I think there are three things that make for a perfect camping trip: eating good food with great people while communing with nature. Since I was a little girl, the best camping weekend, and possibly the best weekend of my entire year, was the trip my family made to the Covered Bridge Festival in Rockville, Indiana. For my family, the first trip to the Festival was probably in 1980 or 1981 when I was about three or four years old. Since then, I have gone pretty much every year of my life, missing I think just three times in the course of my 41 years. When you do something for this long, it holds a special meaning to you. It’s like a religion, but it’s better than church. It’s a reunion and a revival all wrapped into one.
Let me start at the beginning. There is the most amazing family that my parents, over forty-five years ago, became friends with…. The Billapandos. My parents became friends with Mr. and Mrs. Billapando through church and my mother, a Catholic school teacher, taught well over half of their eight children. When I was very little, they learned that we were campers and they invited us to attend the Covered Bridge Festival with them, which they had already been going to for several years. That invitation was literally life changing for me. It began a lifelong friendship I have with so many amazing people in this family. I have become an honorary member, which is one of the greatest honors that has been bestowed on me. Well over half of my favorite memories from my life include one, if not many!, of the people in this family. They have literally danced with me during the good times and carried me during the difficult times. Mr. and Mrs. Billapando sang at my father’s funeral, but they also sang at my wedding. Their kids babysat me, and then I babysat their kids and now those kids are babysitting my kids. Friendships like these are rare. I realize that and I cherish it as one of the most precious gifts I’ve been given.
So this annual trip is about thirty to forty people strong, depending on the year. There is my family, and my brother and often my Mom and Stepdad. There are the numerous Billapandos, their children, grandchildren, cousins, boyfriends and girlfriends and an occasional tag-along friend. I believe we cover seven or eight campsites and the large campfire can often have thirty or more chairs crammed around it.
When you do something for over forty years, you gain some traditions around what you do. Usually we all arrive on either a Thursday or Friday night. By Saturday morning, everyone has arrived and the activities can begin. We usually hike on Saturdays. The same trail. Trail 3. Don’t think about doing a different trail. Someone tried that one year and she was given so much grief for it no one ever dared suggest changing again. While on Trail 3, we always stop at the same places to take photos… the big slanted rock, the small rock cave, the snack spot at the top of the 110 stairs. I cherish these hiking photos. It’s great to see how we’ve all grow and changed throughout the years, especially the kids. After hiking, some people head into town to check out the food and craft booths at the Festival. We usually play football on Saturday afternoons when everyone is back. When I was a kid, we played volleyball. I think we played for a good four years or so, and then one year someone brought a football, and from then on it’s been football. Some people play, some people watch. Because I don’t want to die, I watch and cheer. It’s a competitive group, so we aren’t watching the Chicago Bears here, but this isn’t a wimpy touch football game either. It’s a big deal and don’t think it isn’t! Starting around 1999, on Saturday night after football, we have a birthday party! From 1999 until 2013, we would celebrate Carina’s birthday and her mother, Corinne, would come up with a party theme with games centered on that theme. I shouldn’t really call them games. They are competitive challenges meant to have a winning team with bragging rights. It’s a big deal who wins. When Carina turned eighteen and my son turned one, the baton was passed onto him, and now we host Micah’s birthday party on Saturday and I am the one coming up with the theme and games. After the party is over, there is eating…. a lot of eating and sharing of food. If we are lucky, as we sit around the campfire that Saturday night, Mr. Billapando will take out his guitar and play for us. We sing. We laugh. We reminisce. We catch up on what is happening in one another’s lives. The fire is huge and we often stay up really late. Sunday we often canoe if the weather is nice and the river is high enough. Some years we horseback ride, depending on the mood we are in. On Sunday afternoons we say our goodbyes, and as everything gets packed away, I always get a little sad that another year has flown by so quickly. Overall this is the weekend plan that hasn’t changed much over time.
I remember thinking this trip was magical when I was a child. I remember sitting in my father’s lap by the campfire watching the bright eyes of the raccoons that were scurrying around the campsite. I remember my father and Mr. Billapando playing their guitars together. I remember the first time I canoed with my parents, sitting in the center of the canoe and nervous not to move too much and tip. I remember coming as a teenager, when I would spend time in the community bathroom trying to curl my hair and put on makeup. I remember reading stories to the young Billapando grandchildren and carrying them on my shoulders during hikes. I remember wondering if I would ever have a family of my own and if I would bring them someday. I remember coming as a college student when I bought my own tent for the first time and packed my own food. I remember the first time I brought my boyfriend Justin and he couldn’t remember anyone’s names and was hazed a bit. I remember the year we came right after we were married and Corinne had us play the Newlywed Game on Trail 3. I remember bringing Tabatha when she was just six months old, and then Micah to celebrate his birthday for the first time. In my life, through all the changes, people coming and going, this weekend has been the one true constant in my life. The thing I look forward to and plan with the most joy in my heart. My kids are now making memories that I hope they find magical. This past year, when I saw my daughter sit in her father’s lap and listen to Mr. Billapando sing on Saturday night, I was transported back thirty-two years, when I was just a girl of eight, sitting in my own father’s lap, listening to the music. So much that is special about all of this for me.
The screensaver on my computer is the group photo that was taken of all of us in 2017. Matt added a caption to the top of the photo, “Find Your Tribe and Love Them Hard”. I love this photo and the caption perfectly sums up what we all feel about each other. This photo is now bittersweet, because our tribe is one less. We lost Sean to cancer just a few weeks after this year’s Covered Bridge trip. But you can never really loose someone who was in your tribe. They will always be there. Our tribe lost my Dad thirty years ago, but he’s still with us. Those of us who were around still remember and those that joined us since have heard the stories. It will be the same with Sean. He’ll always be there and no one will forget. The first few years will be hard, but it will be hard for all of us, and the tribe will get us through. That’s the beauty of life and friendship. That’s what makes the small things, like an annual camping trip, something so much bigger. We could do this trip in someone’s large back yard and it wouldn’t make a difference. We’d all just say, remember the year we camped in the backyard. It’s about the people, and the things we do together, year after year, to support and love one another.
I know I have been incredibly blessed in my life. I have been blessed with amazing family and friends. The best kind of friends are those that become family, and that is what the Billapandos are to me. And the Covered Bridge is the best family reunion ever created!!!