I pull up to the gates of Lake Owego, a summer camp located in the Poconoes, about two and half hours north of Philadelphia. I am clutching a sleeping bag, a flashlight, several books, SPF 50. A yellow school bus belches fumes and idles nearby. I am nervous. I am also thirty years old.
There are other summer camps for grown-ups that exist out there, but they tend to be booze-soaked frat parties, or spiritual healing retreats with more of a new-age vibe. This is different – it’s being marketed as the summer camp experience that so many people remember from their childhoods: canoes, cabins, bug juice, dances. There will be alcohol here, but it’s really not about getting wasted, and there’s a yoga instructor on staff, but it’s cool if that’s not really your thing. People are streaming out of the bus, chatting politely, rummaging through backpacks. I never went to summer camp as a child, and I’m flooded with a sudden wave of insecurity: did I pack everything that I need? Will the food be gross? What if people don’t like me?
I’m also nervous because I am here to write about it, and I’m secretly terrified that I’m not up to the task. My friend Ben, one of the founders of this camp, asked if I might be interested in coming for free in exchange for writing about my experience on my blog. I’ve never before bartered my skills as a writer for a weekend of housing, meals, and activities, and I suddenly realize that it’s around a $400 value. I am privately fearful that my facility with words falls more into the $25 range.
It’s not the only thing I’m fearful about. I don’t do well with new people, large crowds, or small talk. I do better with the internet, with the safety of a buffer, and yet … I take a deep breath, and switch my phone off for the duration of the weekend. I scratch a newly formed mosquito bite on my ankle, already turning raw and red. I’m surrounded by incredibly tall trees and a glassy, beautiful lake. Birds are singing softly in the distance.
This is, I fear, not really my thing.
It’s the first year Camp Bonfire has ever existed. It’s a new idea, this summer camp for adults, dreamed up by Ben Camp and Jacob Winterstein, childhood friends who got the startup funds together to test out this first weekend as a grand experiment. (Yes, Ben’s actual last name is “Camp.” I know. He knows it, too). Lake Owego is typically a summer camp for boys, and you can see the evidence if you look for it: initials carved into trees at perfect child’s-height; long-forgotten names and inside jokes painted on the undersides of cabin rafters. These are honest-to-god cabins, the kind with screen doors that screech when you shut them, the likes of which I’ve only ever seen in movies like The Parent Trap. Each cabin is equipped with a dozen beds topped with a dozen whisper-thin mattresses; a welcome basket featuring sunscreen, bug spray, tampons, condoms; a few ceiling fans gamely attempting to create a breeze.
My cabin is mixed-gender, an option I opted into. Some are coupled, some single. Some gay, some straight. About half are people of color. We politely all identify our preferred pronouns, which is both useful and very nonchalant. Our counselor’s name is Free, and she’s a Brooklyn-based pediatric psychologist with a runner’s body, an open smile, and a gentle, encouraging attitude. We’re mostly from Philly and New York. One from New Orleans. One from DC. It’s almost exactly like The Parent Trap, except that we’re all between the ages of twenty and sixty, not all of us are white, and you can totally tell which campers are into CrossFit.
Orientation, a word that typically implies boredom, structure, routine, is instead a goofy, friendly welcome. Ben and Jake essentially have the following to say:
-We’re glad you’re here;
-It’s our first year, and this whole thing is a big experiment;
-We think it’ll work pretty well as long as nobody’s a jerk.
“You’re grown-ass adults,” says Jake, playfully twirling the megaphone. “This is your time. Use it however you want.”
Bells will ring to signal the end of an activity period, but once again: you don’t have to participate in anything that you don’t want to. Food’s in that building up there. Doctor Tony is in that office over there. Oh, and – we’re all adults, so… condoms are in the welcome baskets, enthusiastic consent is the name of the game, and whatever you do, don’t do it in the cabins. The campers — about a hundred and thirty-five of us — laugh gamely. It’s palpable – the uncertainty, the enthusiasm, the shy smiles between strangers. We are encouraged to ask questions of one another that don’t suck: it’s less about ‘So, where are you from?’ and more about “What are you most passionate about today?” or “What Spice Girl do you most closely identify with?”
I grab a book and head down towards the docks. For the fifth time in about an hour, I check my phone to see what time it is. My phone is, of course, shut off. I have no need to know what time it is, and yet I continued to reach for my nonexistent phone with startling regularity, a tic I had never before noticed that I’d cultivated.
