Thursday, September 9, 2010

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

It's the first week of September, and I'm spending it the same way I do every year: airing out sleeping bags, wondering how many trips through the washer will be required to turn my socks from grey to white, smacking my boots together over the back fence to shake off the horse crap, and wishing the ibuprofen would kick in for my aching arms and back. It occurs to me that we spend an awful lot of money, time, and effort to travel on an Adirondack vacation each August in order to come home feeling like we've just survived minor combat.

I should perhaps preface this with a disclaimer. I've been advised that the sequel to the 1980's bestselling book, "The Preppy Handbook" recently came out and it names the Adirondack Mountains as one of the preppiest places in which to own a second home. And we do see the trust fund set while we're up there, thanks to an annual dinner invitation from an old family friend who is a member of the Adirondack League Club. 

The Club is a collection of Adirondack camp owners with names like Harrison and Blythe who like to get together for a weekly summer cookout, sitting at rough-hewn tables where they are served barbecued ribs and stiff drinks. They're a friendly folk, asking questions like "Where are your people from?" and "How can you stand living in Oakland?" and "I have friends who belong to the Bohemian Grove, do you know it?"
To be clear from the get-go, my family's Adirondacks is not that Adirondacks. We don't even own the cabin, though we consider it ours.

Laurel Cabin sits on the edge of Darts Lake, both of which are on the grounds of a summer camp run by the Rochester YMCA. During the summer months, the camp hosts children ages 7-16, teaching them throwback skills like archery, fort building, and horse riding. In winter the camp is used by snowshoers and cross country skiers, who revel in the muffling snow that covers the corral, the lake dock, and the tennis courts.

But the last week of the summer, the families arrive. For seven days the camp becomes our playground, with meals served at the Mess Hall, staffers overseeing our kids as they scale the rock climbing wall or dip lumpy wax candles or cannonball off the water trampoline. The adults tend to regress a bit too, slipping on the water skis or striding confidently towards the High Ropes course, brushing off last year's memories of strained muscles and torn tendons. Hence my sore arms and back: either they lengthened the lake, or two loops on water-skis feels a lot different to a forty-four year old than it does to an eleven year old.

Even in the years that we have a "good" chef, the food tends to resemble the opening credits of the film Napoleon Dynamite; no one is going there for the high cuisine. Fashion is confined to fleece, sweats, tshirts, flip flops, and rain slickers. I showed up at dinner one night wearing a belt over my sweater and was stopped six times by people asking why I was so dressed up. 

At Family Camp, evening activities run the nostalgic gamut from square dancing to bingo to talent night, with pit stops for Scavenger Hunts and bocce tournaments. I've had people say that my stories about camp remind them of the movie Dirty Dancing to which I must quickly say, "Keep the era and the booze, but hold the Swayze, Grey, big band, sex, glamour, and table cloths." My brother likes to say that camp is a place where you can let your freak flag fly; I'd just add that it'll probably be lost in the sea of other freak flags.

My parents first took their three kids to Family Camp in 1968; forty-two years later, there are twenty-two of us who show up for at least part of the week, putting a strain on the cabin's septic system that has earned us our own shrine in the camp maintenance barn. Ranging in age from nine to seventy-something, Laurel's residents include not just the immediate family but second cousins from Canada, sister-in-law's sisters, college roommates, and that bravest of souls: the new boy/girlfriend.

Despite or perhaps enhanced by the Calcutta-like crowding, Family Camp remains the touchstone of our lives, the shared vocabulary that colors our family conversations and influences our choices. Out of perhaps thirty-five families who attend, at least half have been coming since the sixties and seventies, making Family Camp the community with which I have some of my longest and strongest bonds. 

I'm not entirely sure when Family Camp went from being a vacation from our everyday lives to being the anchor for it. I was a kid who took permanency for granted; I never moved in the years between kindergarten and college, and my parents are closing in on their 52nd anniversary. My aunts and uncles and grandparents all lived within a few minutes' drive. I never even cut my hair. Of course we went to camp every August; what else was there?

It was only after I decided, perhaps inevitably, to seek adventure overseas that I began to value the predictability of our summer escape. During the early years of my career I might be in Germany, Hong Kong, or Japan for work, but I was always in Big Moose, New York at the end of August, and so were all the people I loved and needed to feel connected to. They reeled me back in and reassured me I'd always have a place, just like the loons on the lake or the bats diving at twilight. That let me set out again, ready for the next adventure of my life. 

Now that I have children of my own I think this sense of belonging, presented in a setting of natural beauty and physical challenges, is one of the greatest gifts I've given them. Their father is slightly less enamored of the whole "stay with your in-laws in a rustic cabin with bad food" vibe than the girls are, but even he sees the value of a place where our city kids roam with unaccustomed freedom, reporting back in at mealtimes on the horseback rides or hikes that they've taken without us. 

In fact if I reflect on what I want my kids to know, I'd say that I learned 90% of it at camp. Have a sense of humor, be good to the earth, don't be afraid to try something new, appreciate your family, prioritize, and never, ever eat the chicken patties.

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