I closed my eyes and let my senses overwhelm me. The crisp air tickled my nose, carrying the perfume of the damp earth and fragrant trees. Chirping birds and humming insects mingled with the burbling of the distant stream to create a soundtrack for my peaceful afternoon hike. It was my first time on the trail this season, and I was determined to enjoy every blissful minute.
A gruff voice interrupted my thoughts. "Ana? I can't see the next blaze, can you?"
I opened my eyes, turning to see TJ Mason several paces behind me. He had buzzed his brown hair short for the upcoming summer season. He wore khaki cargo shorts and an orange Camp Piquaqua tee shirt, sporting a tan that suggested he had already spent some time in the sun. A natural outdoorsman, TJ had already informed me he had been hiking all month. He stopped beside me, staring past me to find the next trail marker. It should have been easy, since he was half a foot taller than my five-foot-two, and I could see it clearly, but his squinting suggested he was having trouble.
I sighed, aware that no matter how much TJ might irritate me, I needed to be civil if I had any chance of enjoying camp this summer.
"Stay here," I instructed TJ. "Tell me if you can see it when I get there."
I walked about fifty feet to the next blaze, a six-inch red rectangle with rounded edges spray-painted a little above eye level onto a three-story maple. I could clearly see TJ, who smiled as he walked towards me.
We had been doing this leap-frog type of hiking for nearly an hour. I would walk to a blaze then stay put while TJ walked to the next one. We both knew the trail by heart, but we needed to ensure the marks were visible for the campers who would begin arriving later in the week.
Today, we were tackling the trail that led to the overnight campsite. It was about five miles long, although the access road was about half that distance. The trail wound through the natural features of the forest. Including the traditional stop for a snack at the half-way point, the trip normally took about three hours to complete. However, TJ and I knew we could be at the campsite in less than two.
"So, you almost done with school?" TJ asked as he passed me.
I shrugged. "I got a few weeks left. Classes this week and next, then finals."
"You know. Big test at the end of the year to see what I've learned," I explained in an exasperated tone. How does someone in high school not know about finals?
"What's the point?" TJ asked, standing beside the next tree. "Sounds to me it's more like a test to see what you can memorize in the last week of school."
"And yet, they won't let me pass the eleventh grade without them," I said sarcastically.
TJ shrugged as I passed him. "My mom makes me go through all my lessons, correcting all my mistakes from the year. I guess that's her homeschooling version of a final."
We made it to the clearing in just under an hour, taking a few moments to make observations on its condition.
"These logs are starting to rot," TJ said, walking along one as if it were some sort of round balance beam.
"It looks like it can hold you," I said a moment before TJ fell through the middle of the second log.
"I'm fine, thanks," TJ sneered through my giggling fit. "You get to test the last one."
I shook my head. "You weigh more than me. You should do it."
I had a feeling he knew I made a good point, judging by the glare he sent me as he traversed the final log unscathed. Ignoring him, I took a small notebook from my backpack.
"Replace logs in clearing," I said as I wrote. "All three?"
TJ nodded. "Yup."
"The blazes seemed okay," I sat gingerly on one of the unbroken logs. It gave slightly under my weight.
TJ walked beside me. "Yeah, I don't think we need to do anything else so far. It'll be the campsite that needs the most work, I'm guessing. Ready?"
TJ offered a hand to help me up, which I ignored as I stowed the notebook, swinging my bag back onto my shoulders as I rose.
"All set!" I strode past TJ towards the stream just beside the clearing. There were places where the stream was peaceful and quiet, but right beside the clearing there were many rocks. It was also where the river lost some elevation. As a result, it had a tendency to be rapid and rushing, particularly after heavy rains.
While it was technically possible to cross along the rocks, my grandfather had erected a small wooden bridge to help the campers hike more easily. Constructed of two large beams straddling the river, with planks across it, the bridge was only two feet wide and had no rail. Over the years, I had seen several overnighters hesitate to traverse it. The kids were usually fine; it was the adults who tended to have reservations.
But TJ and I had no problems, crossing easily to the other side and continuing along the pass. It took us about another hour to reach the campsite, during which time the wind grew stronger.
