Twelve years to the day, I backed my car into campground 14 in Torreya State Park near Tallahassee, Florida. As my wife unloaded our camping gear, I went for a short walk to survey the area. The grounds were as I remembered them: the “pets on a leash” sign I posed in front of with my dog; the outhouse and ranger’s station; the wooden platform on the bluff overlooking the Apalachicola River.
But many things were new to me: the citrusy smell of broken pine needles; the constellations and shooting stars; the dawn chorus of birdsong; a morning fog that hung low over the Apalachicola River. These were new to me, but they had been there all along.
Yet, places change. A good portion of the forest had been blackened by a controlled burn, the protective shade of the canopy reduced to ashes. The trail to the river’s stony embankment—the part of the trail I had looked forward to the most—inaccessible and blocked off by felled pines and a warning that it was copperhead viper season. The park rangers built a few yurts near the campground, presumably to offer an easier entry into enjoying the park overnight, outfitted with glamping necessities like air-conditioning units, bug screens, and wooden decks.
Returning can be like a real-world spot-the-difference game, with the distortions of memory being the most challenging parts. And the details of my earlier trip now escape me, as if my memories are being performed behind frosted glass.
My camping trip back in 2009 caught me in a dark place. Eating too little and drinking too much, I awoke one morning with a throbbing headache and the dry taste of whiskey in my mouth that lingered throughout the 6-mile death march on the River Bluff Loop trail.
This time, I had seemed too eager to enjoy the silence of the forest, to admire the stars, to wake up early and listen to the birds—thoughts I wouldn’t have entertained a decade ago. I cut glances at those who turned their portable speakers too loud and tried to wiggle out of conversations that dealt with the lives we had just drove 5 hours to escape.
And as I awoke one morning, I laid in my tent and listened to the dawn chorus; I refused to grab my audio recording gear, which I had brought with me for that very experience. Like I was listening a children’s chorus recital, I couldn’t identify each individual voice. The song of the cardinals was the only one I thought I could make out, for a split second, before it got lost in the sound. I was happy to hear the birdsong now, but I was also a little ashamed that I didn’t care to hear it before.
Returning to a place is as much a reunion as it is an estrangement, an exercise in homecoming and leave-taking, where we consider what has changed and reflecting on how we have.