I’d like to share with you an excerpt of a “novelette” I wrote recently about the summer when I was 20 years old and had a job as a camp counselor. I slimmed it down quite a bit to make it more compatible with the blog format but I think this may be an even better version than the original, in its edited form. I hope you enjoy it! It’s my most ambitious foray into memoir writing.
“If we are always arriving and departing, it is also true that we are eternally anchored. One’s destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things.“ Henry Miller
There was something fascinating about the Puget Sound. Being from San Diego, I thought I knew water- I had grown up with my feet in the hot sand, a boogie board in my hands. I was intimate with the patterns of waves, familiar with the sting of saltwater in my eyes, that uncomfortable yet nostalgic feeling when water goes up your nose. I knew the chlorinated blueness of swimming pools, I knew the deep emerald of rivers rushing through the Sequoia National Park, minutes from my Grandparents’ house. But I’d never seen water like this- smooth, silver, misty, iridescent. Pooling around mounds of islands, green with trees or distant, the same powder blue as the water. I was used to water that extended forever, an impossible distance. This water was cozy, contained, a peaceful pocket of beauty.
I stood on the farthest point of Samish Island (technically a peninsula), on a narrow finger of sand known as The Point. Standing there I always felt like I was on the prow of a ship. There was nothing out there but large chunks of driftwood that kids sometimes balanced on, and some rocks green with slime. The air felt fresh and warm with a hint of coolness, a breeze coming off the water. I was wearing a pair of dusty green pants, vintage running shoes that said The Winner on the tongues in gold cursive, and a Talking Heads T-shirt. My black curly hair tumbled in the wind, bangs blowing back to expose my forehead. I was letting it grow after six years of having short hair, and the feel of its wild movement around my head was a novelty for me.
Although I was tired with an exhaustion I’d never known, I felt strong and alive. I was halfway into the summer, something I knew not to think too hard about. I was taking this experience a day at a time and five more weeks of this seemed incomprehensible. It was 5:00 in the evening- I was already an hour into my break. At 6:00 I would need to head over to the dining hall and find my kids, do dinner, clean up, evening campfire, then get everyone into their beds.
That morning had tested my patience: sometime in the night some of the boys had pranked the girls by smearing toothpaste on all the rungs of the ladders that went up to the treehouses, which really I had to deal with because I’m the one who uses those ladders first every day, climbing up to each of the cabins to wake up the girls for breakfast.
After breakfast we’d had archery. I’d discovered I had a knack for archery, something about the way it required you to stop, focus, and aim- a combination of stillness and strength. After lunch we did the ropes course activity by Water Rat which was always a big hit except Mackenzie had trouble with the trust fall part at the end. She really wanted to do it but just couldn’t get over her fear. We tried to help her feel safe and relaxed but she ended up not doing it and feeling frustrated with herself.
In the afternoon there was some kind of drama between Tessa and Kendall, there was a lot of huddles and note passing and at one point I saw Tessa crying while Megan consoled her. I definitely preferred the twelve year olds to the six year olds I had at the beginning of the summer, but that meant I have to deal with crushes and social drama.
Sometimes it wasn’t so much about what happened that day, just the fact that I was on duty the whole time, except for that euphoric two hour break. On my daily break (or “STO” as we called it- Staff Time Off) I was often writing- letters to Mom, to Scott, to Nate, to Diana- or writing in my journal. I would head to Tayito, the counselor’s cabin, check my mailbox cubby and sink down into one of the soft couches to read my letters and write. But sometimes I needed to be here at The Point- as far from everyone as possible, soaking in the scene, feeling myself here, now.
As I stood at the edge of the water and watched the sun make its slow descent behind the islands, I thought how strange it was that I had ended up here. I had never intended to be a camp counselor. I didn’t really like being around kids, especially lots of kids in once place, especially kids I’m supposed to be in charge of. I didn’t have a bubbly, energetic personality. I was someone who needed a lot of time to myself and didn’t like a lot of responsibility or constrictions. I had never spent much time around kids and my one attempt at babysitting went badly. Personally I never planned to have kids of my own. When I had submitted my application for this job I had applied for the dishwasher position. But during my phone interview, Jen, one of the owners of the camp, told me they were short on counselors and she convinced me to take that job instead.
Before camp began, I had spent the three previous weeks in the town of Everett, Washington with my new love interest, Scott. We had met several months before in Chico, California where I was living to go to college and we fell reluctantly in love. Reluctantly for me because I was already in a relationship with my first love, Nate, and although it had so far been an open relationship, we were giving monogamy a go. And reluctantly for him because he was much older than me (I was 19 when we met, he was 33) and he knew that we were at different places in our lives. He was also emotionally guarded in general and struggled with social anxiety. It had been a very odd three weeks living with him in a small apartment with his brother and sister in law and two nieces. The excitement of our romance dulled as reality set in and I realized that maybe he was right, maybe there wasn’t really a future for us. I had found this camp counselor job to be near Scott for the summer, but I was beginning to think that maybe the relationship was something of a vehicle to get me to this upcoming experience. I had a feeling it was going to be transformative.
I didn’t have a ride to Camp Kirby so I’d bought a bus ticket to Mt. Vernon, the closest town to camp, and on the phone they’d told me that someone would be meeting me there to give me a ride. When I got off the bus in the morning I saw a tall woman with short blond hair and a Camp Kirby 2002 shirt waiting for me at the station.
“Hi, are you Serra? I’m Jen!” We got in her minivan and made the half hour drive while she told me a little about the camp. She and her girlfriend had been running the camp for about five years, but the camp itself had been around since 1930.
“What brought you to Washington?” She asked. “All the other counselors are from the area. We don’t usually get anyone in from California!”
“Well,” I started, not sure how to explain my situation. I thought about telling her that I was impulsively chasing a doomed relationship but thought better of it. What I settled on was more of a deeper truth. “I wanted to explore a place far from home.”
