Heeding the call of the wild, so close to home
Exactly half a mile from Lake Susan, along the banks of a small stream in Montreat, 28 campsites dot a landscape dominated by rhododendrons. Collectively, the sites form the Montreat Family Campground, which draws a steady flow of visitors from Memorial Day to Labor Day every year.
For the past 11 years, those visitors have included the Carter family. Caroline Tatum-Carter and husband Tripp are no strangers to Montreat.
"We both grew up in the Presbyterian church, and my dad was minister," Tatum-Carter said. "As teenagers, my husband and I both came to the conference center for youth conferences. And we were both summer staff here when we were in college."
Wanting to provide sons Aiken, 16, and Luke, 13, with the same experience, the family from Raleigh found the campground at Montreat to be the summer escape they needed.
"We've come here every summer for pretty much the boys' entire lives," Tatum-Carter said. "We love it here so much, we typically come for a week. But last year, Luke talked us into two weeks and this year into three."
For Luke, the annual camping trip is a welcome change of pace from the city.
"I love the scenery here," he said. "There's something about being in Montreat with the gravel from the campground under your feet."
Tatum-Carter said Luke and his brother enjoy participating in the Montreat Clubs Program, a recreation and fellowship enterprise offered by the Montreat Conference Center in the summer for school-aged children.
"They play these things called 'all-around games,' which are games that are set all throughout Montreat," she said.
Luke has made a lot of friends on the family's annual trips.
"The clubs are really social," he said. "You can't go and not make friends."
While the kids spend the day socializing, Tatum-Carter typically enjoys the peace and quite around the family's campsite. Although this year there have been several campsites.
"We've moved around to a few sites this year," she said. "We were in 22 first, and then we moved to the site at the very end and camped in tents for a week, which my husband loved because it has a big fire pit and he makes a fire every night."
The family spent the final week of the trip in their pop-up camper near the front of the campground.
As their children have gotten older and become more independent, Tatum-Carter and her husband have found more time to get out and explore. This year she took a sewing class at the craft hut near Lake Susan and reconnected with a childhood friend that she last saw 27 years ago.
"This year we've been really busy," she said. "We've done a lot more socializing."
The family plans to continue staying at the campground each year, due largely to the fond memories they have made there.
The campground has been cared for by Jere Bowden and her husband Jim since 1999. Before that, they were regular visitors, much like the Carters.
"We camped here with our four sons for 40 years," Jere said. "We started camping here in 1970. In 1999, our sons were grown and away in college, so I volunteered to be the ranger."
Tatum-Carter believes that the Bowdens are part of the campground's appeal.
"It's so welcoming here," she said. "Jere and Jim do a great job of maintaining the facilities and keeping everything nice."
For Jere and Jim it is a labor of love.
"I really believe this campground is the best-kept secret in Montreat," Jere said.