My family loves camping. And when I say camping I mean inside an air-conditioned hotel room on wheels. Last week we stayed in the Traverse City State Park in northern Michigan, very close to Elk Rapids, where my Cherry Hill Series is set.
During our last night, we ran out of water, so I grabbed my 6-gallon jug and walked up to the dump station to fill it (yes, we dump and get drinking water at the same place). While filling my jug, I heard a young voice asking, “Whatcha doin’?”
I turned to see a girl of about nine or ten, wearing a Smokey Bear hat and carrying a piece of paper in her hand. She introduced herself as Kaylee, and that she was a Junior Ranger (not in the photo above, that’s from the U.S. National Park Service website). I had never heard of a junior ranger, but not to fear. She proceeded to tell me. In fact, she kept talking while I filled, while I walked, and stood in our campsite explaining how it was her job to make sure everyone was being safe and not talking too loud. While I suspected this activity was not sanctioned by the real park rangers, Kaylee took her job seriously. This kid, I thought, is going places.
As she told her story, though, we soon learned that she was the child of a drug-abusing mother and was adopted by her grandparents. She suffered much abuse while with her biological mother, according to her. I prayed she’d forgotten the worst of it.
Kaylee told us about her cat and said she had pictures but had left them at her campsite. My wife said she would have loved to have seen them. Kaylee was off and back in five minutes with her iPad. An iPad absolutely loaded with photos of a black and white cat.
She then showed us a game she played especially designed for bullied children. My heart was breaking for this girl. She told us her dark history without a hint of self-pity. She loved her grandparents and her uncle (who was now her brother, she said), camping, the outdoors, and, of course, her cat. She was also working on her hunter safety certificate to go out hunting with “Papa” during the upcoming deer season.
Eventually, “Papa” entered our camp to save us. But we didn’t mind Kaylee’s intrusion. The old man had a bushy gray beard and looked both proud and tired. I can imagine what he’d gone through, both in losing a daughter to drugs and alcohol, and then trying to raise a high-spirited young girl when he and his wife should have been enjoying a quiet retirement. But you couldn’t miss the love in his eyes as Kaylee continued to ramble on. Finally, he nudged her out of our campsite and back to hers.
Kaylee visited again as we were packing up the next morning and, again, told us stories about camping and her cat. Of all we’d done on our five day camping trip, meeting Kaylee was the most memorable. Afterwards, my wife said that someone could write an entire series about Kaylee the Junior Ranger.
I think maybe all the Kaylee’s in the world need such a series. Perhaps soon.