I slammed the trunk to Chrissy’s truck and slipped into the passenger seat. I was nervous and excited. This would be the very first time I would go camping with the Campazons. Although I had been a member of the Facebook Campazons group for a couple of years, something seemed to always get in the way (Covid, travel, depression) of actually making it out to one of the weekend camping trips. But this time, my basic need to connect with women overpowered my depression and anxiety, and before I knew it, we were struck in traffic on a Friday afternoon heading towards Dade City, Florida! As I watched the world go by, I found myself wondering what the weekend would be like. Little did I know then that I was in for an amazing weekend connected to women, to nature and even the cosmos.
Our plan was to set up our tent before dark. Despite some traffic leaving Clearwater and driving through Tampa, we did indeed make it well before the sun went down. Various women introduced themselves, told us what to expect for the evening and even offered to help us set up the tent. I was already glad I came.
At 6:30pm the Campazons got together for dinner. Chrissy had prepared a nice spread of gourmet vegan cheeses, crackers and olives. We sat at one of the many picnic tables and got to know some of the women.
The temperature dropped and so we moved closer to the fire. Some women were still arriving and everyone gave a big cheer when they did. One Campazon brought a Christmas wreath and two Christmas trees to burn. Friday night saw the wreath go up in flames. I loved the mutual excitement when it caught fire, coupled with the warmth it provided me in my core.
That night, I was both smart and not so smart. Realizing that the bathroom was a 5-minute walk away, I stopped drinking any liquids after dinner so that I wouldn’t have to get up in the middle of the cold night and walk to the bathroom. Smart right? I also put my clothes for the next day into my sleeping bag with me so they wouldn’t be so cold to the touch the next morning. Also smart!
Well, I don’t know what I was thinking, but I decided to go to sleep wearing nothing more than underwear and a tank top – not my smartest moment! As the temperature dropped, I awoke multiple times during the night frozen. Despite sinking lower and lower into my sleeping bag, I never managed to get warm and I was too cold to get out of the bag to put on clothes. The worst was when the metal of the belt buckle of my jeans floating around in the bag would touch my skin when I moved, chilling me to the core! I woke up completely unrefreshed, exhausted and with plans of what to do differently the next night – wear every stitch of clothing I had brought with me.
Still on Norway time, Chrissy and I awoke around 6:30am to a freezing cold morning. My weather app confirmed it was 39°F (4°C) and the wind made the air feel even more frigid. After returning from the bathroom, Chrissy rekindled the fire from a few embers still burning from the night before. The fire, coupled with the fact that I finally put on some damn clothes, helped me warm up quickly.
After the daily group picture in front of the Campazons sign, we all carpooled over to the Pioneer Florida Museum in Dade City. It was a beautiful sunny day with a bright blue sky, and perfect for exploring the various outbuildings of the museum depicting life in the 1800s. There were also staff and volunteers in period clothing teaching us how to make moonshine, wooden furniture, nails and so much more.
After learning the process of turning sugarcane into syrup (and even enjoying a bit of raw sugarcane), we got in line to participate in the sugarcane syrup contest. We were given a little green ticket and were told to try all 11 entries before placing the ticket into the box next to our favorite. Chrissy and I set to work tasting a surprisingly varied set of flavors. I found some reminiscent of the molasses my Grammie used in her brown bread. Independently of each other, both Chrissy and I voted for vendor #6.
I sat in the sun on a bench for a short while, watching man after man try his hand at axe throwing, only to fail repeatedly. After some time, I turned away and looked out over the beautiful green grass, but kept hearing the distinct sound of the wrong edge of the axe handle hitting the target-painted wooden boards. At one point, I heard a different kind of sound, a triumphant one! I looked around again to see that an older woman had just sunk her axe firmly into the wood. I couldn’t help but cheer for her! She confidently ripped the axe out of the wood, walked back to her starting position and again firmly planted the axe inside the target. She received more cheers from the crowd this time. I think she would make an excellent Campazon!
Many food and drink vendors had also set up shop. Chrissy and I managed to find homemade pickles, jams and moonshine. I tried a cocktail called “apple pie margarita moonshine” and I left the museum smiling and a little giddy.
On the way home, a few of us stopped off at Walmart to see what kind of warm clothing we might procure. I ended up purchasing a pair of long-underwear and a can of minestrone, thinking a nice hot soup would warm me up the next morning. Little did I know then what perilous fate this can of soup was in for and that I would never enjoy a single spoonful.
After a short rest in my tent back at camp, the sun went down and I heard the ten-minute warning call for the night hike to the tower. I was really looking forward to this, especially because the clear sky made it easy to see the stars. As a group, we set out – some walking faster and some slower, but no one was ever left behind. It was neat to walk in the dark. It’s something that I don’t think I would be brave enough to do alone, but in numbers I felt safe and adventurous.
Before I knew it, the tall wooden tower was in front of us and we all climbed up one step at a time. When a group of women had reached the top ahead of me, they did something unexpected: they howled! I loved it and smiled as I continued to climb.
The energy at the top of the tower was frenetic. Women were so excited to share what they knew of the heavens, to show various apps they had or even to simply point out constellations. One Campazon became so excited and pointed towards the sky as she had seen a shooting star. Others saw it too. As for me, I could not stop staring up. From horizon to horizon the sky boasted an amazing amount of stars, more than I’d seen for quite some time. I was mesmerized!
Back at the camp, I joined the others around the fire. Unlike the previous evening, women prepared and ate their dinners whenever they felt called to do so. At any given time, the fire contained various pots of boiling water and frying pans to heat up premade dishes.
