It’s the middle of the night, probably around 1 a.m. I’m 12 years old, asleep on a mattress that my now-27-year old body would not be able to comprehend sleeping on — like, ever. Suddenly, I am awoken by the shouts of college-age counselors decked out in fairy wings and tutus, throwing glitter and announcing that there is a “Fairy Party” in the lodge (basically, the common room for just your age group). I love camp.
As discussed here on the blog before, I went to an all-girls sleepaway camp for nearly a decade of my adolescence. I loved it, so much that one of my biggest regrets in life is that I didn’t go back to be a counselor when I was the right age. Hindsight is 20-20, I suppose. Still, from the age 8 to the age of 16, I spent at least part of each summer at Rockbrook Camp in Brevard, North Carolina.
The summer always makes me miss camp — the camaraderie, the spontaneous singing, the traditions that make sense to absolutely no one but the people who experienced them. As Ira Glass recently posited in an episode of “This American Life,” there are Camp People and Non-Camp People. And I will always be a Camp Person.
Camp encompasses absolutely everything I loved about summers growing up: the fresh mountain air, the general enthusiasm for everything, the learning of new skills that may or may not come in handy in the future. But I think all the things I loved most about camp are wrapped up in the silly traditions, like the above “Fairy Party.” These silly rituals took something that present-day me loathes (being awoken by loud noises in the middle of the night) and turned it into something exciting, covered in sparkles and glitter and served with dance music and candy in the lodge.
Camps are full of these types of traditions, but these are a few of my favorites: the Fairy Parties, obviously; the Jungle Breakfast, when we were awoken at dawn to eat breakfast in the lodge in our pajamas and then got to sleep through regular breakfast; surprise shaving cream fights; Birthday Night, when instead of sitting with your regular cabin at dinner you were divided among 12 tables (one for people whose birthdays fell in each month of the year), and there was lots of cake; Biltmore Train, which is basically just lots and lots of ice cream; or unluckily bidding on a blind item on Auction Night, then finding out that it’s Polar Bear and your whole cabin has to go jump in the lake before breakfast (it was summer, but goddamn if it wasn’t still cold AF). The list goes on and on, and I wouldn’t trade it for a thing.
I like the unsanctioned traditions too, the ones that involve less planning and just seemed to happen organically each year — like the one rainstorm where everyone who’s brave enough rolls down the hill, or the unofficial fastest shower-er competition when the deducky (read: bathroom) is over-crowded (yours truly is ‘04 Champion). There are the unsanctioned prank wars (my year had a particularly vicious one with the year below us), the scary stories and camp legends, that one lunch or dinner that is somehow non-stop singing, the way muffins just taste better after the first activities of the day, and finding that spot in camp that feels like it’s just yours and being able to go back to it every year. I miss the inside jokes, the favorite songs, the favorite meals, the intense competition with the boys camp down the road — the little things that somehow manage to continue year after year, because people keep coming back and passing their unofficial traditions down to new campers. And so eventually they become official traditions, official camp legends, new pieces of the camp mythos, on and on for generations.
If I ever have a daughter, I will send her to Rockbrook. If for some reason she hates it, I won’t make her go back, but it’s hard to imagine this purely hypothetical child not taking to this place that I love so much. For so many summers, Rockbrook was my home, those cabin-mates my sisters, and all those silly traditions became more important to me than any holiday for the rest of the year. And my times at camp are still some of the fondest memories of my childhood.
A few months ago, I was waiting for a train at the Nevins Street station here in Brooklyn. As the train rolled in, I spied a girl with a Nalgene covered with a Dolly’s Dairy Bar sticker through the window, her face obstructed by the closed door. I waited eagerly to tell her how much I loved Dolly’s, how it was the highlight of trips to Brevard when I was at camp. And then the door slid open, and I realized it wasn’t just another random person who had been to Brevard: It was my cabin-mate of four years, and my sister for life, sitting fatefully in the train car I was waiting for on a Tuesday morning on a beautiful spring day in New York City.
I hadn’t spoken to her outside of social media in years, and we had a mere three stops on the subway to catch up, but it felt normal. Unhindered by awkwardness, we just picked up where we had left off. Since that meeting, she’s spent the past couple months hiking the Appalachian Trail — the most summer camp thing an adult can do — working her way from Georgia to Maine. It’s something I’d love to do but really don’t think I have the wherewithal for (although I’d like to think that if I decided to, camp would have prepared me well). My camp friends and I may be in different places now, all adults doing adult-ish things. But we’ll always have the Biltmore Train, and the sing-a-longs, and Polar Bear, and the Tevas vs. Chacos debate, and having to explain to non-camp people what a Crazy Creek is.
There’s something unique about camp friendships, and I think it stems from all those weird and silly traditions along with the serious ones. The songs and the shaving cream fights are just as important as Spirit Fire: They’re what make me get all warm and fuzzy when one of my camp friends comments on a picture I post, or when someone says something that intros a camp song that I just can’t not start singing. Camp brought me friendships with people I never would have found otherwise, people who are so different but all so wonderful in their many varied ways. Camp is strange, and wonderful, and beautiful, and so hard to explain to those who did not have the privilege of experiencing it (and sometimes even if they technically did, but they’re just not Camp People). I am a Camp Person, and I will always be a Camp Person. Rockbrook Camp Forever.