I Went To A Summer Camp For Adults And It Was Weird
There were open bars, Slip’n Slide competitions, and hookups, but trying to recapture childhood can turn dark really fast.
I briefly considered bringing a rolling suitcase so I could accommodate the entire packing list: running shoes, sandals, bug spray, sunscreen, multiple hot-weather tank tops plus a few fleece sweaters for cold nights, a Wonder Woman costume, a Woodstock costume, heart-shaped sunglasses. I stopped short at one of the suggested items — “tribal tattoos” — because I’m not a fucking idiot. It felt like a lot to carry in a backpack, but I was more concerned about being teased for bringing luggage into the woods. I was heading to Camp No Counselors, a three-day summer camp for adults with locations across North America, complete with activities, dance parties, and open bars.
The older we get, the harder it becomes to make friends, or to develop real human connections with strangers, particularly as we get further from school, the place where human connection was mandatory for survival. By your mid-twenties, you can largely live your life knowing the same three people in your same industry, in your little corner of the world. But in the last few years, there’s been a boon in adult camps — Zombie Survival Camp, Camp Reset, Camp Grounded — environments where moderately affluent twentysomethings can manufacture those childhood human connections.
A CNC weekend was happening just a few hours away from me north of Toronto in late June, so I forked over nearly $700 (Canadian, so I guess it barely counts), booked a seat on their chartered bus, and got ready for a three-night sleepover with a group of strangers.
Camp No Counselors started as a camp weekend in 2013, the brainchild of founder Adam Tichauer, when he first rented a campground for himself and his “20 closest friends.” The camp required a minimum of 30 people to be booked entirely, so he told his friends to invite their friends, and it ballooned to 90 people. “This group became the best of friends” and stayed friends long after the camp weekend was over, he says. “So when there was a bike ride or a hike or a birthday, everyone would go.” Everyone who went to that original camp, in fact, is going to Tichauer’s wedding later this summer. Last spring, CNC appeared on Shark Tank (Tichauer served the Sharks some drinks but, alas, no deal) and later expanded their camps to 10 North American cities. This camp is CNC's first Canadian expansion. Tichauer himself was in attendance; he tries to go to as many camps as he can, walking around the site, making sure everyone is having fun and making new friends.
On the most base level, the purpose of the camp is to have fun, to act like a kid again, to recapture the same feeling you had at 12. Beyond that, though, it’s about making connections. “Our mission, when we write it down, is to enable adults to make genuine friendships through shared experience,” he says. “Camp is a place of firsts: first kiss, first time away from your parents, first independence. To go back to that special place of firsts and silliness is fun and very unique.”
At CNC, the staff is expressly called “Non-Counselors” — it’s even emblazoned on the back of their indigo T-shirts. While we drive off, they teach us a chant (Call: “You down with CNC?” Response: “Yeah, you know me!”), we sign liability waivers, we’re given Molson beer from fellow campers as well as from the staff, and are generally pumped up. A troupe of beautiful, tall blondes sits in front of me (they flew here from Florida just for camp), and a guy walks to the very back of the bus, carrying a cooler filled with bottles of brown liquor and half-cold beers. Plastic cups filled with tequila are passed around the bus while we drive toward camp. Arun, an Australian transplant sitting next to me, hands me a Jager shot.
I ask him what he does for a living but he wags his finger. “Ah, we’re not supposed to ask that!” Non-Counselors tell us we’re not allowed to ask one another what we do but rather what we are. Everyone here, thus far, is very drunk: The six Floridians in front of me, the 14-person (14!) bachelorette party further up, the cooler guy in the back who is now standing with a group of 10 or so attractive girls and guys, all drinking and laughing together like they’ve been friends for years.
Going to an adult summer camp forces you to think about what kind of person you would be if you returned to camp, or returned to the youth that you squandered. I like to think that the confidence I acquired as an adult and the brashness I’ve developed in my twenties would translate if put in the same situations. I’m certainly trying — I’m handing out compliments like my life depends on it — but I can already feel myself slip. Arun makes fun of me for holding a notebook and my phone for most of the drive, and when I put them away he yells, “Finally! Now you can have fun.” I tell myself I will try harder to ignore the voices of self-doubt that first entered my brain at 13 and went dormant sometime around 2010. I will make a friend. Just one.
I stand up to look behind me and see a small blonde Reese Witherspoon doppelgänger with a sharp chin and light eyes, sitting by herself and not talking to anyone. Danielle came alone, like me. She’s a budding actress and generally seems unimpressed with everyone here. I like her. She says she’s going to another camp later this summer, a technology-free, sober one. A clear departure from CNC, where there are early-evening happy hours and nighttime open bars for the whole weekend, plus mimosas at breakfast and beer and wine at lunch and dinner. The LA camp was sponsored by Shock Top beer; ours doesn’t seem to have a sponsor, but we are given a lot of complimentary flavored coconut waters, perhaps to undo what we are about to do to our bodies.
