Campsickness/End of the Trip

Our veteran campers talk often about “campsickness”—the nagging, tear-welling feeling of distance from our little camp. And though it’s not a perfect corollary to homesickness, there is a certain truth behind campsickness: you feel a part of something at camp and that real sense of belonging rarely exists anywhere else in the world.

Today marks the end of my trip. I have found my way back to sunny California to begin writing my thesis about all I’ve learned this summer. It is a task that looms large in my head. How can one explain the root of campsickness? How can one even begin to describe and give meaning to an experience so emotional charged and so total? At Geneva Glen, our directors often dispense a piece of advice on the last day of camp: “when your parents ask ‘how was camp?’ you just have to say ‘it was everything.’” How do you write about everything?

And so, going into it, I know that whatever the final product born from this summer is, it will be partial. It must be partial. And that’s okay because I know it will also be totally saturated with the memories of a summer devoted to summer camp. For, all things told, the experience of the last fourteen weeks has been everything.

I saw twenty camps in about as many days. I heard about camp traditions so complicated they required diagrams to be explained. I saw buildings put up without a single nail. I saw a ropes course that ended with a one hundred-foot-high porch swing. I saw new dining halls that looked to be built to actually house the entirety of a camp, and I saw old dining halls that packed campers like happy sardines.

I saw waterfront sunsets in Vermont rivaled only by those on the islands off of Washington’s coast. I saw a camp dog give birth to puppies. I got to take a personal kayak around a camp in Maine. I got to travel by a ferry and a motorboat to reach a remote, islanded camp. I drove 6,800 miles. I slept in my car. I saw parts of this country I think rare few people ever get to see. And then I counseled for ten weeks, and fell back in love with my job.

But most of all, I got the chance to talk to and work with numerous directors, administrators, and counselors all whole-heartedly devoted to the task of childcare. I saw people who talk about curating a child’s sense of independence with real reverence—the type of people who understand friendship as wholly sacred. I met people who actually listen and care about the stories, fears, and dreams of children. 

So, yes, I too am campsick. How could I not be?

The front gate to my long-time camp, Geneva Glen, pictured in the winter.

The front gate to my long-time camp, Geneva Glen, pictured in the winter.

The Fluidity of Camp Tradition

                For eight summers now I have heard stories about Uther Pendragon. Eight times I’ve sat in our Council Ring as one of our two directors sits on a stump and tells about his out-of-wedlock meeting with the Duchess Igraine (set up by Merlin) that would eventually cause the birth of Arthur. And eight times, I’ve seen that story (appropriately) reenacted in our end-of-session play. And Uther is always played by a large boy with a booming voice. And he always wears a deep red cape and lion tunic.  

                The story of King Arthur’s rise and of the round table give a large portion of my camp, Geneva Glen, its structure. Beyond morning stories and all-camp plays, they give an analogy for us to talk about many of the values we hope to instill within our campers: courage, humility, love, etc. For the portion of our summer devoted to it, I eat, sleep, and breathe Knighthood, which made my recent trip to Canoe Island French Camp so odd.

                The camp, which is located off Orkas Island (itself a ferry ride and couple of hours from Seattle), occupies the entire of a small Island and provides around fifty campers an experience centered on French language, culture, and cuisine. I happened to come during the tail end of their Knighthood-like session. Specifically, I got to be present for Theme Day—a sort of atypical, day-long station rotation. Among other things, the campers made cardboard shields and launched tennis balls into Styrofoam blocks (castle walls) using a homemade trebuchet. In fact, it was during that latter activity that one of the directors, Joseph, who was wearing a simple tunic and a headband, warned the children: “I’m Uther Pendragon. Stay back from the trebuchet when it’s firing, young knights!”

                I don’t mean to create any hierarchy between our two camp’s enactments. I only mean to point out how wildly different tradition can function at camps. At Geneva Glen, Uther Pendragon is sort of revered—a mythical figure that when enacted is done so regally and with (often too much) bravado. At Canoe Island, he was a figure to be employed almost off-handedly.

                I have run into this phenomena so often at all of these camps. Whereas at one camp, dinner is a quiet and sacred meal, I’ve seen others with dinner is filled with all of camp’s banter. While at some camps, the flagpole is hardly ever given a single thought, other camps have flag raising and lowering ceremonies daily. What’s odd though, is that nearly every camp has access to the same kinds of spaces and themes: a central campfire, a dining hall, an American history theme, etc. It’s just that those involved with the camp have hyper-specific and hyper-distinct ways of giving meaning to those spaces and themes. It’s kind of reaffirming, in a way, to know that for every way we choose to understand a space or a theme or even a character is fluid, is always up for debate and thereby demands summer-by-summer reaffirmation.

The homemade trebuchet at Canoe Island French Camp.

The homemade trebuchet at Canoe Island French Camp.

Days 5/6/7/etc.: Camp Tradition

                This past week or so I’ve been in New York City seeing my older brother graduate from college. The ceremony I went to (which was actually a sort of unofficial send-off devoid of diploma-giving and hand-shaking) was four hours long. Four hours. And the worst part: they weren’t even an entertaining or enlightening four hours. They were boring for me, for my family, and even for my graduate brother. Near the end, there was a hooding of doctoral candidates—the ceremonial equivalent of tacking “Dr.” at the beginning of each of their names. But the whole thing felt contrived and out of place. Who were those candidates? And why should anyone care that someone is draping velvet over their shoulders?

                It made me think about tradition—one of the major themes in my research about camps. More specifically, it made me think about the role of context in tradition and that the best traditions I’ve learned about at the camps I’ve visited require serious contextualization.

