By Andy Smith - Columbia, South Carolina, USA - Advent/Christmas 2010
Grandaddy still calls it the Tramp-Around Ground, all the preaching and singing notwithstanding.
Long ago, its ramshackle cabins -- tents, they’re called -- and ancient plumbing conditions struck him as, at best, unnecessary reminders (and, at worst, quaint mockers) of his subsistence-level childhood in the Catfish area of the Appalachian foothills. All people do out there, anyway, is tramp around in the dirt, he’s liable to say. No one in their right mind would choose to live that way -- not even for a measly three weeks, not even for religion (and certainly not at the behest of an imperfect version of Protestantism -- one that isn’t Lutheran). There’s no need to replicate the sort of counterproductive asceticism and sentimental fideism that had clouded many an ancestor’s head; those battles were settled long ago, the Germans in the area largely siding with the confessional over the pietistic. And, there’s certainly no need to do it while living like a primitive.
As is always the case, Grandaddy proves to be the thoughtful interlocutor, raising valid concerns: why do these people willingly do this every year? And, as is almost as often the case, his telling of the story relies on that twinge of Southern humor that leans on the ironic. He knows damn well that Southern religion, even the Lutheran version, splits the difference between head and heart and that its understanding of Christ and Him Crucified, that mysticism of the blood, resides deep within his own bones (an understanding that, in the final analysis, is more faithful to the Gospel than most claimants these days). His dismissal of the means, going to the Tramp-Around Ground, is in no way a rejection of the ends to which those means profess to point: gaining glimpses of that other world through song and fellowship. And, his humorous detachment from the place pales in comparison to his more serious rejection of the unfaithfulness of the modern world.
But, his complaint haunts, like the humidity on a late-August Sunday afternoon -- all they do is tramp around in the dirt.
Perhaps further explanation is in order at this point. Out past Bandy’s Crossroads -- in Western North Carolina’s Catawba Valley and on the way to Highway-16 with its eventual dumping into Charlotte (that bastion of “New South” philandering with high commerce and speculation) -- lies an abrupt, geographically unnecessary bend in the road. Undoubtedly without realizing it, highway engineers and construction crews provided, with this bend, one of those rare concessions modern life allows tradition. The bend accommodates the northeast corner of Balls Creek Campground or, colloquially, Camp Meetin’ -- a phrase that denotes both the physical location and the collection of activities that occurs there (folks can both go to Camp Meetin’ and have Camp Meetin’). Since 1853 -- and the author will go out on a limb here and say that this was before that bend in the road was paved by the state -- Methodists and their friends have gathered for several weeks in late summer to sing, shout, listen to preaching, and socialize with the kin. An open-air arbor, the church, is surrounded on all sides by rows of pseudo-dwellings built right next to each other, excepting the occasional alleyway -- rows which, taken together, form concentric squares around the arbor. Each shanty has its own front porch, with a swing, which faces another front porch across the dusty walk-way, and each is equipped with rudimentary kitchen ware and the sporadic production of running water (bathroom facilities are on the outside fringe of the campground; years ago individual outhouses were replaced by communal lodges). Many still have cedar shavings on the floor. Ownership is passed by handshake. No deeds. And, off-season maintenance occasionally involves the eviction of vagrants. But, these tents (a name certainly reminiscent of the earliest days when wagons with canvas coverings served as the temporary dwellings) -- these small enclosures -- have formed and solidified many a family memory, for decades. In some sense, they and the type of living they foster epitomize the rural South: sweaty, sticky, lazy -- and sacred.
Though most attendees would be among the last to admit it, the campground and the communal experience it creates hints of the sacramental. All they do is tramp around in the dirt.
Of course, as in most places where God is sought and praised, the devil beguiles with almost equal fervor there. Southerners are just as susceptible as anyone to the fallout from the Fall -- and they’re often quite adept at demonstrating the fact. Invariably, every so often, some local family comes into some money and decides that its supreme expression should come in the form of exchange for the sundry claptrap accoutrements one might devise for a heretofore bare, wooden, open-air shack: a window air-conditioning unit, some vinyl siding, or -- most blasphemous -- an indoor bathroom. Greed and vanity find their way to these human hearts through that quintessentially Southern route -- the allure of a comfortable tackiness. And with almost equal invariability, those twin sisters, envy and gossip, take their place on the neighbors’ porch swings (reverting to their native drawl) and pipe up just in time to add dimension to the drama:
Law -- did you see the air conditioning unit so-and-so put in her tent this year? You know she married into that money, don’t you? Well, that still won’t make her happy -- I always said she looked like she was weaned on a dill pickle…
Bless her heart.
But, in spite -- or perhaps because -- of the occasional grotesque amenity and the subsequent gab, an ascetic gentility lingers throughout the campground. A certain lethargic tension pervades the place, a tension between the effects of Sin and a slight glimpse heavenward. People on occasion, if ever so briefly, look beyond the self. And the encroachments of modernity (crowded isolation, empty occupation, synthetic sanitation…) in this small corner of the rural American South are -- for a few weeks each summer, at least -- partially forestalled. The reward, of course: a brief glimpse of genuine Sabbath.
Time is marked differently there. Each moment is enjoyed for its own sake (Lord knows an afternoon nap on the front porch swing will cure what ails the busy-body), but a definite sense of telos also lurks under the surface. Thoughts always turn to the third and final weekend of any given year at Camp Meetin’ -- particularly the last day, Big Sunday, complete with Big Sing (simplicity with adjectives is of paramount importance) and, for most families, an elaborate potluck. Rare is the grown adult who would miss the feast. Rare is the teenager who would miss the chance to spend time with a sweetheart (courting the old folks are still want to call it). And, rare is the pre-adolescent who would forgo those final glorious hours of summer freedom -- that afternoon of unfettered license and the event that attends it: the Big Sunday water-gun fight. Many a summer truce is revoked on Big Sunday; many a score, settled. The world, and Camp Meetin’, for a moment hints of clarity and resolution: man enjoying creation, human beings communing with one another -- and with God.
“Reality” always returns, of course. On this side of heaven things fade. Summer slips away. All they do is tramp around in the dirt.