The Summer I Camped Like a Hippie

The Summer I Camped Like a HippieIt was 1972 and it would be the best summer of my youth. It was the summer I camped like a hippie.

I had turned twelve that year and middle school had proven to be a culture shock for me. I had never been a hip kid. I recall that was the year I had gotten my first pair of bell-bottom pants; Mother had been apprehensive about buying them – even though they had been all the rage for years and were actually going out of style.  These pink pants with the buckle on the seat were so cool, I was sure they were my key to being part of the “in-crowd”. Little did I know that they would make me the laughing-stock. I was a gawky, shy, friendless, twelve year old wearing my hot pink bell-bottoms as many times a week as I could get away with.

Up Rooted and Moved

That was the year that we moved. My parents had decided that moving from Fort Lauderdale, Florida to Greeneville, Tennessee, along the edge of the Smoky Mountains, just might save their doomed marriage. We had always been happy during our camping summer vacations in the Smokies, it only made sense to move there permanently.

So Dad quit his job and got about hooking up the Coleman pop-up tent camper. He packed us all into the Volkswagen van for the trip, stopping every 15 minutes along the way to allow one of us kids time to throw up from car sickness; from the look on his face it was a trait I’m sure came from Mom’s side of the family.

We found a pretty piece of land on Bear Hollow (pronounced Bar Holler) road off of Highway 70. It was perfect. 116 acres, mostly straight up and down except for the cleared (but overgrown) 12 acres of flat land at the bottom of the narrow hollow. It was lush with hardwood trees and miles down from the narrow potholed gravel road. The property had gone wild with overgrowth for seven years, ever since the prior owner had passed away. It was bought for the bargain price of $7,000. That property was so isolated that we had to drive to the next county to use the telephone. The hollow only had electricity for ten years prior to our moving there. At least ten families, all related one way or another up and down that hollow, called it home.

The More the Merrier

Mother’s brother was a carpenter and he was struggling to make a living for his family in her home town of Rochester, New York. It made perfect sense when Mom and Dad invited Uncle Cary, Aunt Joanne and the kids to move down and help us build our new home in Bear Hollow. In trade, we would give them half of the land. So Cary hooked up his Apache pop-up camper to his panel work van, loaded up his brood and drove to east Tennessee.

That summer with my cousins would prove to be the adventure of a lifetime.  They were all so hip. My two boy cousins Guy and Tadd had long hair like their Dad and their younger sister Stephanie was cute, sassy and so cool for her age. They were a close match in age to me and my sister Suzanne. The five of us made great companions that summer. My seventeen year older brother John was working hard to become a man and didn’t have much time to play with us kids. The five of us were constantly followed around by my little brother Andy. Poor kid, it’s a wonder he survived his youth to become a sociable, well-adjusted man considering the way we avoided him like the plague. After all, who would want an eight-year-old getting in the way when you were busy leaning how to become cool like your city cousins?

So we set up our pop-up campers in the field near the creek and got busy making our life a bit more comfortable. If you’re going to camp for the whole summer, you need to have the creature comforts for existence. So we spared no expense.

Nothing like a bit of Mule Power

First priority was an out-house; not just a run-of-the-mill out-house, but a fancy one, fit for the suburb – and city – folks that we were.  It was made of solid two by fours with skids to allow it to be moved once the hole was filled. It had a real latch and lock, electric lights, a toilet paper holder and a hot pink toilet seat. One oversight discovered when we tried to move it for the first time was the weight of the solid construction.

We chained the VW van’s bumper to the skids of the outhouse and that poor thing strained and strained but never budged the outhouse an inch.  That’s when we met Sam. He was the elderly man that lived at the next house up the hollow.  His home overlooked our field. After watching us city slickers struggle with that outhouse most of the morning, Sam hooked up old Pete to his harness and brought him down. Standing in our field, Sam and Pete watched us struggle. Dad became annoyed at the old farmer in his coveralls, standing there with is old strawberry blonde mule, just watching us.

When the time seemed right to old Sam, he said, “Pete can move it.”

Dad was doubtful. How can one horse-power move something a seventy horse-power engine couldn’t budge? Believing that the old man would make a fool of himself and his mule, Dad still allowed Sam and Pete to give it a try.

