Camp Refuge

Chapter 1 - Camp Refuge

Gregory Hanson pulled into the overgrown driveway in his new pick-up.  A refurbished 1975 Airstream Argosy travel trailer towed behind him. Greg's hazel eyes watched its silvery shell through the rear-view mirror carefully as he gently motored forward into the campground.

 He was now at his destination, a tiny map-dot called Hiouchi, California.  He had already flown out a month ago to lay eyes on the campground. And it met with his approval on two counts: it was within his price range, and its run-down condition was one he could remedy with his various skill-sets.

 Greg was recently retired from the police department in Huntsville.  He took the 20-year option on his retirement even if it meant a hit on his income.  But he also was done with that particular game. And he was one of the few guys who could say he was retired at 42 years old.

 As he came to a gentle stop he smiled.  He made the drive from Huntsville, Alabama, his Airstream in tow with no incidents.  He definitely counted that as a "win".

 He opened the door and got out.  It was early May, and it had only begun to warm a little.  Rain was still common for this time of year, but today there were clear skies and sunshine.  His eyes scanned over the main part of the grounds.

 This campground was split into two clusters of four small cabins, for a total of eight.  Then an area that was ostensibly for tent camping was beyond those. Though right now all of the tent camping sites were completely overgrown with briars, blackberry vines, and weeds.  The cabins were no better. They needed a lot of work to call serviceable. Ditto for the power, water, and trash. Everything required work and time to fix up. Which was why the old, derelict campground was within his price range.

 He would need to cut down 15 years of overgrowth, and do a lot of repair work on all of the cabins.  But the very first thing, he needed to get the power and water running. The grounds were close enough to infrastructure to be hooked up to it.  However, it wasn't as simple as flipping a switch or turning a spigot.

 Despite all the effort needed to resolve the various issues with the place, Greg looked forward to the work.  He'd always been a handy guy. And after all of the stress of working for the Huntsville PD, he relished the thought of a lower-key life.

 He inhaled.  There was clean air, the sounds of insects and birds, and the warm sun on his skin.  He stood and reveled in it. His eyes closed, and he let a smile bloom on his face.

 'This is it.  This is why I'm here,' he thought.  He grinned and opened his eyes.

 "Okay.  Time to get to work."

Greg spent the next couple of hours preparing his own living accommodations.  He pulled the Airstream into position to the left side of the main road into the grounds.  He envisioned that this would be on the way out of the campground once he got the entire road cleared, and back into good shape.

He'd always been a dreamer.  For years he dreamed of love and making a life with someone.  But here he was, 42 years old and perpetually single. And early in his career at the Police Department, he had to let that one go.  His life in Alabama simply wouldn't allow for that sort of connection in his life. Now that he was here, and away from the expectations and prejudice of the south and his job, things could be different.

But that was no longer his priority.  He decided years ago that being single was acceptable and even desired.  He rarely connected with anyone in a meaningful way. By far, his deepest emotional connection was to Clay, his old partner in the Huntsville PD.  Even then there were things Greg never shared with him. It just wasn't something a man talked about.

He was nearly celibate.  Though it wasn't for a lack of willing partners, even in Alabama.  He didn't understand why, but something about the thought of a man in a police uniform really got gay men going.  It also helped that he kept himself in great condition. Once a guy heard he was a cop, he could almost guarantee a romp in the sack if he wanted it.  But he rarely put himself in situations where it could happen. Maybe a couple of times a year when he traveled out of town he would go home with a guy.  He'd get that particular itch scratched, then he'd be good to take care of himself solo for a few months. And this is how he had lived for the past 20 years.

Now his dreams centered around destressing and living simply.  Being closeted as a police officer in Alabama carried with it a level of anxiety which was not for the faint of heart.  One wrong word, one slightly too-long glance in the locker room, and he would have been ruined. But he became an expert at playing the game.  He cultivated a quiet, reserved persona, and became known as dependable and competent but somewhat anti-social to the rest of the guys. Well, to all of them except Clay.

He stepped back to look at the work he had done so far.  The Airstream was now unhooked from his truck, and he had it leveled next to a pre-existing concrete pad near the entrance of the campground.  His door opened over the pad, and the attached awning could be pulled out to shade the space when the sun got to be too much. A patio set made it onto his mental list for his next trip into town.

He smiled at his progress.  He had 300W of power in the form of two solar cells mounted on top of his new home.  And that would be plenty for his few power needs inside the Airstream. His water tank was full and his sewage was empty.  It was a great way to start out until he could get the infrastructure for the camp repaired.

He wiped a hand through his short, sweaty, brown hair.  It was longer than he was used to, as he stopped buzzing it off a few weeks back.  Here, where it was cooler he'd let it grow a bit. But it was still a novelty to him.

