Summer camp: no styling required

By ELIZABETH QUINN,

When I was eight years old, my parents drove me to the First Baptist Jackson parking lot at 3:30 in the morning to load me and my trunk onto a bus headed to Camp Soaring Hawk in Purdy, Missouri—and I was bawling my eyes out. I really wanted to go, but the prospect of being loaded onto a charter bus, in the dark, with complete strangers for a 14-hour trip was a bit unsettling. My parents kept saying, “You don’t have to go if you don’t want to,” but I did—I really did. It was just scary.

As a parent now, I have no idea how my parents put me on that bus. They told me only recently that they followed the bus up I-55 and caught sight of my sad, little face turned towards the window, still crying, before they eventually exited and went home. Which might sound like they have no souls, but I’m so glad they turned around. Not only because having your parents flag down a bus full of excited, chattering campers-to-be to whisk you away back home would be the most embarrassing of events—but because I adored camp.

I loved being in a landscape different from home—rocky paths in the rolling foothills of the Ozarks led to cliffs for rappelling down to the river used for tubing. There were overnight camping trips arranged for different activities; I went on the horseback riding one. We rode our horses off the camp property to another area where we would camp out. It wasn’t far, but going there on horseback made it feel like an expedition into the unknown. We rode for hours through wooded trails and wide-open pastures, breaking into groups to play games, shaking off the counselor chaperones to race—going so fast you had to close your eyes against the wind. That kind of freedom is hard to come by for kids these days.

Receiving mail from home made me feel like I was off on an adventure and reminded me that home was still there, waiting on me. Also, sometimes mail held a sweet surprise. Camp Soaring Hawk had a ‘no candy’ policy but my dad would mail me a stuffed animal that he had cut a  hole in, removed the stuffing from and filled with Atomic Fireballs and Super Lemon candy—things he didn’t think would melt in transit. A devious dad-trick to beat the system is almost as delicious as contraband candy.

I went back to Camp Soaring Hawk for seven years, and every single time I would cry myself to sleep on that bus in the dark. Maybe it was something about the dark? I don’t really know, but I do know that I cried twice as hard when it was time to leave. Camp worked its magic on me every summer; making me fall in love with the hills and the songs and the people and even the less-than-fantastic food.

I want my kids to discover the magic of camp for themselves, so I’m shipping them off to the Appalachian Mountains in June. There isn’t a teary bus ride in their future though; we’ll take them there ourselves, which kind of makes me sad. I know that sounds bizarre, ‘I wish my kids had to cry on a bus in the dark.’ I don’t actually want them to cry themselves to sleep over telling me goodbye. It’s the rest of the bus ride that I wish they could experience.

For my trips, my mom filled a backpack full of books, travel games, art supplies, and candy that seemed like a treasure trove of goodies and no adult there to tell us it was too early in the morning for Skittles. We stopped to eat at McDonald’s and even just ordering my own meal and paying for it myself felt like an adventure at that age. The colored markers Mom packed were eventually used to color the hair of new friends on the bus. Nonsensical games were invented, camp songs were sung, and we all became just a tiny bit feral from the first tastes of the freedom to come.

I think it’s incredibly healthy for children to go feral from time to time. I’m probably just rationalizing what happens to my children over spring break and the summer, but I still think it’s good for them. These days, the line between offering your kids the independence they need to mature and getting Child Protective Services called on you is finer than a frog’s hair. Camp is one way to give that independence—without the fear of legal trouble. Of course, there are some notable differences between summer camp of the 80s and those today.

Nowadays, some camps have email options for instant communication between campers and their families. I’m sure this helps encourage more homebodies to try camp that might not without the security of that option, but it feels like something that would burst the bubble of camp. The lack of communication with the outside world was one of the beauties of camp to me.

For most of the years I went to Soaring Hawk, I was the only person from my school there. This allowed me to be a different person at camp. It was a place to try on new personality traits, shed old attitudes, and see how the clothes of a new persona fit. When I came home, I took some of those new characteristics with me. I left a few habits and behaviors I’d outgrown behind.

