The sun shines not on us, but in us. The rivers flow not past, but through us, thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing.
— Environmentalist John Muir
I never thought I’d go back to summer camp or even hike a mountain.
But I knew I had to.
Call it research. Or maybe call it crazy. You choose.
A few weeks back, I spent a morning with nearly a dozen 8- and 9-year-olds. They called themselves The Climbers, the kids in Cabin 6. They came to spend a week at the YMCA camp outside King known as the “400-acre Memory Maker.”
That’s Camp Hanes.
The Climbers came to have fun. On this particular Wednesday, they came to hike Sauratown Mountain. I came to listen – and write.
I didn’t leave disappointed.
“A 90-minute hike?” said one. “My legs will be broken!”
“You know, I’m going to sweat twice as much,” said another. “I’m warm-natured.”
“My legs are going to get blown off!” said a third.
“This is why they should invent cyborg legs,” said a fourth.
“Then, you’ll have to cut your legs off,” responded the third.
“But it would be worth it,” said the fourth.
As we walked along a trail between the trees, I listened. I got to know them all. Interviewed three. Even got offered some crumbled Pop-Tarts by one. He kept that snack stash in his pocket.
While I scribbled notes as we hiked, I got this flashback to my cub-reporter days of interviewing lawyers and cops in various courthouses in and around GSO – walking down a hall, head down, peppering them with questions and writing in shorthand as fast as I could.
But this time, I was writing on a trail that was as straight as a curled snake. I had to look down constantly to make sure I missed the root, the fallen branch or the turtle clambering for safety. The Climbers spotted that. They named him Joey.
The more I wrote, the more questions came from The Climbers. But all their questions boiled down to one:
“Why are you writing?”
Well, that’s a long story.
Remember that everyone you meet is afraid of something, loves something and has lost something.
– Writer H. Jackson Brown Jr
Back in 2011, I went back to summer camp.
Or really three.
Our State magazine assigned me a cover story about summer camp, and the editors there were looking for what I call a “tone poem.” It’s a story full of scene-setters that tell a bigger picture, and this bigger picture dealt with the sights and sounds of a Southern summer.
We’ve all been there. In this case, it’s that carefree feeling we get when you go to summer camp, make new friends, discover a whole new world — and discover something inside you that you never knew you had.
And of course, we all know that can be anything.
So, that summer, I hiked. And sailed. And walked, watched, worshiped, recorded, sang, ate my share of S’mores and art-crafted my way across North Carolina. A photographer and I drove from the Lower Neuse River to the base of Sauratown Mountain.
I interviewed close to 50 people. One of those people was Bill Hutchins. Everyone knew him as Bootsy.
I have to admit. I do love nicknames. Bootsy, that one is a keeper. Named after a cartoon cat. Anyway, of all those people I interviewed, Bootsy was the one I knew I’d remember.
First of all, he was funny. He doesn’t know any strangers. Plus, he was this personification of summer camp, a walking summer-camp history book. He used all these antiquated colloquialisms I had never heard before, and the more I listened — and laughed — the more I realized Bootsy sprang from a South that feels forgotten and far away.
When I met Bootsy, he was the alumni and development coordinator for Camp Hanes. I first saw him when he walked out of a cabin where he lived at Camp Hanes. He had a big coffee cup in hand, black-frame glasses on the end of his nose and a smile wide enough to show the boyhood gap between his front teeth.
He was watching a clutch of young campers amble by, and he walked out to greet them. Right away, he noticed something he told me about later. It was the swagger, the ill-fitting shirts, and the jeans worn in the afternoon heat.
“How many first-time campers we got?” he said.
He saw a handful of hands shoot up.
“Well, I want you to find 50 feet of shoreline and take it to a counselor before supper.”
He turned back around to me and headed toward his cabin.
“Poor kids,” he whispered. “They probably don’t know what a shoreline is.”
Bootsy knew about poor. He grew up in Winston-Salem with, as I remember, “not enough to rub two nickels together.”
Or something like that.
He showed up in someone’s arms at the rooming house where his Aunt Agnes lived in downtown Winston-Salem. He was only eight weeks old.
He didn’t know his father. He didn’t know his mother. He slept in the same bed with his uncle and his older cousin. The only joy he found in life was spending his days at the Spruce Street YMCA and his summers at Camp Hanes.
He first went Camp Hanes in 1951. He was nine, and he carried all his clothes in a cardboard box. That was his suitcase.
For nearly a quarter century, he never strayed far from that beautiful spot beside Sauratown Mountain. He went back summer after summer – first as a camper, later as a junior counselor, then as a counselor, the camp’s waterfront director and finally the camp director from ’67 to ’74.
