By a Babbling Brook

by Ed Collins

I remember a family vacation at Lake-of-the-Woods in central Oregon. I was about ten-years-old. I remember that we pulled a small trailer with our unfashionable Rambler station wagon. I remember dirt logging roads and, from the back seat, listening to my father yell at my mother every time we tried to back up or turn around. The cause of each outburst was always the same––disagreement over which way to turn the wheel to maneuver the trailer.

I remember floating on the lake in a small wooden boat, peering over the edge into emerald green water which sparkled when the sun hit it just so, creating hundreds of diamond shapes. I remember trying to see how far down into the water I could see. Sometimes I would drop my line just deep enough so that I could keep an eye on my wiggling worm. Then I would search the water to spot an unsuspecting fish. When my father saw what I was doing, he would say, sharply, “Let your line out!”

I also remember making a friend. I suppose this was the first time I had made a friend by myself. Friends at school, church, Cub Scouts and Little League were sort of provided for you. But camping was different. I don’t recall my parents introducing us. We probably met after noting that we shared an interest in baseball. I know I never went anywhere without my mitt, a ball and my baseball cap.

How long we camped there I don’t remember. What my friend and I did together I don’t remember. But I do remember that when we said good-bye to each other I cried.

With these memories we follow a sign that says “Lake-of-the-Woods.” We turn into a campground that is teeming with people. We find one fairly secluded spot. I pull the van in. While Judy gets the registration envelope I sit on a folding chair and read. Right away a car comes rumbling through the campground. The noise doesn’t come from the engine or the exhaust manifold but from the bass on the car’s stereo. It’s a rap song. Two teenagers wearing hats turned backwards cruise with the windows down.

At about the time Judy returns with the envelope we hear music coming from a transistor radio. Across the road two teenage girls wearing bathing suits sit on lounge chairs. Meanwhile, off in the distance, we can still hear the beat of the rap song. Then I look at Judy.

Then we leave Lake-of-the-Woods.

A six-mile dirt road leads to a small lake. There are only a few other campers and we choose a spot away from the lake and out of earshot of everyone. “It should be quiet here,” Judy says.

Sometime during the night I was dreaming about fishing, when I was startled awake by a beam of light streaming though the van. What the heck. Then I noticed that the light was coming from inside the van. It was Judy with her flashlight. “Something’s out there,” she whispered. “What?” I asked groggily.

She turned on the van’s headlights. I covered my head. If it was a bear I’m sure she would’ve let me know. I recall her saying, “Maybe a raccoon.” I drifted off to sleep with her in the front seat, still searching with her flashlight.

Just outside Prairie City we pull into a deserted campground and park in a site next to a slow, hardly-moving river. There’s a beach and a beautiful purple-colored mountain as a backdrop. It’s warm, perfectly warm, with a gently soothing breeze. To get some of the layers of dust off us, we wade out into the river. Afterwards, I can’t decide if I prefer sun or shade. With a beer in hand, we sit and watch a hawk, high above, floating on a blanket of air, in search of a late-afternoon snack.

It’s so quiet. And there’s much to look at. As the sun slowly sinks behind the hills to the west, the only sounds are the cicadas and the occasional fish jumping out of the water.

I start a campfire in preparation for cooking dinner. The crackling of the fire momentarily drowns out the cicadas. Then a car enters the campground. I watch as it passes empty campsites at the far end, then pulls into a spot not more than twenty yards from us.

Three middle-aged guys from Portland on a fishing grip. No more nature sounds.

“Did you say something or was that a fart?”

“No, I called your name.”

“That’s not a man’s steak, I wanna eat a man’s steak. Hell, a man’s steak is thirty two ounces, with all the fixings.”

“I never went for that pushin’ an shovin’, I just swung, got the first punch in.”

“The B.F. Goodrich’s have the raised white lettering.”
“My knee has never been the same since football.”

There was a full moon last night so we stayed up to build a fire. We’re camping in Strawberry Mountain Wilderness, about twenty miles from John Day, Oregon. There are four campsites here; besides us, only one is occupied.  We’re parked about ten yards from a babbling brook, which makes for ideal sleeping music. It’s warm and the air is still. I sleep outside the covers.

Sometime during the night I’m suddenly awakened when Judy sits up. I can tell because her hand is pressed against my back. “Whuh,” I mumble.

“There’s something in the van,” she says.

“A rodent of some kind must have come in through the vent,” Judy tells me. I listen to the faint scratching. A garbage bag is on the floor in the front seat. How, I think to myself, how are we going to get him out of here. I wrap my pillow around my head and decide to go back to sleep. This is a job for Judy.

Last night we camped on Steen Mountain, a wildlife preserve in South-Central Oregon. Rather than join the crowded campgrounds, we opt for a dirt road leading to a spacious meadow which includes a few primitive camp sites. Pulling into a clearing surrounded by quaking aspens, we scare off a dozen cows who voice their displeasure.

It’s August, it hasn’t rained appreciably in two months, and there’s a no-campfire regulation in effect. So we enjoy an evening meal of smoked salmon, crackers, Mendocino mustard, Swiss cheese, apples and pears.

Sometime in the middle of the night I think I’m dreaming of the van being rocked. I awake and hear Judy mumble then turn in her sleep. It must have been true, I decide. With the back window inches from my head, and open, I listen. Something is moving outside. Then I remember the smoked salmon, and realize that the skin is probably in the trash can, inside the van. Could it be a bear?

Shit. I shut the window and listen. Should I throw the trash outside? Instead, I lay anxiously still, hoping that he spares us. After a good half-hour of intense bear alert, I drift off to sleep.

The next morning I ask Judy if she felt the van move. “Yeah, had to be a cow,” she said.

I didn’t say anything.