"Man, this place needs work," TJ exclaimed as the trail opened to the campsite. He walked to the fire pit, a hole in the ground about two foot in diameter, surrounded by foot-high bricks. "This thing is full of leaves."
"The entire site should be raked," I said, sitting on the log by the fire to write in my notebook.
TJ stood on the end of the log and began to walk towards me, stepping over and around me to continue to the opposite end.
I glared at him. "Really? You couldn't have started on one of the other logs?"
TJ smiled, hopping onto the next log. "Nope. I was hoping you'd fall in."
"Grandpa replaced all these just before he retired. They're not as old as the other ones."
"Yeah, I can see that." When all the logs passed his test, he inspected the picnic pavilion.
The shelter was raised about a foot off the ground and had a stone foundation with a wooden floor. Y-shaped posts made from logs were connected to the beams of the A-frame roof. Four long picnic tables sat under the pavilion for mealtimes during the overnight excursions. Meals were prepared on the long wooden counter at the far end. In one corner was a large metal animal-proof locker for storing food, a locking cooler, and a wooden locker for the various cooking supplies.
TJ examined the lockers before looking back towards me. "Do you have the keys?"
I shook my head as I joined him. "They're empty right now. Uncle Owen brings everything down to the storage area for the winter. We'll restock it when we drive up tomorrow. He said there's a checklist of what should be packed in it."
TJ nodded as he headed towards the latrine. "This place looks okay," he said after opening the door. "Doesn't smell too much, either."
I peeked into the chamber behind the outhouse. The rich, dark soil was close to the top. "We probably should empty out the compost. The worms must have been busy over the winter."
"Ana? Come here a sec."
"I am NOT going in the toilet with you."
"Just come here." He sounded annoyed.
I walked to the front of the building, where TJ was holding open the door. "What's your opinion on the seat?"
"I am NOT going in there."
"Why not?" he asked with an exasperated sigh.
"Because I don't trust you. You're gonna lock me in there or something."
"Do you really think so little of me?"
"It wouldn't be the first time!"
"I have never locked you in the outhouse!"
"You did so. We were…five I think? Yeah, because it was Uncle Owen's first year as a counselor. You locked me in the toilet near the playground. I was stuck in there for half an hour before someone found me."
TJ laughed. "Oh, yeah. I had forgotten about that. But, I'm serious this time. I think we should replace the toilet seat. What do you think?"
I sighed, debating whether I should trust TJ. He hadn't pranked me in a couple of years, but I wasn't sure if that meant he had matured or he was simply biding his time.
"Do you hear something?" There was an urgency in TJ's voice as he looked towards the southwest corner of the campsite.
I stood still, expecting to hear a bear or coyote, even though they were rare in these woods. The wind had quieted and all I could hear was a distant whine.
"It sounds like the train," I said, shrugging my shoulders. My southern Connecticut home was along the commuter line, so I was not unfamiliar with the sound.
"Exactly," TJ said, his eyes growing wide. "There's no tracks around here."
The sky grew dark as if a storm were approaching. Suddenly, I heard a new sound, an electronic yelping or whooping coming from the direction of the camp. It was the strangest sound I had ever heard.
"Quick!" TJ shouted. "Under here!" He grabbed my arm and pulled me towards the pavilion, shoving me under one of the picnic tables before crowding in beside me.
"What's going on?" I asked, annoyed as he swung his arm around me.
I was about to break free when my question was answered. The air that had been still a moment ago was suddenly filled with dirt and twigs and leaves. An unmistakable shape appeared over the trees.
"Is that a…" I asked.
I looked at TJ, his face deathly pale as he nodded. He swore, pointing as a second tornado followed alongside the first. The funnels danced along the trees, sending debris toward us.
We quickly buried our heads under our bags as we huddled close together. I lost track of time huddled under the table with TJ's arm around me, shielding me from the storm. I was surprised that this annoying creature could make me feel so safe. I squeezed my eyes shut as a barrage of unfamiliar noises assaulted my ears and wondered whether I would ever open them again.