Last Saturday we piled into the minivan and headed, for the first time since moving here more than five years ago, to a locally infamous community potluck at a place called Big Bear Camp. The potluck happens monthly and follows a different theme. I imagined themes like comfort food and Asian food, but wasn’t exactly sure. We’d long wanted to go to the potlucks but missed the opportunity during Autumn’s newborn phase, and then the pandemic happened, and it wasn’t until recently that the owners of Big Bear Camp, an engaging couple of retirement age, called us on the telephone. They addressed us as the “chicken people” and invited us to their monthly community potluck, which had just started up again.
We’d passed their sign before marking Big Bear Camp on the long, winding and wooded Nelson Mountain Road back when we used to drive it regularly to visit our good friends in Deadwood. The road connects our small town, Walton, with another small town, Deadwood. Deadwood was always a decidedly cooler place than Walton, but if anything were to change my mind about that, it was sure to be our experience at Big Bear Camp.
Time stands still in some places. Takilma, Oregon. Deadwood. And even, I would learn, at Big Bear Camp–located 33 miles outside of Eugene. I am certain that a million places like this exist across our country. They’re the places that don’t show up on glossy brochures. They’re places where GPS always gets it wrong. And where you are more likely to see a person walking in bare feet, with flowers in their hair, a beer in their hand, and their face toward the sun, rather than looking down at their watch, or phone; or rushing in and out of big box stores, and chasing the next “thing” at breakneck speed. These places are a step outside, even, your quintessential small towns–your Tombstone, Arizona’s; your Virginia City, Montana’s. It’s a place for locals where nothing, and I mean nothing, is being sold. Just bartered.
I immediately felt at home when we, after arriving late, were welcomed into the wide circle of what must have been over forty five people, who were introduced as our neighbors. In that moment I honestly felt more connected than I have in years.
After introductions, people made their way to the lodge for a potluck feast served on the wraparound porch outside. Lively discussions about solar energy, sustainable food production, and building homes using reclaimed local timber ensued.
“There’s more food inside,” a pretty elderly woman dressed in a blue wool coat told us. She sported coral pink lip gloss and I was immediately drawn to her, and inspired by her style. I almost regretted wearing my fresh-of-the-farm outfit: black from head-to-toe. Next time, I told myself, I’d wear some color. I wanted to talk to her, but before I could say a word she’d fluttered away.
It was eye-opening to see so many other likeminded and friendly people, right there in our backyard. I’d almost come to believe to some extent that these kind of people only existed in my phone. What a mistake that had been, and what a casualty of the isolated, pandemic-era.
After the feast, which was as lively as always for Steve and I–balancing our paper plates with metal forks and grabby, wobbly, three-year-old–the host pointed us to the “library” on the lodge’s second floor. We rounded the spiral staircase to a comfortable landing place for any parent and child. Energized as she was, I couldn’t get Autumn to focus on a single children’s book. That was until a little girl close to her age–almost three years her senior–wandered up. Autumn was content to have the little girl read to her when she offered, and the two happily played together for the rest of our visit.
For sometime, I sat in a chair in the corner of the library, just catching my metaphorical breath. Not catching my breath from socializing or parenting, things you might think of when I say that. But catching my breath from the fast paced and often artificial world outside the walls of Big Bear Camp and other places like it. Looking down from the loft library at all the people sitting face-to-face, eating pie under the glow of solar light, with not a phone or screen in sight; I felt both sad and happy. Sad because something as ordinary as sitting face-to-face, and really giving someone your attention was somehow a novelty now. And happy because I felt warm and fuzzy just witnessing and being a part of it all. This recently forgotten ritual: a simple potluck dinner.
I wanted to stay forever off grid, where the norms were flipped on their heads and where the something missing was at the heart of all the magic. When devoid of technology, we only have each other to connect with.
Of course I didn’t say any of this to anyone. And when one of the hosts appeared in the library on multiple occasions, I noticed that while he was speaking to me, he was also grabbing books. He grabbed one book off the arm of a chair. Another off a shelf. He did this very nonchalantly, as if I wouldn’t notice. Of course, I did notice. I noticed one was titled “Women of the Woods,” or something like that. I knew he was going downstairs to pass the novel off to one person or another, and naturally that made me happy. I liked to imagine how far back these traditions went, how long he and his neighbor had been trading paperback westerns. Two individuals, about my age, popped their heads into the library. Both said they’d been coming to Big Bear Camp since they were kids, that their parents read to them in the library I was sitting in. I smiled thinking of my own upbringing off grid, and how deep an impact my community had left on me, too. And how I desperately wanted that for my daughter.
This is all to say that the potluck was a reminder that there are still one million ways to live a life. And that time stands still, even today, in some places. Perhaps with this new awareness, we too can create a more intentional living space, built on a foundation of art, knowledge and community. And food. And although we did puncture a tire on the drive home, we will definitely be going back to Big Bear Camp’s next monthly potluck. And I’ll be sure to wear my colors.