At 36, Erik Gustafson was an Angry Young Man. Wrathful, irate, sore as a crab, waxy, hot under the collar, raging, fiery, wrought-up, fuming, foaming, in a red-hot passion, in a pucker, in a huff, in high dudgeon, infuriated, furious, hopping mad, rabid, foaming at the mouth.
The year was 1984, and Rebecca was the same age as he and Robert were ten and Dora was seven. They were going to camp at Acadia National Park, on Mount Desert Island along the coast of Maine. Erik and Rebecca were both virginal campers. Erik was the one responsible for hatching this idea, driven partly by a nascent interest in the outdoors and partly by a lingering resentment that during his youth, his family had never risked any sort of wilderness or even semi-wilderness adventuring.
The drive north from Boston was uneventful, but as they entered the park, Erik had the strange sensation that they were entering a land that was somehow Other. He’d grown up in the Midwest, where the land went on forever and harbored few secrets, and although Acadia was heavily traveled and was loaded with accouterments of civilization like carriage roads and tea houses and well-defined hiking trails, it still looked dangerously untamed to him. Somewhere in the rear apartment of his mind, he had the drift of a hunch that he had neither the skill nor the knowledge for coping with this environment. Gargantuan granite rocks rumbled along the coast of the Atlantic like disobedient blocks of nature, forming a hard-rock border along the edge of the gun-metal-gray ocean, which frothed with chaotic energy. Earth was engaged in a titanic struggle with the water. Acadia was discordant, jarring.
His irritation started as soon as they arrived at the campsite. To put up their newly purchased polyethylene tent, which he had purchased for $99.99 at Hilton Tent City near the Boston Garden, he naturally needed the poles, which he dumped out of the box in which they had been packaged. The poles plummeted onto the hard and unforgiving soil. They came in pieces and would have to be fitted together to support the tent. The pole pieces lay strewn on the ground like so many Pick-Up Sticks, and as he stared at the jumble of metal that crisscrossed the earth in front of him, his heart sank. How would he proceed?
He bent down and tried to figure out how the pieces would fit together. It was like solving a jigsaw puzzle with a million pieces, and Robert and Dory watched him as he began to figure out the puzzle. There were eighteen pieces, and he soon realized that each of the six completed poles would require him to fit together three pieces. The pieces, though, were of varying lengths and had to be matched just so to form a complete pole. He hurriedly fit all the pieces together, but the resulting poles weren’t right. Some were too long, some too short. He slammed one of the poles to the ground. Still, the children watched him.
He yanked the pole pieces apart to start over. “Crap!” he muttered and wiped his brow with his sleeve. He picked up various pieces and once again started to fit them together. He tried putting them together differently, but still, the completed poles were of the wrong lengths. He closed his eyes. He could feel the eyes of the children on him. Frustration spread through him like an oily inkblot. He could feel his face reddening with blood. “Damn it!” he muttered. Dory had been standing beside her big brother. Now she inched behind him.
Rebecca was setting up the cook stove on the picnic table. Overhead, Erik noticed that clouds were gathering like thick clots of gray cotton. Rebecca saw what was going on with the tent poles. She walked over, glanced at the pole pieces strewn on the ground, looked at Dory standing behind Robert, and stared at Erik. She knew his moods. “Cool it,” she said in a calm but firm voice.
He knew in his blaze of anger that she was right. Turning to the children, Rebecca said, “Hey, let’s go see the ocean.”
“All right!” they both answered with the enthusiasm of angels that had descended into the woods. They trundled off.
Erik took a deep breath, and gradually he cooled off. Finally, he succeeded in getting the pole pieces together properly and raising the unwieldy tent.
