There is a photo that I took last summer. It was taken from the inside of a tent, as I lay flat on my back not long after waking. The image is full of sunshine. There is a clear blue sky outlining evergreen trees that must have been a hundred feet tall, and in the bottom corner, an opaque section of my tent forms a stark diagonal. That day, I woke up happy, and the sight of the bright morning outlined by the clear mesh stretched over the top of my tent awoke an immediate joy in me. I had barely opened my eyes and already I could tell, this day would be a great one.
When I look at this photo, I remember the captured memories that framed it. The day before I had intended to get an earlier start. I was meeting my three friends at a designated campground, one set next to a small reservoir, high up in the mountains. For typical reasons, I was unable to leave with even enough daylight to make it there, and so as night fell I drove up and down the road that runs through the campground, shining my flashlight into various campsites as I searched for them. I remember that as I reached the end of the campground, there were signs peppering the roadside warning that this area was occasionally flooded. I felt a surreal kind of feeling, one that comes from being in an unfamiliar place alone and unable to find what you are searching for. I drove up and down that little road three times when at last I located my companions. They were setting up camp, and the fact that they had just gotten their fire started was the only reason I saw them at all.
I had brought along a set of portable speakers and began to play the Grateful Dead as we sat around the fire. We all sang along, a little disjointedly, and our hair and clothes slowly became infused with the strong scent of campfire. I set up my tent in an adjoining campsite. There were no other campers around and there was a distinct feeling of solitude. The peaceful sounds of a crackling campfire, the soft conversation of my friends, and the voice of Jerry Garcia kept me company as I lay out a pile of blankets, so thick that when they were folded they filled half of the entire backseat of my car. Sleep came easy that night, a sky full of stars glimmering through the open top of my tent.
In the morning, I found my hands reaching for my camera only moments after I opened my eyes. The picture taken from inside my tent, a candid if there ever was one, will forever remind me of the day it was taken. I can see my three friends’ sleepy faces as we convened down by the reservoir and drank cold coffee from glass bottles. The frosty glass against my palm was as cold as the reservoir’s waters, which were shining a pale green in the morning light. The dark shapes of fish cast shadows on the silt, and I remember there was not a cloud in the sky. Before I gathered my belongings, I crouched in the tall grass and washed my face in the icy water. Once everything was packed, I pulled a carton of raspberries from the cooler. I dumped them into a half-empty container of Greek yogurt and stirred, watching the creamy white contents become swirled with bright red.
We decided our mission for the day would be to find a body of water warmer than our current location. I knew of one, another considerably larger reservoir at a lower elevation, and so we paired up and piled inside our two vehicles as the day gathered the summer heat around itself. It was an hour’s drive or longer to this new spot, cutting south through the mountains on narrow roads that curled around and back on themselves. On the last leg of the journey, we had the road completely to ourselves. On a particularly steep section, I glanced to the left from my spot in the passenger seat and saw a soft white waterfall cascading into at least five consecutive pools. It flashed by through the trees, and I still rather wish we had stopped to explore a little. Sunlight splashed down onto the rough surface of the road as we drove, beaming through a canopy of trees that curved overhead like a tunnel.
Finally, we drove through a small town, the first that we had encountered that day. We were almost there now, passing through the town and back in the uncivilized world of the forest. The spot we were headed to was right on the reservoir, a vast body of water that consisted of several narrowed arms nestled at the feet of massive green hills. We crossed a small bridge over one of these arms. Then we drove for a few minutes along another slender road and pulled off into the dusty outcropping that marked our destination. Only a large truck could have made it down this last stretch, so we all piled into the only appropriate vehicle and bumped our way along down a short dirt road, cut with deep ruts from adventures past. Summer rhododendrons without flowers dotted the underbrush. We emerged into the sunshine; the lake laid out before us in its great glittering expanse.
From here the day spreads into the summer horizon. The four of us had the spot to ourselves, a fact I was happy to discover, as I knew this was a local haunt. The lake was lower than normal, and we could see the clear mark where the water had been on a large rock half-covered with moss. Strange plants that were usually underwater swept back from the dry earth, with a length of brown roots exposed on the bottom and strange pink flowers growing on top above long flat leaves. The first thing we did was to run into the water, but hunger quickly overtook us. I spread a range of sandwich fixings over the tailgate of the truck and got to work, slicing juicy red tomatoes and purple onion wedges. I cut thick chunks of cheddar and fanned spinach over eight slices of bread. The sandwiches dripped down our hands and chins as we ate, and afterward, we rinsed our entire bodies in warm lake water. Then we all made ourselves a little light-headed by blowing up four floating devices. When we were finished, we fell upon them, happily gasping for air and closing our eyes against the bright summer sunshine as we bobbed with the current.
I remember the day stayed warm. We swam until dusk, that secret time of a late summer day when the water is warmest, retaining its heat even as shadows extinguished the iridescent sheen on the water. At one point, an air mattress went soaring across the water, caught in a strong gust of wind. I ran into the water and swam hard, struggling to keep up as it was swept just out of reach. When I finally retrieved it and pulled myself back onshore, my friends were shaking with laughter. I felt myself join in, muscles pulled pleasantly tight in my abdomen as I laughed and then fell back onto the air mattress. I floated there. My body was warm from the summer sun and exertion, but my feet felt cool as they dangled in the reservoir. I tilted my head back into the water until the world reversed itself, trees swaying atop clouds, the rippling lake hovering just above my eyebrows.
There is a photo of green trees and sky, framed by the top of my tent on a clear summer morning. When I see this picture, taken in a moment of happiness, I see in my mind’s eye a summer day and night that I will carry with me forever. It is almost as if I am tugging open the zippered doorway of my tent once again, emerging into the sunlight and surrounded by the soft chirping of forest birds. I see myself there, on the brink of a day filled with joy. I am standing on top of a worn wooden picnic table, gazing around as if my eyes had never been thirstier.