We pulled into camp, passing the wooden sign with “Camp Kirby” carved into it with jaunty cursive. We trundled around a bend and down a dirt road curving through thick forests. I caught glimpses of cabins and huts through the trees. At the bottom of the hill the forest made way for a large flat open space dotted with larger buildings connected by foot paths. A wide lodge stood at the bottom of the hill with a sign that said Dining Hall. More cabins could be seen in the distance, and near the shore, and a collection of canvas and wood tee-pees. A wooden totem pole and a flagpole flying the American flag and a Camp Kirby flag stood in the center of the field. And surrounding everything, the calm, shining water of Samish Bay.
Most the staff had already arrived at Tayito, the counselor’s cabin, for our first day of training. In an email I’d received about working at the camp, I was told I’d need to choose a camp name by the first day. I decided on Milo, the name of the protagonist in one of my favorite books from childhood, The Phantom Tollbooth. Jen and I walked into the large cabin where a group of people about my age were on floors and couches, chatting with each other.
The first thing she had us do was go around the room and introduce ourselves using our camp name. There was Hollywood, a peppy and earthy blond girl. Kalahari, pale and glamorous with long dark hair. Turbo, a big muscular guy who looked like he had been popular in High School. Maxx, a petite and tan girl with sleek blond hair and a nose stud. Night Owl, a quiet stoner-ish guy with short dark hair and aviator sunglasses. Teriyaki, an androgynous looking girl with short hair and a mischievous smirk. Hobbes, a big round smiley guy with a Bumbershoot T-shirt. Light Speed, a kind of unintentionally ironic name for a sleepy, sedentary girl with dark hair and a solemn expression. Luna, a small, sweet looking girl wearing a muscle tee and hair bandanna. Feika, who had a big smile and short dark hair.
Jen, whose camp name was Gravity, started us off by writing on a big whiteboard at the front of the room the daily camp schedule:
9:30 Scramble (Camper’s choice activities)
12:45 Rest hour
-Outdoor living skills
– Ropes course
-Arts and crafts
– Rock wall climbing
-Music and drama
7:15 All Camp activity
8:30 Chapel (on Tuesdays)
9:30 Lights out
She told us a little about each item on the board and let us know that Chapel wasn’t a religious activity, it was just a moment of quiet reflection in a beautiful spot in the woods. She also reminded us that we would each be getting one 2 hour break daily when one of the activity leaders would take over our kids for that time period. At the end of every week we got 24 hours off- from 2:00 pm on Saturday to 2:00 Sunday. It was information that I understood but didn’t really absorb.
After a quick break we all went outside and learned some field games and team buildings exercises, then we walked around the camp for a tour. We checked out Shuta- the arts and crafts cabin, saw the waterfront shed where all the boats are kept, Herman’s Hut- a building by the water with a kitchen and a bedroom, TeePee Town where the teenage campers stay, the cabins where the younger kids stay, Health House where Gravity’s girlfriend Journey tended to sick kids and injuries, the Dining Hall, and then we all tromped up the hill to visit the Hi-Tor treehouse cabins for the 12 year old kids, which was where I would be staying. She also pointed out where, across the road from the treehouses, all of the forested hiking trails started. All the counselors with kids ranging from ages 8-12 would be doing weekly campouts in the forest in campsites at the end of these trails. The teenagers would be canoeing out to their campsites on Saddlebag Island, the small island directly across from us.
After lunch we started learning some camp songs which, if you’ve been to summer camp, you know is a major part of camp experience. Although I’d been to camp a few times as a kid, none of these songs were familiar to me. But after some repetition we were picking them up pretty fast. I can still remember my favorite camp song, a kind of sing-songy chant complete with snapping and hand gestures:
Way out West where the badlands are
And the only thing to guide you is the evening star
Is the roughest, toughest, man by far
And his name is Cowboy Joe.
He always sings (ch ch ch) ragtime music to his cattle as he swings
Back and forth on his saddle on his horse (pretty good horse!)
It’s a syncopated gator and it’s such a funny meter to the
sound of his repeater
How do they run (how do they run!) when they hear that he’s a-comin’
‘Cause the Western folks all know (what do they know?)
He’s a high falutin’ rootin’ tootin’
Son of a gun from Arizona
Ragtime cowboy, talk about ‘cher cowboy
Ragtime Cowboy Jooooe (BANG!)
At the end of the day everyone grabbed their luggage from Tayito where it had been tossed into a pile and headed off to their respective cabins. I shared a treehouse cabin with Maxx, one of the other Hi-Tor counselors. She was sweet and fun and we got along fine. After I’d unpacked my stuff I looked around and enjoyed the look of my trusty blue and yellow down sleeping bag on the creaky twin bed, my own personal window looking out on pine trees and the shining bay, and a shelf under the window on which I had placed a little book my mom had made, a beaded hemp necklace Nate had made, a sweet note from Scott, and a little bottle of eucalyptus essential oil.
I woke up alone in the treehouse cabin, light rain tapping on the metal roof, foggy light oozing in the tiny window. I walked down the hill in the warmish moist air, gray water spread out in the distance. “I am here now,” I realized. I took a shower in Tayito, luscious hot water and clean smells, felt good and rested as I had coffee and cereal.
Before training started for the day I walked along the shore with Feika, wading in the warm water, thick with seaweed, and watched mesmerized by tiny barnacles opening their tiny mouths and sweeping the water with frothy tongues. We picked up rocks and inspected their colors, mused about their age and the way they were formed.
I enjoyed Feika immensely- she was so graceful and melodious, long neck, short dark hair and long earrings, thick eyebrows and open face, mostly quiet but sometimes exploding in beautiful wonder, like when she discovered a kind of barnacle that opened in a different way, and her awe at all the amazing rocks that she kept in her slender hand and the pink trees that grew out from the sharp gray rock that jutted out from the cliff and crumbled into the water.