                For instance, I visited a relatively new family Camp in Vermont called Ohana, itself a branch of Aloha Foundation Camps. Ohana structures its days very loosely, allowing parents and their kids to decide which activities they’d like to do. They cycle through sets of families weekly, and, as such, repeat their evening program each week. On the final night, they do a camp fire—a tradition that, to my knowledge, involves s’mores and sitting around a fire.

                On the other hand, at Dark Waters Camp in Vermont, they have theme days throughout the summer, one of which was Prohibition Day (PD) in summer 2014. Three days before PD, counselors announced that sugary drinks were now illegal at camp. On PD, half of the counselors took all the campers on an out-of-camp trip while the other half went about transforming the camps into Speakeasies and Dance Halls where sugary drinks were quietly available.[1]

                I point to these examples not the show the flaws in Ohana Family Camp (Indeed, the camp’s view on the importance of child-only summer camp and its emphasis on creating new bonds within families seemed to me eternally valuable), but rather to show the rootedness of certain traditions. A camp fire may happen every week, though that doesn’t necessarily imply that its presence will become vital to camp life. PD, or any of the various theme days at Dark Waters, by virtue of their sure radial-ness and event gravity, basically demand that kids love them. And I’m sure they did. And I’m sure when the campers return this summer, they will be waiting for the day sugary drinks get banned.

                Traditions at camp seem to me to function best when campers, counselors, and directors alike take the time to honor their eternality while still maintaining the flexibility and creative thinking to recreate camp magic within said traditions. I have seen camps that have taken a negative position on many of its long-held traditions. They believe many traditions are archaic and stodgy and need changing. I have also seen camps that are so dogmatic about tradition that it seems nearly impossible for a new camper to catch up. But my favorite camps have been the ones who ask you to sit down so they can tell you about a camp tradition that is at once complex and wholly inclusive.[2]

                That, I think, was what was missing from the doctorial robbing. Nobody sat me down to explain the pile of pages, and hours of meetings, and history, and general sweat, blood, and brain power symbolized by placing velvet on robes. I, in other words, lacked context and thus inclusion.



[1] Please Note: if you are from/affiliated with Camp Dark Waters, I am sorry for having pulled away the curtain of your theme day programming. In my defense, it was too creative (and for that matter educational) not to share.

[2] Stated mathematically, this is just the Principle of Induction, which states that if some event has occurred during distinct circumstances n times in the past, it will necessarily happen on the (n+1)th occasion. (e.g., with regards to camp: if, for as far back as your memory and the memory of everyone you’ve asked extends, the second Thursday’s dinner has been Baked Ziti, then it’s fair to assume that this second Thursday’s dinner will also be Baked Ziti. And if the meal isn’t Baked Ziti, then it is cause for revolt, or, at the very least, serious camp gossip. Tradition, like the Mathematical Principle of Induction, seems to me a matter of law. 

One of the docks at Camp Dark Waters in Medford, New Jersey. Some days the camps just float down this river in intertubes.What a wonderful camp!

One of the docks at Camp Dark Waters in Medford, New Jersey. Some days the camps just float down this river in intertubes.What a wonderful camp!

Day 3/4: Thoughts on Road Tripping

                I have been driving a lot—a fact that I think gets glossed over in any large-scale, destination-based road trip. I can muse in this blog about great camps (and there is much musing to do), but in doing so I fundamentally neglect or outright exclude the fact that for every hour I’ve spent visiting a camp, there have been at least two hours of traveling to get there. Understandably so—who would want to read a blog about the monotony of road travel?

                ‘I drove today on a lot of pavement. Some of the pavement was smooth and didn’t make me think my car was going to take a dip too hard and crack into two pieces. Other parts of the pavement was less smooth and made me think my car was going to take a dip too hard and crack into two pieces. I bought another coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts and again proceeded to shove the empty Styrofoam cup under my seat, reminding myself that today would be a good day for trash clean-up.’

                All that said, I maintain a certain fondness for long road trips. Aside from the fact that they remind me my body’s ability to create shirt-saturating amounts of sweat by just sitting, road trips around the United States make me remember (a) the vast amount of space within our borders and (b) the power of quietness.

(a)    I forget, until I take to America’s pavement, the vast immensity of this country. I cannot seem to fathom that though Vermont is no bigger than my pinky on maps, there are hundreds of dense green miles within it, many of which lack cellphone service and are incredibly good at confusing my general sense of direction. Everything is winding, and every home seems to double as a family farm with fresh eggs and berries. And if those family farms prove everything, it’s that the roads only serve to connect what is the majority of space in America. It is entirely overwhelming.

(b)   Also, road trips (especially solo road trips) provide a certain catatonic atmosphere to do some quiet introspection. I will admit that my hours on the road haven’t lead me to any profound conclusions. I’ve mostly thought about how delightfully odd it is that I’ve now forced my path to cross with the directors and staff of so many great camps. I’ve also given some real thought to the best combinations of toppings for a pizza (opinion forthcoming).

The American road trip is thus a space of liminality—of putting one’s mind and body in an unknown place. It is, in essence, the very work that camp sets out to do. Let me be clear that I don’t believe camp is the equivalent to a road trip, but some of the driving forces are the same. The camps I’ve visited thus far have reminded me, in the words of Bill Bryson, “the benign dark power of the words.” They have, in other words, made me re-recognize the importance of campers being pushed into paths uncharted both in their steps and in their minds. 


My minivan lost somewhere in the woods of Vermont outside Farm and Wilderness Camps.