Temperatures dropped below freezing this week, and the will to leave the comfort of my apartment, much less my bed, has become nearly non-existent. As I descend into full-blown hibernation, I’ve been thinking a lot about the outdoors, and my recent lack of interaction with it. As winter sinks its icy claws into my neighborhood, I’ve been wishing for summer, and thinking about summer always eventually comes around to thoughts of the nine summers I spent at sleepaway camp, tucked away in the heart of a North Carolina mountain. The view from my Brooklyn apartment is all snow-covered sidewalks and train tracks with nary a tree in sight. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that, in some strange way, the barebones cabins and gravel pathways of camp prepared me for the man-made forest I now live in.
I was seven when I spent my first session at Rockbrook Camp. Two of my friends had found it through some sort of info session, part of the camp staff’s annual recruitment tour. I was drawn to the promises of adventure, sisterhood, and cultivating independence. Plus, since both of my parents worked, my summers always had to be filled with something — usually a smorgasbord of day camps with themes ranging from field hockey to art to cooking. Being thrust into new situations was something I had come to accept, but usually, after a day of group activities, I was able to retreat to my home and watch TV. Rockbrook was different. This would be two and a half weeks sans technology, with my parents not a mere room away, but a seven hour drive.
Seven-year-old me took to the idea surprisingly well. I was excited about all the new gear I got in preparation. (I was always one of those kids who liked going back to school because it meant new folders and pencils and notebooks, and this was basically the summer version of that). Armed with a bright purple trunk (which now stores linens in my childhood bedroom) and my first ever Nalgene bottle, I settled into a cabin on top of a hill with seven new sisters, two harried college students to guide us, and the Appalachian mountains.
That first year was hard. My cabin was among the youngest at camp, all newbies who were delving into the brave new world of parental separation for the first time. But we liked each other, supported each other, and challenged each other in ways that only seven-year-olds can. We sang songs and read stories, and lived a life free from judgment. That was the great thing about being seven and away from parents and teachers and boys: absolute freedom to just be yourself. There was something beautiful and rare about it, and by the end of my first session I was hooked, already itching to get back.
From that point on until the age of 16, I went back every summer. The nervousness about leaving my comfort zone was gone as those wood buildings became my home away from home. On Opening Day, I ran to greet last year’s friends, all of us hauling trunks and sleeping bags and books to our cabins. I saved clothing during the year knowing that this bit of an outfit would work perfectly for some costumed camp activity. I looked forward to immersing myself in the crisp mountain air, the misty mornings and muggy afternoons, the summer rainstorms that echoed hard on the tin roofs of the cabins. I lived for solitary twilights reading in the woods, and smokey camp fires swaying to the voices of my friends as we sang unabashedly. Rockbrook was beautiful — green forest, waterfalls, nature pretty much everywhere. It was everything it’s songs promised (the heart of a wooded mountain, circled by silvery streams…). even more beautiful were the people and the sense of community. It was important and life-changing and even spiritual. It was also super weird.
Explaining weird camp rituals and traditions to people who didn’t experience them is hard, because going to camp is a little like being in a really harmless cult. There are Midnight Fairy parties and six a.m. jungle breakfasts, air band competitions and pageants where the winner’s gown is made entirely from toilet paper, prank wars, and theme dress days, strange names for everything, and a whole lot of singing. You sing when you go to meals, you sing when you go to campfires, and to morning assembly, and to vespers. There’s a lot of singing in general. Camp is probably the closest you’ll ever get to actually living inside a musical.
And all this weird stuff, it bonds you with the girls around you. Once you’ve rolled down a hill in the rain, and crawled through sand and mud in Hi-Up initiation; once you’ve dressed up in matching outfits and choreographed a dance routine that no one looks good doing; once you’ve challenged, and won, a shooting competition against the nearby boys camp, you don’t lose that. You are family and comrades, sisters for life. It’s been a while since I’ve really talked to my camp friends, but I know that if I were to call them up or send them an email, that bond would still be there. No matter where we go or what happens, we’ll always have Rockbrook, those nine years, and I have no doubt that we could pick up right where we left off. You don’t jump off three-story cliffs, lead the camp in song, make matching hats, eat Dolly’s ice cream, prank your younger cohorts, and wash dishes together every day without forming something lasting.
Camp taught me a lot: how to thrive in a new environment, how to be away from my parents, how to make a banana boat, how to paddle my own canoe, how to shoot a gun, how to live with other people, but mostly how important friendships are, especially my friendships with other women. This, above all, has helped me survive in the concrete forest of New York City. See camp taught me that when thrust into a strange place or a new situation, it’s important to have someone who will jump in with you. Your cabinmates, your sisters will be there. They’ll hold your hand and leap into the void, screaming like a banshee all the way down. And while my New York “cabinmates” don’t share 1000 square feet and two light bulbs with me (well, two of them do), they do provide the same support, physical cliffs not withstanding.
Going to camp every summer taught me that it’s okay to be scared, to be unsure, to not know what exactly you’re doing. It taught me to jump into things with a sense of adventure, and to make friends at every turn, because you’re never in it alone.
Now post-camp life is not quite the same. There was something in the mountain air that helped us form those bonds, some sort of positivity radiating off the lake and the trees that we don’t get here in the city (maybe it was just an over abundance of Vitamin D). But the lessons still apply. A true friend will cry with you on a rock in the middle of the woods as much as they will on a roof by the M train. They will hold you when you’re homesick, and dance with you to the Spice Girls in your pajamas (what was relevant then is nostalgia now). We’re all dragging our trunks into a metaphorical wilderness, and we will laugh, cry, and sing out way through it the way we did every North Carolina summer.