The three of them returned just around the time he raised the tent. Then it started to rain. God, did it rain! The word rain does not even begin to describe the conditions. It was a rain of Biblical proportions—a rain of forty days and forty nights. They had sited the tent on low ground. Soon the water began to creep like mercury beneath the tarpaulin on the ground and spread slowly but inexorably across the floor of the tent. They lifted their sleeping bags and put them on their suitcases so they would remain dry. The water soaked Erik’s shaving kit. It invaded Rebecca’s overnight bag.
In an instant, the rain destroyed the idyllic scene of perfect sunny skies that Erik had envisioned. Pines surrounded their campsite, and the needles dripped water like acid. Reality was falling desperately short of his expectations of perfection. Wearing parkas, the children began to play near the picnic table and accidentally knocked the cooler off the table. “Damn it!” Erik yelled. “Get away from there!”
Rebecca stomped over. Putting on her most authoritative voice, she commanded, “Cool it, Erik! Go away! Get out of here for a while!”
They were camping at the Blackwoods Campground, near the Atlantic Ocean, and he hiked the short trail to the ocean. There he sat. He stared at the water and seethed. The waves rolled in as if the unseen hand of God were pushing the water toward the shore. The sound, the sight, the regularity of the waves gradually soothed his soul. As he sat there, he didn’t think. He simply watched the waves.
As he walked back to the campsite, he felt somewhat calmer. The rain let up, and they decided that it was time for a fire. Of course! A blazing fire around which they would gather to cook their hot dogs and beans and roast their heavenly marshmallows! It was part of the whole idyllic vacation movie that Erik had unrolled in his imagination. They gathered firewood and broke the smaller pieces of wood into kindling. Fortunately, he had thought to bring newspapers.
He carefully arranged the papers, kindling, and small branches into a pyramid. He lit the paper, and the fire started promisingly—very promisingly! The paper ignited into a blaze. They gathered round, anticipating the wondrous fire they would enjoy. The blaze hit the kindling and gave off not fire but smoke. Desperately, Erik bent down and blew with the full force of his lungs. The fire brightened briefly but soon was reduced to a thicket of billowing smoke. “The wood is too wet,” Rebecca said.
“No, it’s not,” he said. He was going to get this damned fire going.
“Mom’s right,” Robert said.
He didn’t look at his son. He blew and blew on the fire until he started to cough because his lungs hurt so much. He placed more paper on the fire and lit it, and it ignited into a beautiful fire. But once the paper was burned up, the flame disappeared once again into obscene clouds of smoke.
He sat down, humiliated. Robert and Dory stared at him. Rebecca said, “Let’s go to the campground office and buy some dry firewood.” The three of them tramped off to the campground office. While they were gone, he felt more acutely than ever the blackness that had descended on him. He sat on the bench of the picnic table, rested his chin in his cupped hands, stared into the woods. He felt isolated, like a comet spinning through the vastness of the universe. His shadow mood obscured everything. He was an intelligent, well-educated young man. On the surface, things were fine. He had a good job, and he was respected. But for reasons that were completely obscure to him, a venomous snake had sunk its fangs into his soul.
Rebecca and the children returned with dry firewood. Robert had watched Erik’s previous efforts. Eager to help, the boy arranged the paper, kindling, and small logs into another pyramid. Erik watched him. The boy had olive skin, brown eyes, and long eyelashes, and his chin was somewhat recessed, a physical trait that he had inherited from Rebecca’s paternal grandfather. He was impish and aggressive but also big-hearted. He projected an air of self-confidence that attracted other children to him. But Erik knew that Robert felt the pressure of living up to their expectations. Rebecca and he were both teachers and had been the oldest children in their respective families. They were perfectionists, and they wanted things done their way. He felt that Robert might carry a burden that was unseen to him and Rebecca. In the midst of his darkness, he felt proud of his son as he worked to build the fire.
They lit the newspaper, and Robert bent down on his knees and blew on the kindling until it caught fire. The fire burned orange and then grew whiter, and finally, the flames licked at the small logs and ignited them. In fifteen minutes, they had a full-fledged blaze. Finally, they ate their hot dogs and beans, which tasted glorious in the outdoors. Erik had a beer. The children looked at him sideways, and their voices were limned with tentativeness. They sat nearer to Rebecca, and Erik noticed the distance from him.
