Camp Stories: And We All Fall Down

Written by Trip Miller

In her Nashville Driving Tips for Out-of-Towners, Raven suggests that the average Nashville driver should cruise at a steady five miles over the posted speed limit. Although she gives stellar advice nearly always, this is one guideline I choose not to follow.

I’m a speeder. Like my father before me, I drive like I’m hurrying to stop a terrorist attack or there’s a pregnant woman in the backseat crowning. That being said, I don’t get many tickets and haven’t been issued one in probably seven years (though I definitely will have earned my next one). And I’ve never been directly involved in a traffic accident. However, I have been in an accident where someone else was driving – a pretty serious one – that involved a fully loaded school bus. Hard to believe it was almost 25 years ago, but the memory is extremely vivid, and as I reflect on it now, the experience has had its lingering effects.

And We All Fall Down

In the summer of 1991, my younger brother and I spent six weeks at a boys sleep-away camp in Asheville, N.C. If you’ve never been to Asheville, it’s a beautiful place and remains one of my favorite spots to visit with its spectacular mountainous scenery and somehow untouched feel. Now it’s basically full of hippies and artists, but that’s not so bad I guess.

Mountains in Asheville, NC
Photo from: http://www.romanticasheville.com

It was a summer of firsts for both of us in many ways. Our first flight without a parent. Our first time away from home for an appreciable amount of time. Our first time being responsible for our own schedules. I remember riding from the airport in the camp’s 15-passenger van with all those strange faces, everyone dead quiet, like we were on our way to a mass execution instead of a summer filled with swimming and camping. I remember the terrible food and the life-saving care packages from Mom. I remember slow dancing with a heart-breakingly beautiful blonde from the girl’s camp and sneaking out to kiss her behind the stables after. Good times.

I took to camp life immediately, without a hint of homesickness, partially because the program I was enrolled in was so exciting. Whereas my brother (who was just 9 at the time) did the typical camp activities you see in movies, like woodcraft and archery and tying crazy knots. My group – “the old kids” – went whitewater rafting and mountain biking and spelunking. Every day was a new adventure, and it was exhilarating.

Towards the end of our term, my group just finished a three-day hike down part of the Appalachian trail in almost constant rain. Several of the kids became sick, and I remember fighting a cold, but unlike some who checked themselves into the infirmary, I fought through it – mostly because I did not want to miss the next trip. The next day we were repelling down a sheer mountain face, and I had looked forward to it ever since I saw it in the brochure.

The following morning reveille sounded over the loudspeakers at 7 a.m., bringing collective groans and creative curses that only 12 year-olds can muster. After another horrifying breakfast barely touched by most, my group gathered at the gravel entrance, loading up the battered old short bus with climbing gear and coolers full of sandwiches and drinks for the day trip.

It was a longer drive than most of our outings, and after the usual round of rousing camp songs – most involving vomit and/or boogers – I remember we settled into a comfortable silence as the bus wound up into the foothills. It was cool and bright and gorgeous, with a strong breeze and the deep earthy smell of the mountains. I sat towards the rear of the bus on the right side, so I could look out over the valleys as we climbed up and up. All that summer I had been reading Tolkien and daydreams of the Misty Mountains came easily with no sign of man’s hand visible, except for the back country road and, of course, the bus.

Looking back, I estimate there were 15 kids and four counselors that day, basically four people per row with the walkway splitting us into twos. The oldest of the counselors, whose job it was to keep us from killing ourselves and each other, was a very large man who always sat in the half seat at the front of the bus, opposite the driver near the main door. In my memory, he’s somehow turned into the late and great Chris Farley, which seems to fit perfectly – he was all shoulders with floppy light brown hair. The other three are faceless to me now, but he stands out easily.

Long, lazy spirals took us closer to the upper end of this sub-range, and my view through the thick rectangular window was bright and clear and very steep. Without warning, the bus took a sudden lurch to the right and I felt the brakes lock, which caused the back-end to fishtail a bit outward towards the drop. I looked up in time to see an old pickup zip past us going the opposite direction and slide into the little ditch scraping against the face of the mountain. Curses came from the counselor driving as he tried to guide the bus back towards the center. The boys gasped, and suddenly we were tilting in very much the wrong direction. Grinding and crunching as the rear wheel fought for purchase. It seems like a very long moment looking back, but it couldn’t have been more than five or ten seconds.

Farley gave a shout and threw his considerable weight against the opposite side of the bus, slamming his shoulder against the frame of the wall, but it made no difference. Those three or four tons of bus and children tilted almost casually and down we went.

The only way I can express how the fall felt is to imagine a giant hamster wheel in which children and backpacks and sandwiches are all thrown together to spin around and around helplessly (no seat belts in those days). It was basically ceiling, window, floor, and repeat. And screaming, lots of that.

We came to a sudden crunching halt, my face pressed against the window I had been looking out of peacefully just seconds before. Except now that window was pressed into the dirt with a single fat earthworm squished on the other side, no doubt shocked by this turn of events.

Cautiously, we made our way out of the now horizontal rear exit lowering ourselves one by one down to the ground several feet below. The first thing I remember is how steep the fall was; I want to say at least a 40 degree angle. The bus had cut a swath of earth the way you would imagine a jet crash-landing in a field without landing gear. Flattened trees were strewn in its wake. I looked back to the bus, its progress down the mountain had been halted by a single tree. There was a noticeable bend as the roof bent in a slight V around the tree, which was leafless, and by all rights, seemed to be dead or dying. Farther below was more mountainside and an even more steep drop.

Our eventual extraction by firemen and police is pretty dim at this late age, but I do remember us being taken to the hospital for exams. Amazingly outside of some minor cuts and bruises, the only major injury was a dislocated shoulder by our heavyset counselor who charged the wall.

I remember getting back to the camp and sleeping the sleep of the dead, both through the exhaustion of climbing back up the mountainside and the emotional strain of nearly dying. The next day we were given an amazing dinner attended by the head of the camp and several older folks who must have been the owners. Afterward, the oldest of the oldies gave a speech, which even to our unsophisticated minds amounted to, “Please don’t tell your parents to sue us.” No one did to my knowledge.

Despite the accident, I did return the next year; though it was unremarkable for the most part. I did get a ridiculous case of athlete’s foot from the community shower. I also saw a boy cut off most of his thumb with a hatchet. Nothing matched the bus accident though.

Was I scarred for life? No, not really. I was a little more afraid of heights after the accident, but not in a debilitating way. Really the only after-effect was I have trouble driving in the mountains still, and I tend to drive close to the center line regardless of where I am, which is disconcerting to my passengers but comfortable for me. And, of course, I drive like my hair is on fire, but that’s purely genetic.

Have any crazy camp stories? Feel free to share them below!

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