I had met Tracey and Amy, two teachers from New York, during orientation, and I join them now as we walk towards the docks. I say hi to Ben’s friend Alan, a tall, handsome counselor, and the small talk turns into giggling and laughing, suddenly too-familiar, wondering if Alan is single.
Within three hours of arriving, I am sitting on a dock, splashing my feet in the water, and giggling with my new cabin-mates about boys.
Maybe I won’t be so bad at this camp thing after all.
“You can do whatever you want,” I tell myself, marching up the hill towards an event called Cabin Olympics. “You’re a grown-ass adult. You can go back to your book in your cabin at any time.”
I go, and I’m glad that I do. An hour after I arrive, all 135 of us are screaming and cheering with the fervor of a thousand Gladiator movies. Two campers face one another, staring at one another in an open field. There’s determination in their eyes, fire in their blood. They are tense and poised, blocking out the roars of the crowd surrounding them.
Paper covers rock. Rock beats scissors. And Scissors. Cut. Paper!!!!!
Imagine being the young woman who was hoisted, victorious, into the air: the new Camp Bonfire Rock-Paper-Scissors Champion. Complete strangers are chanting and cheering your name as the sun sets over the trees. I’m suddenly an extra at the end of every sports movie, and it’s genuinely thrilling to be a part of it: a real-life triumph, where even the losers are supportive and engaged. Even when the stakes are so preposterously silly: the enthusiasm and the energy are real.
I’m laughing, and I care a lot less about the bug bites. It’s been at least thirty minutes since I’ve wondered where my phone is.
By what I imagine is sometime around nine or ten pm, I’m exhausted. I’m toasting a marshmallow over a bonfire with one hand, sipping a craft cocktail from Art in the Age in the other. Shadows are dancing across the field, and a warm glow illuminates everyone. Fireflies are literally dancing, buzzing, twirling around our heads.
That night, I sleep harder and deeper on that pencil-thin whisper of a mattress than I have in weeks.
I should probably tell you right now: I’m cheating at this whole camp friends thing. Unlike a lot of the other people here, some faces are already familiar to me.
Ben, the camp director who invited me? He’s my neighbor and my friend, although I’m actually closer with his younger sister Rachel. She’s here as part of the support staff, gamely setting up hammocks and handling some of the logistics, alongside Sarah, Liz, Alan, Erin, Mark, Lee … counselors, friends, people I know in my real life. So I’ve got a bit of a social safety net here to lean on.
Yet they’re all busy working when I arrive at the dining hall, and I’m pleasantly able to discover that I’m talking over coffee with people I met only yesterday. Somehow, I’m hungrier here too, piling my plate with waffles, fresh blueberries, syrup, half a bagel, eggs, bacon. I scan the list of activities, trying to plan my day.
Here’s the list of everything you can do at Camp Bonfire: Capture the Flag, giant swing, night hikes, lake swim, canoeing, kayaking, standing paddle board, climbing wall, glow frisbee, basketball, dodgeball, crew olympics, fire building, survival skills, soccer, archery, sing-alongs, talent show, plant prints, terrarium building, cooking, shelter building, lanterns, poetry, freestyle rapping, book binding, friendship bracelets, music, charcoal drawing, dance party, bonfires, yoga, tai chi, rest hour, silent hikes, hammocks, free-time, sitting on the dock, beer by the fire, technology-free days, reading, letter-writing, s’mores, cloud watching, and more.
It’s an exhaustive list, and makes me feel tired just to read it. But during those three days, I tackled well over half of it. There was something, I suppose, about knowing that I’m not surrounded by kayaks and canoes in the city that made me want to jump at the opportunity; some part of my brain that knew that if I didn’t climb the rock wall here, I probably never would.
This was the day where I fired a bow and arrow at a target, feeling like a fierce Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games, shocked to discover just how much strength it takes to stretch the bowstrings taut. This was the day when we played an epic game of Capture the Flag, where I crouched, blue facepaint smudged on my cheeks, hiding in the bushes behind the tennis courts, waiting for my moment to sprint into enemy territory. (I also made quiet small talk with the ladies who opted out of the game altogether, sunbathing and giggling in the middle of the playing field, no judgment whatsoever on either end of the equation).
This was the day when I learned to kayak. This was the morning I spent laughing with my friends Erin and Liz. This was the morning when I read that cheesy novel in a soft hammock. This was the day when time stretched, seeming both endless and insufficient.
That was the night of the talent show.
