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Girls gone wild

Ms. Backpacker, back in the day.

When I was a teenager, I was friends with two sisters, Tara and Sheila. Every summer we signed up for a backpacking or canoeing adventure at Camp Northwoods, a Girl Scout camp in Wisconsin. Honestly, I didn’t much care for backpacking: carrying a 35-pound pack and eating freeze-dried lunches was not my thing. I tried it once and realized I much prefer canoeing: shooting the rapids, yes, but also lazing down the river on a July afternoon in the canoe that’s carrying the food. I started keeping a travelogue that I read each night around the campfire, which is how I first discovered my love of story-telling.

Over the course of three or four summers, Tara, Sheila, and I canoed the Chippewa and the Namekagon Rivers with a couple different groups of girls, led by our favorite camp counselor, Slim. Our last year, we dodged a tornado, taking refuge in a stranger’s basement. Slim tried to calm us by taking up where we’d left off in The Little Prince: “It is good to have had a friend,” she read, “even if one is going to die.” We all screamed our teenage-girl screams. So prophetic. So French. So freaky. Though we were on a two-week voyage where we prided ourselves on deftly navigating Class IV rapids, the tornado provoked a momentary sense of perspective: We were mortal, but we were among friends.

Back in the Cities during the school year, Tara and Sheila and I joined Slim and Zoey, the summer camp director, on weekend road trips. We soon dropped the goofy camp names, calling them by their real names, Carlyn and Nona. We’d go up to Duluth to see the autumn leaves, or help set up platform tents at Northwoods before summer camp began. For their birthdays, we bought cards and posters featuring Susan Polis Schutz poetry. On a winter weekend, we’d visit their suburban apartment, playing cards and watching made-for-TV movies. It was at Carlyn and Nona’s that I first fell in love with Martin Sheen, as I watched him in the what-I-now-know-to-be-sick thriller, Sweet Hostage, in which he plays an escaped mental patient who kidnaps the illiterate teen Linda Blair.

I admit I was a naïve teenager, but I was also a child of the times. It didn’t occur to me that Carlyn and Nona were gay. They were friends who loved each other, and Tara and Sheila and I loved them. As an adult, I’ve talked to Nona about those times. She says she's just glad they had the gas money to take us on those trips in her Gremlin, and is grateful our parents were so open-minded. For her part, my mom says she didn’t think twice about it. To her, it was obvious they were good role models and friends.

Today the Minnesota House of Representatives passed a bill that will make same-sex marriage legal in Minnesota. Nona and Carlyn are no longer together, but if they want to, they can marry the women they love (no pressure, N and C). As a divorcee who only got it right the second time around, I’m happy for all of us: for Sheila and Tara and whomever they ended up in love with, for Nona and Carlyn and their respective girlfriends, and for me and mine. It’s good to have a friend. Love is good, always, a shoot down the rapids and a shelter from the storm.
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