After programming schedule she whispered, “Milo!” As I was going out the door and asked me secretly with a devilish grin, “You wanna get some ice cream?” And we snuck off to the lodge for strawberry ice cream that she’d made from strawberries from the garden and we ate it with strawberry syrup and whipped cream and bananas as we sat on the porch of the lodge and watched a mama sparrow fly off in search of bugs to feed her baby sparrows in the nest up in the corner.
One day during training week we all drove out to Deception Pass State Park for some rock climbing. Water Rat, the ropes course instructor, led the rock climbing activity. He was a ski instructor during the winter and often led river rafting trips or worked at camps in the summers. At 29, he was older than all the counselors but maintained a childlike enthusiasm for play and adventure. He was short and muscular, with a kind face and shaggy brown hair that brushed his shoulders. I enjoyed the rock climbing and thought it might be something I want to get into more back in Chico. I especially liked the part when you make your way to the top and then have to repel down by keeping your feet on the rock and leaning back so that the person hanging on to your rope can slowly ease you back to the ground. I liked that feeling of surrender and trust.
After my turn up the rock I sat by the water for a while and just gazed out at the view. Flat light blue, reflecting the dark green of islands that like the sloping backs of whales. Gray mist against the trees. The water looked to be calm but I knew it was terribly fast, terribly deep- rotating softly in its circular current. A sudden shift in wind made the water ripple with a quick sharp sound. No one on the beach, just the patient driftwood resting on rocks. If not for the bridge transporting cars and semis and the ominous planes flying high overhead, I could have tricked myself into believing I was there hundreds of years ago. Just this, this that had been here so long before we all arrived. Someday maybe, instead of trees there would be condos and shops, but for now there was this and I was there, and the present was all we had.
The next day we pulled out the canoes and something called a “funyak”- basically a kayak that you sit on top of instead of inside of. I strapped on a life vest, grabbed a couple of oars and dragged a funyak out to the water. I got on and rowed myself around, delighted to be out on the rippling water, enjoying the feeling of the oars in the my hands, the fresh breeze against my face, the water sparkling with light. I had had some experience with boats, I learned about rowing from toodling around in my Grandparent’s rowboat on their big pond in the backyard. I had also gone on a few river rafting trips with friends in Chico who were training to be Outward Bound instructors. I felt that I had a kinship with water, like I knew what it was feeling, what it wanted. I rowed out pretty far and stopped, wanting to just breathe and be and feel grateful for this moment. I leaned back and relaxed against the hard plastic of the funyak, my paddles criss crossed over my stomach. I almost closed my eyes, the gentle rock of the boat lulling me into a sleepy state. I couldn’t believe my luck. I had made it to this gorgeous place and I had already made amazing friends. Whatever happened next, I could totally handle it. This was where I was meant to be.
After several minutes I heard a yell. “Milo! Head on back please!” Gravity was calling to me from the shore. She sounded very far away. I sat up and looked- the breeze and the current had carried me further than I expected. With a mix of slight alarm and resentment I muscled my way back to land, somewhat miffed that my blissful moment was cut short.
Sometimes I think about that moment with wonder and amazement. I had almost fallen asleep on a funyak in the Puget Sound with no real thought to consequence. I was completely relaxed and at ease in a somewhat dangerous situation, not particularly caring whether or not I got swept downstream and stranded on a random island. It reminds me of how, as a restless teenager who hadn’t gotten her driver’s license yet, I would sometimes board a bus from the remote country suburb of Ramona to Hillcrest, the coolest and edgiest section of San Diego. Normally a one hour drive in a car, it took three hours on a city bus, but it felt worth it to me just to get out of my boring town. As a teenager I was compelled by a passionate and selfish drive to get as far away from my house and hometown as possible, as often as possible. Not that anything was wrong with my home; in fact, I was raised in a very loving and stable family and my childhood was what you might call idyllic. But, like my friends that I had to distance myself from, escape was necessary if I was going to become my full self and devour everything the world had to offer. Even if it meant setting out with no intention of planning a return trip.
That night as I lay in bed in my treehouse cabin I thought of Ramona and its deep eternal silence, and going to bed in my muffled room, closed off from the resonant house- the silence extending from our house past the neighborhood and through the entire town. Warm familiarity, unquestionable safety, steady breathing and the constance of an immortal childhood, in a place that would always be the foundation of the person I was. Sometimes I felt like I was still there, in my familiar room, sitting on my familiar bed, everything around me as familiar as my own body, memorized in each small detail. And what was this life? This daydream? It made me constantly look around in awe- a stunning disbelief that I wasn’t sitting in my room in Ramona. Ever since I left, my life had been one long out of body experience. Delicious disorientation, beautiful bewilderment. Who was I this moment?
The first week of camp took me to the extent of my capabilities. There was a shortage of Hi-Tor campers the first week so I got Indian Villagers instead- the six year olds. I’d never done anything so hard in my life. I hadn’t anticipated how needy they would be, how dependent on me for everything. In the night they would wake me several times so I could escort them to the bathroom or because they’d had a bad dream. Sometimes they wet their sleeping bags and in the morning would be drenched and shivering. They were constantly homesick or bored or wanting to know what we were going to do next. They had questions for me all the time. And not just that but I was uncomfortable with being a figure of authority. It felt weird to have to say sternly, “Lights out! Everyone go to sleep!” at bedtime, or “everyone get your shoes on, it’s time to head to the dining hall!” I still felt mostly like a kid myself and I felt extremely unqualified to be the leader and caretaker of this group of young girls. I didn’t know how to be fun and playful with them because I was too stressed out about maintaining order and getting them to where they needed to be on time.