We get to Camp Manitou in Muskoka, Ontario (usually used for actual children’s camps), at nearly 8 p.m. The camp is on acres of sprawling land, with a handful of cabins set apart from the main campsite down a poorly lit dirt road. There’s a lake with a few docks and a campfire next to it where we all congregate for our happy hours, plus a mess hall for meals and, later, dancing. As I get off the bus, a staffer wraps a woven green-and-blue bracelet around my wrist. “This,” says Non-Counselor Jules, “is your first friendship bracelet.” In reality, it’s an indicator that I can drink, but I giggle when I receive it and say thank you before setting off to find my bunk. A few strangers ask me, “What bunk are you?!” and I yell back, “B9!” like it’s an inherent part of my identity. I fucking am B9. B9 for life.
We are given a lot of complimentary flavored coconut waters, perhaps to undo what we are about to do to our bodies.
By the time I get to B9, most of my bunkmates have already staked out their beds. Our cabin is filled out by Olivia, an opera singer; her friend who calls herself “Asian Anna”; Jess, who is travelling alone; and a group of five guys here for a bachelor party. Olivia is tall and lithe, and ties her hair in a bun with a pen. She laughs at all of my jokes and touches my hand whenever we talk. Anna, meanwhile, is boisterous and busty: She wears tiny shorts and no underwear (I know this because she tells me a few times) and is wearing 2-inch-long eyelash extensions. She calls me Princess Jasmine almost immediately, and while my instinct is to be somewhat insulted, she says it with such sweetness that instead, I’m blushing putty. Once I set up my sleeping bag and tuck my bag away (there’s nowhere to lock your things, nor are there locks on the bathroom or shower doors), I walk toward the campfire next to the dock.
Only a fraction of us are here on this first day — the rest are coming tomorrow — but the bar is open and they’re serving chicken wings and chicken fingers and crudités. It’s dark, so I can barely make out a few faces that I saw on the bus ride over: a tall, heavily muscled lawyer named Evan, who seems to be constantly losing his shirt; the group of blonde somethings from Florida who all look vaguely related and love to clink Solo cups with me when they walk by; and Arun who now seems intent on avoiding me whenever I’m near him.
By 2 a.m., the crowd drinking by the fireplace near the docks is 30 or 40 people thick, and it’s starting to get sloppy. One of the Floridians drapes a string of twinkle lights disguised as Solo cups around my neck and makes fun of me for having to bunk with Asian Anna because she doesn’t like her. (Later, she hugs a Non-Counselor by pressing her face into her breasts; the NC gets out of it by dancing and saying, “Girl, girl, girl.”) The Floridian is very drunk, noticeably, and by the fire; I hear a guy warning his friend about her, how she’s a “mess,” and how they should “keep away from her.” They’re laughing and keeping their eyes on the women in the crowd, sober enough, I guess, to be worth engaging with. Arun, who is hooked on the fact that I’m a writer, raises his eyebrows when I’m near and says things like, “Found your angle yet?” When I finally find Danielle again she betrays a look of utter relief. “Oh my god, there you are,” she says. It’s like we’ve known each other for weeks, like we planned this trip together. “Are you having fun?”
I say yes but before I can ask her the same question, one of the other attendees waddles up to her saying, “There she is!” He’s twice Danielle’s size, bear-hugging her, pulling her around, telling her and everyone else how pretty she is. In the dim light it looks like he’s kissing her head. “Isn’t she great?” he asks me and I say yes, yes she is. She locks her eyes on me in a kind of desperation, the kind that says, I know we just met but who else is going to help me here?
“Are you tired?” I ask her.
We make eye contact and I can see her irises shine even in the dark. “Yeah.”
“Don’t go!” he says. He begs us — but really, just Danielle — to stay; he wants to hang out with her more because she’s “so cool.” I take her arm and start walking away. “We’re tired,” I say, because while I’m starting to have fun and could probably stay for another drink, I feel like the one real camp friend I’ve made is begging me for an out.
Danielle and I trot up the hill to our bunks, arms linked. “Thanks,” she tells me. “I hope he’s not in my cabin.” I wish she were in mine.
Danielle shows up to breakfast, her sunken eyes darker than the night before. She’s scowling and holding a muffin. “I didn’t sleep at all last night,” she says. “Some girl was having the loudest sex last night, like it was obvious and rude.” I can barely hear her story because I am cracking up at the idea of two people having “obvious and rude” sex on the top bunk of a shared cabin.