After more than three decades away from camp, he returned in 2007. He came back just to help. He also came back to rekindle a sense of joy in life that he felt he had lost. When I first asked him about that eight years ago, Bootsy grew quiet and talked in a voice reserved for a Sunday morning in church.
Here’s the shorthand:
Married and divorced three times. Lost touch with his three kids. Got let go from his last YMCA director’s job in 1979 because the Y in Charleston didn’t have enough money in the budget to pay him — even though they had hired him three months before to start a new branch. Left the YMCA organization disillusioned and bitter. Jumped from job to job to job – or as he likes to say, “I was always hauling ass.” Suffered much heartache along the way.
He tried to find happiness. He didn’t.
In 2007, he was living alone in an apartment in Winston-Salem, working part-time for Enterprise Rent-A-Car and spending time with hardly anyone except himself. Sauratown Mountain was simply a good memory from long ago.
That’s when Camp Hanes called. They got his name from former camp directors, and they asked him to come back and help. He jumped at the chance, and he told them he’d do anything they wanted him to do.
Four years later, I met Bootsy, coffee cup in hand.
My Our State cover story stretched past 4,000 words, and I remembered Bootsy not just because of his personality, but also his quote. I was talking to him on the screened-in porch at his cabin – the very same cabin he lived in when he was Camp Hanes waterfront director in ’61 – and I asked him some question about camp.
He didn’t answer at first. He walked over to a shelf and reached for an old photo album of Camp Hanes. It was thick with pics, some of which dated back to when the camp started in 1927. Bootsy pointed to a black-and-white photo, faded almost to the color of cinnamon. It showed a slew of barefooted boys from long ago.
Bootsy paused for a second – he does have a touch for the dramatic – and said:
“They weren’t wearing any shoes because they didn’t have any. They were happy to get three square meals a day. And you know, when I look at these pictures, I can hear them, and I think, ‘What kind of noise is happy? What kind of noise is joy?’”
What kind of noise is happy. What kind of noise is joy. Will always remember that.
Fast forward to the summer of 2012.
I was working as the metro columnist for the News & Record, GSO’s daily newspaper. I wrote three columns a week – Wednesday, Friday and Sunday – and like what happens any time between July Fourth and the beginning of school, I was scrambling for columns. News always seems to evaporate during that stretch of summer, and I wanted something that could move me and move readers.
So, I headed west. I drove to see Bootsy again at Camp Hanes.
The Our State piece had run two months before, and I knew I could recycle that favorite quote and plow some new journalistic ground with Bootsy. So, I wrote a quick-hit piece for a Wednesday about a former camp director, a character of the colloquial South, who felt summer camp saved him.
You’ll find it here.
But that wasn’t the end of Bootsy and me. It was really the beginning. It was because of a woman named Kathy Dunn. She found my column online in early 2016, and … well … she … hmmm. First, some quick background.
Kathy and Bootsy both were YMCA leaders in the early ‘70s. Bootsy, who was married at the time, fell for her hard. Kathy fell for Bootsy, too. She was 25, a native of small-town Kentucky and a woman in the Y’s male-dominated world climbing its leadership ladder; Bootsy was 32, another young Y leader and a man in a marriage that was slowly disintegrating.
They did nothing more than hold hands. Yet, their emotions for one another grew intense. But in the spring of ’74, Kathy broke it off because Bootsy was married with three young children. Bootsy took Kathy to the Asheville airport and watched her plane become a dot in the sky.
Bootsy figured he’d never see her again.
She called him in February 2016 after reading my column. Then, Bootsy called me.
“Well, if you get married,” I told him, laughing, “I’m gonna write about it.”
Well, they got married. And I wrote about it.
That three-column series in the News & Record appeared on consecutive Sundays in the fall of 2016, and today, that work has prodded me to tackle my first book. Well, that work and a request from Bootsy and Kathy.
Mind you, it’s like running a damn marathon. It’s all about discipline, routine and the need to tell yourself constantly, “Get your ass in the seat and write.”
It reminds me of something I found this summer in David Brooks’ new book, “The Second Mountain.” He wrote:
“Sometimes, if you’re going to be professional, you just have to dig the damn ditch.”
Matter of fact, I’ve got that quote taped to my office wall to help me cold-cock that procrastination troll clinging to my back. I do write every day of the week. And it is every day of the week — both at work and at home.
Since last summer, I’ve turned hours of interviews — and trips to Winston-Salem, Camp Hanes and “The Tin Can,” a trailer in the country — into something I hope makes sense. And that is something, I believe, we all can understand.
