This was the year we were going to mix it up a bit. Several years on the beach left a few of our tribe itchy for change. And since we’re a family of campers, we thought, why not pitch our tents in the Smoky Mountains. We knew our usual Thanksgiving break get-together would be a little chilly, and with ten busy grandkids…plus their parents who have demands on their schedules, finding a compatible date for Camp NanaPudge ’18 was tricky. But from the day we decided on July 31-August 3, 2018…ideas began to percolate in our brains. Well at least in Pudge’s and mine! The parents have learned to just let us go on…and on…and on for months about what the tee-shirt color will be…what dollar-store goodies will go in the back packs, etc. (Of course, if they’d just move back to Tulsa, the problem would be solved. Camp NanaPudge would be an ongoing/never-ending event! And the parents wouldn’t even have to participate!) But I digress.
FIRST…find the perfect campsite! Finn (our 12 year old grandson from Asheville) had been to Rattler’s Ford in the Joyce Kilmer National Forest for a school retreat and knew about group campsites that would accommodate our crew…with swimming, fishing, hiking etc. It is a couple of hours from Jennifer’s house, and 30 minutes from the nearest store. But it wasn’t enough to know it was a beautiful place. (We did our research. Google is a wonderful thing!) We thought we ought to go check it out for ourselves. So last winter when we were in Asheville, we made a little trip to Rattler’s Ford, and just as Finn had told us, it was PERFECT!
We would feel remote, but close enough to civilization should we need to grab a couple loaves of bread. We figured having food for 18 people for 4 days would be a challenge, so we planned meals accordingly. We’d smoke pork for an army ahead of time, etc. etc. etc.
AND…when we weren’t fishing, hiking or swimming, wouldn’t it be a treat to rent a boat. No, wait. Two boats. A pontoon for half the crew to fish and swim from and a speed boat to pull a tube. We could just hear the grandkids squealing in delight! The fella at the boat rental must have thought we were crazy to call six months in advance to reserve the boats. Hey, this is Camp NanaPudge. There’s no such thing as over planning.
But what if there was an emergency. Pudge confirmed that ATT doesn’t have service where we were going but Verizon does! Jason’s phone is with Verizon but what if Jason is on the pontoon and there’s a reason he has to connect with Pudge with his useless ATT service? Better buy a one-month plan on Verizon…just in case. (Those who know Pudge are well aware that there is no stone that goes unturned when anticipating the worst case scenerio). I could go on about how he really wanted Joy to get a Verizon plan, too, just in case they had an issue on their way to the campsite and needed to call us. (I talked him down from that idea, assuring him it wouldn’t be possible to lose a vanload of Zedlers.)
So, the black storage box on wheels that holds all the recreational paraphernalia from year to year was packed. It had the bases for kick ball, the kites (still sandy from last year’s beach), rocks to paint and leave hidden at the campground, a deck of cards, Frisbees, a couple of footballs to toss around, and a last-minute addition this year: materials to make giant bubble wands, in case anyone gets bored.
Plus, I was determined that we would have each of the kids memorize one line of the poem “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer (Pudge and I would round out the 11th and 12th lines) and one night we would huddle around the campire cooking s’mores while reciting the poem together. It would be magical!
You get the picture. We had thought of EVERYTHING! Right? What could possibly upend our perfectly planned do-dah.
We were watching the weather two weeks out….a chance of some clouds and scattered showers. Good! That will cool things off. Besides, it’s just a chance. One week out, it was looking a little more serious. 60% chance of scattered showers. Not to worry, the locals said. “They told us there was 100% chance a week ago last Saturday and it was blue skies all day.”
MONDAY: One day out…in fact, Joy’s family was already headed our direction…90% chance of thunderstorms! WHAT? What happened to “scattered showers?” Our family knows from experience, there is little that is more miserable than camping in torrential rain.
What to do? Do we tell Joy’s family who were already on the road to turn around and go home? Do we tell Jason’s family to forget coming at all (since they hadn’t left yet)?
