Retreat to Paradise

Shannon Wardell
A peninsular outcrop of granite covered in larch and pine juts out into the lake, actually a reservoir of water snaking through an idyllic Alpine mountain valley with a massive dam at one end. Roughly four km long, but only 150-200 meters wide with many curves, this lake actually has the character of a gentle river. Boulders on the west side of the peninsula offer numerous places to sprawl out in the summer sun. The peninsular knoll extends far enough out from the south side into the bend of the lake that it receives both morning and afternoon sun with splendid evening sunsets over the trees. Where the outcrop merges into the mainland, a tall cliff rises up over twelve meters to tempt anyone, so inclined, to jump for a quick fix of adrenaline. The lake is still a relatively well kept secret, one well guarded by those who visit the place regularly. No traffic noise, no to-do lists, no facilities whatsoever, and only one deadline – the time of departure.

Last summer in August, a 100-year storm blew through the area, washing out numerous bridges and even causing one fatality. Coverage was all over the regional newspapers and TV news programs. We missed all of that news because we had coincidentally chosen that very weekend to go camping there on the lake.

The plan was simple: my 14 year-old son and I would meet another father and son of similar age at the lake and spend a long weekend far away from business, internet access, meetings and anything remotely resembling hustle or bustle or civilized luxuries – why wives and daughters agreed to stay home. At least once a year I yearn for something of this kind, a retreat in the sense of a strategic withdrawal from commercial activity in order to pare away clutter and recognize the essential things. My son and I would set up camp on Saturday morning, hang up a red flag near the water to signal Herbert and his son Marcus where we were. They would arrive Saturday late afternoon by canoe, paddling down the length of the lake with all of their gear.
For us, without a canoe, it was a long, hard slog to carry all of our gear, but finally we made it. We arrived early enough to claim the two prime tent spots on top of the knoll. We set up our tent securely, stored everything inside. It was slightly overcast; weather reports had suggested a chance of rain later that afternoon. We also planned to meet a large group of family nearby, hike around the lake, enjoy a snack together in a nearby cider mill and, in the evening, return to our camp.

Half-way back to our car, we met Herbert and Marcus paddling down the lake and exchanged info about the camp. Herbert told us to find some cover, for a storm was on its way. Soon, we felt the first drops fall; luckily, we made it back to our car just as the clouds ripped open and poured. In this area, such a gusher normally lasts about 15 minutes before letting off; this time it formed a dense, grey waterfall that just did not stop. Slowly, we drove towards the mill, with the six other cars of family, but a washed out bridge and a detour turned our 10 minute jaunt into an hour trek. Finally inside the cosy cider mill, the tasty specialities and good humoured family banter drowned out all thoughts of the storm raging on outside.

It was raining less heavily as our gathering broke up at around 10:00 pm. During the ride back to the lake, the rain began to peter out and, by the time we got out of the car, it had stopped completely. With flashlight in hand, we hiked back to our camp.
Herbert and Marcus were still up and told us about their afternoon adventure, which they could now laugh about, since in the end no one was hurt. They had been caught mid-way down the lake when the storm broke. Spreading out their sleeping mats over the top of the canoe, they tried to keep most of the rain out, but unfortunately the bottom of the canoe still filled up with water soaking all of their gear; the added weight slowed down their progress considerably. The rain was coming down so hard that they could not see farther than five meters ahead, so they had to keep close to the bank, which caused them to go even more slowly. Eventually they reached our red flag, pitched their tent in the still steadily pouring rain and sought to dry out some clothes for the night. Fortunately, our gear was relatively dry; sharing what we had, everyone was able to go to sleep dry and warm.

The next day presented a cloudless sunny sky; everything was hung or set out to dry, including kindling and firewood for a fire to cook with later that day. We met Bernie, who had camped nearby, and invited him over for some coffee and a chat in the sun. The boys took the canoe out. Soon we noticed that others had arrived; it was Sunday after all and a gorgeous day for swimming and hanging out. By early afternoon, about 60 people in various groups had arrived – teenagers, college students, middle-aged and retired folks – spreading out across the rocks. It was lively, but not crowded. A friend of ours stopped by, too, with cocktails. The groups began mingling with one another and the entire atmosphere took on the feel of a funky outdoor festival complete with music, blues harp and lots of laughter.

Bernie, who looked like he had been beamed in straight from Woodstock, migrated from group to group telling hilarious jokes in a thick, local dialect, then offering some of his “special” tobacco to the adults. One gregarious and stunning blond turned out to be a film star from Finland and, upon request, she sang several folk songs while her boyfriend/manager, overtly jealous, walked off in a huff.

Another group of teenagers were body painting each other. Chaperoned by a model's mother, the group was making a kind of event out of the activity, one of the boys documenting the progress with his camera, and paid special attention to one very shapely model in particular.

The first off the cliff tried to dive but unfortunately smacked his thighs flat against the surface of the water, so he was in pain for a while. Others followed with more care. On a boulder nearby, four males drinking beer and one lady sunbathing completely naked were discussing philosophy and cultural politics.

This retreat had turned into something clearly different from the minimalistic seclusion that I had had in mind, nevertheless the afternoon was a gorgeous display of how nature can inspire people in different ways.

As the sun began to descend, the visiting groups packed up and waved goodbye. Even Bernie took off, but he left behind for us his well-worn, leg-less spherical grill to use. The boys started a fire and we began to grill up a feast of steak, butter-fried potatoes and broccoli, all eaten right out of the pan, for lack of plates. By the time we were done, night had fallen. With the camp fire crackling in the dark, along with the crickets and the occasional lapping of waves against the stony shore, we sat around the fire and told stories until our eyes began to get heavy.

The next morning I woke up before dawn and took a walk. In the half light, mist hung over the calm water, birds were singing their songs, deer drank from the shore, fish were jumping. Everything was living completely in the present moment; only I seemed to be concerned with thinking about the past or the future. So I tried not to, and simply took in the gradual waking of the day.

Time passes in a different way when clocks do not control the tempo of events. Then, there are neither seconds nor minutes. There are only chunks of time – when the air is cool, when the sun is burning hot, when rain or dusk is falling. The guiding rhythm of any chunk of time is one's own pulse: the calm beat, while watching the sun slowly rise above the trees, or a vigorous thumping after a good swim. In a world without clocks, the primary guiding rhythm in your life is your own heartbeat.
The tempo of time actually does accelerate and decelerate constantly during the day. Time does fly when you’re having fun, as the cliché goes, even as time slows way down during moments of fascination and tranquillity. In the natural world, where a clock is literally a foreign, artificial intrusion, time passes subjectively. The rhythm of the natural world is a clockmaker's nightmare. Of course, in the civilized world, the clock is a merciless dictator. Meanwhile, in another world, the boys were scouring the griddle clean with sand and moss.

Later, Herbert sautéed some stone mushrooms he had found making a delicious omelette. We started a round of poker betting with the small, precious amount of junk food that we had brought. As payback for the weather ‘luck’ that my son and I had enjoyed earlier, we were thoroughly trounced at poker, with Marcus cleaning up everything. Afterwards he shared his good luck all around, and joked about the dry clothes that he had been able to borrow.

The next days and nights we spent alone, with neither visitors nor clocks. Before reaching that inevitable point when camp fires at night, inspiring sunrises and picturesque sunsets become ordinary, we headed back to urban civilization – and a hot shower.

Published in "mountain stories 2010/11" edition
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