It Takes a Village
by K.J. Brown
Lake Bemidji State Park
I started camping in state parks with my son when he was small. We usually stayed for 3-4 days, but in 1996, when he was 11, I decided to spend a whole week at a park, and Lake Bemidji State Park was our destination.
We had a glorious summer week, a perfect camping trip. My son was at the age where many of his friends were already obsessed with video games and rarely spent any time out-of-doors. I resisted allowing my son to follow this path, but always felt its strong pull in his life in the city.
As the week progressed, immersed in nature and activity, I saw him blossom into the curious, good-natured kid that I cherished. We saved the baby snapping turtle on the asphalt path, giving him shelter in the grass so he wouldn’t get run over by a bike. We watched the large porcupine splayed out on the broad surface of a huge white pine bough in back of our campsite snooze the day away, then back down the tree, scratching the bark the whole way, as she set out on her nocturnal rounds. We biked the Paul Bunyan Trail, white-tailed deer springing out of our path, into the deep woods of red and white pine. My son named the chipmunks skittering around the perimeter of our campsite and tried to photograph them for a story he wanted to write. One morning when it rained, we went into Bemidji for pancakes, poked around antique and junk stores and when the rain cleared, took our obligatory photos posing with the huge statue of Paul Bunyan and Babe, the Blue Ox.
One afternoon at the beach, my son struck up a friendship with a girl about his age who was also camping with her family for the week. She asked what number our campsite was and said she’d like to come visit us. I thought it was great for my son to have some company his age, so I enthusiastically invited her to visit us.
My heart sank when she showed up, not alone, but with her older high-school aged brother who looked like nothing but trouble.
He had spiked hair, a souped-up bike and talked tough with a swagger. This wasn’t the sweet pre-adolescent companion I had hoped his sister would be.
For the next several days, the little girl didn’t visit us at all, but the troubled teen brother became a frequent visitor to our campsite. He sat around the campfire with us in the evening, talking about hating school, fights he had gotten into and he seemed to relish being tough and in trouble.
One afternoon, as my son and I geared up for a long bike ride, our visitor blew into the campsite again. I tried to contain my annoyance and told him that we were headed out for a ride so we’d have to see him later. I unzipped the tent and ducked inside to look around, realizing I was nervous he might steal something from our campsite while we were gone. While inside the tent, I heard this boy say to my son: “You’ll never know how lucky you are that your mom wants to spend time with you.”
Tears slowly filled my eyes and I felt so ashamed. I had bought his tough demeanor; only saw his sharp quills and not the soft, vulnerable underside to this teen. I came out of the tent and told him we’d be back soon, and he was welcome to visit us that night. On the bike ride with my son, I couldn’t help turning over his remark in my mind.
That night around the campfire, he shared more about his life. He felt lonely at the park, stating his parents left him and his siblings while they went off around the countryside without them. He had a lot of conflict with his father who he said had brought a boat up the lake with them but hadn’t even bothered to put it into the water. I listened. I finally asked him if he had asked his father to go out in the boat with him but he was convinced his father wasn’t interested. “Wouldn’t hurt to ask him…” I replied.
The next day when he visited us, the teen told us his mother wanted my son and me to join them for dinner that night. At the picnic table in their campsite, as I made small talk with his siblings and parents, I watched the teen and finally whispered to him “Ask your dad about the boat!” He looked away and seemed hesitant. I prodded him again: “The boat!” Finally he blurted out: “Dad, will you take me out in the boat?”
There was a pause, and I believe his father was truly surprised that his son wanted to spend time with him. He said, “Sure, I’ll take you and your friend out after dinner.” And so he did.
I wish I could say this was the beginning of a renewed closeness between them, a great experience that they built on in future camping trips. But I have no idea how their story continued. It’s like that meeting other families camping; at least that’s what I’ve found. You might share a meal, watch your kids play at the beach, join a family at the campfire or fishing at the dock, but soon you will all return to your busy lives in Willmar or Stillwater or Prior Lake, and the people you have met will become one summer’s memory. All I know is I spent a wonderful week with my son, watching him fully engaged in life all around him. And another boy and his dad took a nice boat ride on Lake Bemidji, and at least for that evening, were able to lay their troubles aside.