NONFICTION

MARCH 2017

 
The Spent Wave, Indian Point, Georgetown, Maine by Marsden Hartley, 1937-1938, oil on canvas, Columbus Museum of Art

The Spent Wave, Indian Point, Georgetown, Maine by Marsden Hartley, 1937-1938, oil on canvas, Columbus Museum of Art

 
 

Acadia National Park: A Confession

by CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON

When I was in my thirties, I was an Angry Young Man. I was wrathful, irate, mad, sore as a crab, waxy, hot under the collar, raging, fiery, wrought-up, fuming, foaming, in a red-hot passion, in a pucker, in a huff, in high dudgeon, infuriated, furious, hopping mad, rabid, foaming at the mouth.

The year was 1984, and I was thirty-six and Barbara was the same age and Matthew was ten and Emily was seven. We were going to camp at Acadia National Park, on Mount Desert Island along the coast of Maine. Barbara and I were both virginal campers. I was the one responsible for hatching this idea, driven partly by a nascent interest in the outdoors and partly by a lingering resentment that during my youth, our family had never risked any sort of wilderness or even semi-wilderness adventuring.

The drive north from Boston was uneventful, but as we entered the park, I had the strange sensation that we were entering a land that was somehow Other. I had grown up in the Midwest, where the land goes on forever and harbors few secrets, and although Acadia is heavily traveled and highly civilized for a national park—loaded with infrastructure like carriage roads and tea houses and well-defined hiking trails—it still looked dangerously untamed to me. Somewhere in the rear apartment of my mind, I had the drift of a hunch that I had neither the skill nor the knowledge for coping with this environment. Gargantuan granite rocks rumbled along the coast of the Atlantic like disobedient blocks of nature, forming a hard-rock border along the edge of the gunmetal ocean, which frothed with chaotic energy. Earth was engaged in a titanic struggle with the water. Acadia was discordant, jarring. Yet in truth, the discordancy came from within myself, as would soon become apparent.

My irritation started as soon as we arrived at our campsite. To put up our newly purchased polyethylene tent, I naturally needed the poles, which I dumped out of the box in which they had been packaged. The poles plummeted onto the hard and unforgiving soil. They came in pieces and would have to be fitted together to support the tent. The pole pieces lay strewn on the ground like so many Pik-Up Stiks, and as I stared at the jumble of metal that crisscrossed the earth in front of me, my heart sank. How would I proceed?

I bent down and tried to figure out how the pieces would fit together. It was like solving a jigsaw puzzle with a million pieces, and Matthew and Emily watched me as I began to struggle with the poles. There were eighteen pieces, and each of the six completed poles would require me to fit together three pieces. The pieces, however, were of varying lengths and had to be matched just so to form a complete pole. I hurriedly fit all the pieces together, but the resulting poles weren’t right; some were too long and some too short. I slammed one of the poles to the ground. Still the children watched me.

I yanked the pole pieces apart to start over. “Crap!” I muttered and wiped my brow with my sleeve. I picked up various pieces and once again started to fit them together. I tried putting them together differently, but still the completed poles were of the wrong lengths. I closed my eyes. I could feel the eyes of the children upon me. Frustration and anger spread through me like an oily inkblot. I could feel myself getting red in the face. “Damn it!” I muttered. Emily had been standing beside Matthew. Now she inched behind him.

Barbara had been setting up the cook stove on the picnic table. Overhead, I noticed that clouds were beginning to gather like thick clots of gray cotton. She saw what was going on with the tent poles. She walked over, glanced at the pole pieces strewn on the ground, looked at Emily standing behind Matthew, and stared at me. She knew my moods. “Cool it,” she said in a calm but firm voice. I knew in my blaze of anger that she was right. Turning to the children, she said, “Hey, let’s go see the ocean.”

“All right!” they both answered with the enthusiasm of angels that had descended into the woods. They trundled off. I took a deep breath, and gradually I cooled off. Finally, I succeeded in getting those pole pieces together properly and raising that unwieldy tent.

The three of them returned just around the time I raised the tent. Then it started to rain. God, did it rain! It was a rain of Biblical proportions—a rain of forty days and forty nights. We had sited the tent on low ground, and soon, water began to creep like mercury beneath the tarpaulin on the ground and spread slowly but inexorably across the floor of the tent. We lifted our sleeping bags and put them on our suitcases so they would remain dry. The water soaked my boots and my shaving kit. It invaded Barbara’s overnight bag.

In an instant, the rain destroyed the idyllic scene of perfect sunny skies that I had envisioned. Pines surrounded our campsite, and the needles dripped water like acid. Reality was falling desperately short of my expectations of perfection. Wearing parkas, the children began to play near the picnic table and accidentally knocked the cooler off the table. “Damn it!” I yelled. “Get the hell away from there!” They cowered.

Barbara stomped over. Putting on her most authoritative voice, she commanded, “Cool it! Go away! Get out of here for a while!”

We were camping at the Blackwoods Campground, near the Atlantic Ocean, and I hiked the short trail to the ocean. And there I sat and stared at the water and seethed. The waves rolled in as if the unseen hand of God were pushing the water toward the shore. The sound, the sight, the regularity of the waves gradually soothed my soul. As I sat there, I didn’t think. I just watched the waves.

