Our small group of teenagers huddled together as we followed our counselor into the clearing. Not three feet before us, the ground fell away into an earthen waterfall of rock and creeper vines. Thousands of trees clustered below, their leaves capped with sunlight. A couple of birds spiraled upward from below, as though we stood atop a mountain.
Except we didn’t. We stood in Mitchell, smack dab in the center of the Hoosier state: land of the cornfields, home of not much else. At least, that’s how I stereotyped Indiana on my first trip to Camp St. John’s. My family lives in the Piedmont in South Carolina, but I spent memorable childhood years in the cultural explosion of Yonkers, New York. So as we drove toward camp, our noses pinched against the smell of manure, I had but one word to describe the scene: flat.
Usually, I attended Camp St. Thekla in Cleveland, South Carolina, where we hiked through the mountains to attend church each morning, and adored swimming in delicious mountain lakes. But that year, the July of 2012, my mother accidentally signed me up too late and their cabins were full. She contacted some friends in Indiana, who welcomed me to Camp St. John’s. They guaranteed I would love the rural, small-town feel of Indiana, but I imagined the worst: gossip and everybody knowing everyone else’s name and lots of cow talk. Well, I hadn’t fallen for the Southern hospitality back home, and I certainly wasn’t going to fall for the “country boy” shtick up here.
After I settled into the camp schedule, however, nature itself assaulted my preconceived notions about Indiana. Not only did the lookout point prove that the State was not all cornfields, but the wildlife continued to surprise me. Wild turkeys stalked around our cabin, and I often heard owls at night. Once, when I returned from an afternoon swim, I came face to face with a fox. I had never seen one in the wild before, and marveled at its narrowed eyes and its giant, fiery ears, pricked for any threatening sound. Eventually, he slipped away, his movements so fluid I decided to reclassify him as a liquid.
It was the people of Indiana, however, who changed my mind about the place. Every year, the campers at Camp St. John’s visit a nursing home called Mitchell Manor to sing hymns and play bingo with the residents. Most were delighted to impart their wisdom to youthful ears – one man lectured us on the history of the icebox. Another woman began to cry when I played my violin for her. She had played the violin years ago, and it reminded her of her mother and father. The peoples’ kindness astonished me – we were supposed to be coming to help them, to comfort them. But instead they laughed with us, shared grapes with us, and held our hands.
One woman in particular lodged in my memory. She painted every day, though she could no longer walk, and her artwork crowded her windowsill. I marveled at her vivid depictions of persimmons, which she had presumably painted after the annual Mitchell Persimmon Festival. They were swollen and clumped together, and I almost salivated even though I had never tasted a persimmon in my life. I imagined that a fox crouched behind them, just out of sight.
Most people don’t expect much of Indiana. It’s not known for its cuisine (corn) or for its diversity. But I found that, just like the landscape, there are more layers to the Hoosier state than are apparent at first sight.
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