The first time I went to the Bonfire, my friends and I had to hold each other's hands to keep from losing anyone in the pitch-black darkness of the woods. Tree roots snaked out of the ground and tripped up every single one of us, even after we warned the person behind us, "Whoa! There's a root. Be careful." THUD. And because we were all joined by hand, the rest of the group was pulled off balance by the first man to go down. It probably looked like a train derailment, our little group of hikers, but it was too dark to see the mass of bodies sprawled on the forest floor and all you heard was the thump of knees hitting dirt and someone say "Whoops!" and, after the initial shock of discovering a bloodied elbow, alot of giggling.
Eventually, after a 15-minute walk or so, we came across a rickety wooden bridge that could really only hold the weight of a newborn kitten. Hand in hand, we helped each other slowly cross the planks, careful to mind the planks that were missing. Those were the ones to watch out for as we were reminded each time Little Dave tried to cross the bridge himself only to fall into the small creek below. Pissed off and wet, Little Dave would curse loudly and take off into the woods, when we would hear another thump, another curse word, and finally, more cursing.
This, my friends, was just to get to the Bonfire. This is nothing like trying to find the way out, you know...when some of us were no longer sober. I think Little Dave made it to the Bonfire and stayed long enough to dry off, have some beers, and fall into the creek again as he made a drunken attempt to cross the broken bridge alone. Half the time I don't think anybody ever knew how he made it home. But he always made it home. We all did.
The path was obvious to those who'd been there before. I remember stepping very carefully around tree trunks and dirtholes and wondering how in the hell this place was ever discovered. The drive to this particular neighborhood wasn't too far away from our homebase but I was a mess of nerves each and every time I agreed to go to the Bonfire. Not only did we have to trespass through strangers' backyards and avoid the motion sensor lights we set off in the process, but sometimes a cop would hang around nearby, behind a bush or something, and wait for the moment he saw any movement from within our clump of trees so he could shine his authoritative spotlight on us. We never got caught. At least, I never did. Perhaps this is how Little Dave made it home every night. We'll never know.
The Bonfire was a place to meet new people. Usually someone brought a case of beer (and things that weren't beer) and a couple of guitars. A big campfire, good conversation, and a jam session pretty much equalled a good night. I was with friends and so content to just sit on my happy little log. The occasional argument erupted, fueled by alcohol and macho pride, but for the most part it was just a meeting place for the rich kids, the poor kids, the military kids, the civilian kids, the white kids, the black kids, and the younger crowd who wanted to hang out with the older crowd. Your typical teenage scene.
My last night at the Bonfire was in May of 1994, Graduation Night. We made the usual precarious trek over tree roots and half-exposed rocks, watched Little Dave fall into the creek, and I found my place on my happy little log. I sat next to my friend Sean, a gentle giant of a man and quite capable, I'm sure, of snapping someone's neck with his bare hands. Suddenly, we heard the sounds of motorbike engines coming up quickly from the opposite side of our entry path. Everyone stopped what they were doing at once. The conversations grew silent, the musicians stopped playing, even the drunks stood still. Since I had never walked past the firepit, I didn't know what was beyond the Bonfire and looked to Sean for some sort of guidance. He whispered, "Shhhh..." to me at least once and stared straight ahead, as if he could telepathically convince whoever was headed in our direction to make a u-turn and go back home. I continued to stare at him and everyone around the Bonfire collectively took in a deep breath.
Who were those bikers? Were they pissed because we were here? Was it the cops? What do we do?
Finally, three bikes peaked at the top of the small hill and drove straight for us.
Sean screamed, "Run!!!!" I thought, Run? Okay!!! But wait...RUN? Where??!
And so my plan of escape had been hatched!
I ran into the darkness of the woods, a few yards behind Sean but in a totally different direction. I soon found myself alone and terrified and freakin' lost. In the woods. The woods are dark at night, you know. And while that might not surprise any of you, maybe you'd be interested in knowing that when you are alone and terrified in the dark woods, they get darker. I'm thoroughly convinced that it's scientifically possible.
I eventually found my way back to the party. The Three Bikers brought a case of beer with them and hung out with us all. My own personal party started to wane and I was ready to go home. I was freaked out, exhausted, and I had to pee. No, I didn't want to pee in the woods. That, of course, would require me to be alone in the dark, dark woods again and I was in no hurry to do that.
Where this story came from, I have no idea. It's been over fifteen years and I found myself thinking about that place tonight. I found myself thinking about that night tonight. I wonder why. Those days were cake compared to my real life today. Those were the careless days before my friends and I were separated by our parents' military retirements or our own eventual deployments, before we were gifted with the responsibilities of raising children and fulfulling college requirements and working full-time jobs. Those were the days before we essentially grew up.
Simply put, those were the days!