Not Picture Perfect
A night at Camp Alternative Universe
By Renee Phile
The four of us pulled into the campground, welcomed by an eerie feeling. The accommodating pictures on the website — the luscious green woods and the thriving campfires — seemed to have been replaced by broken down 1940s campers, scattered trash, clotheslines sagging under the weight of laundry from the Cretaceous Period, a meteor shower of stray cats darting from site to site and, of course, No Trespassing signs.
“This can’t be right,” I said to Jesse, who nodded.
“Should we check in? Or just leave?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
“This place is weird,” David, 14, piped up from the back seat. “What’s up with all the cats?”
“Let’s just drive around and see if it gets any better,” Jesse, the optimist, said.
As we drove deeper into Camp Backwater, we saw travel trailers, pop-ups, and live-in year-round campers scattered about. Paint peeled from the small houses sitting between them. A cat streaked in front of our car and disappeared.
“This is nothing, and I mean nothing, like the website said it was,” I said. “And it’s not cheap either.”
Though the primitive amenities of the state park down the road now seemed like Shangri-La compared to Camp Irregular Heartbeat, we decided to check in and make an adventure of it. Maybe I could jumpstart a murder mystery.
The lady at the desk, with grey eyes peeking out behind wiry glasses, seemed nice enough until she delivered the worst news David, and his 10-year-old brother, Kevin, could ever possibly hear, “No Wi-Fi for your devices.”
As we cleaned up the trash left from the previous occupants of our campsite, a large, yurt-shaped man shuffled over, shoeless, dressed only in his boxer shorts and what looked like the T-shirt Sonny Corleone was wearing at the tollbooth.
“Hi! I’m Chris! Welcome to the suburbs! Don’t mind the cats. They’re mine. I’ve lived here for over a year. If you need anything, let me know.” Like what? A bell?
A teenager, who seemed to have already dipped heavily into the catnip, sped by on a bike and exclaimed, “I’m too blessed to be stressed! What about you?”
“Might want to stay away from him,” Jesse muttered to the boys as he put a spike in the ground to pitch the tent.
A couple with a small child and a baby pulled their SUV into the site next to us. The baby crawled around in the dirt, while the dad burned through gigabytes of data on his smartphone, Googling “campgrounds near me.” They left in seven minutes.
I decided to walk to the bathhouse. The sanitation grade was “C” for cruddy, and a blue leatherette front seat from a car sat in the middle of the floor, seatbelts dangling. A cat was curled up on top. As I was in the bathroom stall, the cat came in and nuzzled my legs. “Oh, this isn’t weird at all,” I said to the cat which meowed loudly.
That night our fire wouldn’t start. Jesse could make cement blocks burn, so if he can’t get a fire to start, there’s a problem. He dumped an entire bottle of lighter fluid onto the wood. It would flare for a few seconds, then go straight to tiny puffs of smoke. He marched down to the camp store and asked for a refund on the $10 pile of wood. That didn’t burn, either.
Our “neighbors,” led by Chris, drank late into the night, singing the lyrics they could remember to the country songs they thought they knew while the cats meowed in harmony. Shadows passed by our tent every few minutes and Kevin said, “Mom, can I sleep with you?”
In the morning I said a thank you prayer that we all survived. Then we went to a Walmart across the road and bought a board game called “Stuff Happens.” In it each player rates cards from 1-100 on tragic things that might happen to you. It could be as simple as “Lose a Toenail” or as serious as “Lose an Eye.” The other players guess the rating of each card and if you are close, you get the card. The person with the most cards at the end is the winner. I looked through the cards to see if “Stay at a Creepy Campground Infested with Cats” was one of the options.
It was 87. PS
Renee Phile loves being a teacher, even if it doesn’t show at certain moments.