It was only Tuesday when I passed Turbo on the path and he asked, “How you doing, Milo? Tired?” as he threw his arm around me and I bleated out, “I’m so tired!” and threw myself against him laughing and suddenly to my horror burst into tears. Ashamed, I ran to the bathroom to quietly sob and gasp with these new feelings and fears.
That night I got to find out what Chapel was. It was held at a half circle of wooden benches up in the forest, near the cliffs. It was one of the most beautiful places in camp- since Chapel was held at around sundown, you could watch the glimmering sunset through the trees as the sun sank below the water. Journey started it off playing “This Land is Your Land” on her guitar as most of us sang along. Then she led us in what was called the “Washington Rainstorm.” The way it worked was she would start doing something- the campers to the right of her were to copy her movements, then the campers to their right copied their movements and so on. You weren’t supposed to do the movement until you saw the person to your left doing it. She started off by rubbing her hands together, then snapping her fingers, clapping her hands, slapping her thighs, stomping her feet, slapping her thighs again, clapping her hands, snapping her fingers, and back to where she had started with rubbing her hands. The movements created small sounds, but combined with the whole camp making the sounds in the way that you might sing a “round” it magically created the audio illusion of a rainstorm passing through the forest.
Another thing that happened at every Chapel was Journey would find a rock to pass around. When the rock was passed to you, you were to hold it for a moment and make a wish on it. When the rock made its way back to Journey, she would chuck it out into the water. The whole scene was very peaceful and magical, and I always looked forward to Chapel.
It wasn’t until later when I realized that our training week had essentially been the gift of a week of summer camp. Journey and Gravity did everything with us that we were, in turn, to do with our campers. When I thought of it that way I felt blessed that I was able to, at the age of 20, experience summer camp again. But it left me a little sad as well, the fact that now we all had to be in charge for the rest of the summer. It was like an abrupt loss of childhood.
On my day off after the second week I stayed at camp with Luna, Turbo, Feika, and Water Rat. Feika and Water Rat and I decided to go by our real names on our days off and I was trying to get used to calling them Cassandra and Brian. We sat and talked for hours in Cassandra’s teepee. She was so genuine and loving of everything and so wise, and Brian was tender and soft and childlike, so in need of love and nurturing and understanding. His face always looked as if it was melting. He told us about this girl he was engaged to for a while but who left him suddenly, and soft tears brimmed in his eyes, his nose red and shiny. I sat beside him and held him close, feeling his hurt and loneliness. He was a delicate soul, full of life and joy but also enormous pain, and I hoped so much that he finds his soulmate. I marveled at the fact that everywhere I went I met amazing people with brilliance spilling from them. I often felt that I was one of those people.
Walking to the lodge to do laundry it again occurred to me where I was, and again was surprised by the realization. I knew this was where I was supposed to be even if it was uncomfortable and awkward and frustrating. I could feel myself expanding and that’s how I knew it was right.
That afternoon after all the kids had left, I was filled with a certain bursting hugeness- something explosive I needed to express. A bunch of us made lunches and ate them on the grass. I devoured my hummus and egg salad sandwich and thought, “this is the most amazing sandwich I’ve ever had in my life.” I lay on the porch of the lodge and soaked in the sun, listened to the conversations between Gravity, Journey, Turbo, and Luna and just felt so full of goodness and thought, “I just want to stay right here for the rest of my life.”
Cassandra and I washed dishes and I told her, “Oh man, I’m just filled with something and I gotta let it out!”
“I know!” She said, laughing wonderfully. I could tell she felt it too. A beautiful Ben Harper song came on the stereo and I danced fully, slowly, in the empty dining hall, singing though I didn’t know the words, letting my body do what it wanted. The song was something about being ready to put on his long white robe.
There were times during the week when I thought I was just going to start screaming, have some kind of tantrum. My anger would flare up at the kids and I would struggle to contain it. My dreams had become laced with anger. My laughter was loud and abrupt. Silence was rare. Homesickness under the surface of it all. When all the parents came that morning to pick up their kids, I felt a desperate wish that my mom was coming to pick me up and the thought carried a large, unknowable sadness.
In a way, maybe it was good I started off with the youngest age group because everything after that felt almost easy by comparison. I found that the 12 year olds were much more independent so I had more time to myself instead of entertaining them or cleaning up wet sleeping bags or escorting them to the nurse for a splinter or a “sprained” ankle. I could actually have real conversations with these girls and connect with them on a more equal level. Often we would just be hanging out outside the treehouses making friendship bracelets and talking.
On our campout, Maxx and I led our two groups of kids into the woods with our sleeping bags and gear. During the week of training we were taught how to build a fire, something I’d never really gotten the hang of before. For the first time I understood how a fire worked, how you had to feed it carefully and lovingly without smothering it. The goal was to make a “one match fire”- constructing it so well that it lit the first time. For the campout we made tacos for dinner over the fire and I succeeded in making a one match fire. I was starting to feel more competent, like maybe I would actually get through the summer in one piece.
Journey stopped by later with her guitar and led a sing along as we sat around the fire, watching it dance and spark in the darkness. She offered the guitar to me at one point and I played one of my favorite Tracy Chapman songs:
She’s got her ticket
I think she’s gonna use it
Think she’s gonna fly away
No one should try and stop her
Persuade her with their power
She says that her mind is made up
It was a song I often played when I was feeling trapped back in Ramona, or stifled by Nate’s influence. It felt so different to play it here, under the trees, surrounded by young spirited girls, the muscle of my independence strengthening inside of me.
After the fire died down we all snuggled into our sleeping bags. How the girls screamed, how they gossiped, how they snored and burped and complained and laughed hysterically, their screams and squeals echoing out into the dark woods. I lay on my back and gazed at the bright stars through the opening in the tall evergreens, breathed in deeply and wished for silence. And yet the chaos continued.
