Years of remembered treasures march through mind

By Dorothy Swart Fleshman October 01, 2012 02:22 pm

The harvest moon hung outside my kitchen window one wondrous September evening. It wasn’t as orange as it had been several nights before, thankfully with the easing of the forest fire smoke drifting in from flames along state lines trying to eat their way into our picturesque corner of the world.

I stood entranced at the sight of the moon peeking through the spaces allowed between the branches of the pine tree as though the boughs had lifted their skirts to allow me this pleasure. The cooling night air would still be holding on to some of the warmth of the day to give campers an especially memorable remembrance of the fading days of summer.

I almost wished I was one of the campers, a warming fire in the woods surrounded by tents and the soft voices of campers sharing their pre-bedtime moments together.

I could almost smell the coffee aroma wafting from the granite pot and hear the crackle of the fire. Or, be one of those toasting a marshmallow to perfection on the end of a willow branch cleaned clear of twigs.

Being a camper was never one of my strong points even though I did plenty of it over the years.

There was camping out overnights just for the outing pleasure of my folks with relatives. Some nights were cold, actually miserable, without enough blankets in the days before sleeping bags were in vogue. As a child I remember wrapping up in the blanket spread on the floor of the tent and feeling chilled, saying to myself that I was never going to go camping again. No one had thought to spread branches beneath the blankets to soften the bed and keep the cold from seeping through from the ground into the bedding.

The blankets themselves were made of squares cut from men’s wool trousers, then sewed back together again by hand and backed with flannel. The quilts were hand-quilted in various designs of cotton print block pieces with a matching or contrasting color as a backing. The bedding was heavy to cart to the campground and took up considerable space in the car or back of a pickup. Feather pillows were inserted in rough cotton flour sacks, washed clean but unembroidered for use as pillow slips.

Whenever we headed for the woods, before the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps was begun in 1935 to make work for the unemployed on relief) built tables, benches, fire pits, and outhouses for state parks, the family would find any place in the forest that looked like a good camping spot, normally close to a road, river or a lake, and simply unload their supplies. It was usually in the Wallowa or Anthony mountains. Once there, there were tents to be pitched and firewood to be gathered, making a fire pit by clearing a spot and surrounding it with rocks found near the river.

They hung clothes lines from tree to tree on which to hang blankets, wet swimming suits, towels, or other necessities. Fresh food and meat were hung in sacks up high in the trees away from bears and ground scavengers. After checking up the stream for purity, buckets of clear cold water were dipped from the running stream to be used at camp for drinking, cooking and cleaning.

A cooking kitchen would be set up on a card table or make-shift shelf for canned goods and the dishpans for doing up tin pie plates used as dishes, real silverware (no plastics), and tin cups, the cooking having been done over a small fire with kettles hung from a spit, buried in the hot coals, or a lidded cast-iron Dutch oven balanced on a grate over the fire. Baked potatoes and apples or roasted corn were d licious wrapped in foil and left in the coals to cook.

My father had a great big cast iron griddle that he would take along in order to make hotcakes for everyone. They were good on a cool fall morning when you tumbled out of bed wrapped in one of the blankets and sat beside the campfire to get warm.  The hotcakes, dribbled over with melting butter and maple syrup, a fried egg on top, were tasty even though they most often were a little blackened from uneven heating of the griddle over the fire.

Later portable camp stoves like the Coleman two or three burner stoves came into use and the heat regulated.

Small boulders and downed tree trunks, first come first served, were seats, or folding chairs from home for the elder campers.

The children expended their exuberance in running, playing, swimming, exploring, and were tuckered out by nightfall. The adults visited or played cards after the chores were done, some going fishing or berry picking.

These were the days of extending your time in gathering mushrooms, picking huckleberries and elderberries, along with fish catches cleaned and iced in portable ice chests. There were outings over holidays for fishing, picnicking, hunting, or just for the pure pleasure of spending time in the forest. Maybe coming home with loads of wood to burn through the long cold winters was also an extra bonus.

As far as I know, there were no rules and regulations from the government, just an unspoken rule of leaving the place as you found it and not destroying your environment, burying your garbage, burning paper trash, and carting home tin cans and glass jars. I’m not sure about an occasional washing of plate and utensils in the river, though, but they would say they were feeding the fish. Sometimes I would see the adults sweeping the area with a broom after we were packed and ready to head for home.

Later, after marriage, there were camping trips to share the beauty of serene lakes and wild life with my husband and our children. We fared much better with more modern camping gear.

And, of course, there were back-pack trips to the high mountains, so that I could share in some part of George’s attaining their very peak summits while I waited at base camp for his victories. Our sons shared in that, and even I climbed the face of our Mt. Emily and then Strawberry Mountain to its top.

We had counted the stars and ridden each moon’s trail across the sky together, coming home richer for the experience.

No, I no longer yearn to repeat those experiences, but I treasure the ones I have had.

I let the curtain fall across the window as the pine branches covered the face of the perfectly round sphere of a full moon as it moved on in its travel using the velvet black sky as background.

Back in my cozy chair, I let the years of memory march through my mind from childhood to conclusion, treasuring each one.

 

Veteran newspaperwoman Dorothy Swart Fleshman is a La Grande native. Reach her at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it