I walk the path I once walked as a boy. Tree roots rise from the ground, trying like hell to catch my sneaker and plant my face in the dirt, as they’ve done so many times before.
Camp Yawgoog is a Boy Scout camp in western Rhode Island, where I spent much of my boyhood. It’s been almost 30 years since I attended this camp. But it’s not an exaggeration to say that those summer days still burn bright in my mind. The unbelievable freedom and joy of afternoons spent running and swimming and boating and playing under an endlessly blue sky are some of my fondest memories.
In the unlikely event that I die someday, I’ve asked my wife to spread at least some of my ashes by the pond.
I have returned to camp — as I do every summer — to reminisce about some of the best days of my life. For the first time, I am alone on this visit, absent of my former camp buddies. A solitary (and hopefully not too creepy-looking man) making his way through the forest trails that he explored so many years ago.
It’s during this walk that a realization slowly dawns upon me: Summer camp is wasted on the young. We send our children off to camp each year, failing to realize that if we were smart, we’d keep our kids at home — lock them in basements or closets with granola and bottled water — and go off to camp ourselves.
Kids are jerks. Ingrates. Authentically stupid in so many ways. Incapable of appreciating all that they have been given.
Yes, I spent my summer days as a boy under an endless sky of blue, but did I ever bother to look up?
Not really. Instead, my focus was on the hours of operation of the trading post, where I spent my pocket change on Charleston Chews, Twizzlers, and swamp water: a combination of all the sodas that they had available on tap.
Swamp water. This was my summertime obsession. With swimming and boating and fishing and hiking all around me, my friends and I would spend hours sipping swamp water while arguing over which combination of soft drinks produced the best result. Patting ourselves on the backs for our ingenious combinations.
In the evenings, as we sat around a roaring campfire under a brilliant field of twinkling stars, did we even once take stock in the majesty of the universe above us and the solitude of the forest around us?
Of course not. Instead, we threw random objects into the fire to see what would burn. Soda bottles. Plastic cups. Baseballs. Blue jeans. We sprayed lighter fluid on sticks and made torches. We held our hands over the flame to see who would flinch first. We whined about early bedtimes and short-sheeted our friends’ bunks.
We were so dumb.
Not once did we acknowledge the beauty of the place. The lake. The trees. The relaxed pace. The opportunities to learn. The meals eaten in the company of our closest friends. The absence of pressure and demand.
Surrounded by sun and green and water, we spent our time throwing knives at anything made of wood. Coating toilet seats with tree sap.
Fighting with sticks. Trying to find the most creative combination of swear words.
Send me to camp today and things would be so different. I would look up and around. I would pause and admire. I’d spend my days with friends, hiking and talking and pausing to take in the sheer beauty of the place. I would breathe.
Children do not belong at summer camp. They aren’t ready for it. Nor do they deserve it. What have they done to earn a week of glorious ease amidst the wonders of nature? Cleaned their bedrooms after a dozen reminders and the threat of restricted screen time? Carried an occasional bag of trash to an outdoor bin? Finished their homework? Grudgingly hugged Grandma?
Summer camp should demand more of a person. Entrance should require a year of mortgage payments. Weekly meetings with an unlikeable boss. Sundays spent at baptisms for the children of cousins who you barely know and have never liked. Summer camp is a privilege that should be earned, providing short, insignificant bouts of happiness amidst a lifetime of middling success and silent regret.
Summer camp should not be expected. It should be cherished.
Kids have childhood. They get to be young and irresponsible and happy for years on end. Isn’t that enough?
Let’s allow the people who deserve summer camp – need summer camp the most – to enjoy it.
Illustrated by Sean Wang