I take a seat in one of the first rows, in an open auditorium on a wooden bench. I’m anxious for everyone involved – there’s no way that this won’t be a trainwreck, right? Asking people who have known one another for less than a day to feel comfortable performing in front of one another? Other than the campers who signed up for the “Learn a Dance for the Talent Show” activity, there’s no rehearsal time… just a sign-up sheet, eager participants, and an audience that suddenly feels enormous, filling in the spaces in the front.
I should know better than to be surprised at this point. It is, perhaps, one of the most beautiful things I have witnessed in a very long time.
I mean, don’t get me wrong: it was an expected blend of hidden talents and delightfully amateur attempts. Slam poets and wannabe comedians, musicians with original work, a girl that just made up poems based on the audience’s dreams last night… really, anything goes. And some of the campers turned out to be genuinely talented entertainers; I’m thinking especially of Marjorie, a former teacher-turned-storyteller, a woman with an enormous smile and killer comic timing, her filthy punchline told so wholesomely that she instantly shocked the room into immediate, stomach-clutching, teary-eyed laughter.
But what I loved most that night were the acts that feel the least rehearsed, the least polished but most authentic. It’s a strange thing, witnessing vulnerability in a public setting. It felt like genuine bravery in action, rare and instantly treasured, people I barely knew giving gifts of themselves. There was Bonnie, a middle-aged woman whose hands were visibly shaking as she made her way to the microphone, telling us, almost as an act of confession, that she “swore to herself” that if she ever got the chance to sing in front of a crowd, she would do it. And she did, her voice cracking at first but strengthening as she continued, her face opening up, the audience beaming back at her.
Frank, an older man in his sixties, his soft voice leading the room of mostly younger people in a group sing-along to “Let the Sun Shine In.” Kylin, who has glimmering, mischievous eyes and a ringmaster’s coat stolen from the Camp Bonfire dress-up bin, instructs us all to snap our fingers, clap our hands, stamp our feet – until the sounds of our own bodies created the soundscape of a thunderstorm, enveloping us in a quiet bubble of our own world.
“My talent,” Ky says, breaking the spell, “is getting people to do what I tell them.”
The final act was a dance routine choreographed by my friend Rachel, Ben’s younger sister. Rachel is sunshine-in-a-bottle on most days and a fiercely churning river of deep emotions and strong intellect on the others. She’s a musical theatre performer and teacher, and I’ve seen her dance in front of thousands of people dozens, if not hundreds of times, before.
This night, she took the stage flanked by the twenty or so women who signed up for the activity. The opening riff of Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” blares from the sound system, and suddenly women who would never in their lives dance beyond the privacy of their showers or bedrooms are hip-locking, head-shaking, stomping and swerving in perfect unison across the stage and into the audience.
I’ve seen Rachel in tap shoes and wigs, evening gowns and ornate costumes, but it’s here – disheveled, a little smelly, a forgotten sweatshirt tied around her waist, her hair pulled into a loose ponytail, glistening with sweat – it’s here that I finally understand what dancing means to her, the actual power of that gift. What it feels like to watch her realize that she’s taken non-dancers and allowed them to share her light, in a safe, no-stakes way to let them live out their backup dancer fantasies. Her joy is palpable. It’s contagious: people are on their feet instantly, clapping and cheering like Bruno himself had decided to give an impromptu show. She’s ridiculous. She’s beautiful.
She’s radiating joy.
I grab a beer and walk up to the dance party with my friend Erin, who is the known introvert of our friend circle – prefers books to bars, quiet evenings to loud ones. She’s reliving the moment that just happened – Did I really dance to “Uptown Funk” in front of a roomful of strangers? Yup, I say. You did, and you killed it. Her face looks different in the twilight – relaxed, glowing. She’s a little embarrassed, but mostly she’s proud, and I’m proud of her – the Erin I know from Philadelphia would never have stepped onto that stage.
I’m secretly a little jealous. I want a piece of that joy, and I get it: DJ Lil Dave hosts an epic dance party in a pavilion underneath the stars. I dance and I dance and I dance until my sides hurt, dance so hard I forget to pause for another drink, dance and dance and dance as I hear the laughter floating from the nearby bonfire, watching sparks fly into the air, dance like the best wedding I’ve ever been at, dance until the music stops and it’s time to go home and I crawl into bed, asleep seconds after my head touches the pillow.
Something feels different, and I wonder what it is, and then I identify it: the absence of anxiety. I have no idea what time it is. I don’t have my phone. I still have no idea whether or not I’m a complete fraud of a writer. And in that moment, none of it matters.
Successful travel writers aren’t, of course, really telling you about the places they travel. Oh, sure: they tell you where to eat and what to see, what attractions to skip and which hidden gems to uncover. But mostly, they’re telling you about themselves. Some emptiness that their journey refueled, or some forgotten inner truth rediscovered.