On my next day off I sat by silent water and watched as a large boat passed slowly, its wake extending from it in two dark trails like snail slime. Murmuring and squawking seagulls clamored on the shore. A white feather floated by, lit brilliantly by the sun. A layer of gray mist hung on the water, clothing distant islands. The ripples from the boat finally arrived- a progression of small waves that shattered on the gooey rocks, and then again silence.
Cassandra came by and sat beside me. “So was this week any better for you than last week?’
“Much better. I’m still exhausted but I think I can handle it. How were your kids?” Cassandra had teenagers, which sounded like a nightmare to me since we were still basically teenagers ourselves. I couldn’t imagine having to be someone in charge of a group of kids only a couple years younger than me. But it seemed to suit her fine.
“They were great! We had so much fun. They loved canoeing out to the island for our campout. I was a little nervous about it but it went well.”
“It’s so nice to finally be able to talk to you! I don’t think I really saw you all week.”
“I know! It’s weird that we made all these amazing friends the first week but we don’t get to see each other much the rest of the summer.”
I picked up a smooth stick of driftwood and held it between my hands. “Did you go to summer camp when you were a kid?”
“Yeah, almost every summer. You?”
“A few times. I was thinking about how you make friends at summer camp- intense friendships- and then after the summer you probably never see those friends again. Maybe you write letters for a year or two but that’s it.”
“Yeah, totally. At the time you think you’re going to be friends for life.”
“It makes me a little sad, to connect with people and then never see them again,” I said. “But it also feels natural, like maybe it’s ok. I can appreciate you in this moment, let myself be changed by you. And then we can thank each other and move on.”
Cassandra smiled at me with warmth and love, and then looked back to the bay, nodding. “It’s a flow, like the movement of water.”
There was one camper named Rebecca who I remember most out of anyone because she was there all summer. I didn’t know why or what was going on with her parents but at the start of every week she was back. Sometimes she was in my group and sometimes she was in Maxx’s group. She kind of acted as an assistant counselor because she was mature for her age and knew more about the camp than even the counselors, since she’d been going there since she was small. She was also a little bossy and loved knowing everything so she was the perfect guide, especially for the kids who were shy and nervous.
That week went pretty smoothly except for the morning after the camp out. We woke to spatterings of raindrops on our faces as we slept in our sleeping bags outside at the Maukualla campsite. The rain stopped pretty soon after we all woke up but all the wood was wet so we struggled to make our morning fire. It was a lot of pressure to make a one match fire with wet wood while twenty two hungry 12 year olds circled me whining that they were wet and cold and hungry. I was so determined that I was going to start the damn fire, even with the wet wood. I felt like a master fire builder by that point so I was sure that I could do it. After about an hour of trying, we finally ended up heading over to Herman’s Hut, which had a kitchen, and making our pancakes there.
I was starting to learn how to really enjoy the kids, how to relax and have fun. The only thing I was still struggling with, besides not enough time to myself, was the kids’ homesickness. Even the 12 year olds were overcome frequently by homesickness and I never knew what to do for them. I had no idea how to help. Rebecca gave me a clue one night when I went into her cabin to say goodnight and she was in bed looking sad. “Can you sing that ‘she’s got a ticket’ song for me?”she asked. I settled in next to her bunk bed and sang the song, tapping on the wooden bed for a beat. As I sang, she snuggled into her bed and closed her eyes, looking peaceful and content. When she had fallen asleep, I carefully climbed back down the ladder and made my way back to my own treehouse. I took a moment to admire the night sky through the darkened pines, the shimmer of black water through the trees. The moon was almost full. I’d been living on Samish Island for five weeks.
On Saturday after the kids all left, Brian showed up at my cabin with a couple beers. We walked off grounds to a little forest area and sat and drank them, talking about many things as we kept an eye on the road for Scott in Tim’s truck. When he arrived me hugged happily and his bright face was a joy to see. I liked showing him around the camp, introducing him to people, talking in the Health House with Gravity, Luna, and Teriyaki. We had planned to canoe out to Saddlebag Island but the weather wasn’t looking so good so we considered heading to some nearby hot springs instead. We loaded up the truck an hour later with a big tent, some food, sleeping bags, and ourselves- Scott and Brian in the front, me and Cassandra in the back. I loved the drive, laughing and talking, watching the world slide past- farms and trees and little towns. We stopped at a berry farm and got raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, and cherries, and sucked them carefully and sacredly with delighted moans of pleasure as we cruised along, she and I bursting with secret joy- expectancy, appreciation, gratitude, wonder.
After an hour’s drive we found the gravel road that led to the hot springs. We bounced along that for a while and finally arrived at a little parking area with a stunning view of looming mountains carpeted with pines and topped with snow, enormous rough faces of red mountain rock. We grabbed towels and swimsuits and walked along a trail, ferns and dozens of wet banana slugs and eerie dead looking trees with tufts of dripping green moss hanging from bare branches. The hot springs came into view, a medium sized deep pool, steamy green gray water surrounded by rocks.
Floating on my back with my eyes closed and Scott’s hands supporting me, my ears under the surface hearing only underwater muffled sounds of voices and the sharp gritty crunch of stones being stepped on. Then we switched and I supported him as he floated. We had come to a comfortable point in our relationship after a lot of late night discussions. Scott realized it was futile to try to “figure out” what we were and where we were headed, if anywhere. I had mostly released my grip on Scott after those weeks in Everett; I had seen a side of him that I didn’t find so attractive and I was coming to terms with our incompatibility. But we still had a deep affection and tenderness for each other that felt nice and light, unburdened by expectations. We had started to learn how to enjoy each other in the moment, knowing that we were nearing the end of our time together.
Brian sat brooding in the steaming pool, bare shoulders and tips of his hair wet and curly, looking slightly sad the way he sometimes did. Cassandra gleaming and brimming with joy, face of beauty and light. And afterwards we felt so warm and relaxed through and through. We found a campsite as it was getting dark, got a fire going and the tent up. We ate delicious food that Scott brought- salad and barley, raw corn, tortillas and hummus- and drank beers that Brian brought. Cassandra and I played a few songs on her guitar. In the morning we left quickly, ate some waffles and fruit in the car on the way back, loose and happy and looking forward to the upcoming week.
