Two summers ago, at the age of 59, I began working at my old camp in the northern woods of Wisconsin, the same camp where I spent 10 summers of my youth. Four decades later, I returned to resurrect the camp magazine that died in the early 1980s.
This is the magazine that launched my literary career at the age of eight, when I contributed poems about tall trees, the chilly breeze and counselors we would tease. Since that time, I have written for lots of publications and published six books. I have also become an adult who can shoot a bulls eye in archery, light a one-match fire, pitch a tent, get along with most people and persevere through adversity.
Lessons learned in cabins and in the woods, with fox and mice, swimming in icy lakes, portaging canoes, build essential life skills that form the backbone of character. We grow into adults who have a spirit of adventure, we are able to deal, we become fun parents who teach our kids silly songs and how to play jacks.
We have gray hair and teenage hearts.
Camp is definitely not for everybody. Some of my friends shudder at the memory of their own childhoods being shipped off to camps to live with mice droppings, bugle wake-up calls at 7 a.m. and of bunking with strangers they would never be friends with back at home.
Yet many adult men and women are camp fanatics, like me. We have remained closely connected to cabin-mates we slept next to 45 and 50 years ago. During our reunions we remember with clarity the names of the campers who took dives under the legs of the guards to win Capture the Flag for their Blue or White teams in 1966 and 1968. We laugh about how hot dogs and marshmallows charred over campfires tasted better than the arugula and quinoa we eat today.
We are forever camp girls in our 50s and 60s who still sit arms linked around a campfire, transported back to a place of deeply-rooted joy, of belonging to a family, not of blood, but of history and loyalty.
We talk about how our cook-outs and canoe trips and longstanding friendships have infused us with qualities that compose the best of who we are today. Together at camp, summer after summer, we gained the capacity to be open to the unfamiliar, plucked from doting parents and thrust into self-reliance. A young camper is assigned chores in the cabin, learns sportsmanship in team competition, fans her sense of independence and adventure as she tackles new activities and sports.
Most of all, we credit camp for our ability to persevere after failure as our greatest and most enduring gift. We relished in the success felt after trying and trying and finally achieving, be it the sweetness of mastering a new dive after countless belly flops, of finally getting over a high jump on a horse, of huffing through hilly portages in the rain.
We grown women are different in cultures and upbringings, yet what we proudly share is that we are tough and tenacious, thanks to camp. And that tenacity is fuel for a lifetime.
We are now the parents and grandparents who sleep in tents in our backyards. We don't scream when we see spiders or bats. We like to be grubby. We don't give up. We bolt out of bed in the morning and pursue work we are passionate about. (Passion is a big quality that comes from camp. In fact, many first kisses took place in dark woods during camp socials.)
Soon I will be back in the city, unpacking my duffel filled with clothes that smell like dirt, pine and fire. I'll sit there for the longest time with my face buried in T-shirts and damp towels, thinking about the weeks just spent being filthy and carefree. I'll reflect on being so excited to start a new day that often I wouldn't even change out of the sweats I slept in.
I did brush my teeth, and wore clean underwear, just like my campers are told to do. But I'm sure I looked yucky most of the summer, no makeup, snarly hair, that's the best part about camp really. You can be primal and beastly and nobody cares because most of them look worse than you do. And I will sigh deeply and wistfully.
Because after Labor Day, things just get nuts, for all of us. We get swallowed by our over-scheduled lives instead of swimming in the moment, like you get to do at camp. I have a camp self and a city self and the camp self is who I was meant to be all along. Here by the lake, dwarfed by trees and surrounded by really fun friends, a person discovers untapped courage that bolsters us well beyond the season of summer, and through every age.
Iris would love to hear your own camp stories. Write to her at iriskrasnow.com.