NO! It is Camp NanaPudge and the show must go on! Plan B began to take shape. Jennifer and Jeremy graciously offered to open their home to all. What would put most people into a harried frenzy didn’t seem to be a big deal to the Seiferts. To describe Jennifer as calm is an understatement. She has a peaceful countenance (even in full-blown labor…I know, I’ve seen her!)…and Jeremy is always up for an adventure. The more chaos, the merrier! So we pitched tents on their lawn and a friend of theirs delivered a little Scamp camper in case we needed it. We just had to keep the ice chests chilled for whatever we couldn’t cram into the refrigerator. And so it was that plans for Camp NanaPudge headed in a different direction – even though the sun was still shining!
We canceled our reservations at the campground and for the boats that had been waiting with our name on them since January! We took a drive to Lake James State Park that had pavilions to rent…OR, if you were a risk-taker, you could just show up and take your chances there would be one available. As you can guess, Pudge was having none of that uncertainty. Plan A was already a bust, and he was taking no chances. We went by a boat rental place handy to the lake (that’s where we met the guy who assured us the weather men never know what they’re talking about), and he said to give him a call in the morning if we wanted to rent a pontoon to avoid paying the $100 non-returnable fee to reserve one. The Plan was beginning to take shape.
Base Camp – neatly tucked by the trampoline and chicken coop! Let the fun begin!
Camp NanaPudge’s own air bnb
TUESDAY: The sun was out all day. Joy’s family arrived that afternoon, just as it was beginning to sprinkle. The kids immediately settled into doing what they love doing when they’re together in Asheville. Picking stuff from the garden, swinging on the giant rope swing in the front yard, hiking up the hill, jumping on the trampoline, plunking on the ukuleles, or playing secret agent with the walkie talkies.
But as much fun as they were having together, Camp NanaPudge only starts when the last carload of grandkids gets there. Jason’s family arrived just as some of the younger ones needed to go to bed, so CNP ’18 would officially begin Wednesday morning…at the Plan B pavilion. Before settling down, the cousins all had to stand back to back to see who had grown how much since the last time they were together. Jules has passed up all the men in the family…and four others are in a dead heat with each other. But regardless of how tall they are, we always see enormous growth in each of them, made more noticeable by the time lapses between visits.
WEDNESDAY: Most everyone was up bright and early…there was too much excitement in the air (mixed with a little rain) to be sleeping in. Pudge waited for the boat man to open at 8:30 so he could call and rent a pontoon. A friend of Jeremy’s loaned us an awesome tube and we imagined ourselves dodging the occasional showers, picnicking in the pavilion, fishing off the dock, and while some of the grandkids tubed behind the pontoon, others would be paddling canoes and kayaks. So imagine our surprise when the boat man blatantly announced that there were no boats available. WHAT? How can we disappoint the grandkids again? They already weren’t camping in Joyce Kilmer National Forest (although I don’t recall one complaint about that), and now we had to tell them there would be no boat. Jay was mad at himself for not reserving one, dreading the announcement he was about to make. He told them, and they all said, “OK! No problem. When do we leave?”
And that’s when I finally got it. Camp NanaPudge has very little to do with the Where and What, but more with the Who. And that’s what they all had. The Who: the cousins they had compared heights with year after year; the ones who shared memories of past Christmases and being scared by the fie fi fo fum monster aka Pudge; the ones who would always be the older ones clearing the path for the ones who would always be the younger ones; and the ones who share the bond of being family, even if they only see each other once a year.
So load up the cars…it’s time for Camp NanaPudge to begin.
By the time we arrived at the pavilion, it was raining pretty hard. Plan B was underway. Camp officially begins when we sing our camp song (some more enthusiastically than others) and distribute the camp backpacks, which are beginning to show quite a bit of wear and tear. (The younger campers wear them almost non-stop for days.) For some reason, I cannot get through this part without crying. It happens like clockwork every year. Jay has to step in and say what it is he thinks I’m trying to say. This year, he was a little slow to respond. Natalie…our newest family member…knows the routine. (This is her fourth year of CNP.) “Pudge,” she yelled. “Get up there!” And he did. I commended the kids (and their patient parents) for being so flexible, and told them how disappointed Pudge and I were that things weren’t going as planned. Then I asked them if they wanted to choose to make the most of it anyway, and it was unanimous. We were going to give it all we had…and the rain kept pouring.
Even the big kids humor me during the backpack ceremony!