My book will try to unveil how faith and love, friendship and nature can keep someone from dying inside. And that someone for me is the gap-toothed man I first met in 2011.
I’ve written about 50,000 words, and I bet I’ll write loads more. That’s what lured me back to Camp Hanes a few weeks back. I came to hike Sauratown Mountain.
I needed to see, to sense, to feel for myself how that mountain had become the spiritual monument, the personification of all that had been good, in Bootsy’s life.
So, up I climbed. Up with counselors Nate London and Zach Wolfe. Up with The Climbers from Cabin 6. Up with three boys named Josh, Silas and Isaiah.
And no, I didn’t have to cut my legs off.
I just laughed. And listened to Lynyrd Skynyrd.
“If you think you’re related to the stars, you’ll have a different view of your responsibility.”
— Lakota Indian proverb
When I reached the top, the place at Sauratown Mountain known as the Hidden Cliffs, the first person I saw was Nate London, the junior counselor from Wilmington.
He was standing on the far side of the rock, surrounded by kids from Cabin 6. He looked back at me, and with his arms stretched wide, he smiled big and hollered, “This is it! Isn’t this great?”
It was. But not for Isaiah Kizer. He was the 8-year-old from King, a first-time camper, and he was whimpering, bear-crawling along on his hands and knees.
“I’m worried this rock will crack!” he cried.
Isaiah was scared of heights. Or so it seemed.
At every stop we had to climb – and there were two steep inclines where you used a rope and felt like Spider-Man – he mewed every few feet. He’d stop, let out this “OOOooooooh, I can’t do it!,” and me, Nate or Zach would prod him along.
It brought back memories of my 18 months as a den leader with GSO’s Pack 111. That was a decade ago, and I can still hear in my mind 9- and 10-year-old boys whining about almost everything.
“Mr. Rowe, there’s a spider in my tent!”
Now, here came Isaiah.
“This mountain, I don’t want to climb it! I can’t!”
Isaiah did get to the top. So did Silas Turnmire and Josh Speaks. Josh is 9, Silas is 8, they’re also first-time campers, and they’re both from Winston-Salem.
They sat on the edge of the rock, munching on sourdough pretzels and looking out toward forever. They saw a landscape that made Camp Hanes look like a model train set and downtown Winston-Salem a spiky dot on the horizon.
“It’s very beautiful,” Josh told me. “I like to see the camp and everything, and I like to see the mountains, and you look out there, you know, it looks like a sunset, and it goes out farther and farther.”
Then, I sidled up Silas. He had a different point of view. Not about the view. But about how he got there.
“I was terrified walking up it,” he told me. “I was afraid I’d fall down, hit my leg and break it. But I made it to the top without dying. I’m proud of that. I didn’t break a leg. I didn’t break anything.”
As they talked, Nate played songs from his iPhone. It came from the camp’s playlist, he told me, and as Silas and Josh talked about beauty and fear, I heard coming from a tiny speaker the tinny sound of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s lyrical take on the need for freedom and self-preservation.
If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me?
For I must be traveling on, now
Cause there’s too many places I’ve got to see
But, if I stayed here with you, girl
Things just couldn’t be the same
Cause I’m as free as a bird now
And this bird you can not change
Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh
And this bird you can not change
And this bird you can not change
Lord knows, I can’t change
By the way, check out the link above. Just click. It’s OMG hilarious. It’s a hat tip to my friend, David Menconi. I discovered that video by No Life Shaq on David’s FB feed. Two weeks later, I heard that song again atop Sauratown Mountain.
Released in ’73. Still sounded prescient atop a big, craggy rock.
It was the perfect soundtrack to soak it all in – the view, The Climbers and the sense of being on top of world where you get to contemplate all that’s around you, pause for a moment and think about what’s important as you sit in Mother Nature’s church.
“It’s crazy, Bro’!” Nate shouted out to me between handful of sourdough pretzels from a bag he shared with his campers. “It’s like this every time I get up here!”
I asked him to explain. That’s when he told me about his best friend, Luke Madison.
Luke and Nate first came to Camp Hanes when they were 8. They returned together four straight summers until Luke moved to Virginia. Nate kept coming, and he’s now in his ninth consecutive summer at Camp Hanes.
He just turned 17, he’s a rising high schooler and he’s in his first year as a junior counselor at Camp Hanes. He’s hiked to the top of Sauratown Mountain at least 20 times, and for him, it never gets old.
“It makes you realize how small you are. The camp is 400 acres, and you can see all of it from up here, and everything looks really small. You can look down and see people in camp, and they look like ants. And every time I’m up here, I feel a part of nature. When you’re up here, you’re away from all the busyness. It’s just you and the view.
