The first time we went there the air conditioning in our car didn’t work, and the driver’s window was broken. It wouldn’t hold in place, and so we had it propped shut with a piece of a wooden railroad which fit perfectly into the seam between the glass and the door-frame. But every now and then, at a speed of roughly 68 mph, the glass would start to sneakily slide down into the door and the trick was to catch it in time, before it slipped fully into oblivion. I didn’t have a GPS that first time either, so I had to make do with quickly scribbled directions on a shred of paper. It was already dark when we took off, just me and my two children, heading into the great unknown which is the Texan rural landscape.

It was okay on the highways, but eventually the wide thoroughfare was whittled down to a narrow, two-way road winding through the dark forest which extended in all directions. The kids had fallen asleep and as I drove, I lectured myself silently on my irresponsible adventure-seeking ways. The window slowly slumped into the door without my noticing it, the moist, hot October air filled the car with cicada cries and fermenting foliage smells, and at the speed of 68 miles per hour I’d peak now and then at the torn sheet, trying to decipher what Park Road I was to take next. Ten, twenty minutes passed, the darkness continued. At this rate, I thought, I can easily miss my turn and not even know it. And if I turn around and go back looking for it, I won’t know whether I’ve missed it for sure or whether I just didn’t drive far enough. And I have no reception on my phone and even if I did and I called someone they’d ask me where I was and then yell at me for being so and so…And so, I just drove on, hoping I hadn’t missed my turn yet.

Miraculously, I didn’t, and we got there. “There” being the Alabama-Couchatta Tribal lands where the Russian KSP South bards camp-out was taking place that weekend. I almost teared up in relief as I pulled up at the entrance to get my map and entry passes. A dark-haired, shaggy-bearded soulful looking middle-aged man came up and in the typical ennui-fatigued way mused in Russian, “How many?”

“Three.” I replied. He looked at the empty passenger seat and raised an eyebrow. “Me and my two kids, they’re sleep in the back..” I explained.

“What grounp are you with?”

“We’re just by ourselves…”

“Who are you staying with?” he repeated.

“Nobody – I thought maybe you could just stick us somewhere…” His ever-widening eyes were incredulous.

“How are you gonna put up your tent?” He blurted, sort of amazed and sort of pitying me.

“I can put up a tent. It’s not hard. My daughter will help…”

“These women. They don’t freeze in the cold, and they don’t burn in the fire…” He chanted in singsong a bit of a poem. When I stared at him blankly he broke into a smile, handed me the map, passes and campsite number, and added, “You need to read more Nikrasov, lady. He’s a classic…”
I grinned back and, with a “Working on it…” pulled off towards camp.

*                          *                         *                         *

Yesterday we returned from our fifth KSP South camp-out. Heading out, the car was in better shape and I had a GPS, but I hardly needed it anymore. The main players were the same: Mama, daughter and son. The latter two fell promptly asleep in the car, I drove peacefully through the impenetrable forest, and once on location, Vierra and I painlessly set up camp. I have set up the tent so many times in the dark now that I joke that if there was light, I wouldn’t know what to do with it…But with a full day at work/school, plus packing, soccer practice, and a two hour drive, there was no way we could have gotten there before nightfall.

In Russia there is a long tradition of singing songs accompanied by guitars while sitting around campfires in the wilderness. The melodies are typically not complex, but the lyrics are true poetry reflecting the lives and experiences of people of a certain generation. People of this generation (folks in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s now) love and play these songs. The tradition has been preserved, and people today, immigrants from Russia living in the States, continue writing and playing. These people are called “bards”. The places where they meet to share, sing around campfires and perform their latest work are called camp-outs, such as the KSP South one we went on last weekend. (KSP is the name of the bards organization, while “South” refers to its chapter in the South of the country.)

The camp-out takes place in a pine forest by a lovely lake about 100 miles north of Houston. Everyone camps, speakers and recorded music is forbidden (only live music, please), and children under 16 come free. A small stage is improvised among the conifers, and right at 6pm (usually more like 6:20) the singing begins. The magic happens then.

What draws me to these events is the singing – the bare, naked honest performance. Just a voice, a guitar, a melody, a poem. When professional performers sing on stage, you inevitably feel isolated from them. They have the stage presence, the back-up vocals; they are putting on a show. They are the star, and you are a fan, a face in a crowd of thousands of faces. Their personality, their being can hide behind so much up there on stage, and though you may be entertained, thrilled or even enchanted, there is no closeness, no interconnection. Here, the person on stage is the one whose kid you just helped climb off a tree. The woman singing next lent you her toothpaste this morning in the bathroom. With their unpolished, natural sound, you can trace out the inspiration, the idea, the creativity, the personality. You can tell that these people, with their voice pouring over the imperfect sound system and their weathered fingers strumming familiar chords, got up to tell you something; they want to share something with you. Mostly, they want to share themselves.

In our lives today it is so easy to hide behind our avatars and facebook updates. We can spend many days and weeks not telling anyone anything important about ourselves, about themselves. The easier it becomes not connecting with others, the more challenging the process of reaching out. And so, given a chance, would I come and see folks opening up? Sharing, giving, for free, of the things that are most important to them? The things that are really essential to us all? (Life, joy, struggle, despair, humor.) Heck yes. And that’s why I go. That’s why we come. That’s why you’ll probably catch me half a year from now, speeding at roughly 68 miles per hour down a dark, forested road towards the next KSP South camp-out.