The evening turned out to be quite entertaining. There were lots of laughs, great conversations and a variety of music. Campazon Fabi had created a wonderful playlist including a large variety of music. Campazons set up a dance floor replete with rotating lights that lit up the large branches of the trees above too. Campazon Jo began fire-dancing and we all watched and cheered her on.
Then came the Christmas trees! Campazon Emily walked over to the fire carrying a medium-sized brittle Christmas tree and those of us in chairs encircling the fire quickly jumped up and moved our chairs back. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t at least a little nervous. Whoosh! Flames quickly shot up way over our heads. It was amazing to watch. The fire died down again and we were quickly reminded of the cold and so moved our chairs back towards our natural heater. Sometime later, the second Christmas tree made an appearance and we eagerly repeated the adventure.
I fell asleep that night wearing everything I had brought with me, plus Chrissy’s heavy winter jacket, the same jacket I had just worn to Norway only a week prior. I slipped into my sleeping bag next to Chrissy’s long underwear that were tucked into my socks (yes, I actually put on some socks!), an undershirt that was tucked into my long underwear, jeans and Chrissy’s puffy jacket. The knowledge I learned when I lived in Canada about how to dress for the cold finally came back to me and just in time. The temperature was to drop to a frigid 32°F (0°C) that night.
The next morning we awoke to a gorgeous scene. And despite the cold temperature, the lack of wind helped the air temperature seem manageable. Chrissy offered to heat up my minestrone soup over the fire while I explored a nearby clearing.
A thin layer of frost covered every leaf of every plant in the small field surrounded by big trees. Just beyond the field was a small body of water that was clearly warmer than the air because steam was rising from it. I watched a heron look for breakfast.
When I returned to the campsite, I learned of the “minestrone explosion”. Chrissy had put the can on the fire without opening the top at all just to warm it up. She didn’t realize that it would get as hot as it did that quickly and apparently enough pressure built up and before she knew it, the can of minestrone busted at the top and the contents shot way up into the air. This story was evidenced by spots of soup on the ground, nearby chairs, and even people – poor Val finished her breakfast with bits of soup all over her. Not surprisingly, the minestrone explosion also came with a loud boom that served as an unexpected alarm clock for some Campazons. Not our finest hour.
Before most of the group walked down to the river, Campazon Emily gave a short presentation. She began by sharing that she is a third degree black belt in Uechi Ryu Karate; I was already impressed. She then pulled out of her pinned-up long hair a seemingly innocuous hairpin. But this wooden hairpin, called a jifa, was more than meets the eye.
Emily went on to explain how the Japanese jifa doubles as a self-defense weapon. We were told to aim for any place on the body that casts a shadow, for example the eyes, the throat and the groin area. Emily brought several jifas with her and passed them around so we could get a closer look. She then told us what kind of sticks to look for during the hike to the river, should a Campazon want to make her own. I loved everything about this casual presentation.
After lunch, Campazons sat around the fire talking. An elder Campazon told us about what it was like to be a lesbian early on in her life. She told us about bars that got raided and how she had to run. She told us about “diaper dykes”, who were apparently the drivers of the diaper trucks back in the day. She told us about fighting for lesbian rights, including her participation in the Lesbian Task Force under the National Organization for Women. I felt so honored, not to mention grateful, to meet someone in real life who was directly responsible for many of the freedoms I enjoy today.
Many of the women spoke of Mich Fest. I loved hearing about the various workshops that were offered, from flirting 101 to stilt walking. Campazons shared their favorite memories of this famous women’s music festival. I learned the phrase, “I see August in you”, referring to the empowerment a woman exudes after the freedom she experiences in a positive woman-only space. I shared that I had always wanted to go, but kept putting it off because I assumed it would always be there. When the final Mich Fest was announced, I was living in Thailand and could not come all the way back for the festival. I very much regretted missing my opportunity.
Campazon Val shared some of her memories of the last Mich Fest. She told me of the famous grandmother oak that stands proud and tall and independent of other trees in the middle of the night stage field on The Land. At the final Mich Fest, acorns had been placed on an alter of sorts near the grandmother oak. All the women were encouraged to take an acorn to plant wherever they were and to grow their own women sacred space. Val explained that Campazons was created by a few women as their acorns. At that moment, I realized that I was now a part of something bigger than myself.
An acorn. The seed of an oak. This idea was not lost on me. While studying German, I learned of the importance of mighty oak trees and how Germanic peoples used to gather at the base of a prominent oak to discuss matters of great importance. Even to this day, you can often see benches placed under oak trees in Germany.
I was reminded of a particular grandmother oak in Berlin, Germany. I lived in Berlin for three years and performed volunteer service with the Jüdische Gemeinde (local Jewish community). A woman I had become particularly fond of, Frau B, liked to show me special historical places in Berlin. One day we journeyed to a quiet neighborhood where she showed me a huge oak tree. She explained that the first winter after World War II ended was incredibly cold, resulting in most of the trees being cut down for firewood. This tree was spared. Like Frau B, this mighty oak had survived the war.
Over the weekend, I met women of all ages from early 20s to late 70s with a variety of backgrounds and professions. The non-judgemental atmosphere allowed for each woman to truly express herself, and differences were not only tolerated, but welcomed. The topics of conversation were real and ranged from light and fluffy to deep and heavy. Women told stories from their lives, dispensed advice for self-improvement and shared painful personal struggles, knowing they would be heard. I am already looking forward to the next Campazons event.