“Didn’t anyone stop them?” I ask her. “Maybe they thought they were being quiet?”
“There was a Non-Counselor in the room!” she says. “She didn’t do anything!” I am wheezing now I am laughing so hard, but Danielle clearly doesn’t find this as funny as I do. She wants to move cabins to get away from the girl in question, calling her “disrespectful.” I suggest she move into mine, since there are a few free bunks and no one in my cabin seems susceptible to weirdly loud sex.
Eagerness is rarely cool in the real world but here, it is everything.
Later, when I talk to Adam Tichauer about the incident, he says that Jeana, a staffer who was in Danielle’s bunk at the time, should have intervened. “That wasn’t the first issue we had with that specific camper.” Tichauer says the girl came off the bus drunk (though, many people did), insulted Tichauer’s music choice for that evening’s happy hour, made “inappropriate comments” toward the camp director’s fiancé who was in attendance, and then, finally, had very loud sex in a shared cabin on the top bunk. The morning after the incident, they decided to move her out of Danielle’s bunk into her own cabin, alone and on the other side of camp. “We tried to make an issue that affected others not affect others anymore,” Tichauer said. While CNC requires you fill out an application for the camp and can decline admittance based on your answers or, say, what you post publicly on Twitter, it doesn’t weed out every bad egg.
A new, larger group of campers arrives later that morning, so camp finally starts in earnest: A table in the mess hall is covered in sign-up sheets for tubing or sailing or free swim or kickball or capture the flag. I sit by the dock, next to one of three bachelorette parties, a pregnant woman here with her friends, and a few rowdy boys. I notice Danielle on the other side of the docks, chatting up some new guys who must have just gotten in this morning. I try to wave to her but she doesn’t see me; instead, she jumps in the water and swims over to the trampoline floating farther out on the lake. There’s a good 20 people sitting on it and talking, a literal circle that feels unbreakable to me. I think about swimming over to join her in making new friends but the possibility of looking like an idiot while trying to swim 60 feet overrides any interest I have in talking to Danielle. Instead, I try striking up a conversation with one of the women in the bachelorette party, but while turning over to get an even tan, I fall into the water. It’s so cold that I literally lose my breath. “Did...did you do that on purpose?” she asks me.
I spit scummy lake water out of my mouth and cling to the dock. “Sure.”
Eagerness is rarely cool in the real world, but here, it is everything. Everyone here is so jazzed about the smallest human interaction that I, too, have grown to care about the camp-wide game of Rock, Paper, Scissors we’re about to have.
The entire camp is split into teams early on — red, blue, green, and gray, based on our cabin numbers, and given T-shirts with our corresponding colors. (Though, we’re told not to wear them until the last day.) I meet the blue team near the flagpole to kick off the game that ends up being a part of what CNC calls “Color Wars,” a camp-wide competition between the four teams. Everyone, all 160 or so of us, play Rock, Paper, Scissors with each other, and whoever wins goes on to play another winner, and so on until there is one winner from each team. Then, they play each other for the final victor. It’s intoxicating to be in the presence of this kind of unbridled enthusiasm, where everyone is so fucking excited about getting rock. But it’s a foreign feeling, too: If you, like me, made friends by being sarcastic and unwilling, these are not your people. These are the people who love participating so much that they’ve made it cool. One of the guys in my bunk loses for our team, and yet, people are lifting him onto their shoulders and chanting his name because while he lost Rock, Paper, Scissors, he’s still somehow a champion.
If you, like me, made friends by being sarcastic and unwilling, these are not your people.
In the afternoon, I go to a woodworking class with Olivia the opera singer, Anna, and Jason, a Guantanamo Bay lawyer who just got back from visiting his client in Cuba. We make little plaques. Olivia’s says “Sing!” with a few music notes, Anna makes a whipping paddle that says “ASS PLUMPER” on either side, and mine says, “One day we’ll be dead.” Tichauer, who is wandering by, looks at it from over my shoulder, frowns, and whispers, “Dark.”
The girls and I return to our cabin to take a rest and clean up for dinner. Anna is rooting through her 70-gallon rolling suitcase (!) filled with mesh shorts and little tanks and a baseball cap with big, black, sheer bunny ears sticking out of the top. She’s a private-jet flight attendant now, but a few years ago, she was a Playboy Bunny working for one of their clubs in Vegas. She loves camp, which seems surprising for a woman wearing 2-inch-long lash extensions who brought her own meals because she’s low-sodium, gluten-free, and low-carb.