That week there was a break in regular camp- instead there was Cricket Camp, which was preschool aged kids for day camp. It was also a time to catch up on maintenance work. The first night we camped out by the water- Turbo, Maxx, Water Rat and I, under the full moon. In the morning after breakfast Teriyaki and Turbo and I started painting Herman’s Hut. We didn’t get very far but it was fun. We also painted the funyak rack and cleaned off the basketball court to paint a four square court. It was a very hot day and we sprayed each other with hoses. We had our own little carnival- Luna and I were doing face painting. I made two girls into cats, a boy into a tiger, and another boy into a lizard. I also painted abstract designs on Hobbes’ and Maxx’s faces. After dinner there was Fairy Ring and I volunteered to be a fairy. Several of us hid in the bushes and when the kids came near we giggled and talked like fairies and answered all their questions about fairy life.
I went to bed early for a change. It felt good at the end of the day to be sore and sunburnt and paint speckled. I’d been really living. The next day Teriyaki and I cleaned out the recycling shed and drove Magdalena the truck three times to the center. I loved cruising down the empty roads, past farms and fields, laughing and talking with her, the wind blowing my hair all around. Sorting through all the material, I felt proud that I knew what goes where and missed my recycling job back in Chico. Three more weeks of camp, then back home.
Scott and I had made plans to spend my day off together at the end of the week. He arrived as I sat on the beach a couple hours after all the kids had left. He walked towards me carefully and I walked towards him. Our words slid off each other and hovered in the air, useless. We touched each other delicately, without purpose. Whatever it was we had to say was not said. We took a nap in the treehouse. When we awoke, we left. We drove to Bellingham. We ate some dinner on a bench. We stumbled into a coffee shop and listened with delight to an eccentric political folk duo from Pennsylvania. We went to a small theater and saw The Believer. We made music with the bike rack. We gazed at the moon from the side of the road. We remembered things. That night we had another intense discussion about our relationship that felt more like a solid break up than any other talk we’d had. I could feel my heart moving father away from him and closer to Nate.
The next day was off- skewed. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves. I just wanted to leave. We left. We drove. We passed La Conner and Anacortes, and after much driving we found ourselves in Deception Pass State Park, on a beach eating mangos. We lay in the sand and discussed our views on direct action. The sun was blinding. I felt like a silly human with no purpose.
We thought we should find a place to sleep. We didn’t want to pay for a campsite so we drove down the roads looking for a place to park so we could camp in the wilderness somewhere. We found nothing. We didn’t know what to do. Scott was sick of driving. He was getting cranky and didn’t want to be the one making decisions. We decided to go back to Camp Kirby. We made a fire in Teepee Town, ate salad and sandwiches and oysters from the beach. Things felt better. We slept in a teepee in separate cots. In the morning he woke me up as he was leaving. He told me he lay in the darkness of early morning suddenly recognizing feelings of rejection. He felt wounded. He’d felt the same way in the car yesterday but was disregarding his feelings and trying to think them through and analyze the situation- something he always does instead of trusting and feeling his emotions. He told me this, then kissed me gently and left. I thought of the days when Scott was a harmless friend and longed for that.
Another week of twelve year olds. One night I built a fire in the Hi-Tor lodge because everyone was just running around crazy and there was so much boy/girl drama that I wanted something that would get them all in one place and calm them down. The odd thing though- Turbo and Maxx were going through some kind of drama themselves. I accidentally walked in on them having an emotional discussion and Maxx was crying. And this discussion continued off and on throughout the evening. I was sitting there on the bench outside the lodge, calmly making a friendship bracelet and humming Leon Russell, watching the odd, absurd drama unfold. Girls scowling and pissed off, girls crying, boys slamming doors, boys apologizing, boys and girls discussing, girls and boys laughing and pushing each other- and in the midst of it all Maxx stormed off down the road teary-eyed, and Turbo sat beside me wearily, also red-eyed, staring ahead blankly. We were no different from them.
Later that night Maxx, Turbo, Water Rat, Teriyaki and I huddled in the dark lodge in front of the glowing fire. Water Rat told stories about river rafting, about places with 20 foot waves and they’d just smash you down, and the Arkansas river when it was flooding, with a level higher than anyone had ever seen it. We scared ourselves with stories of the white wolf that runs on its hind legs and once terrorized a cabin of Hi-Tor girls. Just like the kids we were still fascinated with fear and the dark, with beasts and spirits that lurked out there.
For some reason or another, that week the teenage group wasn’t going out to Saddlebag Island for their camp out. I think there was maybe one person who had a fear of boats so they all decided to do a forest camp out instead. So, because I had the next age group down and my kids that week were especially mature, Gravity offered the possibility that Maxx and I could take our kids to the island instead. We were excited at the idea, especially since we’d never been out there and this was our last chance to check it out. The kids were up for it too.
The trip there went smoothly. It was a warm, blue day and the bay was sparkling. With all of us paddling it was about a 40 minute trip. It was exciting to finally be on Saddlebag Island after almost a whole summer of seeing it across the bay. Once we arrived and set up camp, Maxx and I gave each other a small break. On my break I took a walk around the entire island which took about half an hour. It was interesting to be seeing Campy Kirby from a different perspective. We did our usual dinner of tacos cooked over the campfire and bedded down for the night.
