I hope you enjoy this month’ s cover story on family wilderness adventures in the Upstate. It brought to mind my first summer-camp experience.
I was in fourth grade when I attended Bethelwoods Presbyterian Camp in Tirzah (York County), just 5 miles from home, but a world away from anything I had experienced before. The days were filled with archery, swimming, canoeing and other new challenges.
Unlike home, breakfast did not magically appear. You cooked your eggs, bacon and toast over a campfire. There was no snack drawer in the kitchen. You ate the three meals you cooked, and, heaven forbid, if a third meal of spaghetti had lost its allure, you skipped dinner.
Bathrooms were communal and several hundred yards away from the campsite. My Eveready flashlight missed roots that my toes found on “last call” trips to the facilities.
At age 9, campers were shifted from standard log cabins complete with bathrooms and fans to rustic covered wagons—sure enough Conestoga, and Oregon Trail-worthy. The wagons were modified to hold six bunks. Five campers and one counselor, who seemed very mature at age 18, slept with the crickets, mosquitoes and gnats. It was all great fun—until my accident.
Nearly 50 years later, I can still recall climbing into the wagon and up to my bunk after a last s’more. The next thing I was aware of were the stares of 10 fellow campers and three counselors in the men’s room of the bathhouse. As my haze faded, I saw my reflection in a floor-to-ceiling mirror. I looked like I had gone three rounds with a grizzly bear. It was hard to tell where the red clay stopped and my drying blood started.
To the other campers, I was what I most wanted not to be—a 5-foot-10-inch (early growth spurt) curiosity. They asked, “What did he do?” and “Who whipped him?” Some campers’ eyes cautiously shifted to an older kid, whom we all had tagged as a likely troublemaker.
One counselor, playing Sherlock Holmes, retraced my steps and was quite accurately able to determine the trajectory of a sleepwalking 9-year-old falling five feet out of the wagon and landing on a cedar stump. Case closed. I was a somnambulist. What a time to make the discovery!
When I think about it now, that fall from the wagon set in motion a lifetime of camping misadventures. I always miss finding the one rock under my sleeping bag that will drive me crazy all night. If there’s going to be a flood, it’s going to come the day I go camping. The smoke from the fire will inevitably shift direction and fill up my tent. It’s as sure as the gravity that pulled me from that wagon in fourth grade.
Today, I continue to enjoy the thrill of a wood fire in an open pit, but I find it’s much more enjoyable to retire to my own bed at night.
After a day in the great outdoors, I often return to the books of my youth. I love to reread the adventure stories that capture the thrill of an adolescent boy single-handedly taking on the wild. In particular, I enjoy Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain, Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet and, of course, Jack London’s Call of the Wild. Safe from the dangers of frostbite, wolves and mountain lions, it’s enjoyable to consider life uncomplicated by many of our modern conveniences and distractions.
Oh! My sleepwalking career was not over. Someday, I’ll share with you how it feels to wake up in a hotel hallway, locked out of your room and having to go to the front desk to get a key.
Adventure is not restricted to the wild.