As he examined his work a green truck turned into the camp driveway from the main road.  He watched as the truck drove up his road, and came to a stop alongside his own big Dodge pick up.  Greg wiped his hands on his pants and stepped over as the man got out of the truck.

"Well, hello there."  The shorter man smiled at him.  He had salt and pepper hair and looked to be in his mid-50s.  He stuck out a hand and Greg reached to shake it. "I'm Harry Greene, and I'm the ranger responsible for the state-run campgrounds on the 199 here."

"Nice to meet ya, Harry."  Greg's drawl was thick, even though he was working at toning it down.  "I'm just getting settled in." He frowned a little. "Though, this will be a private campground once I get everything cleaned up, and running."

Harry nodded.  "Yep, I know. But I like to introduce myself to the neighbors."  He motioned to the south. "The Smith River is just over there, past the treeline, and that's something my office is empowered to preserve.  So I make it a point to say hello to anybody on the water."

Greg could appreciate that.  "Good policy." He nodded at Harry.  "Well, if I can do anything for you, let me know."

Harry smiled and nodded.  "Will do." He narrowed his eyes a little in thought.  "Where are you from? Somewhere south, that's for sure."

"Ah, Alabama."  Greg shrugged. "Definitely qualifies as 'south'."

"Wow.  I'd say."  Harry nodded then climbed back up into his truck.  "Well, welcome to California. And best of luck with your new campground."  He looked through his windshield at the briars and brambles that lay thick over the place - even up over the roofs of the visible cabins.  He glanced back at Greg. "You may need it before you're through!"

Greg only smiled - the expression patient and cordial, and watched as the green Forest Service truck turned around and pulled back onto the highway.

Once Harry was gone Greg immediately went right back to his efforts.

For many, the idea of running a campground as a way to decompress may hold little appeal.  But to Greg, it served a number of purposes. Ultimately he wanted to continue to serve. But he needed to do so in a different way.

He saw so many people in Alabama who were in a situation which could have been his own.  Young men, boys really, who were gay, and discarded by their own families. Thrown out of their homes with nothing, and nowhere to go.  He saw girls and women in the same situations. And so the dream began as a kernel of an idea. Over the years he refined it until he hit upon the recipe that both appealed to him, and the one that seemed viable.

He would buy a campground.  And he would advertise it as a "gay-friendly" destination.  He thought about doing this in Alabama but rejected it almost immediately.  It'd be a place that would attract nothing but trouble. But in California … it could work on multiple counts.  It could be a selling point, and it could turn this little stretch of Northern California into a mini-destination.

If the worst happened and nobody was interested, he would have an empty campground all to himself.  He paid the cost of the campground, the Airstream, and his big Dodge truck completely off with his savings and the sale of his family home in Alabama, so there were no recurring payments he needed to make.  His needs were simple, so his retirement would provide enough money for him to get by. And if there was no expense from tenants then he wouldn't need the money from reservations.

But again, he needed to get the electrical and water up and running to the grounds themselves.  As well he was now generating waste which would require the trash service to be reinstated. That'd be an easy fix.  He picked up his cell. He had reception here since the campground was close enough to Hiouchi's cell tower.

After a few minutes on the phone, he had trash service scheduled.  After he hung up he walked around the grounds and he checked the old upright, bear-proof green boxes for both trash and recycling.  Luckily they were right next to the asphalt, and he could reach all of them as he walked around the loop. Most were serviceable. Though he'd need to repaint them, as they were rusting a bit in places.  Oil for hinges and paint on the outside would set them all to rights.

The list was long and getting longer all the time.  And that was before he even thought about the cabins.  He knew he could get the tent sites ready a lot faster than the cabins.  So he wanted to focus first on infrastructure, the restroom and shower building, the new outdoor kitchen he wanted to build, and the tent sites.

As he did the loop he counted out the probable areas for tent sites.

"Fourteen."  He nodded to himself as he finished the loop and drew even with his Airstream.  "I'll need to clear fourteen sites."

He stopped and frowned just as he got to the door of his truck.  He reached into his pocket and pulled his phone. He looked at the name on the display.  "Huh." He answered the vibrating machine and held the phone to his ear.

"Hey Clay."  He smiled and put his hand on the warm hood of the Dodge.  "How's Alabama?"

"Hey, Greg."  His ex-partner's voice was a lot more welcome to his ears than Greg anticipated it would be.  "Alabama is the same as you left it. Though it's a little crankier since there's a veteran in the Huntsville PD who is getting paired up with a rookie after his partner left him."

They both chuckled.

"So, what's the occasion for the call?  You miss my sexy voice?" Greg said, and laughed.

