The cool breeze at dawn. A whiff of wood smoke, charred and sharp. Wet morning grass, dew-stuck to my bare feet. Skunk. Even the subtle scent of shade, a hint of forest on this otherwise sun-baked coastal plain I now call home–these transport me to my childhood place of summer, a little camp overlooking Stone Mountain, North Carolina.
Here in Charleston, stores may be stocked with SPF 4-to-infinity and loaded cars head to the beach, but I’m thinking more about my old dented black footlocker than my beach bag. That trusty trunk has been gone now for god knows how long, yet I can still see myself packing it: faded Wranglers, frayed cut-offs, treasured Izods from the Lacoste Factory Outlet Store and my favorite Camp Cheerio t-shirts from summers past, with my initials indelibly marked on the collar. And folded in between the seven pairs of underwear and six pairs of socks (dictated by camp-issued packing list) were hopes of getting hip counselors and maybe even the top bunk.
For two weeks each summer I was in camp heaven. I thrived on that mountaintop, riding horses, paddling clunky aluminum canoes, hiking through rhododendron thickets and skinny-dipping in frigid streams. I learned to rock climb and rappel, to warm beef stew over a fire, to navigate a river mastering “J” and feather strokes without getting splinters from the wooden paddle. I belted out “One Tin Soldier” around the campfire, trying my tone-deaf best to harmonize with the melodious counselors. Camp was my holy ground, my chrysalis, where I most fully came into being. Cradled by the gentle Blue Ridge Mountains, roughened up and heartened by new adventures, uplifted by new friends, at camp I could be who I chose to be. Not the Stephanie who couldn’t sing, not the tall kid with the major white-thigh tennis tan, not the kids whose parents were divorced. I cried when pick-up day arrived, when most kids were teary-eyed with joy at the thought of real food and no more bugle-blaring 7 a.m. Reveille. I tied the essence of camp around me like the leather macramé bracelet I made in Arts & Crafts and wore until it turned green and slimy five months later, when a basketball referee made me cut it off because of a “No Jewelry” rule.
There may be sand between my toes these days, but camp will always be in my blood, and evidently, in my bloodline. Now instead of me packing my footlocker, I’m headed to Target to buy the rain poncho, the laundry bag, and the extra pairs of underwear that my oldest two girls need for their foray up the mountain and into the woods. This summer marks their sixth year singing the same camp songs, hiking the same trails, overlooking the same dreamy vista of Stone Mountain and distant hazy valleys beyond it that I looked out on as a kid. My girls are second generation camp-a-holics, and we now speak a common language of KP duty and cabin clean up, of morning flag raising and evening vespers. We cherish the silly but meaningful traditions that are ridiculous and meaningless outside the context of camp. We are members of the same tribe – Blackfoot and Pawnee, Mohawk and Cherokee – having made our bunks, however messily, in the same Spartan cabins named for decimated native cultures, just like cabins at little camps in woods all over the country, where kids are unplugged and sent away (cold turkey — no iPods, no texting) to convene with nature and rekindle their primitive instincts, as if it were as simple as rubbing sticks together to start a fire.
Summer camp is a breeding ground for nostalgia, mostly, I believe, because it’s a nod to loss. I’m not sending my kids away to learn new things as much as I am hoping they’ll encounter old things. It’s as if a bell jar is hovering over that mountain top, safe keeping small and increasingly rare treasures, like chilly nightfall with crickets and fireflies, chipmunks darting under apple tree roots, inconsequential skills like archery that carry no clout with the college admissions office. According to the National Academy of Sciences, Americans are now spending 25 percent less time outdoors than we did in 1987, and as I recall, 1987 wasn’t a particularly noteworthy back-to-nature year. Summer camp may be the one big dose of fresh air and grass stains our kids get each year; it’s our one feather in the archery arsenal aiming to alter that statistical slide. This summer my oldest daughter, a last-year camper, did a “solo” as a camp graduation rite of passage, spending a long night outside alone, with only her sleeping bag, a tarp and a whistle. I imagine the deep darkness and the howling wind that night will be memories she’ll cling to for years to come.
My own camp nostalgia is fueled by the sad reality that it’s so much easier to go into the woods and out of the fray to find enchantment and embrace challenge. That’s not how I want it to be. I want to encounter hallowed ground both on the mountaintop and off, here in the daily rigmarole, where the woods are thin and the trails more mundane. But no, it’s easier to be a happy camper and find wonder and amazement when we go away, and surely the meal-time songs (and absence of parents!) help. Maybe that’s why it was always such a drag leaving camp, struggling to repack that footlocker with dirty clothes, mildewed towels and lame plastic lanyards. I always took home so much more than I came with.