I want to tell you about a place where old men, who normally hunch over, bound down the most slippery path to a refreshingly cold creek, where white-haired women hop into a rusty, roaring truck with the greatest of ease, where a bell clangs and echoes, signaling it’s time to eat. This place requires a gulp of faith, as the only way to this place is a bumping, winding trail that defines the world “jostle,” but then opens to a clearing with the most amazing, uninterrupted view of passing marshmallows in a sea of blue. This place is sacred. This place is the site of a longstanding tradition.
This place adopted me, or rather, I asked to be adopted by its magic. This is the Kunkle Reunion, the tradition on the Urban Farmer’s mother’s side. Even the name exudes a campiness that is hard to find these days. To call it a “tradition” doesn’t do this tradition justice. The Kunkle Reunion is more of an institution or a living museum, passed from one caretaker to the next.
As if by design, even cell towers can’t reach this place. Cell phones and digital devices remain in cars or bags, and kids and adults play. They really play. They race around bases with the competitive focus of Olympians. They throw water balloons over expanding divides until suffering the fate of a bad catch. They face their fears and jump off a rope swing into cold creek waters with a slimy creek bed. Dogs run about, confused as to whether they should be saving these flailing humans or taking advantage of the lapse in attention to confiscate burgers.
There is a schedule. There is a script. There is a family blessing said by an old man in suspenders, whose words made me misty because I am always misty these days, always moved by human gestures of togetherness when each day blares too many examples of otherness. These simple games, the simple meals, the simple campground combine into something monumental, something awe inspiring. Traditions are not easy, but they are so important.
It would have been easy at any point in the many decades to say “I’m just too busy this year,” and let the magic fade ever so slightly, but one little rip in the seam of this history would have been the end. Instead, these hems have somehow grown stronger over the years, enabling the fabric to stretch and grow, blanketing more and more family.
I am a sucker for traditions, for a weathered cabin, for comparing my boyfriend’s base race scores to a time when his legs were but chubby stubs. I am a sucker for all of this August enchantment.
There is a side of me that wants to add, wants to improve a little detail here of there, but the beauty of this tested tradition is that it stays exactly the same. I just show up and exhale, let it be what it always was, just observe, participate and enjoy. I just watch the light flicker through the trees, watch the clouds and wonder if there’ll be rain before the dinner bell rings. That’s the beauty of tradition. It makes just one tiny bit of this wild universe feel safe and controllable.
Each year is nostalgia in the making. It’s watching a kid’s first, then second terrifying ride on the truck. It’s watching the Master-of-Ceremonies’ thousandth ringing of the bell.
What I miss about my childhood is how I made fun. I filled in the gaps with backyard Olympics, with stone soup, with a wild imagination and a story of traversing the backroads of America on a covered wagon. Today, I fill all too many gaps with a swiping finger, a glazed over stare at a feed of photos. I overlook books for screens, and I am lazy with those tiny moments in the day. Though these new ways of connecting have their advantages, this place is a living time capsule of inventing one’s own fun, of intentional connecting.
This place snags me from the busy times, the lazy, unintentional times, and it makes me hold onto summer just as it’s coming to a close. For that, I am grateful. I’m grateful to love a man who comes from deep roots, who values his roots and teases the new little offshoots when the red truck still proves to be TERRIFYING!
Here’s to the grill masters, to a dinner bell, to swirling sweet corn over sticks of butter and to a dog free-for-all. Here’s to that magical August place that exists at the end of a rainbow. Here’s to summer traditions, tried and true. May you make your own or cherish those that existed long before you.