Camp is like a maturity incubator, a personality test tube. Away from home where who you are so far is known, camp is a safe place to stretch new muscles of maturity until they feel like they’ve always been there. If you can complain about a difficult cabinmate to your mom via email and get a semi-immediate reply then you’re pulled back into the you that came to camp.

If you have to wait for a letter to travel home and a reply to travel back then you might just figure out how to deal with it on your own, working new muscles you didn’t know you had before leaving the familiar for camp. I know I sound like a dinosaur, but I think email belongs in the real world and snail mail goes with camp—snail mail doesn’t burst the bubble or interrupt the personality experiments taking place in the same way.

In my camper days, I took several water-proof disposable cameras to document my experience. The pictures were terrible and it was a big deal when I was old enough to receive my own yellow and gray Minolta waterproof camera. Last year, the camp my oldest went to posted photos taken by a camp photographer online every day. This resulted in anywhere from 700-3,000 photos posted a day. A. Day. And you have to go through them, you can’t not. Your babies might be in there! What if they look sad? Or like they’re being left out? Any smart camp photographer would probably weed those out—but still, you gotta check. I gave myself headaches staring at the screen for hours clicking through picture after picture until my thumb cramped up and my eyes crossed.

I basically watched her camp experience in real time. Or a posed, group photo version of it. I watched her unbrushed, curly hair grow larger and larger in the humidity, I noted she wore the same clothes multiple times in spite of there being no laundry service, and I could tell she was having fun. All good things—but ohmygosh, 15,000 pictures. I’d rather wonder how it’s going for six days than have to click through 15,000 pictures. But I did, because you know how the saying goes, ‘If you post them, the mamas will click through them.’

While email and posted photos may irritate my old-school camper heart, I can at least see how they could help ease separation anxiety for many parents and campers. But I cannot find any redeeming qualities in ‘bunk decorating.’ My camp bunk was a fitted sheet over the camp mattress, a sleeping bag from Wal-Mart, my pillow, and Ralph, my stuffed bear. Apparently—that wasn’t cutting it. No ma’am. Mothers of my generation, no doubt, had to be all extra about it and start decorating their daughter’s bunks with twinkle lights and trendy, Target bric-a-brac.

I’m sure this started out innocently enough: a fun throw pillow here, an encouraging quote painted on fake salvaged barn door wood there—but before you know it you’ve got bunk beds that have become beautifully appointed fire hazards and campers who think ‘roughing it’ at camp involves a Pinterest board, soft lighting, and a pink, sparkly disco ball spinning from the top bunk. The only thing ‘extra’ about my camp gear was the hand-painted trunk from Olde Tyme Commissary. The counselors joked that they all knew which trunks belonged to the Mississippi campers—we do love to personalize things down here.

It seems ‘styling your bunk’ became a problem at the camp my oldest went to last year because they sent us a very detailed list of things that were no longer allowed: personalized signs or letters, plug-in or battery-operated string lights, garland of any kind, including pom-poms, hanging poof balls or paper items. Decorations allowed: photos and small pillows. I was so relieved to see that ‘bunk decorating’ had been reined back in, but was not surprised that allowing it in the first place had ended up backfiring. If you give a mama an inch—she’ll take a reel of Christmas lights to a bunk bed.

I have my own curmudgeonly issues with camp email, posted photos, and bunk decorating—but none of those are bad or evil; I just don’t think any of them are necessary. For me, camp magic was made with the view of rolling pastures below the outlook where we met in the mornings, the musty, close smell of the old cabins and her 12 occupants, the sound of rain lashing against the plastic flaps covering the screen windows, the giddiness of clicking with a new friend from another state, the music of 100 girls singing in an old, wooden lodge with acoustic guitars, salt-sticky skin from a day outside, slimy shower shoes that never completely dry out, the smell of the river in your hair after a hike ends in a mud fight.

I hope my kids love camp; I’ll be okay if they don’t—we’ll find something else that’s magical to them. But if they do—I hope they can still call up the sounds and smells and memories of camp thirty years later too.

Elizabeth Quinn makes her home in Northeast Jackson with her husband Percy and four children.

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