I originally wrote this to be posted on RichmondOutside.com. I almost let it go up but I pulled it at the last minute. It’s too personal for that so I put it on Facebook - for two hours. I didn’t like that either. It’s been filed away for months. Anyway, I’ve been wondering what to do with this piece so I just decided to put it on my own site…
Chubby kids do not look good in stretchy, synthetic fabrics, especially the brightly colored kinds. This was a reality I had to face during my formative years in the late 70s and early 80s. I am one of four children and our parents did our best to stretch the specie by buying gender-neutral clothes and reusing them as we grew. Being the youngest, that meant I got to wear hand-me-downs that had been washed and worn many times before. They were not shabby – we took care of our clothes. They had just shrunk a little. At least that is what I was told (but I didn’t really believe it) as I as tried to pull the clingy polyester away from the corpulent contours of my mid-section.
Off to school I went – painfully aware that I was different from most kids. That difference was noted by many of my classmates and they took pains to point it out. I was teased, as probably every kid was, but I was one of their favorite targets. Kids were not coddled in those years like they are today. I had to find ways to cope. I sort of withdrew during the school day. I just tried to keep my head down and not draw any more attention to myself while I waited for the dismissal bell.
When I got home it was a lot better. Like I said, in those days kids were not coddled. We were allowed to stay out unsupervised way after sunset. One of my favorite pastimes was riding my bike in the woods at the end our street. There were lots of trails to explore and a deep creek to play in and I would spend hours there - often alone. Other times I would hang out with friends who were just as awkward as I was. But in the woods it didn’t matter. There was freedom and acceptance outside.
So that was life during the school year - days of embarrassment in the classroom followed by afternoons of fantasy play and dirt-ramp building in the woods. As therapeutic as time in the woods was, it was not quite enough to make me feel just right. I missed the feeling of confidence I got outdoors when I went back to school. It wasn’t healthy. I need something more.
Summer came. Thank God. Days of classroom anguish gave way to full-time outdoor rambling. My heavy-set friends and I were free from the caviling of our perceived betters and we were the rulers of the wooded kingdom at the end of the cul-de-sac. I did not have to deal with the politicking and judging that happen when large groups of kids are herded together. Then came summer camp. I was nervous.
All of my brothers and sisters and most my cousins went to camp at Shrine Mont in Orkney Springs, VA on the edge of the George Washington National Forest. Shrine Mont is a conference and retreat center run by the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. There are a number of camps there. My brother went to Saint George’s Camp. My sisters went to Choir Camp (now called Music and Drama, or simply, MAD Camp). They loved it. Of course, my brother and sisters were not afflicted with childhood chunkiness and did not have to weather the storm of fat jokes as I did. That is what I expected when I went to camp.
It did not happen.
Imagine summer camp in the Allegheny Mountains in the early 1980s: the cabins with only screens on the windows so you could hear every animal in the forest at night and feel every breeze at rest time, the creaky old metal bunks (I think they were army surplus), and the long-haired, impossibly happy counselors who carried acoustic guitars and banjos wherever they strolled. I was not teased – not even by the cool kids. It was a community. It might sound like an idealized vision of Haight-Ashbury but that is my memory of Saint George’s. Here we were told (and we all believed it) that we are part of the Body of Christ and that all of us are crucial pieces of the spiritual machine that keeps the world moving - even chubby, eight-year-old me (my girth was never even mentioned). It was Heaven.
So that was life during the summer. Every year for more than a decade I returned. When I was too old to be a camper, I went back as a counselor. My formative years were spent just “getting through” school so I could go back to the Mountain. That is where I developed my sense of community, my love of nature and that is where I found my purpose.
I never took a job just for the money (okay, I did in college). I could have studied law or medicine or engineering (okay, my grades were not good enough for that) but I followed the path that was set for me when I was a kid. I made a few wrong turns along the way - the path is not clearly marked. I will never be rich, at least not in the monetary sense, but I have no hesitation getting out of bed every morning to serve God by protecting his creation. I am deeply grateful for the experience I had at Shrine Mont and my career is my way of paying it forward. Lord knows I don’t go to church on Sundays.
Side note: I might be successful in my modest-paying field and I might run trail races now, but if I come across as socially clumsy it is because inside me there is a pudgy kid in a Dukes of Hazard t-shirt still trying to come out.
So, with all that in mind, here are some of my favorite places where I can still hear the Voice in the Wilderness. Don’t try to build a shopping center on them - not while I’m on the job.
Mushrooms on the Buttermilk Trail, Richmond
Remains of a Native American fish weir on the James River, Richmond
Swift Creek in Pocahontas State Park, Chesterfield
Salt Peter Run, Orkney Springs
Pony Pasture, Richmond
Great North Mountain, Orkney Springs