Saturday, June 2, 2018

The Yellow Trunk and the Sticky Stump


My interview for my current job at The San Francisco School basically took place on a 7-day camping trip with 3rd-5th graders up at Feather Falls. We slept outside, dug our own latrines, swam in the pond, sang songs around the campfire and more. The year was 1974 and we were mostly back-to-the-land hippies who lived in the city. So more like 7-day-back-to-the-land hippies.

The land belonged to some school parents and when their child graduated, we had to find a new location. We tried Big Basin and suffered 5-straight days of rain. Then Lake Oroville in 105 degree heat and some serious danger of heatstroke in spite of the artificial lake. The next year we tried Clear Lake and were devoured by mosquitoes. This back-to-the-land business was not quite as romantic as we had imagined!

But by 1980 (thanks to 3rd grade teacher Melisa Rufulo), we discovered Calaveras Big Trees in the foothills (4,000 feet elevation) of the Sierras and had a glorious run of some 20 years. For much of it, the weather was lovely (it was June) there was no poison oak, the hiking was plentiful, the giant sequoia grove magnificent, the building near the ranger station perfect for square dancing and the reduced time of 5 days a bit more manageable for 60 kids, teachers and select parents.

We got to know the area well, trees, flowers and critters, took advantage of nearby Murphy Caverns, hiked along the Stanislaus River and up to some breathtaking vistas and developed a series of memorable traditions that included the Square Dance, the softball game in Arnold, the night walk, the s’mores dance with sticks, afternoon quiet time and journal writing, the haiku-while-hiking contest, the morning Bulgarian bagpipe wake up, the notorious banishment to the Sticky Stump for kids who talked too loud before the bagpipe wake-up and the adult wandering minstrels (later called by the kids “The Wandering Nostrils”) lullaby singing with the kids in tents. We divided the kids into cooking groups, cooking all our meals on Coleman stoves or the big barbecue pit. Dirty dishes were put into personal “dip bags” and lowered into the giant pot of boiling water. Medical supplies were kept in the colorful painted yellow trunk. Activities besides the big hikes included things like pine needle baskets, whittling, toy boat races and more. After the kids went to sleep, the adults hung around the campfire with a bit of cognac and chocolate, singing yet more songs and telling stories about the day. It was a perfect way for parents and teachers to feel on the same side of the line in the difficult task of raising children and for all who had the good fortune to participate, an unforgettable connection and bonding.

Not that it was all sunshine and rainbows. We battled the elements in the form of rain, snow (!), raccoons, rattlesnakes and black bears, once heard helicopters hovering because of an escaped criminal, had a few kids falling out of trees or onto benches, had our big buses break down on the 3 hour drive, had some bizarre toilet-training issues and always, some deep homesickness from the 3rd grader away from home and out in the woods for the first time.

After too much rain three years in a row, we finally decided to look yet again and had another good three or four years at Big Sur, with poison oak as the biggest challenge. But one year when I was off traveling and there were some new less-than-enthusiastic teachers and the liability monsters were climbing over the wall of our little paradise, the end-of-the-year camping trip came to an end.

Well, almost. There was one valiant 5th grade teacher, Francisco Hernandez, who vowed to continue it in some form and it moved to China Camp near San Rafael and became a three-day trip. But as possible, many of the above traditions were kept intact in one form or another. And when my daughter Talia took over 5th grade three years ago, she (who had gone to Calaveras from 1 year old to 11) has valiantly kept it going.

And that’s where I was Thursday night (when the Warriors bizarrely won their first game of the final round), telling a story around the campfire and singing songs before the night walk. Behind me was the yellow trunk, nearby were the hanging dip bags and around me were the kids every bit as enchanted by the whole deal as all those kids had been at Calaveras. All the kids who struggle with sitting in confined spaces with schedules and words to read and abstract problems to solve were in heaven in the Great Outdoors. Where they’re meant to be.

And aren’t we all? Yes, I like the comforts of city life and the jazz clubs and the restaurants and the urban buzz and such, but to be walking on the good green earth and awakening with the sun and descending into the night and looking up at the stars—well, let’s face it. That’s what we’ve been mostly doing for a few hundred thousand years and especially when the weather is good and the wildlife less than menacing, isn’t it glorious?

As was that sense of a cycle completed watching my daughter Talia run the show and me just following her orders. That’s a rare experience in this life and isn’t that grand? May the SF School Camping trips continue!!!

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