The tricky part was the way back. The island had a little beach on the West side where we had arrived the previous day with no problems. But as we tried to get our canoes back out into the water, we were met repeatedly with large waves that pushed our boats back to shore. It was frightening to wait for a lull between waves and push the boat out, only to collide with an oncoming wave that splashed over the side and drenched everyone on board. We tried over and over again to get past the waves and into calmer waters but kept failing. Finally a couple in a speed boat saw us and roped our boat to theirs, pulling us out to where we could paddle on our own. We were so relieved to be past the waves, but we had some water in the boat. I figured it wouldn’t make much of a difference but the girls were completely freaked out and thought we were going to sink. Marissa was almost hysterical because she was on her period and wearing a pad, and sitting in a couple inches of water. I tried to let everyone know we were going to be fine, but no one quite believed me. We paddled as fast as we could with a fearful determination, frantic to be back on land as soon as possible. Rebecca, the camper who was there all summer, was doing a much better job than me of trying to keep spirits up. “C’mon, everyone! We got this! We’re almost there! We’re gonna make it!” She kept chanting, “1, 2, 3, 4! 1, 2 ,3, 4!” To keep us all paddling in sync.
When we got to shore, we all cheered wildly and jumped out, pulling the canoe up onto land. I was surprised to see Rebecca collapse with fatigue, sobbing. I suddenly understood what she had gone through to hold us all together and now that we were safe, it was ok for her to fall apart. I had so much admiration for her in that moment, and from her I learned a great deal about what it meant to be a leader.
It was the last day off before my last week of camp. Scott showed up at Tayito as I was watching a movie. We went outside and sat on a log on the beach and talked, watching the evening sky darken. Then we went over to Shuta to see if Hollywood was painting, which she was, and she invited us to join her. I was grateful we were offered this form of interaction- creating together, not obligated to make conversation, expressing ourselves quietly and contentedly, eating popcorn and cantaloupe. Our painting turned out very beautiful, I thought. Soon after I started painting I ditched the brush and went to fingers, enjoying the smears and watery blending but really craving an intense depth of just black or just green, or I wanted to plunge my hands through the canvas, seize the floorboards with my dripping hands and rip the whole place apart, growling and laughing. Lately this had been a familiar craving, this drive to destroy, to fight against something, to wrestle and scream and come out bruised and muddy and gleeful.
When it got late we packed up the paints and headed to the treehouse, crawled into bed shivering. We talked in the dark for a long time, my hand placed lightly on his stomach. We both decided to avoid talking about our relationship and trying to make some sense of it and we stuck to topics that were deep and personal and humorous. I was glad that we could have a satisfying ending instead of leaving it awkward and uncomfortable. In the morning when he left we shared a good hug, loving but without longing, and he was gone. My last week was about to begin.
I knew it would be the week for realizing that it would never be like this again. I knew it as I re-entered the rowdy dining hall after going to the bathroom; I knew it as I talked with one of my kids as we descended the hill; I knew it as I stood on The Point at the very peak of high tide, facing the camp and water on each side of me- a sizzling metallic blue gently reflecting the dying pink of the sky, water choppy and crashing to my left, smooth ripples on the right, several kids around me inspecting rocks or tossing driftwood back into the bay or just gazing across the expanse.
I knew this as I sat on the blue bench outside the Hi-Tor lodge for night watch duty. Balou the CIT (Counselor In Training) sneezed inside as he lay on the bunk bed in the dark, radio on. Besides the muffled music the only sound was the constant collapsing of waves rustling softly below. All the cabins were quiet, though it was still fairly early. Everyone was pretty wiped out. I knew I was. That day we’d had swim checks, cleaned the bathroom, cleaned cabins, played four square and Mofia, went swimming, did archery, had outdoor living skills, did scramble and played cards in the lodge before bed. The next night we’d be on our camp out, and I was pretty sure the good old traditional camp out at Makualla should be cake compared to the Saddlebag fiasco. I was hoping that Erin and Natasha didn’t get homesick like the night before.
At the last Chapel when the rock was passed to me I held it tight and took a breath. Every week I had wished for things like, “I wish this week goes smoothly,” or, “I wish I could get ahold of Nate.” This time I felt the warm weight of the rock in my hands, and admired the evening light bathing everything in a golden glow. I looked around at all the kids and the other counselors that had over time come to feel essential to me. I thought about how I was on the verge of leaving and how I might never be back. “I wish to keep finding places like this,” I declared in my mind, and passed the rock on.
On the very last night there was a big staff banquet- fish tacos, ginger ale, blackberry pie. It was good to be with everyone, without the kids. After dinner there was a slide show in Tayito and Hollywood presented me with the You Rock because she admired how I conquered my fear of kids. Later there was a party at Hobbes’ house- I drank beer and talked with Hobbes and Brian, Night Owl and Light Speed, but we were all pretty wrecked and passed out early. Brian had given me a ride there and in the morning his right shoulder was in terrible pain from the night before when he was running from someone during a game of tag, slid on the gravel and rolled, landing on an old skiing injury. Brian was also supposed to be my ride to Portland so I could catch a Greyhound to Eugene but suddenly our plans were shaky, seeing as he could barely shift gears. But we stopped by a friend’s house on the way back to camp and he picked up some pain reliever (ganja) and some coffee and we made our slow way back. He was managing most of the gears except for fifth, which was impossible. So whenever he needed to shift into fifth he would let me know and I would do it for him. He tried to hide the intense sharp pain he was suffering. I tried to remain calm and patient but I was racing inside with a restlessness to get going- I still hadn’t packed my stuff or cleaned out the treehouse cabins. When we got back, some people hadn’t left yet, to my relief. I was able to have really great goodbyes with Turbo, Hollywood, Maxx, Luna, and Feika. I packed up my junk, cleaned out the cabins in record time, said goodbye to Gravity, got my paycheck, helped Brian load up his stuff, and we took off around 3:00. We drove for a few hours, down Whidbey Island and witnessed some amazing fog, took the ferry to Port Townsend, picked up some food at a grocery store. We feasted on olive bread and hummus, plums and broccoli- so luscious, neither of us had eaten anything all day. After the sun set, we made it to La Push, and fell asleep immediately in Brian’s camper.
