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This Is the Happy Place I Return to Every Summer

Why I go back again and again and again.

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photo illustration of camping bag, summer, campsite
Paul Spella
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Everything I need to know I learned at sleepaway camp in northern Wisconsin, where I spent 10 summers of my youth, starting in 1963 and ending — or so I thought — as a counselor in 1973.

I returned 40 years later to teach a writing activity and resurrect the camp magazine that died in the 70s. This is the publication in which I got my first byline, launching a literary career. Now, as I did as a child, I am with young campers as they write their hearts out amid towering pines, under an expansive sky set on one of the cleanest lakes in the state.

The activity I lead is called “Writing in the Woods."

These woods are where I fell in love with writing as a child entering Fourth Grade, crafting rough poems about the chilly breeze and the tall trees and the counselors we would tease. My lifelong passion for summer camp, and the gifts it bestowed, is the subject of my last book, Camp Girls: Fireside Lessons on Friendship, Courage and Loyalty, an ode to this place that remains at the core of who I am.

In a few months, I will be 70, and yes, I am the oldest staff member. And what I have discovered as I have grown up and grown older in this place is that adults need playtime, too.

There, on Blue Lake in Wisconsin, I perfected five dives and eight strokes. I also acquired many more essential and lasting skills that pushed my body and enlarged my capacity for loyalty and independence, tenacity and love. Two other character traits culled in the woods that have stuck with me as I age are an unending curiosity and playfulness.

It was in those early years, springing from archery to fencing to the saddle of my favorite horse, Sailor, to the bracing lake, that the best of who I am today was formed. I had a camp self and a city self and the camp self was who I was meant to be all along.

And, that camp girl is still forming, and transforming, making sure I continue to live the words of one of my favorite songs, Cindy Lauper’s 1983 Girls Just Want to Have Fun.

I know that everyone pushing 70 does not get to spend their summer vacations at a camp in the woods. I also know this: You can go “home again," back to the sports and activities you loved in your youth.

You can mount a horse after not riding since you were a teen (if your doctor says you can!). You can take an art class and resume your talent for painting or pottery.

You can play Red Rover in your backyard with your grandkids.

You can sit on the floor and pull out your old bag of jacks.

You can swim in a cold lake with your most adventurous and fun friends.

Growing older and bolder means we need to stay connected to those experiences and people that bring us joy. My closest girlfriends are those with whom I shared bunks and canoe trips, huddling together as storms thrashed our tents, when I was a gangly kid in braces.

Though, in this rendition at summer camp, awash with memories yet fully awake in the now, I am constantly, soothingly reminded that the line between past and present is a flimsy filament that can be broken at any moment to fuse into one unbroken line. This whole life, the layers melding into one, is something that happened because I went back to camp.

As my campers write on lined pads in their laps like the young Iris did long ago, my whole girlhood, my whole literary life, shoots through me. Nestled in a pine forest, away from a classroom’s fluorescent lights, what freedom! Open air opens every sense, every pore.

Along with launching a profession, summer camp spawned an enduring repertoire of life and athletic lessons. I have become an adult who dives unflinchingly into an icy lake, shoots a bullseye in archery, lights a one-match fire and always fights my hardest to be my best.

After 10 summers of fiery competition between the Blue and White teams in my youth, I learned how to be a good loser and a humble winner, and to never give up. Being elected Blue Team captain in 1970 remains one of the high points of my life.

Seriously. My children asked if that title should be on my tombstone.

Another cherished and crucial takeaway: The camp friendships I made — and have kept. Now in our 60s and 70s, we bonded over the homesickness felt during our first time away from our parents, our first bras, first crushes and first heartaches, Our bonds have thickened through celebrating our children’s births, graduations and births of grandchildren.

We have grieved together through the deaths of siblings and parents, through painful divorces and our own health scares.

In our frequent reunions, we share how these unbreakable relationships built on lessons learned in cabins and the woods, have made us adults who are resilient and brave. We are aging together with irrepressible spirits of playfulness and adventure, as we teach our children and grandchildren old camp songs, and how to char marshmallows for s’mores, in backyard campfires.

Apart from my own camp girl circle, there are generations of American women that break into the iconic camp song “Friends, Friends, Friends” when they reminisce about summers spent swimming in the lakes of Wisconsin and Vermont, in Maine and Upstate New York.

Like us, they count their bunk mates as their truest, longest friends. Once a camper always a camper.

So, that is the reason, for a part of each summer, I retreat to a shingled cabin in the woods, with a duffel my parents bought me when I started camp in 1963. I fill this faded canvas bag with tattered T-shirts and vintage sweat clothes that no matter how often they are washed, still have the glorious smell of dirt, pine and fire. This is the reason I may have gray hair, though my spirit and heart are ageless.

Do you want to go back to summer camp, or go for the first time? Do an Internet search of “adult summer camps" and you will find many sources, including this one.

Would you love to go to an adult summer camp? Let us know in the comments below.

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