Tuesday, April 8, 2014

My Door County Inheritance

My dad and Door County are forever intertwined in my heart and mind. 

One of my earliest memories is unzipping the heavy canvas door of our tent in Peninsula State Park in Wisconsin, climbing out into the crisp morning air, pulling on my hooded sweatshirt, and seeing my dad crouching next to the campfire. Wisps of smoke would come from the logs and kindling as the struggling fire tried to catch. The smell of sweet pine and musty canvas mingled with campfire smoke to create a scent only true campers can recognize.

My parents were not wealthy. They were both public school teachers which meant they had lots of time to spend with us kids, but very little money. Hotel vacations were foreign. Most summers, we piled into our 60s station wagon, packed the camper and headed to state parks. Our favorite destination was always Door County, Wisconsin.

The drive seemed like it took hours from our home in the south suburbs of Chicago. In those days no one worried about seat belts or child safety seats. Mom put a mattress in the back of the station wagon, pile our games and toys to one side, and we would play all the way. I remember long, nauseating drives without air conditioning.

My dad always honked at the Door County sign which greets visitors from highway 43. Two honks would rouse us from the back seat, and we would applaud our favorite destination. From that point on, we would all look for landmarks. Through the trees we could spot our first glimpses of the Bay. We would look for the Red Rocket gas station or the Dykesville Bowl. On a good day, we would stop at Frosty Tip for a cone. Crossing the steel bridge at Sturgeon Bay, we would finally pass Carlsville and turn the corner into Egg Harbor. 

But, Door County never seemed real until we descended into Fish Creek.

There is something magical about the Fish Creek hill…like a steep descent from reality into summer. The highway curves downward toward the bay, lined with rock and pine trees. When you finish the descent, you see the unusual pagoda-type architecture of the Summertime restaurant. Much has changed, yet Fish Creek still holds a childhood charm for me. I am glad my daughter can visit the Stonecutter and the Confectionary. There are moccasins for sale and fudge shops. The White Gull Inn holds court at the end of the road, like the most beautiful girl at the party who is playing a bit hard to get.

My family camped at Peninsula State Park. We graduated from a tent to a pop-up with pull-out beds on each side. My family had an extensive camping set up, complete with awning, screen tent, fake grass mat, blow-up boats, and more. It took all five of us about an hour to get our site in order. As we worked, my dad would make his way around to all of the neighboring campsites, introducing himself and chatting up new friends. My dad was a quiet man, but for some reason camping made him unreasonably social.

We were like the ballet of the campground – each of us knew our part and worked in a synchronized dance to create our temporary living space in the woods. When it was complete, my dad was the happiest guy in the world. He would take a deep breath and declare, “Ahh, this is living! Nothing like that Door County air.”

My mom and dad brought us back to Door County  each year. Although decades have passed since those early visits, I still am drawn back each summer. Many of the places we loved are gone. Much has changed. But when I drive up Highway 42, I am traveling through memories of places and people I loved.

My dad died in 1998. He was just 60, and a heart attack stole him from us far too soon. So when I visit Door County, I feel like I’m given the opportunity to spend time with him again. As I sit outside my camper and look up at the sky through the trees, as I build a campfire or honk at the Door County sign, I feel closer to my dad.

This place is my inheritance, and my life is richer for it.
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