“I mean, when I get outdoors, I get relaxed. See, I’m hyper. But this makes me calm down. This place here (atop Sauratown Mountain) calms me. And when I get here, when I get to camp, it reminds me of the camp slogan. ‘Be your best self.’ I truly am. For me, it’s not a cliché. I am my best self outdoors. I destress.
“Sure, being around The Climbers, that can get stressful. But I do want them to have fun at camp. I want them to have the same feeling I had when I was their age. And for me, what I do with them is I’m giving back. I’m giving back to them what I had as a camper.”
After 30 minutes of eating sourdough pretzels and soaking in the sights at the summit, The Climbers got ready to head back to camp.
As we weaved down the mountain, herding the Cabin 6 kids along the way, I caught up with Zach. Like Nate, Zach is 17. He’s a home-schooled teenager from nearby King, and he has spent the past six summers at Camp Hanes. Like Nate, Zach sees camp and Sauratown Mountain as crucial to who he is and who he wants to be.
“You think about life, and what truly matters here,” he told me. “I mean, coming here changed my life, and if I can give back, I’m doing what I can do to do that.”
Wait a minute …. What?
“Camp changes you,” he continued. “When I first came here, I was 13 years old, I was home-schooled, and I didn’t have much social activity with other people my age. But here, I’ve made lifelong friends here. My camp family is here, and I want to be here.”
And the Hidden Cliffs?
“I’ve been up at least dozen times, and it never gets old,” Zach said. “It’s peaceful. I love it. Yeah, it’s the same thing, the same view. But it’s a part of camp so it’s a part of me.”
Hey, Bootsy. Listen up. I get it.
“Sometimes, I need only to stand wherever I am to be blessed.”
— Poet Mary Oliver
Back at camp, over lunch of chicken cutlets, cheesy pasta and carrots and peas, I caught up with Isaiah. I sat between him and Josh as they read emails from their parents. I asked if I could read them, too. Josh and Isaiah obliged. From those short notes, I gathered much. I remembered much, too.
“How does pizza sound for your welcome-home dinner,” Josh’s mom wrote. “Have fun, and we love you so much!”
Isaiah got two emails. One from his grandmother in nearby Tobaccoville. The other from his mom. She wrote four sentences and used 12 exclamation marks.
“I love you sweet boy!!!” his mom wrote.
“I am so proud of you,” his grandmother wrote.
And Isaiah, you read that and think … what?
“I accomplished something,” he told me.
And getting to Hidden Cliffs?
“It made me feel like I achieved something for the first time,” he said. “Just going up that mountain and coming down, it made me feel happy. It was slick, really slick in places. But I overcame my fears. I never gave up.”
It showed you that …
And the view?
“It made me happy to see that whole view,” he said. “It was so silent up there. No one really talked, and I think that’s because it made everyone happy seeing that view. And it shows me science is true.”
“Yes, true. Your heart depends on this kind of stuff. You’re up there, and it feels so majestic. It’s just you and the view. No one screams at you. No one is mad at you. So, science is true. The outdoors can help you. It’s better than Tylenol. It makes you feel better.
“And you know, trees do produce oxygen.”
My classroom with Isaiah. My new teacher.
I knew right away I got what I needed. But then, Isaiah looked at me sideways. It was this curious look, and I knew he was up to something. He was. He turned the tables on me, and he did something that I’ve never really run into in my 30-plus years of asking questions with a notepad in my hand.
“Can I ask you some questions?” Isaiah asked.
“Sure,” I responded.
“How did it make you feel?” he asked.
“Really good,” I responded.
I figured that kind of two-word response would get me off the hook. Nope.
See, I never like getting interviewed. I know, weird, right? But it’s true. So, I stalled. I figured that would dissuade this eight-year-old with an inquisitive mind. But nooooooo ….
Isaiah had seen me interview Josh and Silas atop Sauratown Mountain, and how I had touched my heart to get those two to tell me how that view touched their own heart.
Well, Isaiah did that to me.
“How did it make you feel here?” Isaiah asked, touching his heart.
I laughed. He’s got me. Be honest, I told myself. Time to teach.
“Up there,” I told Isaiah, “I feel closer to God. It’s like a church, you know? You’re up there, it’s quiet, and it prompts you to think about stuff. All kinds of stuff. You know, who you love, what’s important. That kind of stuff. That’s why I see it as a God thing. It’s real spiritual. Does that make sense, Isaiah?”
He nodded knowingly.
“Yeah,” he responded. “I would say that, too.”