We took the camp group picture, which is usually an ordeal. But this year it was taken in record time with smiles all around! We had a quick picnic then headed for the beach. Everyone who wanted to paddled off in canoes and kayaks, landing on an island where they swam and applied mud facials in the rain (so I’m told…no pictures to prove it, as everyone was wise enough to leave their devices in the car). From all accounts, this was something fun…and special…and a memory that would not have been a part of Plan A.
Meanwhile, Joy and Annabelle were enjoying some special mother/daughter bonding time, canoeing further than either one of them had planned, probably because the rain was making everything even more beautiful. As they rounded the bend, they experienced what Annabelle described as the second most wonderful thing she had ever felt…the first being the day she was born! A doe and her fawn were swimming in the lake across a narrow inlet, with the baby straining to keep it’s head above water. The sight of it was awe inspiring and brought Annabelle, always the nature lover, to tears. When they reached land, the fawn pranced around her mama playfully, bringing more happy tears as Annabelle shared this touching moment with her mother. She says she knows that she will never forget the experience.
That night we carried out the only part of Plan A that survived. We surprised Pudge with an early 70th birthday celebration. It was amazing to have all 17 of us singing Happy Birthday to him TOGETHER. Then we presented him with a book of sentiments and photographs – a sort of “This Is Your Life.” It was so much fun to watch the grandkids hear what friends and family had to say about their Pudge, then add their own stories. There was a consistent theme…he is pretty special to lots of people.
THURSDAY: Back to Plan B. The rains continued….harder than ever. The grandkids had options during the rainy day…between movies, a pinball museum (which I understand was way cool),
or just hanging out, working a puzzle, chalking hair, having Aunt Indy paint your toenails yellow, swimming in the bathtub…
OR blowing enormous bubbles. Aha! The last minute giant bubble wands were a hit.
Dinner that night entailed defrosting some taco meat that I had brought from home per campsite cooking Plan A. I put it in the crockpot, adding half a jar of salsa as it warmed. (Here is where Divine Intervention comes in.) I was trying to remember where I had bought the salsa and it hit me. Sam’s. In the refrigerated section. But where had it been since that last-minute shopping trip in Tulsa? In a box. In the truck. YUCK! As much as I hate waste, I quickly dumped the five pounds of seasoned meat into the garbage…thus avoiding food poisoning those I love the most. Indy drove me to the local grocery to buy more ground beef and taco seasoning. Crisis averted.
That evening everyone chose an activity that suited them best. While Stephen stayed home with the littles while they watched a movie, Jason took Jules back-to-school shopping and Indy took Johanna and Annabelle out for ice cream. The rest of us drove to hear bluegrass music in nearby Marshal. During the 30-minute drive on a winding mountain road, the carload was treated to a concert by the Weinheimer sisters, singing their favorites from the 80s…everything from “More Than Words” by Extreme to “Powder Room Politics” by Leslie (Sam) Phillips…and all genres in between. That brought back some sweet memories and likely would not have happened with Plan A.
We all sat on the floor of the packed coffee house to be entertained by award winning fiddler, 84-year-old Bobby Hicks and 12 others (including a three-piece band from Hawaii and a fiddle player and banjo player from Guthrie and Norman, OK respectively.) We were all spellbound…and I especially loved watching Finn, Scout, Ollie, and Sophie appreciate the talent. Music has a way of grabbing my emotions and I teared up watching an older man (maybe even as old as Pudge!) get up to dance with reckless abandon. Pudge said it looked like he was transported back to his youth as he clogged. (Appalacian Flatfooting, I later learned).
The final night of CNP found the cousins and uncles enjoying a late night viewing of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” – a family favorite, while the mamas had a last night of sharing laughter and silliness…perhaps a result of being relieved that we had survived another CNP intact.
FRIDAY: Taking down the tents…in the rain…was definitely not a part of Plan A but was somehow made more tolerable with the sound of Finn and Ollie strumming their ukes.
Camp NanaPudge is officially over when we sing the camp song as the first family loads up to hit the road. And, I suppose, another part of the tradition is that I sing it through tears…hoping that each one of us will remember CNP ’18 fondly.
It was nothing that we planned… but so much more than we could have imagined.
Jeremy posted this picture as all of us were well on our way home!