“You don’t have the cliques and the mean people, you don’t have them at camp. Everyone’s in a different mentality when they come here.” Anna says she’s used to dealing with “fake” people in Vegas who routinely want something from her. “Not at camp,” she says. “What are they going to get from you? An extra blueberry?”
This idea of sincere connection is certainly bolstered in this environment — you don’t talk about work, CNC curates attendees to be diverse but similar — and yet, it seems to be relegated only to friendships and not, say, romantic connection.
There are clearly little crushes blossoming, like Arun who chatted up Olivia during the drive or a cute brunette who stands very close to another cute brunette, their arms rubbing together even though they were in a wide-open space. But it’s perplexing how these crushes develop, not because I don’t find anyone attractive — there are a couple of guys who make fun of me for coming alone and because my dad didn’t spend enough time with me as a kid, and I’m all over it — but because no one will actually admit they’re here to have sex. This camp is a three-day hedonism bloc with an open bar and staff that actively tells you they’re not there to monitor you or your decisions. But when I ask anyone, simply, do you think you’re going to hook up here, they squirm and won’t answer. “I’m here to make friends,” one guy tells me. “Yeah,” I say, “but what about girls?”
He shifts in his seat. “Yeah, I mean, girls are nice.”
“You build up realistic crushes,” Anna tells me. “Not, oh, that guy makes a lot of money and he’s a baller. Like, oh my god, that guy was amazing at kickball. You should have seen him kick that ball. And when he’s kicking that ball, did you see his glutes? They literally look like they’re going to explode out of his shorts.” Anna goes on for so long about this fictitious kickball god, who ends up having great abs and a beautiful chest and is also 6-foot-5 with blonde hair and blue eyes, that when it’s time for dinner, I am starving.
"What up, narc," he says. I stop short.
In the mess hall, I find Danielle again and catch her eye; she waves me over enthusiastically and I feel a wave of relief wash over me. I take my tray over to her, passing Arun who is now displaying the swagger of someone who seems to think he is very popular. He saunters past me, shoulders back, head up, and nods at me. “What up, narc,” he says. I stop short. What did this 5-foot-5 motherfucker just say to me? But no, this is camp, I’m trying to make friends, so I go sit with the one girl who feels like one.
Danielle is sitting with all of the guys from my bunk, the bachelor party from Boston, five hulking men with thick necks and accents. I can never remember their names and they’re hopeless at remembering mine, but most work in law enforcement or as firefighters. One of them starts talking about the upcoming US election so I ask him who he’s voting for, which I know is distinctly against the rules of Fun Only. He tells me, “Trump’s terrible, but there’s no way I’ll vote for Hillary.” I ask him if he’s more comfortable voting for a racist misogynist. He fusses with his cutlery and says, “Look, that’s just how it’s coming off.” I start to press him, but he interrupts me, saying, “Can we just drop it? Let’s just talk about something else.” And I so go back to my baked potato.
Once Boston turns back to his friends, I tap Danielle on the arm and ask her if they ever talked to that girl about her loud sex. “Yeah, actually, a few of us did,” she says. When Danielle tells me secrets — and frankly, so many of the little things she tells me feels like a delicious, warm secret just between the two of us — she curves her back and bends forward toward me, tilting her head down and looking at me through eyelashes.
“Did she say anything about being loud?”
“She actually didn’t remember it,” Danielle says. “She was so drunk, she didn’t know it was her. She thought it was a dream or someone else in the cabin.” The back of my throat starts to feel sour and I immediately feel queasy around all these people I don’t know. “Danielle, that sounds like rape.”
“I know. But she was laughing it off,” she tells me. Danielle goes back to the conversation happening at our table, but I don’t feel like chatting. There’s no real way of knowing if this girl was assaulted or raped, never mind who did it, and while no one in particular makes me uneasy at the camp, I realize I’m with a group of unsupervised adults around unlimited alcohol. CNC is presented like a love-in, like everyone here has the potential to build a connection with anyone if they’re open to it. This is technically possible, but women are inherently at a disadvantage, the way they are anywhere there are men with bad intentions who are willing to take advantage of an open bar. There’s no oversight here — it’s the trappings of camp, the controlled agenda and pre-planned meals, but none of the safety, none of the safeguards — and while I roll a baked potato around my plate, I feel exposed in a far worse way than merely being in an uncomfortable social situation.
Camp is fun and cute and fine until the dark shadow of reality sweeps over it.
