Camp Nostalgia

As a traveler, my favorite trips are always the repeats. Do I dare head back to camp?

Published July 20, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

If one person's heaven is another person's hell, the same certainly goes for travel. A week on a secluded beach would bore me silly. An extended weekend in Europe with back-to-back theater tickets and frantically paced museum treks is only slightly more palpable. I like to go where I know people. I like the familiarity of catching up with far-flung friends, and I like revisiting venues so that I can see how the place has changed, or how I've changed.

I suspect my travel proclivities root to my youth. I grew up in the '60s in a beautiful but sleepy Southern California town where summer travel generally meant schlepping umbrellas and lawn chairs the few blocks west to the beach. There was the family in our neighborhood who toted sleek colored luggage to mythical places such as Italy or Switzerland, another who crammed heavy tents into their Country Squire station wagon and lit out for a national park. In our house, travel was nothing so exotic.

We beached it through late July and by then, bored with endless days of paradise and with our peeling noses resembling raw hamburger, we readied for summer camp. My father lugged my footlocker in from the garage and my mother sewed conspicuous name tags into my underwear. I diligently sacrificed the centers from even some of my favorite books in order to forge hiding places for my four-week stash of camp-forbidden candy.

From the ages of 7 to 17, I spent my Augusts on a working ranch camp in California's dry and dusty Sierra foothills. This co-ed ranch was run by two strict ex-schoolteachers alongside a rotating group of fresh-faced college kids as counselors, at least one of whom I fell in love with every year. Rustic may be too generous a description of the camp's actual quarters. We slept outside on squeaky cots, brushed our teeth at a row of open-air spigots and -- with some trepidation -- hiked dusty trails to use the splintery, wooden outhouses which were often home to baby scorpions. Showers were taken indoors, en masse, eight at a time, in a large tiled room with a notably firm counselor at the hose. After being sprayed down, we soaped ourselves up and after a first rinsing, were blasted with a stream of pure cold. The cold rinse, we were mysteriously assured, would prevent us from catching cold. At the first suggestion of the final spray, we shrieked and huddled together, each trying to hide behind the other. The grumpiest, crankiest counselor was always gleeful at the nozzle.

This was -- and is still -- a large working ranch and chores were required of the campers to keep the place running. When not volunteered for, the chores were assigned: weeding or harvesting the garden, feeding or cleaning up after the livestock or, for the strong-stomached, assisting with a slaughter. Those of us who returned year after year knew which tasks were fun and easy (collecting chicken eggs, lunch dishes, feeding the newborn calves) and which were to be avoided (bean-picking, barn cleanup, dinner dishes).

There were a variety of camp rules which, when broken, were
disciplined with the quaint but truly unpleasant punishment of "nose-posting."
Perched nose to fence post, the nose-postee was required to stand
silent and stock-still, hands behind the back, regardless of the buzzing
flies. Nose-posting was assigned for minor violations such as talking during
the one-hour required afternoon nap, or for greater transgressions, such as
masterminding a panty-raid.

But as with most of my successful travel experiences, it wasn't the hard
particulars that made my summer sojourns memorable, it was the people. Over
the years we developed a tight clique of about 15 of us returning campers.
Though we came from different cities and radically different backgrounds, in
similarly worn-out clothes and in a venue where we couldn't buy anything, our
differences faded. (A favorite
camp song began "You can't get to heaven with money in your jeans, because
the Lord don't have no vending machines.")

Each year under the heat of the early August sun, we'd set about resuming our
friendships and rearranging ourselves into new boyfriend configurations.
Three of us kept the girl part of our core clique intact, and over the years
we all went with the same boys.

During the school year we faithfully wrote letters, journeyed to each other's homes and
gathered at my own house for Thanksgiving camp reunions. It was exciting to
see each other outside of the context of horseback riding and hiking, but a
little disconcerting, too. Camp friendships seemed to set more comfortably at
camp, away from the distractions of parents and the particulars of our
individual lives.

In the 20-odd years since I last summered with the old gang, I've
kept only one of these camp friendships intact, with my best camp friend. She
actually married a fellow counselor whom she met when she returned, post-
college, to run the swimming program. I know others of us have stayed
loosely connected, and occasionally I hear grapevine gossip about various
players from time to time. And though not a single August has passed without me vaguely wishing I were returning to camp -- and I've even given serious thought to going back as an
"older" counselor -- I haven't returned or even ventured to look up any of
these people who were so important in my young life.

At first I was excited to learn that a camp reunion was
being planned for this summer. A part of
me wants badly to attend. But oddly, for someone so fond of the return pilgrimage, I'm hesitant to make this one. Things change. Maybe things can change too much. Though the
camp still has no indoor plumbing, a man-made lake has entirely swamped the
field where I met my first live rattlesnake. And certainly my friends
have changed -- even calling them friends seems awkward. Do I dare update the
image of the scary riding counselor who deterred me from horseback riding for
years? Do I want to find out that the guy we all thought was the big fish is
a thrice-divorced stockbroker?

My usual expectation of joyously returning to a familiar place to see a
beloved gang is clouded with trepidation. Perhaps too many summers have
intervened since those of my idyllic youth. Will the nearly mythical
pictures I have bound in my memory match up to the reality of a dusty, hot
landscape and a bunch of regular middle-aged people with problems and pasts?
Scared or not, I might just have to find out.

By Louise Rafkin

Louise Rafkin writes on lifestyle and relationships for the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications.

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