Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Reunion of high school friends

During the summers of 1971 and 1972, when I was 17 and 18 years old, I went on trips out west with a bunch of other high school students. The trips were led by an organization called Teens' Camping Tour of the West. A free spirit by the name of C. Peter Cole was the tour leader each time. The trips were three weeks long.

We teens and all our belongings were packed into three VW vans. Each van had a name from the Peanuts comic strip. There was Red Baron, Snoopy, and one other I cannot remember. Two adult leaders were also in each van. We left from Statesville, NC. The 1971 tour was a visit to many of the national parks out west: Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Grand Tetons, etc. The 1972 trip was a tour of the Canadian Rockies - Banff & Jasper National Parks, the Columbian Icefields, and more. We camped out each night under the stars, cooked our own food, shared campsite chores, and pondered the great questions of human experience.

These trips were incredibly formative, unforgettable experiences. My eyes and heart were opened to the majesty of the American West and the meaning of friendship. It is not insignificant that these were profoundly changing times in America. So many cultural and political forces were at work in our lives as we beheld the beauties of a country we'd never seen before. It was the era of drugs, hippies, psychedelic music, antiwar protests, sexual experimentation, Watergate, and so on. So it's no wonder that now, at age 56, I still look back on those two trips out west as a time that helped shaped me into the person I am today and, at a deep level, crystallized my hunger for God.

The first trip was a particularly profound spiritual experience for me. It felt as though I had walked through Narnia's wardrobe into a new and exciting frontier of ideas, dreams, and emotions. I came back to my hometown of Union, SC, a different person. (I also came back madly in love with Susan Jeter, who had gone on the trip with me. A year later she would dump me in one of the most painful experiences of my life, but for now she and I were on Cloud 9.)

Anyway, on to the point of this post...

On these trips, I grew very close to a small group of 4 people from Sanford, NC. Their names were Mary, Karen, Nancy, and David. I got together with this little group a lot during my junior and senior years of high school and into my freshman year of college. We felt we shared a dream that no one else quite understood, a dream that needed to be celebrated, preserved, nurtured.

But like most friendships that develop in your late teens, these relationships gradually faded into the sunset. We lost touch with each other as academic life, then career, marriage, and parenting responsibilities took the place of youthful road trips and carefree camp-outs. I think the last time I saw Karen and Nancy was when they came to visit me at Furman University in (I think) 1973. Soon afterward I fell in love, got engaged, graduated from college and got married - and said my last goodbyes to these friends from the past.

...Or so I thought.

A few years ago Mary and her husband Heinz were passing through Orlando. Through an unlikely series of events we connected, and my wife and I joined them for dinner at an Orlando restaurant. Mary and I reminisced about our experiences of three decades earlier.

Then, about a year ago, I got hold of Nancy's email address and found David and Karen on Facebook, and after an exchange of messages with them and Mary it was decided that we would attempt a reunion this summer. Sure enough, this weekend it's happening. Suzy and I are flying up to Raleigh, NC, and the "old" group is going to spend a long weekend together at Emerald Isle, one of the North Carolina beaches. I'm glad Suzy is going to meet the friends I have spoken of so often.

About the pictures above... All three are from my 1972 trip to the Canadian Rockies. On the pyramid that's Karen at the top, Nancy below her, and David and I are on the bottom row in the center. The group picture in the middle shows trip leader Peter Cole in front, Karen is in the white sweater at the far left, Nancy is standing next to her, I'm the shy-looking guy in the back, and David is the tall guy in the grey sweat-top. Mary is not in either of these photos because she traveled in one of the other vans. The bottom picture is of Mary by herself.

It's not often that friendships are renewed after more than 35 years. I'm looking forward to seeing these people again, sharing our stories, and celebrating the gift of friendship that God has given.

"Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up." (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10, NIV)