Day by Day
Camping, fires naturally inspire story swapping
By LIZ THOMPSON
November 11, 2015
This Week News
Nothing sparks storytelling like a campfire on a cold night. The flames reach toward the sky and faces are lighted by an orange glow.
Step away from this ring of fire and cold and dark greet you. A friendly voice might call you back and you gladly comply.
Conversation is easy, often animated, and uninterrupted by cellphones, computers or televisions. The only “electronics” would be a flashlight to push back the darkness outside the ring.
Most adult campfire stories hold none of the spookiness children have shivered to for ages. Adult stories are history, with a little embellishment thrown in to make it more interesting. History, no matter the timespan, is best told by those who lived it, or what’s passed along generation to generation or camper to camper.
Gather people in the same campground — campfire or not — who are invigorated by fresh air and an unhurried pace, and the stories begin.
As my brother-in-law, Richard, says, “You get complete strangers, with almost nothing in common, together in the campground and suddenly you are best buddies!”
He’s right on target.
“Did you know there’s an 82-year-old woman who camps here all summer? Pulls the trailer herself and her grandson sets it up for her.”
“I thought you could only camp here two weeks?”
“Well, don’t cha know, after two weeks, she goes to town for a day and comes back!”
Did you hear about the woman who hiked every day and to the 6,593-foot summit of Mount LeConte in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park 718 times, the last time in her 80s? Many people hiked with her over the years and remember her as a gentle leader.
In our much younger years, we hiked almost all the trails in the Smokies, with three children leading the way. We never hiked as far or high as Mount LeConte, but made it partway.
Those days are gone for us, but we have the sweet memories of long, quiet hikes with our children in nature. Yes, blisters, too, but those were long since deemed part of the experience.
These days, we walk the campground roads while we look, listen and take it all in. Twice we set out for such a walk but we got no farther than two campsites spaced a good distance apart, where we stopped to talk with fellow campers as young as 2. Twice we talked long enough that it was time to head back to our site.
“Your goldens (retrievers) are beautiful,” I said from a fair distance.
“They’re old, like me.”
I moved closer to visit. This man, Bill, reminded me of my late father-in-law, a great storyteller. Bill and his wife, Jean, were from Knoxville and their goldens were 12-year-old brothers. That I learned in less than two minutes.
All it takes is a wave and, “It’s a beautiful day,” or “Did you hear the storm last night?” or something similar. Then you wait and listen.
People camping in a national park are typically from all over the U.S. and beyond. In the Great Smoky Mountains, we have met people from Canada, the West Indies, Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, Indiana, Illinois, Virginia, West Virginia, North and South Carolina, Michigan, Mississippi and, of course, Ohio.
Regional accents abound. Of course, being from Ohio, we have no accent, right? Wrong, or so I’ve been told.
“You from up North?” someone might ask. But it sounds more like “Noruth.”
Listening to a story told by a man from Mississippi was a real experience. Correction, stories. Once he got started, he couldn’t seem to stop. We had nowhere to go and nothing to do. The lilt in his words made us want to listen; made us “smaale (smile).”
My cochlear implants allow me to hear speech clearly, and accents from different places in the U.S. and from other countries are music to my ears. I take every opportunity to listen.
I wonder if Southerners go home and talk about the Northerners they met?
During our October trip, we also met an X-ray technician who has retired five times; a photographer from Florida waking early to capture the sunrise over the mountains; friends from Tennessee we’d met two years ago; and others whose stories still crop up in conversation.
But mostly we met people yearning to feel a connection to others and to nature, if only for a short time.
Thanksgiving is near. After the pumpkin pie, why not swap a story, or two? Campfire optional.