Pixabay photo pandemic-5026719_1280 courtesy of Queven

COVID-19 has us all imagining unpleasant “What if…?” scenarios. However, these mental distractions can cause us to overlook the pandemic’s silver linings. Simpler lifestyles. Introspection on society and government. Longer library checkout times!

Imagining possible futures has reminded me of Marvel Comics’ “What if?” series. When I was an avid comic book collector, I purchased several issues.

Yes, “What if?” games can cause toilet paper hoarding. But contemplating causality can also help us appreciate serendipity.

Pandemic serendipity happened to me last month. For five nights I camped in Michigan’s Van Riper State Park. Yet, according to Melanie Brand, a decade-long park employee, I was lucky to get a spot. She said normally my stay dates are completely booked six months in advance. Why?

Numerous Michigan state parks have Harvest Festivals each fall. These events celebrate farmers’ hard work, but Halloween activities are a big attraction too. Van Riper State Park devotes three September weekends to their festival.  Entering the park, the staff set the mood with funny gravestones (inside joke–Sherri B. is the park’s longest serving staff member).

So, what if there was no pandemic? I’d never have discovered Van Riper State Park. Never gotten a camping spot, reserved just days before. Never witnessed the park’s Harvest Festival. Never had to Google “how to remove pine sap”—more on that later.

Tandem bike with skeleton

Although the festival’s regular activities were scaled back because of the virus, many regulars still came. Thus, all week I just thought it was normal for RV people to have holiday displays (albeit a bit extravagant). Then, Friday night came. When I returned from a day excursion, WOW! Halloween had overwhelmed the campground. Eerie chalk art decorated the pavement. Skeletons bicycled around. Lights and animated decorations were everywhere. It was a Halloween wonderland. Here’s just a sampling of the community’s creativity and spooky, fun vibe.

Campers I chatted with raved about past scavenger hunts, “Monster Mash” dances in the pavilion, hay rides, kid activities, and the haunted hike (with scares from lurking DNR staff and volunteers). If that’s not enough amusement in a normal year, trick-or-treating apparently requires a garbage bag for the candy haul.

Renee and Dale Rogers

Historically, Renee and Dale Rogers estimated they hand out 500-600 pieces of candy on Saturdays. They said even grown-ups get “adult treats” in some spots. They know the festival well. They won the festival’s 2017 “Scariest Campsite” contest.

For the Rogers, each year the festival is a family gathering. To avoid terrified toddlers though, Renee and Dale don’t invite their grandkids until they’re at least three years old. Then, the family’s kids have a costume contest—judged by non-family members. (Melanie said the festival once did costume contests, but judging became controversial. Now the park only has a scary campsite contest.) The Rogers’ spooky spectacle is mostly hand-crafted. This DIY aspect contrasts the carnival of purchased decorations, holograms, light shows, and videos (son-in-law Jason projects the below video on his family’s camper).

2019 schedule (click to enlarge)

To me, the festival is a paradise for kids and Halloween lovers. Even if the campground is full, anyone can still park nearby to enjoy the festivities. If you’re curious about festival activities in a regular year, Melanie shared the 2019 schedule handout shown here (click to enlarge). She also shared this link to all of Michigan’s Harvest Festivals.

As I left Saturday morning, my only “What if?” gripe was my campsite. Its only dry, level area was littered with green, gooey pinecones. Before I’d even finished setting up my tent, gunk coated my shoes’ soles. Then, day and night, pinecones bombarded my tent fly. At night, the thuds often startled me awake.

Pine sap has many helpful uses, from healing wounds to patching canoes. But each day, I battled sap on my hands and shoes. I began to ponder retribution. On my fourth day of tip-toing around my pine cone minefield, I wondered, “What if I burned them?”

Pixaby photo fire 605585_640 courtesy of malubeng

My night of pinecone pyromania was more like smoke-mania. Not surprisingly, newly dropped cones are really, really hard to burn. The wet sap insulates conifer seeds from forest fires. Only a few cones from past years—finally dry—burned well. Eventually, my smokefest earned pity and a firewood gift from my RV neighbors. The dry fuel helped me achieve modest justice and warmth before I retreated into my sleeping bag.

Luckily, the festival’s friendly community and park staff more than compensated for the sticky campsite and frosty nights. Melanie even shared a great tip for removing pine sap: hand sanitizer (anything with alcohol apparently works too). Best of all, the festival reminded me to appreciate “What if?” serendipity.

I’ll end with another serendipitous surprise during this camping trip:  a visit to Palms Book Big Spring State Park. What if my friend had never suggested stopping here? What if my route home didn’t just happen to pass by it? Without these and other precursors, I’d never have seen this park’s mesmerizing mineral spring. You view the spring from a silent, floating platform. Down 45 feet, the sandy bottom roils from the spring’s inflow. Lunker trout and salmon also circle beneath. It’s all surreal, similar to deep sea hydrothermal vents (pics and video below).

Until normal returns, don’t miss seeing silver linings, and take care.