STANISLAUS NATIONAL FOREST, Calif. — Darkness and a chill are falling over the High Sierra, exhorting visitors from the lowlands that it is time to eat.
In one of the nearby campgrounds, it would be time to huddle around a tiny butane stove, to minister to a freeze-dried, bubbling something. Down the road at a lodge, there would be a waiter to face down, one with a too-expensive bottle of wine who would sneak critical sidelong glances at my two rambunctious toddlers.
Instead, on this night I am scrunched into a table in an expansive, roughhewn mess hall with my wife and two children, preparing to dig into a hearty meal of roasted chicken, rice, salad and sheet cake, when suddenly . . .
A line of exuberant, rosy-cheeked 20-year-olds is dashing, helter-skelter around the long picnic tables. They're assembling into a mob behind me. They're clapping and singing. Loudly: "On our rugged Eastern foothills, stands our symbol clear and bold! Big 'C' means to fight and strive and win for blue and gold!" Etc., etc.
This ain't no resort. This ain't no lodge. And (with apologies to the Talking Heads), this ain't no campin' around. This, instead, is one of vacationland's curious Middle Earths--a place of intensive recreation, of youthful quests and of communion with man and nature. It is college alumni camp.
Specifically, my family has arrived at the "Lair of the Golden Bear," northwest of Yosemite National Park, where graduates of UC Berkeley and others have come for nearly half a century to hike, swim, fish, sing and renew old friendships.
Across the mountains, down in the Central Valley and even at the beach, several of the state's largest universities are in the midst of a similar ritual--including UCLA, USC, UCSB and Stanford University. While the facilities are designed principally for the alumni and staff of each school, most offer lodging to nongraduates for little or no extra charge.
Many of the weeklong camps are booked solid through the height of the summer season. Some have waiting lists and lotteries to allot spaces in the most-desired weeks. But once you are in, you are essentially guaranteed a spot for the next summer and the summer after that and . . .
Tradition and camaraderie, after all, are hallmarks of alumni camps. Many families come back year after year as much to be reunited with friends as to enjoy the facilities, the scenery and the (relatively) reasonable rates.
Since I was a student in Berkeley (Class of '81), one of my pals had been telling me about the wonders of the Lair. She had stayed there at least 10 summers running as a child and formed her fondest memories there. She returned as a counselor when she was a Cal student and had a blast! She even had her first romance there! It was great!
With those hosannas ringing in our ears--and with the promise of at least four hours of child care daily for our 2-year-old daughter and 3 1/2-year-old son--my wife, Alison, and I decided we were prepared for this new sort of vacation. We chose the introductory three-night mini-week--at a cost of $490 for our family--to make sure we liked the program before embarking on one of the camp's standard seven-night engagements. The only extra expenses during our stay would be a few candy bars and sodas.
The most daunting challenge of the vacation had to be the nine-hour drive (with liberal stops for the kids) from Los Angeles to Pinecrest in the Stanislaus National Forest, home of the Cal camp since 1949. When we finally arrived at our destination Wednesday afternoon, we had a reception that would prove to be quintessential Lair of the Bear. The offering from a camp counselor was austere, a Dixie cup filled with Kool-Aid, but completed with so much exuberance and goodwill you hardly noticed.
Next, we were introduced to our new home, a one-room tent cabin--a wooden frame on a cement slab with siding and door flaps made of canvas. Inside were two metal-frame twin beds and a set of bunk beds. Furniture consisted of three rudimentary box shelves and an old dormitory chest of drawers. A single bulb lighted the room and provided an electrical outlet. For a veteran backpacker this would feel like the Ritz. For a veteran of the Ritz, it would feel like a cell block. We quickly adapted to our new space, brightening it by hanging hats and jackets on pegs all around.
Being gathered in a week with mostly new campers, we had to rely on the staff to learn about the lore and tradition attached to the weekly summer sessions, which are numbered Week 1 through Week 12. Week 6 has become known for its high caliber of tennis, for example, and Week 3 for its margarita party, sponsored by a generous camper who gives away the frothy mixtures outside his tent along with 300 souvenir drinking glasses.