Sometimes, walking through camp feels like walking through a memory. When I am roasting marshmallows or screaming out a song or watching the orange sun sink below the lake, I am standing atop layers and layers of my younger self doing those same things in those same places. Each layer is a little taller than the one who came before her; each is surrounded by a slightly different group of people, and each one grows a little more responsible than the last.’’
I wrote those words for a campfire many years ago, back when I was still working at my summer camp. It’s funny how true they still ring.
I think of them whenever I set foot on the camp’s soil, as I did last summer for its 50th anniversary reunion. As my friends and I drove for the thousandth time down the dirt road leading into camp, I could feel all those layers of myself at age 9 and 12 and 17 and 22, learning, growing and merging into the person I am today.
The hold that summer camp has over many people isn’t easy to explain. Why should the decade and a half I spent having adventures in the Minnesota woods still mean so much to me as an almost 30-year-old? But, aside from my fiancée, it is still this place and the people I met there who bring me the most joy, make me laugh the hardest and make me feel most like myself.
My camp friends and I no longer need the physical place to maintain our connections, but there is still something special about returning once in a while. Arriving at camp again was like sinking into a familiar hug. We spent the weekend waterskiing, making s’mores, and singing about penguins and beavers and princesses. We got to stay all together in a cabin again, where, just like when we were campers, we fell asleep and woke up laughing.
Each summer when I return to camp, I think about the person it has helped me become. I watch nine-year-old me learn that she can miss home and love camp at the same time; I see twelve-year-old me discover how to work through a fight with her best friend, and I follow fifteen-year-old me as she learns to push herself far past what she ever believed she could do. I see the awkwardness I felt during my first night ever sleeping in the counselor quarters gradually become an inability to imagine myself anywhere else.’’
Another quote from my camp diaries. It’s easy to get absorbed into adult life, but being back at camp again was like reigniting a firework. There was so much joy. Because for two full days, a group of 100 or so women got to return to their childhoods and be campers again.
Compared to many of the alumni who attended the reunion, I haven’t been finished with camp for that long. There were women in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. There was even a group that everyone called “The Legends” because of how long they’d been a part of camp.
It was amazing to see how happy camp still made these women. At one point during the weekend, my friend and I were lounging in our favorite rocking chairs when a group of middle-aged alumni walked by. They were hysterical, unable to contain their laughter. “Please stop!” one of them yelled to another as she literally fell down laughing.
I knew in that moment that camp never leaves you if you don’t want it to.
Camp gave me my most important life lessons. It is where I learned that being mature doesn’t mean knowing all the answers. It taught me that responsibility and immaturity are not mutually exclusive. Camp taught me that if I can wash my hair and body and shave my legs in under two minutes, I can do anything else in the world.’’
I don’t know who I would be without camp. I don’t know if I’d be a writer. I don’t know if I’d have the same thirst for adventure. I don’t know if I would have found the same kind of friends. I don’t know if I’d have the same confidence or flexibility or drive. Maybe, but maybe not.
When I was younger, my biggest fear was growing up and thus growing away from camp. Now I know that camp isn’t going anywhere, that there will always be more memories to make, more lessons to learn, and more layers of myself to add. And the more layers that I leave behind, the more I take with me when I leave.