A return to camp reminds our writer how it feels to be home.
A school teacher in Pinckney, Michigan, Jeff Miner had been a camp counselor or program director for just about every summer for the past fourteen years. But this summer was his last. He had plans on actually taking summers off, playing golf, and eating steak on his back patio. He was going into summer camp retirement.
And, as he peeled out of camp on the last day in 1998, his Ford Probe — the car I learned to drive stick shift on — kicking up gravel in an overly dramatic fashion, I thought to myself, “He must be mad. Why would he want to leave camp? Mad indeed.” After one summer away, Miner was back in the program director's saddle — he learned you can never leave camp.
It's been half my life since I was a camper and a decade since I was a counselor at Greenwoods Camp in Decatur, Michigan. I don't remember my last day of camp. I don't remember pulling out from underneath the large wooden Greenwoods sign and turning onto the main street back towards the reality facing me during the school year.
What I do know is that I often find myself replaying my days at camp both as a counselor and a camper. They whip through my mind like an old 8mm film reel projected on the Girl's Recreation Lodge wall.
This past summer Greenwoods celebrated its seventy-fifth summer with planned festivities for the alumni, including an Alumni Reunion Weekend. As I packed for my brief return to Greenwoods, I was overcome with a barrage of emotions. I feared that cliché that I “couldn't go home again.” Because for me, camp was home. Never has there been a place where I learned more about myself, more about people, made more friends, experienced so much, and felt so safe.
For me, camp is still home.
I understand I'm not alone in this. Hundreds showed up for the different alumni events. These sentiments are expressed for camps far beyond the confines of Greenwoods and its trees. And while the people are what helped make camp so special, in the ten years since I'd been at camp, I'd seen so many of them. My closest friends, I saw quite often. I was even best man at the wedding for Billy and Liese Hearth who met the summer of 1999. With e-mail and Facebook and free long distance, keeping in touch with camp friends was easy.
But I hadn't kept in touch with camp. I hadn't gone home.
Over the ten years I was at camp, it changed quite a bit. But being away for so long would I recognize it? Would it recognize me?
And when I got there, it did look different, but somehow, exactly the same. New cabins replaced the old in which I first started using deodorant. The sailboats I learned and taught on were now a more modern design and far less damaged. The new infirmary was a solid building, not riddled with holes for mosquitoes to drink 98 percent of your blood when you have to stay overnight because of a bad cough.
The corn field next to camp had been plowed under and was now another sister camp of Greenwoods tailored to the kids who only wanted two weeks in paradise. The mess hall had been rebuilt to a grander scale. Gone was the stretch of barn I dined in. But still, as I walked towards lunch that Sunday afternoon in August, purposefully being late so I could have some time alone by the lake, I could hear the laughter and chatter purged from the mess hall over the trees and through the cabin area across the road.
The gravel felt the same under my feet. The squeaking of the springs on the cabin doors sounded like a comfortable lullaby.
And while I had been dating my girlfriend for two years, I finally brought her home. And she saw what I had been trying to explain to her for so long. And although she tried, she didn't see what I saw, but she understood because she had been to summer camp before.
As I took my final walk around camp, dipped my toes into the lake and breathed in the smell of the trees, I closed my eyes and that 8mm movie began playing. I saw myself as a kid again; carefree but waiting for the laundry service to return my clothes because I had run out of underwear. I saw my first trip around the lake on one ski. I saw myself leading my Color Days team. I saw myself teaching one of my campers, Peter Troaster, how to make a bed during cabin clean up, and I heard Miner's clutch making just a slight pop after I learned how to get out of first gear the day before.
And when my memory film stopped and I opened my eyes, I was standing at the lake like I'd done a million times before at so many different ages. I looked around at the slightly altered landscape, and I looked at my 30-year-old hands, and I realized that I was home and that not a thing had changed.
Originally published in the 2010 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.