I survived summer camp for grown ups
Editor Bill Kearney discovers that, unlike his childhood camp experiences, adult summer camp is less about growing up and more about learning to be a kid again.
Summer camp is a venerable American tradition. It introduces youngsters to the wonders of canoeing, hiking and what happens when you don’t bathe. Sometimes you even grow up a bit. This last part might be difficult at Camp No Counselors, a summer camp for adults where, if anything, you’re encouraged to regress. I decide to give it a shot. Could it possibly stack up to the wondrous summer camp of my youth?
When I arrive in the wooded hills of northeast Pennsylvania for the first evening of a three-day weekend, Shira, the clipboard-carrying assistant director, reminds me of the rules: no cell phones and no talking about your job. I toss my stuff on my mattress (waterproof, just like I remember) and wander downhill to the campfire, where a hundred or so strangers are already mingling among the pines. I’m a “solo newbie”—new to adult camp and not part of a group. “I respect that,” says the thirtysomething Janelle, who’s part of a tight-knit cadre from Ohio. I chat with a guy from New York for a while, but you can only analyze Williamsburg for so long. At the point where we’d normally ask about careers, things get a little awkward.
“That’s a nice fleece.”
I find myself alone and reflexively reach for my phone, struggling mightily and repeatedly to not look at it. Eventually, I’m saved by Joel, the Matthew McConaughey-like camp director, who gives us a thoughtful chat on consent—apparently, adult campers make out behind the cabins, too—then announces an upcoming mystery field trip. “Bring a bathing suit and a towel,” he says. “That’s all I’m gonna tell ya!” We all stir with excitement, just like old times.
Finding a seat at breakfast reminds me of junior high. My social anxiety, however, is quickly swept away by a post-breakfast “color wars” competition, wherein campers divide into blue and green teams (go green!), apply facepaint and wage battles of dodgeball, kickball, even fashion design. Nothing clears your mind like a dodgeball whizzing at your face. I feel fury and elation at nailing an enemy, then deep regret as I’m pegged by the dude with the great arm. After three heated games, I can sense an old shoulder injury making a comeback. My middle-aged self squabbles with my inner 12-year-old: Take it easy, sailor; No! Get revenge! I do the unthinkable; I bow out and Matilda, a young Brit, takes my place. She kicks butt. With victory, we scream and exchange sweaty high-fives, fully removed from everything else in our lives.
The wars come to a crescendo with the final event: a Slip ’N Slide relay down a grass slope leading to a flip-cup finale. I slide with panache and flip my cup on the second try. Green team screams my name. I’m half tempted to write a letter home to Mom and Dad.
Thanks to the flip-cup thing, it’s easier to find someone to sit with at breakfast. Afterwards, we cram into buses for the mystery field trip. An hour later, we’re paddling a flotilla of rafts on the Delaware River. My 12-year-old self might have turned this into another competition. Instead, my raft mates and I spiral lazily in the current, chatting through sun showers, easing by a deer on the bank. I take a dip and let my feet tap the rocks passing below. In years past, I had fished this very stretch of the river and loathed the partying rafters. Now, I’m one of them. We’re not so bad.
That night, we have a talent show, the highlight of which is staffer Jay Keith, wrapped in a tutu, performing an uproarious rendition of Beyoncé’s “Déjà Vu” while twerking his way around his backup singers—a group of Marine officers here for a bachelor party. I’m ill-prepared for the themed dance afterward—“Welcome to the Jungle”—where we’re supposed to dress as wild animals. All I have is a blond wig and a bandana, so I go as Axl Rose. People love it. I dance as though even I’m not watching—something I could never do as a kid.
At breakfast, campers stagger into the dining hall with skinned knees and bruises. It warms my heart to see everyone bleary-eyed and a little beat up; we’d been through something together. Later, as the bunks clear out, I linger, and a familiar feeling returns. The cabin, once loud and littered with wet towels, is now serene and a little sad. The noises of the woods return—a wren singing, the breeze through pines. In the distance, people start their cars and head back to their real lives. As Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Againtold us, trying to recapture the past is a fool’s errand. But you can sure have fun trying.