There’s some time between dinner and the Woodstock-themed party tonight, so I sit around the campfire for a few minutes with some smokers. Cliques and social groups are already forming so I get some polite nods but I’m clearly entering a conversation mid-sentence. “I was fucked up last night, man,” says one guy, late twenties, sitting on the tallest chair, a beer in his hand and his eyelids drooping. A tan blonde woman walks past us eating a piece of bread; this, I realize, is the same girl everyone’s been talking about at camp, the one having the loud sex that led to her getting removed from a cabin. Her friend, or maybe just someone who vaguely knows her, calls out and asks her where she’s been. “I missed dinner,” she says, holding the bread aloft. “This is all they had.” Once she walks away, the guy on the tall chair starts laughing. “She was pretty fucked up last night, too.” He repeatedly thrusts his finger into a hole formed from his index and thumb.
“With you?” another guy asks him, eyes wider now.
“Yeah, she was crazy loud. They kicked her out of the cabin.”
“Did they say anything to you?”
He shakes his head, smiling, his eyebrows raised.
Camp is fun and cute and fine until the dark shadow of reality sweeps over it: It’s impossible to recapture the innocence of youth because adults are here, and adults have bad intentions and bad execution and adults can be abusive in a way kids can’t. And like in the real world, the world outside of camp, the man involved receives no punishment while the woman is shamed, possibly without her knowledge. He laughs with his friends and pantomimes sex, he smokes a cigarette and has a midday beer, he’s a comedian but she’s the joke.
I check my phone; I haven’t had service all weekend. I don’t have anyone to call, I just want to know I can if I have to.
When I get back to my bunk to get ready for Woodstock, it’s raucous with the Boston boys, who have swiped a few cases of beer from the bartenders at dinner, and the girls all primping. The other campers are taking tonight’s theme generously, since they’re wearing a mishmash of weird wigs, '70s prints, long beaded necklaces, Western fringe, white doily-like knit dresses, and flower crowns. Not flower crowns picked from nature — flower crowns people bought. I wear a long green dress I got in Thailand a year ago and some heart-shaped sunglasses. While everyone drinks and tells stories in the main room (Anna is regaling everyone with a tale about how she once gave a guy a blow job on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland and caps it with a hearty “Yo ho ho!” and everyone laughs riotously), I look at my body in the bathroom mirror.
No matter what you looked like in high school, it’s likely you were not happy with your body. I’ve hardly made peace with mine as an adult but here, I feel even further reduced to the 16-year-old who pinched at my physical flaws and tried to make them vanish. My gut is protruding after a day and a half of booze and heavily salted meals, my skin is oily from the sun, and a thick, gurgling pimple coming out of my forehead. I’m not wearing makeup and I don’t have my glasses so there’s nothing to hide behind. At camp, all the other girls are managing to look effortlessly cute: Their hair dries perfectly wavy after they get out of the water, they all look sun-kissed and lithe. I’m hardly in love with my figure at home, but here I feel like did when I had to change clothes before gym class, wanting to melt into the floor. I wonder how everyone is having a good time without examining the ripples in their bodies, the way their thighs collide in a bathing suit.
He’s white, so naturally my eyes dart from his face to the giant black afro he has on his head.
I get to the Woodstock party with little enthusiasm. I’m disturbed by Danielle’s story about what happened in her bunk the night before, and when I catch a glimpse of the girl in question again, I feel even more uneasy. She’s walking around alone looking for her friends, and it’s clear that the story has spread, quickly becoming a part of this camp’s DNA. When she walks by, women cover their mouths to whisper to each other. Men laugh raucously at her or make sexual gestures toward her. I can’t tell if she notices. I consider going up to her, maybe just to say hi, but before I can, a guy walks up to me to compliment me on my dress. I look up at him — tall, wearing a long hippie-esque shirt and oversized sunglasses. He’s white, so naturally my eyes dart from his face to the giant black afro he has on his head. He notices my gaze and adds, “I’m kind of surprised I’m not getting in trouble for this.” When I turn away from him, the girl is already gone.
Tonight, the mess hall has been transformed into a dance floor, with strobe lights and pounding music. It’s unbearably hot from the bodies wiggling around and trays of steaming hot poutine. Drinks are spilled carelessly or abandoned and people start to couple off, grinding on the dance floor like it’s high school or running off behind the building to make out and give dry hand jobs. (I’m guessing.) Jeff, one of the boys in my bunk here with his buddies for a bachelor party, spots two women furiously making out next to me on the dance floor. His jaw falls open and without tearing his eyes from the clearly very erotic scene before him, he tugs on his buddy’s jacket to make him look, too. Jeff watches — stares — for a few moments before he even notices me. I smile and wave; his whole body shakes with surprise, like I’ve caught him in something he knows is bad. He takes off.
