When my daughter Grace made her first trip from our home in California to the Ozark Mountains, I think she was incredibly excited, and a bit curious to see if this place called Kanakuk really existed. For the first 12 years of her life, she often heard some pretty amazing stories from Kamp, saw pictures of Table Rock Lake, met some of my closest Kamp friends, and ate a lot of homemade coffee cake. Now we were making our final ascent up Quiet Acres road, the last half mile of a 1,500-mile trek, and she would finally set foot on the sacred soil I called home for so many summers. She would finally get to see everything she had heard about for so long, but possibly most importantly, I could show her the spot. 

The road from K-2 to K-Seven had definitely changed since the last time I was at Kamp. (A lot had changed, to be honest, in the 20 years since I had last worked in Lampe.) As Grace and I began our descent down the now paved road between the two Kamps, I reminisced about that first year that K-Seven opened in 1993, until we reached a bend in the path. “Grace, this is the place,” I smiled, “where I first met Spike White.” (Cue the flashback music.)

It was staff week, and I had taken a night off with some newly found friends. We went to Branson and played some mini-golf, ate dinner, and then stayed at the Trevor Mayberry Memorial chapel overnight. I slept in and had to carry my giant bag of laundry down the hill to K-Seven. As I trudged down the rocky path, I could hear gravel under the tires of a vehicle coming up behind me. I was too focused on balancing my laundry bag to look up, but I did step to the side of the road to let the maroon Chevy pass by. It didn’t pass me, but instead drove right alongside me, and the driver, who I assumed to be a maintenance worker, hollered out the window to me, “You look like you could use a ride.” It wasn’t really that far back to K-Seven, but the string from my laundry bag was cutting off the circulation in my hand, so I took him up on the offer. I opened the door to his truck and hopped in. The driver was an older man with kind eyes and a friendly smile. He had on a Kanakuk hat tilted on his head, a Kanakuk shirt, and a pair of worn-out blue jeans. You could tell he had been working. Small curls of gray hair were peeking out from under the hat. “Where you from?” he asked. “California, sir,” I answered back, trying to use my newly acquired southern manners. “Hmmm,” he rubbed his chin then pointed at me, “Joke of the day! What happens when the smog lifts over Los Angeles?” I looked at him and shrugged my shoulders, wondering if this was a scientific question or geography trivia, or simply a joke. He chuckled to himself then said,  “UCLA!” (You see L. A.) I laughed too, and then it was game on. We must’ve told three or four more jokes each before I got out of the truck and thanked him for the ride. Truth be told, I had been feeling quite homesick being so far away from my family, and that kind act of this stranger made me feel a little more at ease.

I never found out the name of my mystery driver until that night. We sat in the little outdoor church at K-Seven and waited for somebody named Spike White to give the “I’m Third talk” before the kids came the next day. I was the last one out of the showers and came straggling in to find a seat. I noticed that the old man who had given me a ride was sitting in the back row. He had such a grandfatherly way about him, and he had been so kind to me, that I couldn’t help but take the seat right next to him. He smiled, winked and elbowed my arm saying, “You’re not late, you’re just early for next time.” We both smiled.  Keith Chancey got up to introduce the speaker. He talked about how this man was the owner of Kanakuk, and heading up construction of K-Seven, overseeing every little detail. He talked about how Spike was a great example of living a Christ-like life and loving his family while being extremely humble and kind. I started looking around the church to find out where this Spike guy was sitting. I figured he must at least be wearing a tie, and easy to point out, even though it was in the outdoor setting. I mean he did own the place after all. When Chancey asked for Spike to come forward, everybody was cheering and clapping, except for one person, and that was me. I sat there in shock as my “ joke of the day maintenance guy friend” stood up and walked to the front of the church. Yes, I would agree with Chancey’s definition of humble. 

That day at K-Seven was just the beginning of one of the most amazing friendships that I had while at Kanakuk, and probably in my entire life. For the rest of that summer, and the next five summers, every time Spike and I would pass each other at Kamp, he would say, “Jenna, joke of the day…” and we would each exchange an original joke. During school, when I was back home in California, we would talk on the phone at least once a month, and he sent me countless letters of encouragement and inspirational quotes. He sent me cards from his I’m Third talks and poems from Baxter black. When my parents came to visit Branson in 1997, Spike pulled out the red carpet, giving them a personal tour of all seven Kamps in his truck. Spike had the ability to make whoever he was around feel like they were the most important person in the world. We must have exchanged 1000 jokes over the years, and I still use some of them today. What I wouldn’t give right now to call and hear him answer the phone, with his standard “Whippoorwill hill.” God, I miss that man.

(Cue back to the future music)

As I stood with my daughter on that spot where Spike stopped to give me a ride that day, I told her that same story, though she’d heard it before many times. And for just a moment I regretted the fact that Grace would never meet Spike in person on this earth. Fortunately, Spike’s spirit lives on in the hearts of the people at Kamp, and Grace gets to be surrounded by them for two weeks every summer. 

Last week my parents were cleaning out their motorhome, and going through some of the treasures that they collected through the years. My dad pulled out an old maroon Kanakuk hat. Before dad could get the words, “This is the hat Spike gave me,” out of his mouth, Grace had already claimed it and put it on her head. I hope one day that she will pass that hat along to her children when they go to Kanakuk, and share the story of one of the greatest people I’ve ever known with them. 

Jenna (Giovanni) Miller