He could hear Clay grin over the receiver.  "I actually wanted to check in on ya. When you told me about the campground idea, I thought you may have gone off the rails.  But the more I think about it the better it sounds."

While he was still in Alabama and as his retirement date approached, Greg told Clay about his idea - all except for the gay-friendly part.  Nobody from his old life knew he was gay, not even Clay. Greg got close to telling him a few times, but he never actually said the words. There was just too much to lose, and he couldn't take the risk.

"Well, I'm out here now."  Greg looked out over the campground.  "And I've already started on getting it squared away."

"Yeah?  How's that going?"

Greg nodded.  "It's good. Gonna be a LOT of work though."  Greg went through his laundry list of steps he had planned to take before he would ever open the place for campers.

Clay whistled.  "Wow. Well, sounds like you need some help."

Greg sighed.  "Probably. But I can't afford that."

"Well, what if you could get some free labor, in exchange for room and board?  I know a teenager who needs to get out of Alabama for the summer. And he loves camping."

Greg frowned.  "Mason? Really?"

"Yep."  There was a heavy sigh on the other end of the line.  "Look, I never brought it up but Mason isn't doing so great here right now.  And I'd really appreciate it if he could spend the summer there. You'd be doing me a huge favor."

Greg only thought for a moment.  "Yeah, he can come out here. Both of you can if you want.  No problem." Greg's frown deepened. "What's going on?"

There was a hesitation over the phone.  "Well, he's getting the shit kicked out of him on the regular.  He's gay, and he doesn't care who knows it."

Greg goggled.  "Wha … what?" He struggled for what to say.  "I had no idea."

"Well, he's a quiet kid.  No reason for you to know.  But the kids at school, they give him royal hell, and I'm worried about him.  Even when school lets out I don't think it'll get any better. He refuses to lie about it, even when it might be dangerous for him."  Clay paused, then continued, his tone cautious. "I just figured … he'd be safe there with you. And that you'd understand. You know.  The whole gay thing."

Greg put his hand on his forehead.  "How … I don't …"

"Greg.  Man." Clay's voice was patient and understanding.  "We've been partners for so long. I've known for years now."

Greg closed his eyes and rubbed his face.  "I was so careful." He almost whispered it.

"I know.  I'm sorry I never asked you.  But I figured you'd tell me when you were ready.  And don't worry. The other guys never really knew.  Boggs and Russell suspected, but none of them knew for sure."

Greg took a deep breath.  "Okay. Well, I'm sorry I didn't say something."

"Don't be.  Life's too short for regret."  Clay said easily. "So, you really okay with Mason staying for the summer?  If you are, I'll bring him out to you. Maybe I'd stay a week to help out too."

Greg nodded even though Clay couldn't see him.  "Yeah, you both should come out. For sure. And he can stay the summer.  It'd be good for him." Greg laughed. "Though, I'd work him hard!"

"I'd expect nothing else.  Some hard work would be good for him."

The two men planned for Clay and Mason to come out to the campground the following week, after Mason was out of school.  Clay was certain he could take the time off, as he was one of the most senior officers in the Huntsville PD.

They finished their conversation and Greg hung up, a thoughtful look on his face.  He was going to have company. That was a rare thing. Even rarer, it would be company he enjoyed.  He looked down the overgrown asphalt drive that led deeper into his campground, and could see the edge of the first cabin.  It was surrounded by weeds, blackberries, and ivy. But if he worked hard he could probably get it ready by the time they arrived.  Clay planned on tent camping during his week in California, but it'd be nice if he had a cabin to sleep in.

He narrowed his eyes and a determined expression settled on his face.  "Let's get this done." Greg got into his truck, his list of tools and supplies he needed folded into the pocket of his denim shirt.  As he drove to Crescent City he felt a strange weight lift off his back.

'Clay knows.  He's known for a long time.  And it's okay.' He let his mind mull it over.  His only real friend knew that he was gay. And it wasn't a disaster.  He wasn't rejected. He didn't lose his friend. In fact, Clay trusted Greg with his son, Mason.  And Greg could think of no greater measure of confidence a man could have in another.

'You've gotta do right by Mason and Clay.'  Greg nodded to himself as he turned into the Home Depot parking lot in town.

Greg and Clay had been through a lot.  And he knew Mason. He and Clay were partners on the force for nearly Greg's entire 20-year span in the department.  He celebrated with Clay when Mason was born. He mourned with him when five years ago, cancer took Kathy, Clay's wife, and Mason's mom.  And now, he was being asked to help what amounted to his best friend's son.

He would step up to the challenge.  He entered the store and pulled the list out of his pocket.  "Okay," he looked down at the items, "let's start with paint."  With a slight, unconscious smile he began gathering his supplies - purpose firmly in mind.

