My Life Was One Big Summer Camp


They said, “summer camp,” when I was a child. What they meant was, “You will be camping all summer.” I grew up in a cult in Southern New Hampshire run by a charismatic English evangelist who instructed us to be preppers, to raise our own food, to climb mountains, to hike forests, to speak in tongues.  We lived in dorms where we slept on the floor, and did a lot of things normal American kids do at summer camp. We learned archery. We rode horses, climbed mountains canoed rivers in British Colombia. We killed chickens, gutted, plucked and cleaned them. We fried up chicken livers with a side of green beans.


We were frontier kids, dirty all summer. We picked apples and made cider.  We rode horses, mostly bareback. We did a lot of field work. When I hear people talk about the joy of gardening, I laugh. When you are actually raising all your own food, it’s a lot of seeding, weeding, and then picking. We gardened in New Hampshire and went on mountain climbing expeditions. We climbed all the White Mountains. I climbed Mount Washington in my bare feet. On the way up, we ate lemon and honey. Our cult leader had been told by God that honey is important because it is mentioned many times in the Bible. It’s also mentioned many times by Winnie the Pooh, but that didn’t seem to have as much weight.


In British Columbia, we lived in long hogans and camped. Eighty kids in two buses drove across Canada, boarded the ferries and crossed to Vancouver Island. Along the way, we were given small Ziploc bags of peanuts, raisins and chocolate chips. We were hungry. We saved the chocolate till last. We rolled it around in our fingers; it melted in the sun. There, we washed all our own clothes on washboards, we learned survival skills. We caught salmon in the Georgia Straits and cooked them in fires we made on the shore.


When I tell people about the blood, mud, hiking fifty miles at thirteen with an eighty pound backpack in Keds, being bucked off a horse, winding a shirt around my head until it stopped bleeding, when I tell people, they say, how did you manage?  We climbed trees and slid down them until the insides of our legs were raw. Nobody said don’t do that. People ask, how did you survive? How did you leave?


The story of summer camp is that all that hiking and canoeing, all that riding, all that time picking apples and berries, making cider and carrot juice, all that danger and wild, all of it made me know I could do anything. That’s the coin toss of life. You toss your kid into camp; it feels like you’re severing the umbilical cord. It feels unbearable, like you’ve thrown your kid into the dark, but you haven’t. You have thrown your kid forward into the future, their future. A future in which they will love you for letting them grow up and create that cocoon around themselves that we need as adults.


Americans send their kids to summer camps to learn to act for themselves. To learn to be able to wake up bored, lonely, or scared, and to solve those problems. When our kids are young, they turn to us for everything, and that has to end sometime. Summer camp is a step in the direction of independence. Our children don’t necessarily need to ride horses or shoot arrows or climb trees. But we want them to become adults who can act on the world, have agency in their own lives.


My childhood was unnecessarily extreme, but as a parent, my husband and I sent our kids to summer camp. We took them camping. We taught them to raise vegetables and chickens and swim, but also to ride horses, ski, and ice skate which are completely unnecessary skills in So Cal. We climbed Mt. Whitney. In summer camp, our kids learned how to create their own world.  The skills of community building helped my daughter when she came out and moved to San Francisco. She made a new identity in a new world in a new city. My son graduated from high school and went to Nepal to work in an orphanage when he was nineteen. He’s been travelling the world since, supporting himself as he backpacks through Australia, New Zealand, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, India, Europe. He wrote to me this morning that he’s going to cycle at least part of the way from India to Bangladesh. When I think of him out there, biking around East Asia, I want to say to parents, “Send your kids to summer camp.”


We have an aviary, and you can hear the birds arguing about when it’s time to push the babies out of the nest. Finally they do, and the birds climb down from the nest, and then they do what they were born to do, they start flying. Don’t you want to see your kids fly?


Published in: on April 27, 2016 at 9:28 am  Leave a Comment  

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