July 2001. For a moment and a half I was dangling, or rather hanging, from the precarious hands of my cabin counselor who was helping me out of the pool. My untied swimsuit sagged loose around my ankles, my shy buttocks cowered at the sight of the entire co-ed camp, and my humble nine-year-old boyhood startled the female lifeguard in front of me. I nearly broke my chin on the edge ofthe pool when I tried to jump back in and conceal my embarrassment. As it turns out, when a solid object (my swimsuit) moves through a fluid medium (the pool), the fluid induces downward drag against the object and causes it to fall down in front of everyone, leaving me tearful and mortified.
July 2008. My cabin was on the “TC Trek,” a hike through the West Virginia Blue Ridge that began at camp and ended at someswanky campground in George Washington National Forest. We were a few miles west ofthe Virginia border. Around mile nine, soon after I’d finished recounting my sixteen-year life story to the female CITs hiking with us,we reached an acre-wide field mantled with purple and blue wildflowers. A bushel of those flowers thorned the side of my eye as my face hit the ground. I had fallen, nearly fainted, due to heat exhaustion.
August 2010. I was on a counselor day off. I’d been driving around shirtless in a broke-busted station wagon with a Frenchman, a Kiwi, a seven-foot-tall Texan named “Donut,”and three other ex-campers passed out inthe back seat. We’d spent half the day in a tattoo parlor, debating whether or not to do something we would immediately regret,and we’d spent the other half of the day interrogating “locals” and tempting the gravel roads of Route 219 in an effort to find some legendary swimming hole off the northern fork of the Shenandoah River. We never found it and I almost got run off the road bya hatchback, twice.
June 2011. We were halfway down the trail when Joey decided to try to jump a rock witha mountain bike twice his weight. He didn’t jump it; instead, he flipped off and howled in pain as the bike flogged onto his knees. I sent the rest of my cabin off with the other mountain biking counselor. Joey swore his leg was broken; I begrudgingly carried him half a mile back to camp in 90-degree weather. I then accompanied him to get an X-ray at the stodgy Pocahontas County Memorial Hospital, where I spent the entire day staring at taxidermied birds and swapping weather reports with the two nurses on duty only to find out later that Joey was unharmed except for a mild bruise.
July 2011. We were on our way back to camp after another day off when one of the Scottish counselors, who claimed he could drive stick, burned out the clutch of the car. In his defense, the thing was a lemon. Still, with no cell phone service or any other cars in sight, we had to push the car about a quarter mile up a mountain hill until we were rescued by a dubious grouse hunter who called himself “Birdmon” and his oversexed dog named Jazzy.
For me, any attempt to summarize the best of my summer camp would be unfair and disingenuous. This is the opposite; these are, from immediate memory, five of my worst days at summer camp—and they are hardly even terrible. I’ve often found that a bad day at camp would be a great day anywhere else. I suppose that’s why, even after the tragic swimsuit incident of my first year, I kept returning.
Being at camp means being tormented and troubled by every hyperactive seven to sixteen year old that crosses my path. It means going to sleep overheated and waking up shivering because of the fickle West Virginia climate. It means being stranded without cell phone service or high-speed internet in the boondocks of the Mountain State where the only civilization for miles is the two-block town of Marlinton—a town known for its dilapidated Dairy Queen and its annual “Roadkill Cook-off.” To be fair, these things never actually bother me; in a way, I actuallylove them. And hell—in the end, I get to spend my entire summer playing with kids in a paradisiacal Appalachian landscape.
My non-camp (“muggle”) friends don’t understand. To them, my camp charades look like an incomprehensible tribal dance deserving anthropological study. I can’t explain to them why we have songs about bananas, moose, boom-chicka-booms, and just about everything else. I can’t explain to them why I return to school each year witha semi-audible part-British, part-Southern accent. I can’t explain to them why all of my glorified summer romances inevitably end in heartbreak. I can’t explain why I always want to cry every goddamn time I hear John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” It’s just a camp thing.
More recently, I’ve felt guilty going back to camp year after year. I’ve forgone internships, travel opportunities, beach weeks, summer classes, and better-paying jobs. Of course, being at Harvard only exacerbates those feelings of guilt: there’s a relentless specter here that implores us to succumb to our overblown résumés and professional shortcomings.
For the past eleven years, I’ve been steeped full of provincial moonshine and left clambering to some quixotic camp wonderland in the crossroads of West Virginia. Every one of those years, I have tried to convince myself that I won’t return to camp, that it’ll be my last summer there and that—next summer—I’ll start taking myself seriously. But, every year, I have gone back. This upcoming summer will be my last time, for real, though. I swear it, I think.