Yesterday afternoon we dropped Nate off at horse camp for a week. When I was little, my favorite place in the world was girl scout camp. Every year, in late winter, they would release the schedule for the following summer. I would pore over it, trying to decide whether Crafty Critters or Woodswoman 1 had better potential for adventure. I'd pester my parents to have the registration form in the mail on the first day that registration opened, so that I wouldn't get stuck on a waiting list or closed out entirely.
I went there every summer from the time that I was a Brownie (the summer after first grade) until I was a Senior in high school. I started out going for three days, then a week, then two. Later, I spent the entire summer there as a counselor. It was the only place that was truly my own. My Mom had gone there as a child, and later, as a counselor, but when I was there, I was largely on my own. Other girls I knew always went with a friend or a tentmate already picked out. But for me, a quiet, painfully shy bookworm, it was the only time all year that I was able to fully be myself amongst mostly strangers, without any of the the weight of expectations and past histories.
I did know some people there. Occasionally someone from my own home troop or school would be there at the same time as me. Eventually, after going for so many years, I began to make friends that I would see for just that one week each year, occasionally writing letters back and forth over the winter to keep in touch. As I got older, the older sister of one of my good friends became a counselor, and I was completely starstruck. But for the most part, my home and camp circles had very little overlap. If I said something dumb, or fell on my face in front of a large crowd (this happened with frightening regularity - I'm not graceful) the statute of limitations for embarrassment expired the minute my parents picked me up on Saturday morning, rather than haunting me for the entire school year.
Also, although there were adults there, and schedules, rules, and boundaries to keep us safe, we were also left to our own devices to some extent. For the first time in many of our lives, we did all of the basic chores that kept us clean, dry, and fed [most of the time we ate in a dining hall, but a couple of times each week we would cook our own meals at the campsite]. I would return home afterward with a certain smug satisfaction that if the power were to go out, I would probably outlive 70% of my classmates, and that my expert fire-building skills would be in high demand.
After high school, things changed, and I stopped going. The camp has since been sold and now the trails there are quiet, except when the new owners are there four-wheeling or hunting. But even today, the friends I made there are some of the most important people in my life. Even if we haven't seen one another in years, within minutes we fall back into the same old easy rhythms of those long-ago summers.
I wanted all of this so badly for my own two boys. I wanted them to get the high score in archery. To learn how to work as a team to paddle a canoe so that it travels in a somewhat straight line. To laugh until they cry when someone inevitably tips that canoe over in the middle of the lake. I wanted them to meet the people (other than their own family) who they will turn to for comfort when they are in pain - the people who will always be there for them no matter what. But most of all, I want them to have a little part of the world that belongs to just them, where they can have their own, separate identities outside of their ordinary, parent-managed life. A Peter Pan fantasy where the only adults are 19 year-olds from America, and Columbia, and Australia, who are more likely to tip the canoe than to yell at you for doing it.
Both boys go to summer camp with boy scouts, but they go with their home troop, with the kids they go to school with and see every week for scout meetings. With adults who are actual, legitimate grownups with mortgages and a healthy fear of malnutrition from eating nothing but peanut butter and jelly for a week straight. It's just not the same. So each summer we also send them to another camp for some pure run amokism. This is Nate's fourth year. He goes to a day camp program there for part of the summer, and also does one session of overnight camp. He didn't take to it right away, but he has had some amazing adventures. Yesterday, when we dropped him off, all of the counselors knew him by name. He has made one particular friend who has many of the same interests. They spend the entire summer scheming to create a viable population of crayfish, and the entire winter looking forward to seeing each other again. Last week, when he was there for day camp, his chosen special activity of the week was hiking. I asked him if he'd seen anything amazing or new on one of his hikes, and he said "Mom. I've been going there for four years. I know everything in that place."