“It is out of the dailiness of life that one is driven into the deepest recesses of the self.”
– Poet Stanley Kunitz
An hour later, I left Camp Hanes and drove toward NC 66 and the fields of roadside tobacco that stretched toward the horizon and seemed to glisten a greenish gold in the late afternoon sun.
I passed the 66 Quick Stop, the Sauratown Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department and the Boyles Chapel Primitive Baptist, a small white-placard church beside a cemetery where the squared tombstones look like chess pieces all in a row.
I turned onto Ralph Boyles Road and wound my way toward “The Tin Can.”
It’s where Bootsy lives, and that afternoon, like he does every afternoon, he hung close to Kathy.
At “The Tin Can,” I told Bootsy about Isaiah and Silas and Josh as well as the counselors Nate and Zach. Then, we talked about his take on Sauratown Mountain.
For Bootsy, that crooked rectangle of a big rock has been a big metaphor in his life.
When he was a kid at camp, he’d look up and see it and think everything is right with the world. Today, at 78, he still feels the same way. He can see from his porch at “The Tin Can.” But by next summer, he’ll have a different view.
Rather than looking up, he’ll be looking down.
He and Kathy have bought 25 acres atop Sauratown Mountain, and they’re building a home. I’ve been there, and it is some kind of beautiful, all surrounded by hardwoods and a catch-your-breath view. His new perch will look down on camp, just like the view from the Hidden Cliffs.
That wasn’t by accident.
In the fourth quarter of his life, Bootsy has gotten even more pensive about his past. His childhood was built on lies, and much of his adulthood was filled with bouts of loneliness and frequent thoughts of “What if” that never materialized.
Now, as he edges closer to his eighth decade on our Earth, he wants to find a place with Kathy where they can enjoy their newfound happiness. And he wants to live the rest of his days atop a mountain, tucked beside Hanging Rock State Park.
That mountain always gave him much happiness. He’d look up, whatever age he was, and that mountain, it always was there.
Like me, Bootsy feels closer to God anytime he’s up there rambling among the trees. We’ve been up there together, walking every inch of his land. He’d talk; I’d listen; we’d stop and look toward the horizon not saying a word. Then, repeat.
On this particular Wednesday, we stayed in one spot. Bootsy turned his kitchen table into his pulpit.
Yes, Bootsy can preach.
“Those kiddos are right. Sauratown Mountain is a spiritual place.
“When I was a kiddo, I always thought that mountain was the end of the world. Nothing happened beyond that horizon, I always thought that. I did. But when I climbed to the top, and I looked over it, I was just filled with awe and wonder, and I thought, ‘Wow.’
“I saw the outline of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and then I turned back around and saw camp, the small clearing, the upper ball field, and I could see the lake. I kept thinking, ‘Holy Smokes, look how small everything is. Here I am at the end of the world.’
“It was such a gorgeous spectacle. Really, a gorgeous spectacle. But even when I was a little kiddo, I’d see that view and say, ‘Thank you, Lord.’ He has done all that for us.
“Over the years, you get to see less and less of that view. You see gates go up and see signs that scream ‘Private Property.’ It’s because people have partied up there. You know, sex and rock ‘n’ roll and free love. Not to mention the broken bottles at one of the outcroppings.
“But every day, when I get up in the morning, I see that mountain out my front door, and I continue to get awe-inspired. How can you not? I hope people never get tired of it.”
Bootsy then pulled up a video he had just made the morning before. He arose at 6:15 a.m., and like he often does, Bootsy became a Hallmark card poet. I do poke him about his sappiness. But when it comes to emotion that strikes deep, Bootsy always hits the mark.
He pressed play. On the video, Bootsy talked in that hushed tone I’ve come to recognize as “I’m saying something serious. You need to listen.”
So, I tuned in. On he went.
“Morning sounds. The symphony of the birds. The rooster in the distance. All that is us. Good morning. Here it is at 6:15 in the morning. Ah yes. On beautiful Ralph Boyles Road. Speck of the moon off in the distance. Beautiful stunning sky. The sun is coming up. The milk truck has done its job. Whew! Good morning. Wonderful day to be alive.”
The deeper I dive into Bootsy’s life the more I realize that Sauratown is my own reminder of the wonderful gift of serendipity. It’s that whole idea of what you can discover when you follow your curiosity, keep your eyes open and get to know the people you meet along the way.
Since leaving daily journalism five years ago, I’ve learned a valuable lesson from that curiosity walk. It’s this: If you step back, think and pause long enough — and not rush from quote to person to quote to scene — you do soak in some sweet nuggets of wisdom.
You just have to pay attention and listen.