Slowly he felt the grip of anger loosen its hold on him. They dried out the tent as best they could and rolled their sleeping bags onto the floor. The others were soon sleeping, but Erik lay awake in the dark and trembled with shame and embarrassment. He felt as helpless as a two-month-old baby. He felt stuck in a morass of negativity. He felt like he had no business being a father–felt woefully unprepared for the role. As he lay in his sleeping bag, he realized that his anger that day had felt like a shark gliding with steely silence through the nether regions of the sea. The shark was silent yet broiling. It had knife-edged teeth hidden behind skin with the texture of sandpaper. The shark was the price of inchoate feelings, unexpressed impulses.
The next day, the rain let up enough that they could go on a hike led by a forest ranger. They gathered near the ocean, and the ranger explained what made Acadia National Park and Mount Desert Island so unique. They were at the latitude where the northern boreal forest, dominated by evergreens like fir and spruce, met the deciduous forest of oaks, poplars, birches, and maples. The trees stretched their limbs toward heaven. Slowly the beauty of the pines, the spruces, the oaks, and the maples began to sneak some light back into Erik’s darkened soul.
They walked west from the ocean, and the ranger pointed out different trees, ferns, and wildflowers. A light mist hung in the air like a shroud, but the sun managed to peek through once or twice. The incline was fairly steep, and the trail was muddy and crisscrossed with tree roots, which were slippery from the rain. The ranger led, followed in order by Rebecca, Robert, Dory, and Erik. Dory had on her rain parka, and in the crook of her left arm, she carried Louie. Ah, Louie!–the rubber frog that she had purchased with her precious allowance when they had driven into Bar Harbor during the drive north. Dory had immediately named her frog Louie. Erik had no idea why she had named him Louie. It was as if she had been waiting all her life to name a critter Louie.
She was fair-skinned, like Erik’s family, with oak-brown hair and eyes as blue as cat’s-eye marbles. For a seven-year-old, she was strong. Erik would wrestle with her and Robert, and she more than held her own. She had a direct way of wrestling. She waded right into it. Robert teased her, but she gave as good as she got. In her bedroom, she kept a menagerie of toy critters, and she named them, and they took turns spending the night in bed with her. She was scrupulously fair in arranging the order in which her critters snuggled with her.
Now, on the trail, she squeezed Louie, and he emitted the most amazing croak. Louie couldn’t have been more than four inches long, but his mechanical croak resounded in the woods encircling them. When Dory squeezed Louie and he emitted that bellowing croak, she laughed with the complete abandonment of a seven-year-old. Erik dreaded to think that the darkness in him had invaded her sphere of light. The ranger stopped and told them about the vegetation of Mount Desert Island. Dory listened attentively, all the while cradling Louie and protecting him from the drops of moisture that buzzed down from the primordial pines and spruces.
They resumed hiking, and Dory carried herself forward steadfastly on her little legs. Erik was amazed by her energy. Her legs drove like little pistons. As he walked behind her, she and her little mechanical frog started to take him outside myself. She stepped inadvertently into a puddle of pure, unadulterated mud, and her boot got stuck as if it were glued to the earth. The mud was thick and black, and it gripped her boot like a vise. Erik bent down and carefully lifted her foot out of her boot. As she leaned on his shoulder, he turned to the problem of the boot stuck in the mud. He twisted the boot back and forth, and in a few seconds, he had freed it from Mother Earth’s sticky hands. Grabbing a nearby branch, he scraped as much of the mud off the bottom of her boot as he could and put her foot back in the boot. “Thanks, Daddy!” she said.
That night, the rains returned, and Erik’s emotions began to roil once again. Why, he screamed to himself, didn’t the goddam air over Mount Desert Island ever dry out? It rained steadily all night. They had moved the tent to higher ground, but even then, water seeped under their blue plastic tarp.
