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Wish You Were Here 'stead Of Me

Two years ago, at age 19, Bonnie Obremski endured a 10-week stint as a counselor at an East Coast summer camp. She stumbled into autumn traumatized, yet confident that she would never again have to confront her flinching, twitching aversion to this American rite of passage. Then Outdoors hired her as an intern and needed someone to send on an end-of-summer odyssey to report on the state of kid camping, 2004.

August 31, 2004|Bonnie Obremski

I slam my Neon's door. The scent of sage is sweet, but bad memories waft in the morning mess hall's din. Three Falls Boy Scout Camp in Frazier Park is my first stop on the weeklong camp tour I've been ordered to undertake. Already I'm cringing.

These hills north of Los Angeles feel like desert. Camp director Tom Sitter assures me there are waterfalls somewhere. Unseen springs feed the lake, a square depression in the sand about the size of four swimming pools. But most of the water is gone, siphoned off by firefighting helicopters. There's no wind either.

Andrew, 13, of Covina says his favorite activity is sailing. The Scouts here get a lot of practice navigating in circles. I turn from the waterfront and squint at the 57-foot rock-climbing wall the Scouts bought after nearly a decade of fundraising.

I worked ropes at a 200-acre lakeside camp in Kent, Conn., where tepees and cabins reeked of bug spray, and soccer-mom, she-devil types in Ray-Bans supervised counselors who were often hung over. There, lightning threatened more than fire. A bolt struck Maggie, my co-worker, a few weeks before I met her. The summer before, she'd landed in the hospital with a broken back after plummeting from our camp's wall. She would sit on the zip-line platform and spit sunflower seeds at the kids. On off nights, Maggie rolled cigarettes and drank Mississippi Mud.

Ten weeks as a counselor put me in the anti-camp camp. Maybe by probing as many of these places as I can cram into one week I'll gain insight into why I'm the only one who seems to see camp as punishment rather than reward for a year well-lived.

I leave Three Falls full of taquitos and drive to a nearby camp at the other end of Scouting's gender spectrum.

At the Girl Scouts' Camp Tecuya, Kirby Gillispie, director of development and public relations, says girls can't be girls when boys are around. There is one young man here. He's the lifeguard. His name is Eddie Herzstock but everyone calls him Shark Bait, after the "Finding Nemo" character. In accordance with the script, whenever campers or counselors speak his name, the surrounding crowd chants, "Shark. Bait. Oooh, ha, ha." The 8-year-olds dig his dorsal fin hairdo.

Driving again, I sort through the boy-girl stuff that surfaces at camp. At Boys & Girls Club Camp Whittier in Santa Barbara, boys (blue) and girls (pink) can play together as long as they don't get too close "and make purple," as the camp saying goes. The warnings don't concern Ivan, 13, of Santa Maria. I stand gripping my notebook in a chaos of kids around the campfire, so Ivan scoots his buddies over and invites me to sit down. We sing a song that requires me to pull on his thumbs as if milking a cow while chanting, "Moo, moo, moo."

Later, he points out a row of girls one log over, noting the ones who danced with him at disco night. He studies my face. "Your eyes are like, four different colors, huh?"

Ivan scores an easy friendship, something Maggie and I never achieved.

One time we took off from camp and lighted a campfire at a beach on Long Island Sound. Maggie sipped from her jug. She was tired from the drive and tired of me. Maggie liked camp for the most part, and rebelled against the supervisors by not shaving her armpits. I couldn't stand camp. Supervisors branded me a rebel for changing the age-old Girl of the Week cheer. "She always does the best in class / By kissing the teacher's BLANK" became "She always does the best in class / By not sitting on her BLANK."

I thought my camp was run by off-duty prison matrons. Hidden Villa in Los Altos Hills, west of San Jose, is run, it seems, by hippies. I park near the road and pedal a community bicycle to the main office.

Program director Josh Bennett has periwinkle toenails and a full beard. We cross the organic garden and stop at a pen housing a sow and her pups. Campers fuel the compost pile, he says, then use compost to fertilize plants and feed the plants to the animals.

We walk to the dining hall. A pile of uneaten corn dogs sits on a table, entertaining a fly. I ask if they will be fed to the pigs. Bennett says he hopes not. Corn dogs are part of a different food pyramid, apparently.

I scan a map, call a counselor friend on my cellphone for moral support, get lost on a dirt road in the Stanislaus National Forest and finally, around twilight, pull into the Berkeley-Tuolumne Family Camp where director Jerry Horn confides that kids at Hidden Villa do too much farming, not enough camping.

Here the camp's staff members fill plywood rickshaws with luggage and tote them to cabins. Small children dart across trails and under volleyball nets. I can see a trickling fork of the Tuolumne River, but what legitimizes the camp, Horn says, is the nature center. There, little Tuolumne Rangers receive wilderness education.

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