This is lonely, but for reasons that are hard to articulate. When I was younger, I didn’t like being hit on, but I knew that if I wasn’t being hit on, my worth was devalued. To be a worthwhile girl, I had to be pretty and I so rarely felt like boys wanted to give me their attention. I’m an adult now, in a long-term relationship and male attention rarely factors into my day-to-day sentiments of acceptance. And yet, here, no one pulls me on the dance floor, no one asks me if they can grab me a drink. These are not things I want when I feel like I’m in my element, but here, everyone trades on the most basic qualities: looks, magnetism, charm. While Adam Tichauer and Anna want to tell me that everyone here is going to make long-standing, real connections, I have a hard time believing it. How can you really trust that anyone is good? Two days isn’t long enough to make a friend; that should take a lifetime. And what about the girl who was having sex in the cabin? Where are her friends?
I go back to B9 to get a sweater, but I end up sitting on my bed in silence, listening to Anna’s soft snoring from inside her elaborate mosquito net.
Our final full day of camp is nearly entirely dedicated to CNC’s Color Wars, capped off with something called the “Apache relay.” In the morning, we’re assigned to certain stations to help gain points for Color Wars. Our team captain, Brian, has dubbed the blue team the Blue Ballers. Perennially Shirtless Evan leads everyone in a chant that ends with 40 people screaming “BAAAALLS DEEEEP!!!” Some go play kickball or capture the flag or climb the rock wall to gain points, while I join three other girls to make our team’s flag: a large blue-and-white penis with engorged balls on a gray-striped background. It’s Anna’s design, largely executed by Olivia. We win second place.
While we were designing our flag, Anna, along with Jess and another woman, practices in preparation for the lip-sync battle. Anna has prepared with three pairs of chrome fingerless gloves, fanny packs, and bedazzled hats for them to wear. That afternoon, they perform a little routine to Nicki Minaj’s "Anaconda" for the entire camp, choreographed and sexy, with Anna as the lead. I watch the women as they mouth the words, “Real country-ass nigga / let me play with his rifle,” before covering their own mouths in mock shame. By the end of the song, the entire blue team rushes up to twerk and dance behind them. We win first place.
I’m tasked to do a three-legged race up a hill with a woman I’ve never met who is about six beers deep.
The big conclusion of camp is a not entirely mandatory but strongly suggested day of participatory wholesome events that just happen to involve some light alcohol. Those teams we were split up into on day one come into play now, as we’re all fighting to win the Apache relay, which takes up the second part of the day. There’s apple bobbing, archery, a cereal-eating competition using milk that has been boiling in the hot sun for an hour, swimming, and one station where you pass an apple, neck to neck. I’m tasked to do a three-legged race up a hill with a woman I’ve never met who is about six beers deep. We’re the last leg before the final stop: Slip'n Flip. Campers throw themselves down a makeshift Slip'n Slide, covered in cold water and baby oil, then play flip cup at the bottom. Whatever team wins this relay wins “the whole weekend.”
Here, I have never felt more competitive. My partner and I book it up the hill and we pump our legs, arms wrapped around each other, in a unique kind of intimacy I’ve never felt before. Our team cheers us on, we’re so close, we’re almost there. She slaps Evan’s hand and he hurtles down the Slip'n Slide and the final part begins. When it’s my turn, I whip my shirt off and hope my bathing suit doesn’t rip off from sheer friction.
The stakes here are so low, so achievable that it makes a full circle to high stakes. I want the blue team to win. I am determined to drink this milliliter of beer as fast as I possibly can. I ignore the little cuts all over my body I get from sliding down the blue tarp and slam the beer. Later, people will talk about how one girl dislocated her hip while sliding down the hill, but I will remember flipping my cup nearly effortlessly, drinking the fastest I’ve ever drank anything, for being brave and fun and worthy. As I walk away from the table, I get more high fives than I have ever had in my life. “Good job!” and “Way to go!” and “Awwwwriiiiight!” everyone yells at me. It’s then that I know I’m the best.
We win, naturally. I don’t know where the champagne came from, but I jump out of the way just before everyone starts pouring it on each other. “Wait!” yells one woman in the crowd. “Can we drink it instead?”