By now, the others were asleep. Erik lit a match and looked at his watch. Eleven-thirty. He grabbed their battery-powered lamp and lumbered out of the tent. Once again seething with anger, he held the lamp high and stumbled along the trail to the Atlantic. The waters churned with waves the color of dead bark. When he reached the ocean, he furiously stripped off his waterproof jacket and let the rain pelt him so that he could suffer even more. The rain pierced his skin like syringes, and he cursed it. He gloried in his suffering! At the top of his lungs, he screamed, “Goddam you, rain!” He screamed so loudly that he scorched his lungs. He returned to the tent. He was able to sleep.
After four rain-soaked nights, Rebecca and Erik surrendered. Erik called around and found a motel room in Bar Harbor. Neither Robert nor Dory was disappointed to cease their experiment in camping. They grinned and whooped and helped Erik and Rebecca yank the tent stakes from the hard and unforgiving soil. They packed the tent and the cookstove and their tarp and everything else and stuffed it all into the trunk. They drove to the motel. On the way, Erik thought, Well, maybe we gave up too soon. The male—the man of the family—he never gives up.
They reached the motel, and the rain resumed plummeting in sheets, in torrents. Erik knew they had made the right decision. The intrepid male surrendered to the fates of nature.
That evening, Erik and Rebecca took their children into the center of Bar Harbor for a lobster meal. They didn’t have much money, but they had enough to cover the cost of the meal. They were at dinner, together, breaking bread. They all had enormous appetites. They stuffed dinner rolls into their mouths, which were so full that they could not talk for a minute. Then Robert and Dora started laughing. They laughed and laughed–at the absurdity of the rolls—at the absurdity of the week.
The children fell silent and waited for the lobsters to come. Then, out of the silence, Robert said, “Dad?”
Erik looked at him. His son’s dark eyes were so naked that Erik felt as if he could sink into them. “Yes, Robert.”
Robert trained those dark eyes on Erik. “You were scary.” Erik could not look at his son. He turned his gaze on Dory, and she looked back into his eyes and nodded in silent agreement with her brother. He turned to Rebecca, and she stared at him and did not have to say a word. He looked down into his lap.
The lobsters came. He looked back up and watched as Rebecca patiently taught the children how to crack them open. He watched as the children sucked the meat from the claws as if they were feeding on the very marrow of life. Dory fed bits of lobster to Louie, still nestled in the crook of her arm, and he smiled.
That night, as they slipped into their beds in the cocoon of their motel room, he could not stop thinking about and wrestling with the events of the week. As he lay there in bed and listened to the steady breathing of Rebecca, Robert, and Dory, he remembered the spark of tenderness that he had felt as Robert had built the campfire, as Dory had freed her foot from the mud, as Rebecca had taught the children how to eat lobster. He felt the tenderness sneak into his heart, ready to be tended and permitted to live. That night, sleep came like an old blanket once lost and then found in a neglected corner of a house.
I’m a writer based in the Chicago area. I’ve done a lot of different stuff in my life. I’ve been a merchant seaman, a high school English teacher, a corporate communications writer, a textbook editor, an educational consultant, and a free-lance writer. I’ve published short stories, articles, and essays in The Progressive, Snowy Egret, Earth Island Journal, Chicago Wilderness, American Forests, Chicago Life, Across the Margin, Adelaide Literary Magazine, The Literary Yard, Scarlet Leaf Review, Spillwords Press, Fiction on the Web, Sweet Tree Review, and other journals and magazines. In 2006, the University of New Hampshire Press published my first book, This Grand and Magnificent Place: The Wilderness Heritage of the White Mountains. My second book, which I co-authored with a prominent New Hampshire forester named David Govatski, was Forests for the People: The Story of America’s Eastern National Forests, published by Island Press in 2013.