If you were looking for me in the middle of August, you wouldn’t have had a banana’s chance at a gorilla convention of finding me. I was incommunicado, far beyond any cell phone reception or Internet connection, without a television or even a radio, and no sign of a newspaper anywhere in sight. But I wasn’t being held captive by a roving UFO of extraterrestrials, or running a top-secret mission with Seal Team Six, or a woeful contestant on an episode of this season’s Survivor. No, I was surrounded by ponderosa pines, clear running streams, rattlesnakes, bears, and sixty kids between the ages of eight and twelve. And I volunteered to be there. No joke.
For six days I was a counselor at Camp Joe Ide, a summer camp located in the San Bernardino Mountains in California, giving kids from underserved communities in Los Angeles the rare opportunity of experiencing all the wonders of Mother Nature in a safe, structured, supervised setting. For six days straight, I was welded to the eight campers under my supervision. I slept on a bunk bed in a hot cabin with them; ate camp meals with them; sang camp songs with them; pulled camp pranks with them; hiked, swam, and explored with them. In short, I spent nearly every minute of six consecutive days with them. An unbelievable experience, in every sense of the word.
The theme for this summer’s camp was “Our Incredible Universe,” and that seemed appropriate, because I’m convinced that a galactic black hole resided in our cabin for the entire week. It was like a sock-eating washer on steroids. Every time I turned around, someone had lost their water bottle or their flip-flops; or their swim trunks had run off; or their flashlight had escaped; or something else essential and useful had mysteriously vanished, sucked into the vortex of this hungry monster feeding on the humble possessions of my campers.
With no Internet, or video games, or iPods, some might think the kids would be bored out of their skulls, but my campers were always surprising me with the fecundity of their imaginative and creative little minds. One evening I walked into the cabin to find them holding a pull-up contest using the main water pipe feeding the cabin’s sprinkler system as the chin-up bar, their exertions flexing the pipe with each pull. That was interesting.
But that’s how it goes when children are cut loose from the gravity of a big city like Los Angeles. Unfettered from its confines, the crime and gang graffiti vanish, the LAPD helicopters hovering over their neighborhoods disappear, and they are left free to enjoy themselves in the biggest playground they’ve ever seen — the natural world. The rules of city life become a little more relaxed, the power swinging from the adults to the kids, and what’s wrong with that? Mother Nature is an empowering force. Who can come up with any other kind of experience that could match it?
We ended camp with a dance at the lodge complete with sound system, balloons, a bouncer, and a mirrored disco ball hung from a roughhewn ceiling beam. After the last song faded into more familiar night sounds of crickets and running water, I overheard three eight-year-olds on their way back to their cabin. “Man,” one said to the other two, “This has been the best day EVER!” There it is. For at least one eight-year-old, this day had been the best one in his young life. To know Camp Joe Ide gave him that day is immensely satisfying.
The drive back to Los Angeles for me was a mixture of elation and melancholy. Elation to return to my lovely wife and my two dogs, a familiar bed, and air conditioning. Melancholy to know that I’ll never see stars in Los Angeles like I did at Camp Joe Ide, where the night sky seemed poured to the top with them, a million opportunities for awe and wonder; or that in Los Angeles I could never duplicate the looks on the faces of my campers when a tarantula, hairy and as big as my fist, strolled through our cabin on her way to the stream just past our back door. Those are things unique to a place like Camp Joe Ide. For six wonderful days, campers were free from the care and worry that a life in Los Angeles requires, and they rewarded themselves with all the enthusiasm and willful abandon that they could muster. I’m going to miss all of that, and all of them.
There is nothing like a week at camp, even if you do return to a full voicemail box on your cell phone, 1,873 unanswered e-mail messages, and six days’ worth of Jumbles to solve.
Editor’s note: Camp Joe Ide is a program of the All People’s Community Center in Los Angeles, California, for youth ages eight to twelve. For more information visit www.allpeoplescc.org/index.php/program/education.
Originally from Nebraska, Mike Lowry is a screenwriter living in Northeast Los Angeles with his wife, two dogs, and cat. He has been a camp counselor at Camp Joe Ide for the past two summers.
Photo courtesy of Camp John Marc, Meridian, Texas.
Originally published in the 2013 November/December Camping Magazine.