Danielle is late for dinner; I run into her while I’m leaving and she’s smiling wide, no makeup, literally bouncing with every step. “I have a camp boyfriend!” she tells me. “He’s in your bunk. I’m late for dinner because we just went for a swim, out to the trampoline on the lake. It was so romantic! Just as the sun was setting.” Her camp boyfriend is the same one who fought with me about Trump, but she is beaming so I am happy for her. I refer to him as Sweet-Dopey and Danielle nods and says, “Yes, that’s what he is,” but I’ve already lost her to a daydream about him. Danielle and I don’t talk about the girl who had loud sex in her bunk anymore, but the rest of the camp has already heard this hilarious story without the assault undertones. It’s mentioned in whispers at meals, I hear it while I walk around the campsite, it’s told with huge laughs in a cabin that has left its door open. It’s one of those stories people are going to bring home with them, the whole You’ll never believe what one girl did at camp narrative. But I don’t see her much — in fact, I don’t know if I even see her again. She’s never at meals, I don’t catch her at the Slip'n Flip, and increasingly, I look at all the men at this unrestricted camp with more and more suspicion.
Later that night we have the talent show and our final costume party, superheroes vs. villains, so everyone comes to the show dressed in costume. One guy sings a medieval drinking song, Arun does a brief stand-up special about selling drugs to children while wearing the nurse uniform that Heath Ledger sports in The Dark Night (plus fake tits made from inflated balloons), and another guy sings a truly terrible rendition of “Love Yourself.” The Non-Counselors hand out superlatives, Burger King–esque crowns for this camp’s rookie, MVP, and for the groom- and brides-to-be. One girl wins the award for ball-busting because she burst the kickball earlier that afternoon. The winner for MVP, Jessie, runs up to her friends next to me and high-fives everyone. “This is the best day of my life!” This isn’t her first camp; she’s one of many who came in from Florida and is indeed one of the nicest, friendliest people I’ve ever met. (Her and her people are dressed up as Captain Planet and the Planeteers, which only makes me like her more.)
At the end of the show, Non-Counselor Elise, who is dressed like a surprisingly believable Khaleesi, says it’s time to do a campfire chant. “If anyone knows ‘Moose, Alpaca,’ come up here and do it with us,” she says. Around 20 of them go up to the stage to join the rest because they all, somehow, know a song called “Moose, Alpaca.” I stand with a gin and tonic near the side, watching people dressed in spandex and fur singing and dancing along. They pantomime along with the words, from “Moose, Alpaca, Mustache, Goatee,” to “Fish, puffer fish, flamingo, ninja.” It’s cute, I guess, until the end, when the 160 people press their hands together and bow, sing-screaming, “Namaste.”
Camp traditions are, inevitably, steeped in some gender and racial inequity. The Apache relay is called that because it’s a tradition, same with “Moose, Alpaca,” which ends with “hello” from my mother’s house. Adam Tichauer admits that this particular camp is “pretty white” but that sometimes depends on the area where the camp happens. “Our staff is very diverse,” he says. By my count, four women are running this weekend’s camp, and two are women of color.
When she was lying in the grass, countless people walked by her, looked down and chuckled, and no one stopped to help her up.
After the show is over, we all walk over to the nearby barn for the dance party, and I watch a few girls stumble and cling to men for help. Even the bartender helps carry a girl toward the party, but plenty of them don’t go in; instead, they’re walked to their cabins.
I find Danielle and we bop around for a while, dancing to the wub-wub-wub sounds the DJ is making, but she catches the eye of Sweet-Dopey and I watch them look at each other in yearning. “Go,” I tell her.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I’ll be fine.”
Danielle doesn’t want to leave me alone but she does want to go have her camp romance. It seems sincere, or as sincere as it can be when two people live in different countries, and, at the very least, I’m sure it’s consensual. Later, she runs up to me and presses her flaming hot cheek against mine. “I just had sex in a—” and she slurs her words and wanders off before I can hear the rest. I watch her walk toward the fireplace, her legs and arms like jello, smiling like someone with a big, good secret.
I want to go to my bunk but I told myself that tonight, tonight I will stick around and have fun. A woman approaches me to chat near the barn. I’m trying to listen but behind her, my bunkmate Jess has sat down in the grass, looks around with sleepy eyes, and then lets herself fall backward to sleep. I give her a few minutes before I interrupt the woman talking to me, asking her to excuse me.
“Hi Jess,” I say, shaking her up. “Hi, honey, you can’t sleep here.”
“I’m not sleeping,” she says, half asleep. “I’m just lying down.” It’s barely 1 a.m. but she’s been drinking since 6, so I help her up and walk her to the bunk, my arm around her waist and hers around my neck. “You’re so nice,” she tells me. Jess has been popular all weekend. She bonded with the boys in our cabin fast, and she and Anna get along. The other girls at camp seem to like her; she’s beautiful and charming and friendly. She drinks with everyone and never talks about work. But when she was lying in the grass, countless people walked by her, looked down, and chuckled, and no one stopped to help her up.
