Within a few hours of being diagnosed with cancer, while I was still in the emergency room, I told my wife, “I want to go back to Ozone.” Ozone is a small town in eastern Tennessee that has some quarries and Ozone Falls, a state park around a picturesque waterfall formed by Fall Creek, and slightly northeast of Fall Creek Falls, another waterfall and state park that, in my humble opinion, isn’t as nice. I’d been to Niagara Falls, which was big and noisy and exciting, but Ozone Falls, formed by a creek, is smaller, quieter, and easier to understand. When I first saw it I was spellbound because this is what a waterfall should be. And unlike Niagara Falls which you can see from a distance Ozone Falls has to be approached from a distance that makes it come into view slowly. And then it’s a difficult climb down into the basin where, if you want, you can stand under the waterfall itself. Try that with Niagara.
Just up the road from Ozone Falls is Camp Ozone. It was a Presbyterian Church camp when I first went there at the age of eleven and went back over several successive summers. I’d heard people talk about Camp Ozone and seen older kids wearing t-shirts with the logo of a cross on a hill with the moon rising behind it, but experiencing the camp for myself was, well, special. It’s a very frustrating thing to try and talk about because I can’t really put it into words, and I’m not sure why I keep trying to talk about it. I think I could describe staying in the cabins, tromping through the woods, finding oddly colored mushrooms. I could describe the bath house where the light stayed on all night so in the morning we’d find the biggest most gorgeous moths clustered on the walls, moths whose names we learned, whose names were almost as weird and beautiful as the moths themselves: luna, io, cecropia, imperial, sphinx. I could talk about swimming in the lake. Ozone Lake is manmade and, I learned recently, was dug in the sixties by some people who didn’t know what they were doing. They just took it as a summer job. Its manmade nature explains why it’s no more than twelve feet deep at any point. You can even take a canoe out into the very middle and look down and if the light is right see the bottom, or even touch it. Radial water plants that look like green anemones grow there. It was my first experience swimming in a lake, which was very different from being in a pool or even the ocean. It was cold and murky but I still loved it. I could float or let my feet slip along flat rocks or over to silky mud. My toes would even sometimes touch those prickly water plants which kind of freaked me out.
I could even talk about the friends I made there in just a week and then never met again, or how the last night of every camp session we had a talent show. One year I did a stand-up comedy act and no one, not even the minister who was head of the camp, blinked an eye at some of the off-color Buddy Hackett jokes I told, although the laughter might have been a little bit forced.
For various reasons, mostly having to do with church politics, Camp Ozone closed when I was sixteen. From my very first year there—almost from the very first day—I’d hoped to one day come back as a counselor. That wouldn’t happen. My family and their friends would also take weekend trips to Camp Ozone for Memorial Day or at other times of the year. When we went to the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville we stayed in Camp Ozone, a little over an hour away. These trips gave me and my friends a lot of chances to explore the place without the normal camp schedule. There was also time for me to go off alone, to get to know the wilderness by myself. When the camp was officially shut down these informal visits also ended.
In a way I kept going back to Ozone, though. As a teenager I was taught guided meditation by some older friends and Camp Ozone was always where I went. I could, and still can, mentally walk all the way around the lake or stand in the waterfall basin. It was the place I always went to because it’s a place where nothing bad can happen to me. Maybe that’s why I was never afraid of going back, and while it took more than a year from that moment I told my wife it’s what I wanted she still managed to make it happen. I was prepared for it to have changed but the Ozone in my mind is a place I’ve been to so many times nothing can change it. And going there I was surprised by how little had changed. It’s now run by Children’s Bible Ministries and I was shown around by the current director. Most of the original buildings I remembered were still there, even if they’ve been repaired and renovated. He seemed to find it funny when I pointed to a large propane tank covered with green moss and said, “I remember when that was white.” He took me past where the hogans had been. The younger kids stayed in the cabins but when we got older we moved to the hogans which were canvas covered frames, open at either end, with wooden floors where mice lived. He showed me the top of the hill where I’d spent the night under the stars and then left me to walk back down by myself. What had changed didn’t matter. What was still the same made me happier than I can say.
And that’s the problem. None of this may have any meaning for any of you reading this, especially if you’ve never been to Ozone, because there are some things words just can’t convey. There is, however, something I think that can be shared. When I was in the hospital I was facing an uncertain and frightening future and while remembering a place that made me happy helped what mattered even more was the goal of going back. It’s not enough to say I didn’t want to die. I had something to live for.
So what’s your Ozone?