"Camp is like life," my counselor told me the summer I was homesick. "The more you get involved, the more you'll get out of it."
So what did I do? I got involved.
And sure enough, I got my share of sunburns and mosquito bites, along with the unique experience of witnessing a raccoon steal my Mackinac Island fudge in the middle of the night.
Of course camp has provided far more pleasurable experiences or I wouldn't have kept coming back summer after summer. I've put in over twenty-five years so far at Michigan summer camps as both a camper and staff member. And during that time, I realized that although camp may be a lot like life, it is also quite different.
Camp provides a pleasant recess from the rush and rumble of the ordinary world. The fast-paced, blaring hassles and pressures are replaced by gentle breezes and sunsets over a pristine lake.
Okay, there's also no air conditioning, and limited Internet, and the nearest gas station is a ten-mile drive. But that's the true beauty: getting away.
As great as summer camp is for me as a grownup, it's even more valuable for a child. In a world where college preparation starts earlier than ever, and children are constantly overstressed and overscheduled, life becomes too serious too quickly. The traditional summer camp experience lets kids slow down and take it easy, all in a safe and nurturing environment, while learning new skills and making friends.
It's not every morning you get to tumble out of bed in a sweatshirt that still smells like campfire smoke. It's not every afternoon you get to paint your face and body brilliant colors and splash it all off in the lake. It's not every evening you get to dance and scream during dinner. True, you probably wouldn't want to do these things at home, but at camp this is cool. Camp is different.
Camp is a place where a fellowship develops somewhat randomly. A boy from Florida, a girl from Mexico, a counselor from England. Suddenly you're growing up with people from around the world. The one thing you all have in common is camp.
Sitting on your cabin porch late in the evening, chatting about everything and nothing at all, is more engrossing than watching all the latest DVDs combined. And at that moment when you can actually hear the coyote howling in the distance, the thoughts of homework, report cards, and cell phone conversations are the farthest things from your mind.
"Our life is frittered away by detail . . . simplify, simplify," wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden, his memoir of living in the woods. The camp I work at today—also called Walden—embraces that philosophy and encourages people to slow down, explore possibilities, and cooperate rather than compete, all in an environment that sanctifies nature.
Yes, camp is different from the ordinary world. The air is fresher. The stars shine brighter. The laughter is more joyous.
Time even goes just a little more slowly, and, if you're lucky, you can almost feel it stop for a split-second. Then you realize how fortunate you are to be in a place where the greatest hardship is that you can't flush the toilets if the power goes out, and the most serious scandal is who stole the wake-up bell so you wouldn't get up in time in the morning.
And eventually, you realize that the saddest part isn't being homesick at the beginning, but not wanting to leave at the end.
But that doesn't matter, because the memories will last a lifetime.
Ah, if only life were more like camp.
Neal Levin has been working at summer camps in Michigan for nearly thirty years. He currently works at Camp Walden where he publishes a daily newspaper, The Walden Pond. In the off-season, Neal is a cartoonist and freelance children's writer.
Originally published in the 2007 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.