Five of us went into that summer. Four came out alive. The Big Fire of July 2002 spread faster than the experts had projected, burning thousands of acres of forest west of the town of Buck Hill before it could be controlled. The Resort at Buck Hill Falls, in the area colloquially and collectively known as The Poconos, was spared. I was one of the members of the Creek Crew who volunteered to help fight the fire, along with Cooper, Finn, Greg, and the ex-con Norman Pegg. We performed menial tasks given to us by real firefighters called in from surrounding towns, and eventually from as far away as New York City. Truthfully, I didn’t so much volunteer to battle the blaze, as get shamed into it by Greg after Cooper and Pegg had volunteered enthusiastically. I had to lie about my age to join them, as I had just turned seventeen. Perhaps there was some courage in that.
There is a tale that both the creek and the town were named after the promontory a half-mile north of where the creek enters the southern edge of the golf course. Settlers and friendly Indians 200 years earlier—so the story goes—were able to survive a harsh and lengthy winter off the hides and meat of the deer found there, and despite what evolved into an annual slaughter, herds of deer continued to feast on the succulent sour berries and fragrant pinecones of the heavily forested hills, and the name stuck.
Hiking upstream along the creek bed—from Buck Hill Falls, the area’s premier scenic attraction, after which the resort itself was named, to where it exits the forest near Mt. Pocono twenty miles southwest—it is possible to feel nature’s primal allure, to be seduced into thinking you are a hundred miles into a land untouched by humans, when in fact you are never more than six or seven miles from a paved or a dirt road. The effect is the result of the particular geology of the region; the eroded banks of Buck Hill Creek reveal striations of dark sandstone, while the undulating terrain above contains a mix of moss-covered boulders—left by retreating glaciers—and jungle-thick clots of pine and spruce. Peat bogs pierced by dead and rotting timber dot some of the deeper swales, and the creek tumbles over two waterfalls and a dozen ancient, crumbling dams. It is difficult terrain to hike. Opposition to land development, led by the surrounding resorts, was fierce, and the result is that no marked trails were ever cut, helping to minimize the intrusion of visitors.
We had set out that morning—like we did every weekday—to create and reinforce a series of moss-covered dams and silt ditches. The resort’s developers, seduced by the clarity and purity of the water flowing over the impressive Buck Hill Falls and into the small lake beneath it, observed that the river’s natural dams upstream resembled brick walls, with moss substituting for cement, so that the water was naturally filtered, water that would otherwise have been browned by the peeling of the sandstone along the creek’s many sharp bends. The tradition of actually building these moss-filtered stone dams, and the accompanying silt ditches designed to capture run-off from the forests after heavy rains, began when the resort’s developers noticed a steep drop-off in vacationers the summer after a particularly rainy spring had tinted the creek water. The Creek Crew’s efforts from late May to September, along a three-mile stretch upstream of the resort, ensured that Buck Hill’s reputation for having the “cleanest water in the Poconos” was maintained. Working the Creek Crew was one of the few jobs at the resort where you didn’t get tips; but you were outdoors, working hard, building callouses and muscle, doing what all the other employees respected as mens’ work, which was what attracted me, Finn and Greg—all teenagers—to it.
It was my second summer on the Creek Crew. The previous summer, Greg Turk had recruited me out of the caddy corps after only two weeks. The Crew needed a fifth man, and he was desperate it be someone like himself, meaning “an outsider—somebody with half a brain.” I was able to keep my pre-dawn shift as a lawn bowling greens-keeper, and still have time for a big breakfast at the dorms before the Creek Crew’s 8am start. With late afternoons and weekends free, I followed Greg around the resort on his quest for local girls looking for guys “from the outside,” girls he could charm into sex in the back of his Chevy Camaro, equipped with four small pillows, a glove compartment filled with condoms, and a supply of tiny liquor bottles he had filched from his father’s liquor cabinet back home. He even offered me the keys to his car when I managed to get a date with Lacy Dunlap. “Hey, Donny, don’t you wanna get laid?” he snorted, when I declined.
Lacy was the latest of generations of Dunlaps who had worked at Buck Hill as waitresses, greens-keepers, maintenance workers, and bellboys; she guided me through the thorny underbrush of social life among the workers, and the archaic rules that still held sway 100 years after they were adopted. While esteemed as rugged individualists, the founders’ social leanings were to the formal; members of the resort—and most guests—still wear all white on the tennis courts, the golf course, the bowling greens, and at afternoon socials. To this day, staff is forbidden to wear all white on the grounds, so as to be easily distinguishable from the guests. Occasionally, a colorfully clad younger guest, unfamiliar with the tradition, will be approached by an old-timer and asked to help with a golf bag or some other trifle, and that same day the little clothing store in the Inn will make a sale.