Sam hooked the thirty-seven-year-old mule to the skids and Pete laid into the harness. He strained and slacked the chains several times to find the weight and then Sam started to cuss at the mule. Not real cuss words – Sam was a very religious man – they were just words that had the tone of swearing out of anger. That was all the encouragement that old mule needed.  He dug his hooves deep, leaned low and pulled with all his might. That outhouse started to inch free; and once it started moving, so did Pete.  He pulled that outhouse every bit of seventy-feet to the new hole in the ground. We had made our first friends in Bear Hollow of Old Sam and his mighty old mule Pete.

The Water Problems

After our first rain, we discovered that we had a problem with the floor of our dining tent: mud. Dad, Cary and my brother John made a wooden deck platform to hold the refrigerator, stove, supply shelves and large round table with chairs. It would be our only indoor gathering spot. A bit crowded, but cozy, it had a canvas roof with screened sides. We had many fun evening meals all together under that dining tent.

With the creek running through the middle of our flat, cleared land, a bridge was needed. And my Uncle’s skills were again challenged. He designed and built the best bridge made of wood you could ever hope of having.  He poured concrete anchors into the creek banks and secured the logs with large bolts.  The logs were covered with two by sixes and it would be able to hold a twenty six ton rig without a squeak. This we found out when we had our well put in. Up until then we had been driving to town, thirty miles away, to haul our water back in trash cans from the city water department.

Another problem to solve was someplace to wash ourselves, our laundry and dishes. The men dug a deep pit and filled it with layers of limestone rocks, then they built a wash-house over the pit. One side of the hut was open and had a curtain for privacy to dress after a shower. The shower stall was made of wood like the rest of the wash-house and the floor had holes drilled in it to allow the water to run out into the pit. We hooked up our washer, dryer and hot water heater along the back wall and attached a deep sink to the outside for washing the dishes.

The Time Capsule

The old abandoned farm house across the creek was over-grown and creepy. It wasn’t until we had cleared the fields of the over-growth using sickles, scythes, weed whackers and machetes that were able to get a good look at it. It had three rooms and the floors were half rotted.  The large room that should have been the living room had an old brass bed on top of a bear skin rug. In the corner was an old porcelain cream separator and a round kerosene wick heater. The kitchen had Frisbee pie tins piled along the wall. And the third room had a floor covered in old mason jars filled with fruits and vegetables. The smoke house had newspapers tacked to the walls and I recall they said something about Abraham Lincoln. Those old papers had been up since just after the Civil War.  The whole place was a time capsule and it made for the adventure of a lifetime.

Since the condition of the old house was a danger to us kids, our parents decided it needed to be destroyed. We were excited when we were told that we could help demolish it. Just the thing every energetic kid wanted to hear. We threw rocks at the windows, pulled the walls apart and found an intact bird skeleton; we broke the old mason jars, knocked the front porch pillars down and watched the roof collapse.

Once we were done playing demolition crew, our parents hired a bulldozer to push it in to the cellar, a feature to the old house we had not discovered until it was too late. I still wonder what treasure that cellar may have hidden from us. A fox that had been living along the creek had had enough.  She moved her den and we never saw her again.

The only thing that survived from that old house (other than our memories) was the old kerosene heater.  My cousin Guy worked on it for days, cleaning and restoring it. It looked like a new, store-bought, antique heater when he was done. He offered it to my Mom; she admired his work and told him to keep the heater since he had been the one to save and restore it. I wonder if Guy still has that old heater.

The Hide Out

The property had a barn that was butted up to the edge of the hollow’s cliff side road. It was a great tobacco barn, solid and relatively new with a huge loft. We kids spent hours in the loft playing with GI Joe and Barbie, 45 records, learning to dance, playing air guitar (with a string-less real guitar), swinging from the rafters and discovering that puffing on dried tree leaves was not the same as smoking real cigarettes. From my hip cousins I was learning to be a cool kid.

Blue Prints for The Grand House

Uncle Cary was in his element lending his talents to our projects. He was a great carpenter who had learned for the best, my Grandpa. At Mom’s request he designed the house we were going to build. It was one of those modern A-frames that are so retro today. The top floor would have a boys and girls bedroom while my parent’s bedroom would be built into the living room floor.  At night they would lift the hatch covers that concealed the waist deep space containing the bed and dressers.  It was truly an engineering marvel; in retrospect, it would have been a monotonous daily ritual using such a space.

