Ahh summer! A magical time when parents get a well-needed break from their children, and children from their parents. Or so I have heard. I never went to summer camp as a child, so I can only imagine the bliss; see mother wouldn't allow it, as "bad things could happen", and my child refuses to go. Go figure!
Having never went to summer camp as a kid I don't really understand camp culture. I don't understand the cultural references, and honestly always feel as if I have missed an important childhood experience. Overnight camp is ubiquitous to summer, as children in the US have been going to summer camp since the 1880s. It is a booming industry that has seen a steady increase with a loyal, almost cult like following, with more than 14 million children -- and now adults -- going to summer camp each year.
So when my friend asked me, at the rip young age of 38, to go with her to "adult" summer camp, I jumped at the opportunity to be one of those 14 million zealots -- albeit with the slightest of hesitations. My friend also had never gone to summer camp and she had desperately wanted to have that experience as a child, and so was very much looking forward to this experience. I however, am a city kid through and through, and so me and nature, we have a bit of a love hate relationship. I appreciate nature in all it's awe-inspiring beauty, from a distance, far away in my big city, with my creature comforts.
In addition, and to be perfectly honest, I am not that comfortable around new people. I'm somewhat socially awkward, especially around large groups of people I don't know. Most of my close friends think I am an extrovert -- which I am, with the people I know and feel most comfortable with -- but around new "camp" people...not so much. But my friend flourished in that environment, eating up every experience it had to offer. She needed it on a visceral level. For me however, it was a different story.
The experience started out how I imagine it would have if I had gone to camp when I was little, on Friday afternoon my mom drove me and my friend to the bus! The bus was full of excited campers from all over the country, getting ready for their 3 hour bus ride into the mountains of central Pennsylvania to Camp Bonfire. To say my anxiety level was high, would be an understatement, after 30 minutes on the bus I had already decided I was not going back next year. I was assured later by a friend and long-time camp counselor that that was a normal response (check, for yet another authentic camp experience).
I have a 10 year old daughter who emphatically declines any offer of attending summer camp. Prior to my own summer camp experience I had begged her to consider going. All of her extended family have gone and thrived at various summer camps (well all except for me). To this day some of them still go back to their camp for "Family and Friends" weekends to relive the experiences of their youth. They have these special bonds with their camp friends that I can't even begin to fathom. They go to each others' weddings and celebrate the good times and the bad together. I wanted this for my daughter -- she is an only child with few cousins her age, and so I wanted her to have these experiences with others, to have a bond with friends that last a lifetime, a bond I don't see developing in any other forum outside of summer camp.
The first 24 hours were difficult, even for me as a "grown-ass adult", as the camp founders liked to say! So I can only imagine what it would be like for my daughter, being trapped in a place for an entire summer (my time was much more brief -- only 48 hours), full of non-stop activities and incredibly theatrical and upbeat strangers who are at full throttle all the time, is a lot to ask of a kid (or adult) who doesn't function on that level or in that environment often.
Don't get me wrong, everyone at camp was incredibly nice, accepting, and sincere, it was an utopian bubble in fact. But for an introvert, and people with social anxiety, it was a lot to take in at first. Case-in-point, Friday night, the first night at camp began with Cabin Olympics!
For those who never went to camp, this is where your cabin creates a name and puts on a corresponding performance to represent said name...in front of everyone else at the camp no less! Too say that I was completely outside of my comfort zone and completely out of my element, in deed confused that "grown-ass adults" would all be doing something so silly can not be understated here. There were people of all ages, races, genders, socioeconomic status and backgrounds -- could I possibly be the only one this uncomfortable? Hard to say really. But as the motto at Camp Bonfire, was Invite, Adventure, Inspire, I decided, if I was going to have the true authentic camp experience, I was going to be all in! I was going to push myself outside of my comfort zone...within reason, and as such, I participated in the skit. As hard as I tried though, I could not hide my discomfort and disdain for this inaugural event. My new bunkmates were all very supportive and understanding -- but also ragged on me a bit too -- which I appreciated and it made me much more comfortable! Culminating into what became a really fun night, that endeared me to them and them to me, which I assumed was the point of that entire silly experience to begin with.
As a colleague once said to me -- "I am type A, but you are type AA!". So it is no surprise that I have a hard time letting go and decompressing; it takes me a good 24 hours or so to relax and really start to enjoy any new thing. Since camp was only 48 hours I didn't have nearly enough time to fully let me guard down, but as Saturday afternoon rolled around, and I started to feel more comfortable, a transition started to occur, and bonds started to form.
I met three women at camp that weekend, all three had gone to summer camp together when they were little -- one of them told me that she cried for days when she went away to camp, it was so bad, and she was so sad, that she threw up for days as well. But here she was, along with her two best friends, celebrating their 30th birthdays together -- at adult summer camp, 20 years later. It made me think, there must be a method to the madness. The American Camp Association reports that close to 75% of camps have returning staff each year, a byproduct of the Counselors-in-training (CIT) programs no doubt. CIT programs are where kids, usually past counselors, who are too old to be campers anymore, train to become full counselors -- hence, securing their place at summer camp for years to come!
My wife's siblings went to Camp Tree Tops in the Adirondacks for their entire childhoods. There they followed the trend and became CITs and then counselors; their mother was even the camp nurse for many years. They still go back for "Friends Weekend" each year, and for the past 5 years my family have been lucky enough to go along as well, with the hopes that our daughter would one day be comfortable enough to go for the summer. She is not, but we still keep going back, mostly because that is the closest she will get to summer camp experience. We are similar in that we would prefer a summer camp, not away from family, but together with family. At Camp Tree Tops we have made lifelong friends that we met there and only see once a year each August. The experience I never had when I was young, the experience I was not expecting to get, but to my surprise, ended up with at Camp Bonfire.
You see, as Saturday morning rolled around at Camp Bonfire, I was most comfortable sitting in a hammock alone, reading my book and being introverted. But as the day wore on, and I opened up to many of the experiences and people, I started to let my guard down and relax. At one point a fellow camper commented that I looked like a real "camper" and that I had assimilated well -- to which I replied "I can fake it with the best of them!", though was I faking it? Or was I really starting to assimilate? By Sunday morning, I woke up refreshed and thoroughly looking forward to being immersed in camp. By Sunday afternoon, I was honestly sad to be leaving, barley having had time to formulate meaningful relationships with these amazing new friends. Before I left I wrote my daughter a card (which I had made at camp, of course), telling her that I now truly understand how hard it would be for her to go to sleep-away camp, but that I hoped one day she would get to have that experience, because it would change her, like it had changed me, as all experiences that push oneself outside of their comfort zones do.
The day after I got home from camp I received a text message from one of the women I had met there, she texted just to say hi and tell me that she missed me. It was then that I finally understood what it must be like to have made such deep connections with friends all of those years, again and again, at summer camp. I can't say for sure if that is what summer camp would have been like if I had gone as a kid, but that was what it was like for me now, as a grown-ass adult, and I can't wait to go back year after year, to continue to cultivate these new friendships and form new ones.