Running through a field at the base of a mountain, arms open, eyes lifted to the skies. Taking in a sea of stars (who knew there were so many?). Shoes damp from dewy grass, it was like the world stood still while we danced and played.

Mountain biking was one of my activities that summer at camp. And as a final excursion toward the end of the term, our counselors led us on a mountain biking overnight. After a 12-mile bike ride down the mountain (atop of which rested our beloved camp home), we found our way to a field with a picturesque red barn, stunning views of the mountain, and a friendly yellow lab. This is where we would be spending the night — not in the barn, but in the field, under the stars.

Mountain biking was no joke. These were not casual glides down a smoothly paved street. In July in Alabama (even on a mountain), these were toasty, hardcore adventures across dirt roads, steep hills, treacherous woods, and rocky trails — or at least it felt that way.

That summer, my legs became stronger than ever. I built endurance, stamina, perseverance, and confidence. I had strong tan lines where my socks hit my ankles, and I had skid marks on my shins whenever my feet slipped off the pedals. And it was so awesome. I continued biking when I returned home to Mississippi (significantly warmer, and certainly no mountains), but I was determined to keep up with my newfound passion. 

That’s one of the beautiful parts about camp experiences. We get the chance to try new things and take positive risks. We challenge ourselves to reach new heights and discover what we’re capable of. Sure, I knew how to ride a bike and enjoyed doing so in my neighborhood, but mountain biking at camp showed me a completely different perspective, one that I might not have gotten otherwise.

Of course, the overnight excursion was the highlight of my mountain biking summer. After riding down the mountain (sure, we were traveling downhill, but it was still a challenging and exhausting trip), we enjoyed homemade pizzas and warm and gooey s’mores around a campfire. We shared stories, we laughed, and we basked in our shared accomplishment of making it down the mountain and the countless miles we’d traveled during the camp term.

As the sun slowly set (it was summer, after all — it took a while), the stars began to sparkle. And because of where we were — in a rural setting, immersed in nature, away from city lights — there was little to no light pollution to mask the sky. And what a sight it was. It seemed as if every galaxy in the universe was putting on a show, and we had a front row seat. The starlight was even reflected in the blades of grass, creating a magical, nighttime spectacle with all shades of green, blue, and whatever color mist is. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before or since, and I knew in that moment that it would stick with me. Clearly, it has.

The stars watched over us as we slept beneath them, and a van and trailer kindly drove us and our bikes back up the mountain the next morning (an uphill trip might have been a much different experience). 

When I look back on this memory, I can see that it was about so much more than the bike ride, the s’mores, and the stars. It was a moment of profound presence and a peek into nature’s beauty. It was a reminder of what happens when we unplug, when we spend time in community, when we strive for a goal and accomplish it together. It was a beautiful example of what camp is and why camp matters. When I ride my bike today — even though it’s not on a mountain — I’m reminded of the power of taking on new challenges. And when I see the stars emerge, I know there’s so much more that I can’t see, but I remember to be present, and I’m reminded that this world is bigger and more beautiful than I can imagine.

Lauren McMillin is the American Camp Association’s public relations and communications manager.