She makes me race her to the bunk and then I tuck her in next to two people who are having quiet but wet sex next to her bed. She’s asleep before I leave and I wish I could lock the door on my way out. I know she’s an adult and it’s not my business to fuss around adult women, regardless of how much they drink. But this camp’s arrangement still feels like it’s asking for trouble. At the very least, it’s invested in protecting no one. But that might be the point.
When I walk back to the campsite, I think about returning to the barn to dance awkwardly for a bit, maybe eat another mozzarella stick. But the sight of a bunch of white people dancing to Kanye West’s “New Slaves” is more than I can bear, and I’ve seen enough drunk girls get scooped up by men for one night. I sit by the campfire instead.
I’m joined by one of the guys in my bunk. Steve says he came here for the bachelor party but also to think about his girlfriend and figure out if she’s the one. “I think she is,” he says. He’s exhausted, and he’s barely having fun anymore because three straight days of partying is hardly palatable for someone pushing 30. I ask him if he thinks he could make friends at a place like this and our conversation spirals into a 45-minute discussion about the meaning of loneliness, and why we even bother having human interactions in the first place. “Do you think people are inherently alone?” he asks me. “No,” I tell him. “I think we’re lonely.” We talk about the friends we’ve lost touch with, how it’s impossible to rebuild that magic from when you’re young and you love a friend so deeply. Before I leave around 4 a.m., I tell him how sorry I am for bringing the mood down. “Oh, you didn’t,” he tells me. “I really liked talking to you.”
I run into Adam Tichauer at breakfast, a croissant hanging out of my mouth, my body feeling achy and tired from staying up later than I like and from drinking excessively three nights in a row. He smiles broadly at me and puts his hands on both of my shoulders. “How are you?” he asks me and I crane my neck up. “Hungover,” I say, and his face breaks into the widest smile I see all weekend. “Good!” We walk outside to the chairs around the fireplace, the same place I was last night, to talk one-on-one about my weekend here and, more specifically, the possibility that a woman was assaulted at camp.
It’s unclear whether the guy involved was actually in that bunk, therefore making it impossible to know if he, too, should have been removed. “I was under the impression from what my staff told me, which Jeana [said], who was sleeping in the bunk, it was a girl’s bunk and this guy was a guy from a different bunk,” he says, a little flustered and visibly concerned. He agrees, though, that the camp should have spoken to him, but emphasizes the staff was trying to make “the ten other girls in the bunk okay with their issue.” After the incident, he says he didn’t speak to anyone involved, but other staffers did. “If there’s an assault we take this type of stuff very seriously. The victim is always right,” he says. He admits that the camp should have spoken to the guy in question.
He tells me about a woman at a previous camp, who expressed discomfort around a guy who was attending with her. “We made sure he was not doing sports with her for the rest of the day. We had one of our staff members be with him the entire day, ensuring he wasn’t putting himself anywhere near her,” Tichauer says.
We also talk about drug use on site: There’s plenty of weed smoked freely, but during the weekend, I’m asked by a few girls if I have cash to pool to buy ecstasy or MDMA or coke from the dealer in attendance. “If we catch anyone doing any hard drugs, we’ll kick them out of camp,” Tichauer says. “Obviously these are adults, and they’re not going to go blow lines in front of you.” He gazes down at my recorder, the red light blinking, and mutters, “I…don’t like that in there.”
The bus ride back to Toronto is a more somber one than the trip to camp. One girl drops an entire bottle of rosé, smashing glass and spilling wine everywhere. It’s early afternoon and we’re all too tired and hungover to drink, so some people play Wet Hot American Summer on the bus while others sleep or quietly chat. Everyone seems devastated to be leaving camp, that their weekend of escape is over. When we pull up to the curb and pick up our luggage, people weep as they hug one another goodbye.
Arun’s swagger shrinks almost immediately upon returning to Toronto, and mine bolsters. “Nice to meet you,” he grunts and we shake hands. He’s off to have sushi with some of the locals and a few other girls whose flights home aren’t until later that night. Anna and Olivia give me hugs goodbye and tell me to give them a call if I’m ever in Las Vegas. Danielle tells me we should have coffee soon and I say okay, but we make no real plans.
I take a cab home and think about the girl who might have been assaulted, how little care all those strangers gave to her despite the weekend being billed as some friendship-making bonanza. It’s easy to say that camp recaptures your youth, that it gives you a slice of something you lose as you age, that you’ll make friends and expand your circle. But that’s only if you want to, really want to, if parts of the world don’t feel like a threat or if your youth was all it was cracked up to be. Otherwise, it’s a regression, one that feels like drowning in your own bad memories. •
The names of some of the campers in this piece have been changed for privacy.