The next few days were filled with steady progress.  Greg managed to get power and water restored to the grounds.  The fellow from PG&E (Pacific Gas and Electric) responsible for new services came out yesterday to look at the work Greg did.  The 30-something fellow was excited. "Oh man, you're getting this place fit for camping again?" The man, whose name was Brian looked around, a grin plastered on his face.  "You do good work! I'll probably be by later this summer, once you've got it going. Maybe spend a few weekends."

Greg had gone for a walk around the place with Brian, and suddenly he felt a pressure and stress he didn't expect.  "Well … it's a private campground. All are welcome, so long as they don't have a problem with folks who are … who are gay."

Brian looked at him, the surprise evident on his face.  "You're making a gay-friendly campground?" Before Greg could answer Brian grinned.  "My niece is gay! Oh man, this is gonna be awesome! I could bring her here with her girlfriend!"

After a quick but expert inspection of Greg's work, the excited PG&E planner was back in his vehicle.  He promised to return with his niece in tow once the place was up and running.

The following day Greg began work on Cabin #1.  He cleared all the vegetation away, and he did a quick cleaning of the inside.  He hauled out a pile of wood from old furniture that had fallen apart, detritus, leaves, and old wasp nests.  He had to replace a window that was boarded up, build a small desk, replace some shingles on the roof, and get a new twin bed mattress.  He managed to salvage the frame of the bed, for which he was thankful.

He worked fast.  All of the chores required for the cabin were nearly complete at the end of his self-imposed 12-hour workday.  He only had the roof, the mattress to purchase, and some flashing to install for the window left to go. He wasn't even going to think about painting it - not yet.  That'd have to wait. He didn't think Clay would mind the fact that the cabin still needed paint.

Greg straightened from cutting shingles and cracked his back with an audible sound and a relieved grunt.  He had his exercises left to do, and it was going on 6 PM. Though the sun was still up thanks to the lengthening days.

He put away his tools and supplies and locked everything.  He took a hard cider and a towel, then he followed a narrow trail down to the river from the southern tip of his campground.  The trail stopped at a fairly wide beach of sand and round stones. The Smith River flowed beyond that in front of him. It was one of the cleanest rivers in the state, and it was beautiful.  This tiny piece of land belonged to him as well, and he was thankful his purchase included it.

He stood and smiled at the river.  The sound as it flowed, the reflection of the sun on the water, and the fresh, earthy smell of the wet sand did something to his soul.  It made him happy in a way nothing else could.

Greg took one more cleansing breath, then he found a quiet spot in the water.  He put his cider in to keep it chilled and spread his towel on the sand.

Then he began his workout.  He brutalized himself with various push-ups, sit ups, planks, and then pull-ups on a bar he had installed for the purpose near the water's edge.  He would go for a run tomorrow, but today was all about the bodyweight exercises.

After about 45 minutes he finished, sweaty, hot, and pleasantly exhausted.  He peeled off his t-shirt, socks, and shorts. He thought about going totally nude, but he left his trunks on, just in case someone floated down the river.

Greg's physical condition was a product of his efforts.  He was thankful for both his fondness for physical activity, and for his well-working body.  At 42 he had never had a serious medical issue, and he knew it was largely due to his near-religious adherence to a routine that he could do anywhere.  It also meant he was trim, strong, and what most considered to be attractive.

He hissed as he entered the water.  It was COLD! The Smith River was largely melt-water from snow-covered mountains, and it was nowhere near comfortable swimming temperature.  And it wouldn't be for another month.

But it'd do for a dip.  He quickly got himself wet and rinsed away most of the dirt, sweat, and grime.  He slung his head as he rose from the river, and an arc of water flung itself into the air from the movement.

His very quick rinse complete, he shivered and padded to the shore.  Luckily the sun was still warm, and it felt wonderful on his bare skin.  He bent to retrieve his cider from the water. Greg sighed with contentment, and he cracked the drink.  The cider was his reward for a long day of work, and for his workout. He looked over the river in nothing but his wet, black trunks.  His cider was in hand, and he brought it up to his lips. He took a nice, long drink, then lowered the bottle.

He looked out over the water.  He had a beautiful place to live, he had his health, and soon he would have a fulfilling business to run.  As a bonus, he would get a visit from his best friend and his son in a couple of days.

'This is my life.'  He drained the rest of his cider.  He turned, gathered his towel and clothes, and strolled slowly back along the path.  As he rounded the bend on the paved loop the silver shell of his Airstream came into view.

He grinned.  'I don't need anything else.'

Author's Note: Please let me know your thoughts about the chapter at the following email address link.   Wayne Gray

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