The man with the bulldozer returned and cleared a pad on the side of the mountain for our new home. It was going to be a great house with a wonderful view up and down the hollow. The mountain had not been timbered in over forty years, according to Sam. The old growth was thick with hard woods like walnut, oak and ash. We had already identified some good trees that would be felled by the Stout Brothers that owned a saw mill on the other side of the hollow.  They were willing to cut the lumber and timbers on a one-for-one deal. They would  keep one tree for each tree that they cut for us. We were ready to start the foundation and both families would work side-by-side to get the job done.

It was then that it all came to an end.  One day, Mom called Aunt Joanne’s Kool-Aid pissy. Aunt Joanne was not the best of cooks (not that Mom was much better), but my Mom still couldn’t see how you could mess-up Kool-Aid. Mom and her sister-in-law had been living too close for too long and the Kool-Aid incident would be the straw that broke the camel’s back. My Uncle folded up the camper, hitched it to the van, loaded his family and drove away.

Hippies are Hip

Not long after that school started, and when I started riding the bus to the country school in Baileyton, I met a girl my age.  She got on the bus several miles beyond our hollow.  When she heard I lived in Bear Hollow she asked me, “Do you know those hippies that live way up the holler?”

I was surprised. When had hippies moved in to the hollow?  I had never seen them; maybe they were way up near the top of the mountain, someplace we seldom ventured since the road was so hard on the car. So I asked her, “Where in the hollow do they live?”

“Two or three miles, they have long hair and live out of campers. It’s a real commune,” she explained.

It was then that it dawned on me. It was me and my family she was calling hippies. Having grown up in the suburb of a large city, I had come from a culture where long hair and camping were socially acceptable and common in 1972. Yet, in east Tennessee, a culture that stayed ten years behind the times, it was an oddity. When the shock of being referred to as a hippie wore off it, it occurred to me: I had arrived. I was hip.

That same week my sister was given an assignment to draw a picture of her house for school. She was horrified to have to draw a picture of the Coleman camper; it was a socially horrifying thing to have to explain in front of her class, but my parents got a big kick out of it. Suzanne still looks upon that awkward moment as one of her traumas of childhood stories.

The Dream was Over

With the end of summer and the prospects of fall weather, my parents decided we still needed a real roof over our heads. So they bought a three bedroom, single-wide mobile home and we gave up on our dream of an A-frame home on the side of the mountain.

We would spend every summer for the rest of my youth visiting with my cousins. They settled in the suburbs near Nashville and our mothers would grow to tolerate each other on these several, week-long child swapping summers visits.

The summer of ’72 will forever be the best summer of my youth. We were able to do things that most of people only dreamed of. It was the summer I camped like a hippie, living in a commune and learning to be cool.

Author: Nancy Dyer

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7 responses to "The Summer I Camped Like a Hippie"

  • Gary Fogleman says:

    GREAT story! Reminds me of something similar my wife talks about during her childhood at about the same age. Would love to hear more about “Bar Holler”.

  • Suzanne says:

    As the Suzanne of the story, I have to say… all true and fun to reminisce.
    Thanks for the story Nancy! It was an idyllic summer…

  • Mychau says:

    I really enjoy your story. It sounded like the best summer to me too. I used to spend a lot of time with my cousins when we were young, so the story really brings back great memories for me. It doesn’t have to be at a fancy place to have best memory. Great job Nancy!

  • Elaine says:

    I loved the story. We never had that kind of fun adventure as kids. Is the story realy true?
    Thanks for sharing!

  • Nancy dyer says:

    Yes, every last word is true as Suzanne can attest. Thank you all for the great comments; it’s encouraging.

  • Larry says:

    What a great way to spend a summer. The out house on skids and the mule will be forever burned in my memory. This story made my day.

  • Kaitlyn says:

    Thanks for sharing your story Nancy! Everyone here at CampTrip really enjoyed it and it seems so many others did as well! I’m just amazed how you are able to remember everything with so much detail! You have an amazing memory and your story was written in such a captivating way. We are all waiting for the film to come out now.

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