Huddled in the only dry patch of the shelter, every clap of thunder is met with a predictable round of squealing from my campers. The high pitch that emanates from their pre-pubescent vocal cords finds a way beyond the birch trees and dissipates into the vast emptiness of this Vermont night. I hold them—not maternally—but as one of their own. A dozen little arms wrapped around my shoulders, grabbing for the comfort of my hands, looking for solace in my eyes.
For the next four days my co-counselor and I are the sole guardians of six seventh-grade girls on a camping trip. The theme of our trip is outdoor living skills, which we know very little about. They quiz me on the “lightning position” which is supposed to keep you safe in a storm, and I fumble my words. When the storm subsides I try to build the campfire I know will aid in marshmallow roasting and the sharing of secrets, but I fail every time. Tending to the fire for too long, my face burning red, my eyes growing blood-shot, my campers tell me that I should take a break. I acquiesce, blaming the failed fire on the dampness from the storm.
The next night I achieve a small flame, but it goes out quickly. They have no idea what the fire means to me. They think I am somewhere between 25 and 45 years old, and I’ve just informed them that no, porn and blow jobs are not the same thing, but yes, there is some overlap. Their presence evokes a flood of my own memories from seventh grade, and I smile, grateful to realize the distance between then and now. At night, finally alone in my own tent, I write in my journal: overfl owing with love for my campers. so special to be privy to their emerging selves, a world few adults are ever granted access to… and having just come out the other side myself not too long ago, the arc of that is so beautiful. They’re about to know everything, but not yet. The convergence of our different levels of knowing… it reminds me of what is important and how I came to know that. Although I only have a handful more years of life than they do, I am their protector during this brief encounter with the wilderness. It is an almost laughable amount of responsibility, and they could not be more oblivious to my ineptitude.
The eight consecutive summers I spent at sleepaway camp comprise some of my most sacred childhood memories. Camp showed me how food grows from the ground, taught me self sufficiency through simple living, and gave me a world where I could discover myself far away from my parents. I believe there is something magical and almost supernaturally special about summer camp, but I was hesitant to cross the divide between camper and counselor. I feared that if I saw behind the curtain and learned how the magic trick was done, I wouldn’t believe in it anymore. When the time came for me to decide if I would become a counselor, it felt important for me to keep the memories of my own camp world separate, and so I chose not to return. Instead, I drove east to Plymouth, Vermont to begin my job at a summer camp called Farm & Wilderness.
The work that counselors performed to cultivate the salience of camp was invisible to me when I was a camper, but during the one month of training prior to the arrival of children, our goal of the summer was made clear: to create camp magic. Naming “camp magic” transformed what I had passively consumed as a kid into something I would have to manufacture as an adult. To me, camp magic encompasses the almost inarticulable experiences that make summer camp—for campers and counselors alike—feel totally exceptional and unique from the rest of the world. Every moment of camp is treated with such reverence, from morning sing at the start of each day to to the teary eyed affirmations of growth presented to each camper before they head home. The extraordinary experiences camp staff are required to provide are complicated, however, by being supposedly authentic yet totally obligatory. For all its virtues, camp is also a product paid for by parents with a certain set of expectations. As the same kids return year after year, staff must find ways to reinvigorate the magic of camp for returners while indoctrinating new campers to its strange culture. The work of the camp counselor is therefore a delicate balance between serving the spiritual needs of children and engaging in a willful performance to maintain the purposefully manufactured world of camp. Nonetheless, waking kids up to pumpkin pie in bed and allowing them to wrestle in pits of mud is priceless and powerfully influential.
To think about summer camp, I first have to think about the powerful fictions it is predicated upon, and how inextricable the origins of North American summer camps are from my own experiences. The traditional summer camps featured in movies like The Parent Trap or Wet Hot American Summer, were created by social reformers in the early 20th century as a nature themed response to rapid industrialization. The free and feral childhood of yore was thought to be under threat by the shift from a natural, agrarian living to a more mechanized, industrial way of life in the cities. Summer camps like Farm & Wilderness and the one I attended in California emerged in the 1930s to provide children with supposedly authentic encounters with pre-industrialized country living. While the intentions are earnest, they remain deeply rooted in distorted conceptions of wilderness and childhood—both strategic inventions created to assure a nostalgia for something lost while eliminating the possibility of ever restoring the real thing. The traditional folk crafts, cabin architecture, farm animals, and lack of technology that define camp culture are therefore conspicuously and intentionally anti-modern. Camp seeks to turn back the clocks of time, to return to a fantasy of free play in pastoral landscapes, unencumbered by machinery. (The motivation to provide this supposedly natural landscape is also mimicked in America’s creation of national parks to provide sites of consumable wilderness.) Farm & Wilderness’ historic appropriation of Native American culture, which renders the symbols of native people into mere signifiers of a bygone primitive past, also finds its origins in this context. Although F&W has adjusted over the years to changing times, echoes of this history are ever-present in camp ideology and culture.