As I walked back to our campsite, I felt somewhat calmer. The rain let up, and we decided that it was time for a fire. Of course! A blazing fire around which we would gather to cook our hot dogs and beans and roast our heavenly marshmallows! It was part of the whole idyllic vacation movie that I had unrolled in my imagination. We gathered firewood and broke the smaller pieces of wood into kindling. Fortunately, I had thought to bring newspapers. I carefully arranged the papers, kindling, and small branches into a pyramid. I lit the paper, and the fire started promisingly—very promisingly! The paper ignited into a blaze. We gathered round, anticipating the wondrous fire we would enjoy. The blaze hit the kindling and gave off not fire, but smoke. Desperately, I bent down and blew with the full force of my lungs. The fire brightened briefly but soon was reduced to a thicket of billowing smoke. “The wood is too wet,” Barbara said.

“No, it’s not,” I responded curtly. I was going to get this damned fire going.

“Mom’s right,” Matthew said.

I didn’t look at him. I blew and blew on the fire, until I started to cough because my lungs hurt so much. I placed more paper on the fire and lit it, and it ignited into a beautiful fire. But once the paper was burned up, the flame disappeared once again into obscene clouds of smoke.

I sat down, humiliated. Matthew and Emily must have thought their father was going crazy. Barbara said, reasonably enough, “Let’s go to the campground office and buy some dry firewood.” The three of them tramped off to the campground office to buy dry firewood. While they were gone, I felt more acutely than ever the blackness that had descended upon me. I sat on the bench of the picnic table, rested my chin in my cupped hands, and stared into the woods. I felt isolated, like a comet spinning through the vastness of the universe. My shadow mood obscured everything. I was an intelligent, well-educated young man. On the surface, things were fine. I had a good job, and I was respected. But for reasons that were completely obscure to me, a venomous snake had sunk its fangs into my soul.

Barbara and the children returned with dry firewood. Matthew had watched my previous efforts, and eager to help, he aided me in arranging the paper, kindling, and small logs into another pyramid. He took charge. I watched him, and he had more the look of Barbara’s family than mine. He had olive skin, brown eyes, and long eyelashes, and his chin was somewhat recessed, a physical trait that he had inherited from Barbara’s paternal grandfather. He was impish and aggressive but also big-hearted. He projected an air of self-confidence that attracted other children to him. But I knew that he felt the pressure of living up to our expectations. Barbara and I were perfectionists, and we most often wanted things done our way. I believe he carried a burden that was unseen to us. In the midst of my darkness, I felt proud of him as he worked to build the fire.

We lit the newspaper, and Matthew bent down on his knees and blew on the kindling until it caught fire. The fire burned orange and then grew whiter, and finally the flames licked at the small logs and ignited them. In fifteen minutes, we had a full-fledged blaze. Finally, we ate our hot dogs and beans, which tasted glorious in the outdoors. I had a beer, and we recounted the events of the day. However, the children looked at me sideways, and their voices were limned with tentativeness. They sat nearer to Barbara, and I noticed the distance from me. I felt isolated from them, physically and psychically.

Slowly I felt the grip of anger loosen its hold on me. We dried out the tent as best we could and rolled our sleeping bags onto the floor. The others were soon sleeping, but I lay awake, in the dark, and I trembled with shame and embarrassment at how I had behaved that day. Where did this anger come from? I felt as helpless as a two-month-old baby. I felt stuck in a morass of negativity. I felt like I had no business being a father—felt woefully unprepared for the role. As I lay in my sleeping bag in Acadia, I realized that my anger that day had felt like a shark gliding with steely silence through the nether regions of the sea. The shark was silent yet broiling. It had knife-edged teeth hidden behind skin with the texture of sandpaper. The shark was the price of inchoate feelings and unexpressed impulses.

The next day, the rain let up enough that we could go on a hike led by a forest ranger. We gathered near the ocean, and the ranger explained what made Acadia National Park and Mount Desert Island so unique. We were at the latitude where the northern boreal forest, dominated by evergreens like fir and spruce, met the deciduous forest of oaks, poplars, birches, and maples. The trees stretched their limbs toward heaven. Slowly the beauty of the pines, the spruces, the oaks, and the maples began to sneak some light back into my darkened soul.

We walked west from the ocean, and the ranger pointed out different trees, ferns, and wildflowers. A light mist hung in the air like a shroud, but the sun managed to peek through once or twice. The incline was fairly steep, and the trail was muddy and crisscrossed with tree roots, which were slippery from the rain. The ranger led, followed in order by Barbara, Matthew, Emily, and me. Emily had on her rain parka, and in the crook of her left arm she carried Jim. Ah, Jim!—the rubber frog that she had purchased with her precious allowance when we had arrived in Bar Harbor during the drive north. Emily had immediately named her frog Jim. I have no idea why she had named him Jim. It was as if she had been waiting all her life to name a critter Jim.

