So Long to Summer Camp

Summer Camp Man Repeller Feature

The end of August leaves me with one overwhelming desire: to pile cotton separates — my initials scrawled on their tags — into an old steamer trunk, reverse time and head toward the lakeshores of New Hampshire for summer camp.

Camps used to define my summers. There were many, but the most important was the YMCA all-girls camp that I returned to three years in a row, the same one that my mother attended decades prior. And since I couldn’t go back this year for several reasons, age definitively being one of them, I set about making camp a part of grown-up world.

Camp introduced me to many new foods: previously-unknown East Coast fare like Yoo-Hoos and Charlestown Chews, the mysterious Shepard’s Pie and a signature pudding that is quite simply instant vanilla Jell-O, whipped cream and mini chocolate chips — ingredients I recently assembled for dinner with a college friend who had spent her summers at the very same camp. Every email, every text we shared over the following week ended in obsession with the pudding. It was a successful edible tribute to our shared memory.

At camp, afternoons were spent on the water: sailing small Sunfish, jumping off pontoon boats anchored on sandbars, kneeling on the back of a speedboat while waiting our turn on water skis, or swamping canoes. Risky, splashy, intentionally submerged boating on a perfect lake: rippled blue on top, darker green but still full of sunbeams as you dive deeper. On a recent smothering Sunday morning, I fled to the banks of Manhattan island and found myself navigating a small cove of the Hudson in a free kayak. It was cool, yes, and refreshing to be on the water. But when half a baseball and a ravaged carton of yogurt floated by, I realized I’d broken an essential camp rule: don’t boat where you wouldn’t swim.

I predicted that the most camp-like week in August was going to be when I left the city for a rural area in upstate New York. How naive. I’d gone for work and remained tethered to phone calls, expectations and emails — not even thousands of visible stars and deafening crickets could drown them out.

The most camp-like tradition I was unable to enact was that of quiet hour: the forced post-lunch period of repose in our bunks before the burst of the afternoon’s activities. This was time for introspection, for napping, for stretching the patience of eleven-year-olds, and most importantly, this was when the letters came. Contact with the outside world and the lives we lived before we entered this pine-padded enclave was relegated to a neat window of sixty minutes. Do you have any idea how hard it is now to reduce outside communication to a mere hour, to remain blissfully in present company for the remainder of the day?

The thing about camp, I learned, is that it can’t be channeled piecemeal, sprinkled into an urban, adult life. Sleep-away camp is necessarily immersive and intoxicating, pushing the best things about summer — clear lakes, ice cream you craft yourself via rock salt and vigorous shaking, cabins that provide a flimsy barrier between you and nature — in a highly concentrated dose. That lifestyle is a complete departure from the everyday, and although it may be best served aged 9—12, that kind of total break is what my summers lack now.

“Reveille” used to signal the dawn of a new camp day. For all of August, I switched my alarm to wake me with the time-honored tradition. Springing out of bed to bugles made me less camp-sick for the month, and last week it treated me to a rare sight: As I looped around Central Park’s reservoir on my morning run, there swam a lone, serene loon — my camp mascot. Until I have an opportunity to fall in love with a new method of complete escape, I’ll take what small doses of summers past I can. And perhaps in any season.

Feature collage by Lily Ross.


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