The motto of Farm & Wilderness is “Work is Love Made Visible,” a quote from poet Khalil Gibran. Throughout the summer, when campers complained about washing dishes or cleaning their cabins, a stern look and recitation of this motto was a failsafe way to ensure work was being done with intention rather than resentment. Part of what I believe makes camp so meaningful for kids, including myself, is its emphasis on the moral lessons incurred through labor. The vast majority of F&W’s campers whose parents dish out a couple grand each summer for camp are financially privileged, and often hail from cities like New York and Boston. Although campers are hesitant at first, the communal dishwashing and the empowerment of chopping firewood imbibes them with a sense of purpose that is difficult to replicate elsewhere. The notion that the strenuous life is the path to a meaningful life reigns supreme. Yet camp can’t be too strenuous or children would complain to their parents, or not return. This is one of the central tensions of camp life; the survival skills are more symbolic than practical. Yet the symbolism of outdoorsy skills like fire building, wood working and backpacking have their own tangible weight in reality. For the contemporary camper, the meaning of “survival” becomes more about spiritual or moral survival against the backdrop of modernity than the logistics of making it through the winter. For all its comfort and convenience, modernity lacks in spiritual fulfillment, and summer camp was born to make up for this loss.
Throughout the summer I became increasingly aware of these tensions, and I am trying now to understand how summer camp’s romanticization of rural life remains both so restorative and unsettling for me. The project of Farm & Wilderness, and camp in general, involves intentionally distorting space and time in order to construct an alternative atmosphere of adolescent bliss. Although F&W is near a number of small towns, campers imagine themselves to be situated in a wide open pastoral playground, isolated from any form of civilization. Despite knowing this during the three months I spent working at camp, I felt that I too was living in a separate universe. Staff park their cars a mile up the road, rendering our nightly escape vehicles invisible. Taking a day off is coded as “going to the disco,” which younger campers are told is located through a trap door beneath the dock of the lake. Older kids perpetuate this myth, exaggerating the unlikely extravagences of the disco to the wide eyes of the nine-year-old campers. While kids exchange their iPhones for postcards and recorded music for acoustic sing alongs to the Indigo Girls, counselors secretly leave at night to blast pop music and sip drinks at the local bar. In these moments I felt the space between my childhood myths and the reality of my adulthood most intensely. As a camp counselor, I grappled with the actual loss of my childhood while participating in its imagined recovery.
“Camp time,” a phrase thrown around during the summer, describes the sometimes refreshing, often disorienting disconnect between the temporality of camp and the rest of the world. Sometimes I’d wonder what what kind of national news would be big enough for me to have to tell the kids. Otherwise, we lived a life of feigned preindustrial simplicity, free of alarm clocks and recorded music. Ephemerality is the nature of camp, and it’s part of what makes it so magical. The whole operation has to be precise enough to pull off life changing experiences in a matter of weeks. During each three-week camp session, I watched children cherish their time with a unique intensity, fearing the end as soon as it had begun. Yet even returning campers from forty years past remarked on F&W’s timelessness, how everything was exactly as they remembered. Camp’s intensity is fueled by its simultaneous time sensitivity and timelessness. The days which became months unfurled almost secretly like the approach of spring, but they were some of the longest I had ever known. Like in any enclosed community, the regular dramas, disappointments, and achievements, any of which could happen in a matter of hours, felt monumental. A day that began at 7:30 AM could easily involve the unanticipated evacuation of an asthmatic camper from a backpacking trip, followed by an ocean-themed banquet for the youngest campers, accompanied by an original rewrite of the lyrics to “Under the Sea.”
The peculiarity of the camp experience resonates long after I left behind behind the mildewy cabins of Farm & Wilderness and readjusted to the comforts of indoor plumbing. What I had perceived to be an organic child-run sanctuary was in fact a highly mediated, studied performance. Yet the realization of this didn’t make it any less special. Adulthood is about letting go and taking hold at the same time; loving the magic trick in spite of knowing exactly how it’s done. The biggest myth of all is that magic and wonderment are novelties reserved for children, that we have to give all that up when we pass the age of camp. As a counselor my job was simply to help my campers realize how much they already knew, while allowing them to help me remember what I was beginning to forget. There is no such thing as pure, unadulterated wilderness, just as there is no such thing as a free and feral childhood.
Sitting under the stars on the last night of our camping trip, my campers and I take a moment to lie in the damp grass and absorb the balmy air. The thunderstorm is long gone by now, but my campers still cling on to my arms. Now the object of my campers’ fear has become much more amorphous. What kind of world would we return to now that we had shared this experience? We couldn’t know—but we lay in the grass to reminisce about what we did know. We were there to count the seconds between us and the stars, between who we were and who we might become. This is the magic of camp: to feel that you are in a world that is your own.