were just families enjoying nature outside one of the busiest cities in the world. Time stood still and I was loving every moment.
At about eleven o’clock when one of the boys suggested going by the dam. My uncle was cool with it because it was just a few minutes down the fire road. We went to the dam and walked on the very top until we reached a fence that prevented us from going across to the other side. It was about thirty feet down to the valley where an outlet would let a little water onto the stream to keep it flowing. The moon was bright, and I could see the light pierce the water and shine on the small fish swimming at the foot of the dam. Maria was there and we sat with our feet nearly touching the water. There we talked and got to know one another. I was young and impressionable, and she was different. I quickly grew fond of her. We moved to a large smooth rock adjacent to the dam. There we could see across to a small island located on Lake Welch. Beyond the island, we could see the headlights on the trucks of the rangers that were patrolling the park. At the campsite, they would pass by nearly every hour. We sat there talking until we were collected by my uncle who made his way there looking for us. We walked back to camp where I said good night to Maria and my new friends. I watched her as she went into her tent and dreaded the end of that night. My friends promised to continue the adventure in the morning. I walked to the tent with my uncle when he asked me if I was enjoying myself. I beamed with happiness as I described how much fun it was to learn about camping. As I entered the tent, I took one last look at the night and all the tents across from ours. I glanced at Maria’s tent hoping to see some sign of her, but nothing. Apprehensively, I went inside where my uncle pointed to a sleeping bag that was my bed for the duration of my stay. I lay awake thinking about everything that had happened that day and why I had never experienced the joy of camping sooner. Luckily, my dad had just purchased a canvas tent for several hundred dollars and was introduced to Beaver Pond Campground by my uncle. I was so grateful it was hard to close my eyes. Tired and excited by what the next day would bring, I reluctantly fell asleep. That night was the beginning of a beautiful relationship with the great outdoors. Decades later, I am deeply grateful for that day.