I worried at one time, immaturely, that this piece would suffer because I’m not here to tell you about any of that. I didn’t arrive broken, and camp couldn’t heal me if I was. I didn’t “find myself” at camp; I’m here and I always have been. There’s no magic hoodoo in the waters that will make you more confident or less anxious; no secret cure that makes the problems that exist in your daily life disappear.
Then again, that was before I met Jihan.
I knew her only as “the woman on the swing.” When the activities guide mentions “Big Swing,” they literally mean, “terrifying harness bungee-jump from a fifty-foot drop.” You’re released by a ripcord, then dangle and fly through the air like a human tetherball. It terrified the hell out of me, which is exactly why I signed up.
When I saw the woman on the swing, I paused just to see what it looked like from the ground – the sight of another person in a helmet and harness screaming and flying around through a large clearing in the trees. But I stayed and watched when she landed on the ground and burst into tears – yelling, laughing, crying, simultaneously both weepy-eyed and exhilarated. It’s as if a dam has been released and water is pouring through – she’s the living, breathing, crying embodiment of that millisecond after a particularly good sneeze.
“Oooooohhhhhhhh!” she cries, as friends rub her back and she shakes her head, releasing the clasp on her helmet. “You don’t find that in the ‘hood.”
I meet Jihan and introduce myself later, when we spend our last morning in the art room. She shows me a drawing she’s made, on thick, creamy paper in a book that she’s bound herself. It’s a woman, lying backwards or perhaps floating, her hair an explosion of beautiful dreadlocks, filling up to the corners of the pages; her heart radiating into a giant beam of light.
“That’s kind of it,” she says, pointing shyly to her art. “That’s what that was for me.”
There is more I could tell you. There’s more about the mundane events that became ritual; the giddy excitement of creating new tradition, the inside joke that didn’t even make sense while it was happening when a hungover counselor poked holes inside a box and wore it on her head on that last morning, proclaiming exuberantly to the weary campers that our new camp mascot had been created. (“No,” others groaned, voices hoarse, muscles aching, still laughing. “That’s literally just a cardboard box labeled ‘Toilet Paper’ on your head.”)
There’s more I could tell you about conversations I held with nurses, scientists, teachers, businesspeople, artists, administrators, doctors, and poets. The unexpected thrill of discovering that maybe everyone is a little bit bad at small talk, but I was actually pretty good at real talk. The quiet pleasure when I discovered that making friends as an adult was much easier here than it was in the outside world.
By that last day, I didn’t even reach for my phone once.
In the hours before packing my belongings, I was already hoarding my ‘last’s’ – one last moment at the lake, one quick minute left to read, one last dip into the water or slam of the screen door.
One last camp song. One last cheer. One last moment of watching my friend Ben, exhausted beyond description, his vocal chords all but decimated, smile with his entire self as he lit the final bonfire and wished us all goodbye — for now. One last moment of beaming with pride as my friend Ben – my talented, stubborn, fiercely determined friend – surveyed the strangers that he had turned into campers, hugged his childhood friend turned business partner, and realized that he had made his wildest dream into a reality. A summer camp for adults. A sanctuary. A return to childhood. A safe haven. A place in the world that was pure, supportive, and safe.
One last hug before goodbye. One last promise to stay in touch.
One last moment that should have been mired in cliché, but wasn’t: when it comes from someplace real, you can forgive the emotions that have come before.
One last moment of intense pride as I witnessed what my friends had created, and recognized it as special.
I arrived so nervous, and I realized how much energy I had wasted on anxiety and fear. Camp was empowering and invigorating and wild and peaceful and inspiring. It was nothing out of the ordinary. It was like nothing I had ever encountered. And in that way it was like every camp story you’ve ever heard: a series of events that could be construed as immensely boring to everyone who wasn’t there. If you’ve ever tried to photograph a sunset, explain an inside joke, or describe the perfect dessert you ate one time, you understand my frustration: there are some situations where the words simply aren’t enough.
It was camp. It was magical. I wish I had better words for it. I guess you had to be there.
(Ps: Just so you know: the experiment was a success. There will be a Camp Bonfire next year. I’m planning to be there. Registration’s open at Camp Bonfire … I’m already excited).
Pps: When there are no phones, there are no cameras. No instagram. No nothin’. Fortunately, this really great dude named Paul at Hazel Photo followed everyone around with a camera all weekend, so all of our memories are now in high-res, and everybody’s pores look good.