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Illustrations by Pepita Sándwich.
It was the summer of 2005, and I was 10 years old, and I’d forgotten how long the drive to camp was. The road curved along the Sierra Nevada mountains, cutting through the evergreens.
My best friend, Rachel, was sitting next to me in the back seat of her parents’ silver minivan. I was excited; she was palpably nervous. I understood — it was her first time going to sleepaway camp. When I’d been in the same position a year before, heading to Mountain Camp, located in California’s Eldorado National Forest, I felt the nerves, too.
But now, as a second-year camper, I knew what to expect, and I was giddy for it all: to get assigned to a cabin — Mt. Shasta or Mt. McKinley or one of the others named after California’s peaks — to sail on the frigid lake with new friends and to gather round the fire, singing songs before lights out.
When we finally did make it, that undeniable smell of camp, a mix of dust and pine, filled my nose. Rachel was still nervous, on the verge of tears. I squeezed her hand, and then we hauled our sleeping bags and hiking boots into our cabin. She chose a bottom bunk, and I took the top.
I’ll never forget when Rachel’s mom, Dominique, pulled me aside before leaving us with our counselors. “Take care of my baby,” she said. I looked her in the eyes and told her not to worry: I promised I would.
As most camp experiences go, Rachel would soon lose the nerves and enjoy it all alongside me: sailing and singing and campfire-making. Staying up late with the other girls, gossiping about our camp crushes in the neighboring boys’ cabin. Watching the sun go down over the lake, turning everything lilac.
We’d return together for the next five years, each summer making that long, winding drive, the anticipation building with every curve in the road. Each summer, we’d become a bit more of who we were meant to be: We would push each other to be more adventurous, to jump off rocks and to build our own campfires. We would discover our shared love of indie rock, introduced to us by our favorite older counselor. And we would develop a deep appreciation for the quiet moments among the pines, when we’d breathe in the cool mountain air, never wanting the summer to end.
We stopped going to camp in high school; other commitments got in the way. We always promised each other we’d go back as counselors, when our crushes could become full-blown romances and we ourselves could introduce younger girls to indie rock.
We never did become counselors; other commitments got in the way then, too. Now, we live on opposite sides of the country, but every so often, we’ll reminisce about camp.
In the throes of summer, and feeling nostalgic for our own experiences of camp, we asked Lily readers what theirs were like. From mischievous dalliances to important life lessons, here’s what six of you said.
Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
The camp: CYO Camp in California
“Kids of all backgrounds, races and socioeconomic statuses attended the camp, where we slept in cabins and did outdoor activities.”
When she attended: Nine consecutive summers starting in middle school, first as a camper and then as a counselor
Her standout memory: “During my last summer as a camper, I somehow convinced my lead counselor to let my cabin go skinny-dipping in the river after dark. After a lot of back-and-forth, she ultimately gave us the okay, but looked me right in the eyes and said: ‘I don’t want to hear anything about this afterwards. And if I do, I was never a part of this conversation.’
So we slipped away from the bigger group, and I led my cabin of seven down a path to an isolated spot on the river. We nervously took all our clothes off and jumped in together in the pitch dark.
I was surprised the water felt so warm. We tried to be quiet, but everything was funny and exhilarating. We soon put our clothes back on, and walked back to join the rest of camp as if nothing had happened. When someone asked us where we had been, we told them we went to skip rocks. My best friends and I still relive this memory from time to time, and it goes down as our best-kept secret of the summer.”
The camp: Cedar Lodge (then called Lakeside) in Michigan
“A horse-riding and farm camp; low-cost and low-budget, serving kids from Chicago.”
When she attended: Several summers between elementary school and freshman year of high school
Her standout memories: “We had loads of freedom. I had my first kiss during a game of Truth or Dare, sitting in a hay bale in an abandoned barn, and I had my first middle school romance that lasted a week before I was dumped for a younger girl. I smoked my first cigarettes hiding in the hay fields, and for the first three years, I refused to ride horses, even though that’s what the camp was known for.
Ultimately, I spent a little too much time in those hay fields with cigarettes and boys and was eventually encouraged not to return. But almost all of my favorite childhood memories are from camp.”
The camp: Windhover Summer Dance Intensive Workshop in Pennsylvania
“An all-girls, six-week camp founded by retired modern dancer Ina Hahn, in which girls took modern dance, ballet, jazz and mime classes, rode horses, slept in bunks and swam in a quarry.”
When she attended: Two summers in a row in middle school
Her standout memory: “While I loved camp and made great friends there, what sticks in my head is shameful. My first summer, there was a quiet girl in our cabin who wet the bed. And we were ruthless. We whispered. We muttered. We shunned her. Eventually, she left.
When I became a parent, I imagined how painful it must have been for hers to make that drive to bring her home. And as I sent my own kids off to camp, I worried about their being subjected to the same cruelty — or worse, like me, perpetrating it. So now, more than four decades later, I realize it isn’t the music to the dance routines or the exhilaration of cantering during horseback lessons that I remember as much as the urgent need to be kinder.”
The camp: Camp Fantastic in Virginia
“A camp for kids with cancer, run by nonprofit organization Special Love; set at a retreat center with traditional camp activities alongside medical staff.”
When she attended: Several years as a camper, and then as a counselor and volunteer for more than 15 years in the 2000s
Her standout memories: “Camp was the emotional support I needed when I was battling leukemia. It made me feel normal. No one batted an eye if you were missing a limb, had a bald head or had a catheter and Hickman line in your chest while you were swimming.
When I was a camper, I shared lots of late-night conversations with other campers about school life and feeling so alone — but also the good stuff, such as getting free ice cream or Make-A-Wish trips. As a counselor, those late-night conversations still happened, and I became someone campers knew who ‘made it and beat it’ and had a normal life now.
One time, at the talent show, the medical staff did a ‘Swan Lake’-type dance routine, complete with tutus and a grand finale of squirting the audience with syringe tubes full of water. It looked like a fountain of medical supplies in joyous harmony. Mind you, these were world-class National Institutes of Health doctors and nurses. … Anything to make the kids laugh.”
The camp: Long Lake Camp for the Arts in New York
“A performing arts camp where we mounted nine musicals and plays every three weeks, in addition to dance and circus shows, concerts and visual arts exhibitions.”
When she attended: Two summers in high school
Her standout memory: “My last summer at camp, my friend and I snuck away from the performance of a show we’d already seen, and climbed out on the roof of our cabin to look up at the star-filled sky and talk. I did so many fun, amazing things there — attended intensive dance workshops, participated in so many different shows, made friends with everyone — but those few moments looking up at the sky with a friend I loved so much has stuck with me like nothing else.”
The camp: Camp Wyandot in Ohio
“A rustic camp nestled in the lovely, but mosquito-filled, hills of rural Ohio.”
When she attended: Several summers in elementary and middle school
Her standout memory: “Other girls got homemade cookies. I got letters that said things like, ‘House Bill 37 made its way out of committee!’ and political newspaper clippings. My mom was a volunteer lobbyist with a passion for election law reform; she had been inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.
As a 10-year-old, getting updates on the Ohio legislature was annoying. I wanted the cookies. As an adult, I’m proud that my mom taught me that a woman’s place is making change.
This year, my mom was honored with the lifetime achievement award from the Ohio League of Women Voters for her 53 years of involvement. I hope I am even half the advocate she is. But I also buy cookies for my kids when they’re at camp.”