“If you don’t know the trees you may be lost in the forest,
but if you don’t know the stories you may be lost in life.”
DANNY GAULT (March 19, 1931 – December 20, 2008)
I don’t remember as much as I should, or as much as I wish, about Danny Gault. In my youthful ignorance, I was more interested in the playful flirtations and silly antics of the other 14-year-olds at church camp — Wilderness Camp to be exact. It was the mid 1980s and the early years of Round Lake’s Wilderness Camp program, established by Danny Gault, a little old preacher who always had a smile on his face, a walking stick in his hand, and a story to tell.
Danny was the master storyteller and could have held his own on any stage in Jonesborough (home of the National Storytelling Festival). He had a story about everything — we’d hike to a big rock and as we rested our feet, he’d tell us a story about how Turtle Rock got its name. We’d hike to a cabin and as we ate our lunch, he’d tell us about Doc Drake. We’d hike to an old abandoned house, and as the sky grew dark, he’d tell us the haunting story of Johnny Little (my brothers, and anyone who went to Round Lake’s Wilderness Camp during this era, probably remember these stories and places much better than I have, and hopefully many more).
Everything with Danny had a history, with people and their stories tied to it. Some were probably real, many were probably exagerated for the good of the story. It didn’t matter — he mesmerized us with his stories. Around the campfire, he’d share stories from the Bible and sometimes stories about how precious life is. Everyone loved Danny. His enthusiasm for nature, for the Creator, and for loving life and having fun were infectious (I wish I could find my favorite picture of Danny and his famous grin, the one where he’d take out his dentures and smile so his chin would touch his nose…it never failed to get a laugh).
There was something special about Wilderness Camp. Each summer was filled with different adventures of hiking the hills and backwoods of central and southern Ohio — Appalachian Ohio, as well as trips to Pennsylvania and Tennessee. At the time it wasn’t so much that I loved the outdoors as much as my brothers and parents did. For me, it was that Wilderness Camp offered more freedom and less structure than regular camp. It was a smaller group of campers, and the nature of camping together, hiking together down trails and roads lined with Queen Anne’s lace and nettles, fixing our own sometimes inedible food, and spending countless hours around the campfire, always brought us closer together and closer to our leaders — adults who really opened themselves up to us and cared for us as we hiked miles together, telling stories just like Danny did, and learning to enjoy everything around us, even when our feet were sore and covered in blisters. It also gave us opportunity to laugh at the irreverent realities of life.
Thanks to Danny and the people who followed behind him, I learned to appreciate the woods and the amazing beauty of nature and the Creator — and the history and stories that make up life for all of us. I realize now, only in hindsight, that he helped create in me the passion I now have for the Appalachians and nature photography. When my parents got a call the week before Christmas that Danny was in the hospital and later the call that he had died, I was reminded once more how precious life is and how unfortunate it is that we wait until people die before we offer tributes like this about how special they were and what they meant to us. Don’t wait — go tell some stories to some special people in your life.