She was like that with critters. She was fair-skinned, like my family, with oak-brown hair and eyes as blue as cat’s-eye marbles. For a seven-year-old, she was strong. I would wrestle with her and Matthew, and she more than held her own. She had a direct way of wrestling. She waded right into it. Matthew teased her, but she gave as good as she got. In her bedroom, she kept a menagerie of toy critters, and she named them, and they took turns spending the night in bed with her. She was scrupulously fair in arranging the order in which her critters snuggled with her.

Now, on the trail, she squeezed Jim, and he emitted the most amazing croak. Jim couldn’t have been more than four inches long, but his mechanical croak was full-throated and resounded in the woods encircling us. When Emily squeezed Jim and he emitted that bellowing croak, she laughed with the complete abandonment of a seven-year-old. I dreaded to think that the darkness in me had invaded her sphere of light. The ranger stopped and told us about the vegetation of Mount Desert Island. Emily listened attentively, all the while cradling Jim and protecting him from the drops of moisture that buzzed down from the primordial pines and spruces.

We resumed hiking, and Emily carried herself forward steadfastly on her little legs. I was amazed by her energy. Her legs drove like little pistons. As I walked behind her, she and her little mechanical frog started to take me outside myself. She stepped inadvertently into a puddle of pure, unadulterated mud, and her boot got stuck as if it were glued to the earth. The mud was thick and black, and it gripped her boot like a vise. I bent down, and exhibiting the patience that had been so sorely lacking the night before, I carefully lifted her foot out of her boot. As she leaned on my shoulder, I twisted the boot back and forth and freed it from Mother Earth’s sticky hands. Grabbing a nearby branch, I scraped as much of the mud off the bottom of her boot as I could and put her foot back in the boot. “Thanks, Daddy!” she said.

That night, the rains returned, and with the downpour, my emotions began to roil once again. Why, I screamed to myself, didn’t the goddam air over Mount Desert Island ever dry out? It rained steadily all night. Slowly learning from our experience, we had moved the tent to higher ground, but even then, water seeped under our blue plastic tarp.

By now, the others were asleep. I lit a match and looked at my watch. Eleven-thirty. I grabbed our battery-powered lamp and lumbered out of the tent. Once again seething with anger, I held the lamp high and stumbled along the trail to the Atlantic. The waters churned with waves the color of dead bark. When I reached the ocean, I furiously stripped off my waterproof jacket and let the rain pelt me so that I could suffer even more. The rain pierced my skin like syringes, and I cursed it. My God, I gloried in my suffering! At the top of my lungs, I screamed, “Goddam you, rain!” I screamed so loudly that I scorched my lungs. I returned to the tent. I was able to sleep.

After four rain-soaked nights, Barbara and I surrendered. We called around and found a motel room in Bar Harbor. Neither Matthew nor Emily was disappointed to cease our experiment in camping. They grinned and whooped and helped us yank the tent stakes from that hard and unforgiving soil. We packed the tent and the cookstove and our tarp and everything else and stuffed it all into the trunk. We drove to the motel, and I remember thinking, “Well, maybe we gave up too soon.” Can you believe it? The intrepid male never gives up. We reached the motel, and the rain resumed plummeting in sheets, in torrents. We all knew we had made the right decision.

That evening, we took our children into the center of Bar Harbor for a lobster dinner. We didn’t have very much money, but we had enough to cover the cost of the meal. We all had enormous appetites. We stuffed dinner rolls into our mouths, which were so full that we could not talk for a minute. Then the children started laughing. They laughed and laughed—at the absurdity of the rolls, at the absurdity of the week.

We fell silent and waited for our lobsters to come. Then, out of the silence, Matthew said, “Dad?”

I looked at him. His dark eyes were so naked that I felt as if I could sink into them. “Yes, Matt.”

He trained those dark eyes on me. “You were scary.” I could not look at him. I turned my gaze on Emily, and she looked back into my eyes and nodded in silent agreement with her brother. I turned toward Barbara, and she stared at me and did not have to say a word. I looked down into my lap, ashamed.

The lobsters came. I looked back up and watched as Barbara patiently taught the children how to crack them open. I watched as the children sucked the meat from the claws as if they were feeding on the very marrow of life. Emily fed bits of lobster to Jim, still nestled in the crook of her arm, and I smiled.

That night, as we slipped into our beds in the cocoon of our motel room, I could not stop thinking about and wrestling with the events of the week. The problem, I realized, wasn’t nature or the outdoors. Aside from the perpetual rain, the camping experience felt like a peek inside a window that promised more on the other side. The problem, I knew, was inside me. A psychologist had told me once that anger was a cover for other emotions—emotions that roil deep within us when they go unexpressed. I felt his words like a knife. My anger at the tent poles and the fire and the rain and the heavy gray clouds had been misplaced. I was angry at the sense of gloom and foreboding that I carried within me.

As I lay there in bed and listened to the steady breathing of Barbara, Matthew, and Emily, I remembered the spark of tenderness that I had felt as Matthew had built our campfire, as Emily had freed her foot from the mud, as Barbara had taught the children how to eat lobster. I felt the tenderness sneak into my heart, ready to be tended, to be permitted to live. That night, sleep came like an old blanket once lost and then found in a neglected corner of a house.