In Pinecrest, there is the legend of the boy who wandered into the redwoods and was never seen again. For many generations and still today, children have called the boy’s name into the dark woods and across the cold lake: “Elmer!”
We are Cameron's guests in Pinecrest, staying at his family's cabin. The air is warm and fragrant, layered with dust, hazy from campfire smoke. There is a summer camp nearby. The sounds of children are constant, the day punctuated with mealtime gongs. These kids seem to be awake all the time, cheering and shouting early in the morning and late at night.
The dogs are possessed. When we arrive, I let them out of the back of the truck and they unexpectedly take off into the trees. Gone. I call to them. No response. I pretend to myself everything is fine, but still no response. My heart starts to get wobbly.
Looking back on that moment, it makes a little more sense. The flood of colors, of smells. The all-you-can-eat Disney-movie buffet of birds, squirrels, chipmunks. The pending intersection of the supermoon and summer solstice.
Soon enough they reappear, Zoé with the same look she had after having tried raw lamb bone for the first time: Why have we not done this before? And why are you hugging me like a weirdo? Niko soon follows.
The night of the supermoon, the dogs are filthy. Their faces look foreign to me, their bodies more muscular. The huge golden circle ascends slowly, as if it is going to touch the planet. The children campers are far in the woods with flashlights flickering between the pure black tree trunks. They resemble a search party. It is past 10pm. The saying here is: "Elmer's dead. Go to bed."
Everyone is turning in and I decide to sleep by the fire. I awake at 3am, freezing and blinded by the moon. The supermoon has made it directly above me, where the trees part. Niko has dug to the bottom of the sleeping bag, leaving Zoé up top. It is so bright I cannot sleep.
The final evening, following an after-dark lake dip, messy s'mores, and some bourbon, we sit by the fire. This place feels safe. My mobile phone doesn't work here, we need no more protection than a screen door can provide. I think about the family names on the cabins, the generations of traditions. I think about the cooperation, the civility of everyone: Cameron, his guests, the neighbors, all those campers. Strangers greet each other, whether on the trail or in the water. The forest is maintained, the litter collected, yards swept.
And I think about Elmer. There is another version of that campfire lore. It starts the same: a boy wanders into the redwoods. When his mother discovers him missing around dinnertime, she calls for him. The nearby children join in, calling out his name. The calling travels from campsite to campsite and all around the lake: "Elmer!"
I believe this legend echoes the cooperation, the civility, the community, the spirit of this place called Pinecrest. I believe that Elmer was found.
Pinecrest is in the Stanislaus National Forest, California. The local bar is called Steam Donkey, after the logging and mining machine that replaced the donkeys. Thank you Cameron and Gillian.