In the morning we hiked down to the beach, a place Brian had often gone as a kid. We watched the crazy waves fold over themselves and spread around the huge rock islands of strange shapes, with odd mini-forests of pine trees jutting from the tops. After driving a few more hours down the coast, we spent some time by a river in the Hoh rainforest. While Brian fished, I napped in the sun.
His arm felt a lot better the second day- I didn’t have to shift into fifth gear anymore, and he wasn’t wincing in pain so often. In Hoquiem we picked up some ice cream and I tried getting ahold of Nate with no luck. I’d talked with Nate about a week before and made plans to see him in Eugene on my way back to Chico. I was jittery with excitement about seeing him and happy that I’d gotten Scott out of my system so I could go back to focusing on Nate. In Portland Brian dropped me off in the parking lot of the bus station. Our last minutes together we spent in his camper, swigging wine and cracking up, hugging and well wishing. I got a picture of him sitting up in the bed, wine bottle in one hand and home rolled cigarette in the other, no shirt and grinning like he’d found his own personal heaven.
On the bus I thought of Nate waiting for me, only a couple hours away. I thought of Brian, with his parents in Yakima. I thought of my family, my mom in Ramona and my dad and sister in San Diego. I thought of everyone in Chico and its darkened streets, of Scott asleep in Everett. I arrived in Eugene around 3:30 am. The station was closed and I didn’t see Nate. I sleepily waited to use the pay phone, wondering what I would do if I couldn’t get ahold of him. And then he was there- head down, hands in pockets, sauntering towards me. I couldn’t comprehend him in my arms. We held each other and talked in his car in the parking lot and then drove to the Campbell Club. Nate stayed there whenever he spent a day or two in town, which was a huge house with four floors, like a hostel where travelers could stay and pay a small fee.
The next day we hung out around town, had coffee at Out of the Fog, and I saw the Cascade Forest Defenders office where I had left messages all summer. I developed some film, then we ate dinner at a restaurant. The day after that we ran some errands, checked out some hot springs, then drove to Fall Creek to meet up with some of Nate’s friends who were camping out there doing red tree vole searches. We got really lost on the crazy unmarked twisty logging roads and we drove around in the dark for hours. Finally we gave up and parked in an exposed rock quarry where the light of the full moon just spilled out over everything and hazy mountain ranges sprawled out as far as we could see. It was so utterly still and perfectly silent- just a blanket of nothing. Once we heard an owl faintly hooting. Other than that, just our soft voices as we filled our famished bellies with navy bean soup. And then to a much needed sleep in the back of the truck, wrapped warm in sleeping bags. The next morning in the light of day we found the camp easily, and I met Indie, Sap, Sparrow, Voice, and their slew of hyper dogs. I noticed Nate’s crew liked to pick camp names too. Sparrow had just found an inactive vole nest and Indie found an active nest. They were all very excited.
I was dismayed that by the second day, Nate and I had fallen into our usual patterns of behaving around each other and I was already getting annoyed by the way he was always teaching me how to do things. “Please trust me that I know what I’m doing!” I would plead. “And if I don’t, I will figure it out!” He would apologize and try not to do it, but he often did it without noticing. Being in Eugene I felt like I was just a visitor in Nate’s life, not really a part of it. Already I was missing Camp Kirby and the community I had left behind.
Back in Chico I was in a new house, a new semester at Chico State. Back to my recycling job. It took me a while to transition, to feel present. Every night I was having dreams of camp- my friends there, or surrounded by screaming kids or waiting in front of the lodge or watching the water and thinking in amazement, “I’m still here??” Most of me was still there.
In the evenings I would sit on the porch and try to make sense of my life. What had I just done? Who was I now? Where was my heart? What had I learned from my relationship with Scott? Should Nate and I keep trying? I had a lot of unanswered questions, but I knew one thing: I had created a new entity.
I had created Milo.
An unexpected couple of things happened as a result of that summer: One of the things was that Scott and I weren’t over. We’d parted ways in Chico, then had a very lovely goodbye in my treehouse at the end of the summer, but it turned out that saying goodbye became kind of our thing. After his plans for Central America fell through, he ended up back in Chico a month after I’d returned from Camp Kirby. Our relationship had something of a restart and the tension and disconnect we’d experienced in Washington seemed like a bad dream. The Nate/Scott/Serra triangle continued for a few months, although I could feel Nate and I losing our grip on each other. It was the beginning of the end for us. Not long after that summer he left Chico for good, moving up to Ashland, Oregon. Our romantic relationship had ended but we remain friends to this day.
Scott and I said goodbye again when he left on a long bike trip and then reunited months later when he joined Diana and I on a bike trip we were taking down Baja. In Baja we again said goodbye when Diana and I headed back to Chico and Scott continued biking through Mexico for the following year. We reunited again when Scott returned and stayed for a week with me and my mom in Ramona, where I was visiting for winter break. Again, a goodbye, when he left to visit Tim and his nieces in Everett. The last time I saw him was in Chico a while later- by that time I was 22 and a year away from meeting Benny, the boy I would eventually marry.
Another thing that happened was that summer became the first in a summer job trilogy that really helped turn me into the kind of person I wanted to be. The year after Camp Kirby I went to work at a truck stop in a remote area of Alaska for the summer. The following year I worked at the Campy Curry coffee shop in the Yosemite valley. The experiences I had from those three summers solidified me into a competent, adventurous, independent person. I once heard the phrase, “Be the person you needed when you were younger.” When I think of that lonely 16 year old girl brooding in her bedroom, I’m proud of the person I’ve become and the risks I’ve taken. And I treasure every person I’ve met on my adventures. After the summer at Camp Kirby, Cassandra and Brian and I wrote a few letters back and forth but I never saw them again. But it’s ok- I let myself be changed by them, said thank you, and moved on.