Camping and the Kindness of Strangers
I've always felt like campgrounds were a tiny bit like Disneyworld, in that you drive through the entrance and it sort of feels like you're in a semi-magical place where nothing bad can happen. We camped a lot when I was a kid, and we always had the run of the place, and I remember my parents meeting and conversing with people who were set up near us, holding babies we didn't know, sharing food. I still have vivid memories of a Greek woman and a man with a stutter, which I had never heard before. I asked my dad about it later and he said it was good that I hadn't asked in front of the man.
Even before I started camping overnight, when I would take the kids to Sandbanks to hang with our camping friends, I let them run around the park with the other kids and paid less attention than I would have at home. I'm not really defending this as intelligent or safe, but nothing bad did happen, so it's a moot point. Camping there has generally been a convivial experience. People catch floating toys that have been taken by the wind (at one point there was a distressing tableau that should have been captioned "Losing Nemo" before a kind stranger intervened). People tell you if you left something in the shower that you just vacated as they're entering (when the showers are in use). This year, people told other bathroom users which dispensers had soap in them so they didn't have to touch all of them (leaving aside the questionable detail of empty soap dispensers at this particular point in time - the bathrooms were pretty clean aside from that).
One year Eve and I got there the day before Matt and Angus, and while we were deciding where to put up the tent a man passing by stopped and told us that it would be better to put it on the higher ground so we wouldn't get flooded if it rained. Another year there was a group of young people camping next to us that looked like a traveling theater troupe from a Barry Unsworth novel. They asked to borrow mustard for their veggie dogs and were effusively grateful. They were gone when we woke up the next morning. I know they were probably just hipsters, but we suspected they might be time travelers.
This year didn't feel terribly different. The website said there would probably be more empty sites, but we were in the most popular section, and there weren't a whole lot, which is fine - the sites are not too close together. The bathrooms were never crowded - it was actually rare to be in there with other people. We always try to get a site in the same general area, because it's close to the beach and the comfort station and, full disclosure, because Eve and I have the same appalling sense of direction and it makes it less likely that we will set off and never be seen again. We did get a site in the same area, but it was in an inner loop instead of in the same row where we usually are. This was fine - it was actually a little closer to the bathroom - except at night we had to remember to turn right sooner than we usually did.
I love walking along the camp roads. In the daytime the pavement is warm and the sun flickers down through the trees making a light that you don't see anywhere else. At night it's quiet and dark except for low voices and firelight from the odd site, and when it's clear you can look up and the stars are dazzling. I usually leave my flashlight off when I'm on the long straight part or walking along the beach, and just use it to figure out where to turn. The first campfire this year, though, my flashlight disappeared. I had my phone, but the battery was low so I was trying not to use it too much. I got back to our site once, but I wanted to wash my face and brush my teeth at the comfort station (I usually do it at our picnic table with a lantern, but the bugs were insane this year and I was tired of inhaling them). So I gathered my stuff and set out again. On my way back, I turned into the really dark part, and suddenly realized that 1) I had no idea where the right turn to get to our site was and 2) I had no idea if my phone was in my overstuffed beach bag or if I had left it back on the picnic table.
I stopped for a moment to gather my thoughts and see if my eyes would adjust enough to see the road. They did not. Just as i was about to set down my bag and start digging through it blind to see if I could find my phone, I looked back and saw a flashlight bobbing along a ways back coming towards me. So I just stood there until it drew level and said "sorry, but could you just help me find the turn here?"
He looked surprised (which is fair - if someone had done this to me I probably would have screamed and thrown a right hook). He looked like he might not speak English (there are a lot of French people who camp there), but was agreeable enough. He shone the light to the right and I found the turn-off and thanked him. He kept it shining for a bit for me to start walking so I thanked him again. He kept going and I kept walking, and I had forgotten that the road bows out sharply to the right before curving back left. I realized I was walking on grass and not pavement and stopped a split second before walking into a tree. I corrected and sighted the light Matt had left on the picnic table for me. The next day the person who had mistakenly taken my flashlight returned it.
Now that I type it out it sounds kind of dumb, but it was a lovely moment, and I am adding my time with Flashlight Guy to my collection of nice camping moments. Is this some kind of metaphor for how, just when it's too dark to see your way forward, a light will appear to guide you? Or maybe a flashlight is just a flashlight.