In the middle of winter, if you try to reserve a camping site at Cape Henlopen State Park, you may find that already there is limited availability for the upcoming summer months. It’s because it’s a dream forest. Or you might even call it a little bit of heaven on Earth.
The first time we entered Cape Henlopen, my husband and I brought our two small children to visit my brother, sister-in-law and their two boys at their campsite. The minute we turned off the busy boulevard leading to the popular beach towns and onto a winding country road, I felt a kind of calm and rustic tenor that couldn’t be compared with any of my earlier camping experiences. Although we lined up at the gate with other cars and vans waiting to pick up their reserved site tags and maps, a quiet world of scrubby pines and melodic wood thrush echoes surrounded us. I rolled down the window to smell the fragrance of sea breeze and saltwater.
In the middle of the day, by the time we arrived, many campers lit fires for grilling late lunches, for warmth after swimming in the sea or for smoking away mosquitoes and sandflies. The aromatic emission of burning firewood embraced us, scenting our hair and our clothing and giving us a taste of the dream forest.
The assorted sizes of dome tents and pop-up trailers hide among the wide trunks of pine trees because nearly every site is nestled in a partially shady alcove. My brother and sister-in-law took us for a hike through the neighboring Great Dune as their boys bicycled ahead of us. Trekking along the trails of scattered broken shells, we spotted butterflies and moths hovering by blooming beach heather. The vast blue sky enveloped us and met the sand. We stood transfixed by the tranquil beauty before our eyes. The ocean roared in the distance. We stepped softly on the sandy mounds like explorers on a newly discovered planet. “Wait!” my brother shouted to us. “Look! It’s a velvet ant. Take a look. These are rare, man!” The longish ant appeared to be clothed in bright red suede, and it made its way along the sides of the path with intermittent stops under leaves and over pebbles. Then we lost sight of it.
I watched from below as my husband, brother and the children climbed the spiral staircase of an old military observation tower. After several minutes, I squinted my eyes in the blazing rays, finally recognizing tiny figures waving down to me. I realized that laid out beside me were pinecones and broken clamshells forming letters that spelled I LOVE YOU and PEACE. They were best read from the top of the tower.
After a late afternoon visit to the sea, we hiked back to the campsite. By now, robust fires danced in the pits and citronella and grilled chicken filled the evening air. My 12-year-old nephew lit a gas lantern on the picnic table and we sat together, beach towels swaying on the clothesline behind us and casting amorphous shadows on the sandy ground. My younger nephew pedaled away on his bike along the circular road outside of our site to find more night bicyclists in search of adventure.
We walked to the bathhouse to brush our teeth, where the brightness of fluorescent bulbs gave hints of reality in the dream forest. But that was only for a short while. Before long, we were back along the trails, passing other sites that were only visible by a flickering campfire. Everything was quiet except for a few giggles during card games, the zippering of tent flaps or clattering pans. Our headlamps came in handy to help us find our way back to the familiar circle of chairs around the firepit.
My older nephew’s eyes widened, and he dramatically asked us, “Have you ever heard of the Windigo? They say he’s in the trees and even on the dunes. They say, ‘Only the Windigo knows…’” We became entranced, and the chill of the beach wind made us shiver in unison. “Only the Windigo knows.”
Our older boy pulled on his hoodie, staring up into the trees, lost in thought. Where is the Windigo? I nursed our youngest, wrapping him cozily in a blanket. We listened to the crashing waves that playfully carried us in the daylight. In the night, it is their time of mystery and high tide. A whippoorwill sang soulfully from the pine tree behind us.
Author: Celia de la Cruz
What category best describes your article: Adventure and Travel
Author Bio: Celia de la Cruz, a teacher and former editor at an academic press, writes creative nonfiction and vignettes. Her work has appeared in Vine Leaves Literary, Filipinas Magazine, Art for Ourselves, and NewsWorks. She loves the sound of katydids and screech owls.