YMCA’s Camp Whittle is situated in in the San Bernardino mountains, over 7000 feet in altitude, near Big Bear Lake. The area is densely populated by pine and fir trees, lanky conifers that stand like prehistoric totems, perfumey needles and peeling bark falling like dandruff onto the dusty campgrounds.
If I were nine years old, I would have arrived at Camp Whittle in a big yellow school bus, with a sweat-soaked t-shirt that I would have had to peel off the dark green vinyl seats. I would have carried a bedazzled Lisa Frank pillow and a bright turquoise sleeping bag, and I would have been nervous about which bunk would be left and which truth or dare would be thrust upon me. Afternoons would have been spent making chevron-patterned friendship bracelets and bubblegum-colored lanyards. I would have subsisted on fudgesicles, orange creamsicles, and otter pops, and I would have plugged my ears at the campfire as people were telling horrible ghost stories. I would have gotten ash-colored boogers, post-campfire. I definitely would have delighted in setting marshmallows on fire. Still do.
These activities, of course, are iconic in American camp heritage, but perhaps camp promises not only the individual activities (which can replicated anywhere, in a garage, in your office, in your house), but also the particular arrangement of activity, circumstance, and feeling that conjures a very specific spirit, which is pure and free and reckless and sometimes fraught with the tingling of pre-adolescent anxiety and desire. After all, camp (which is the generic cover-all term for the summer camp in the woods attended by kids and pre-teens) is about the un-sanctioned activities as much as it is about the sanctioned; it is about the latent, unrequited, and unfulfilled desires as much as it is about realized dreams and passions. It is the embarrassment and the joy, the awkwardness and the boldness, the boredom and the excitement.
As such, any re-creation of the ultimate camp experience demands nostalgia as its essential ingredient. Camp is a feeling, and not merely an activity.
Unique CAMP is a camp for adults, the brainchild of the quintessential entrepreneur-creative-type Sonja Rasula. Sonja is thirty-something, which thick, blunt-cut bangs that skim the tops of her eyebrows. Her eye makeup is as black as her hair, and her outfits are well-curated, always in step with a design or fashion trend, done well of course (the wilderness hat, the olive green anorak, the Mexican flower-embroidered baby-doll dress). When she speaks to a crowd, her language is casual, as if she were in conversation with all two hundred of us, and she cusses at such frequent intervals that her word bombs serve to emphasize, accentuate, and enhance, rather than to damn. Think #GIRLBOSS more than #leanin.
We leave from the Unique Space headquarters in downtown LA, a co-working space that also serves as a social and creative hub, and seasonally, as a physical marketplace for artisans and makers (the marketplace is called Unique LA—Sonja helms the entire Unique brand). We are given matching camouflage backpacks in a burnt orange that reminds me of the Grand Canyon. The backpacks are branded with leather CAMP insignia and are filled with deluxe camp items, an upgrade from the kiddy fare: Luna bars, water in a carton, plant-flavored toiletries, Word notebooks. All the swag is provided by participating sponsors and emblazoned with CAMP insignia.
On the bus I sit next to a porcelain-skinned girl with auburn hair, delicate features, and a perfect gap-toothed smile. Her full name, given to her by her mother, is India Summer Love. She is attending CAMP with Handsome Coffee Roasters, a specialty coffee roaster in downtown LA that, I find out, has just been bought by Blue Bottle Coffee. She tells me that she and two other baristas will be serving Blue Bottle Coffee every morning, a bourgeois perk that delights and amuses me. At CAMP, when the line for artisanal coffee is too long, I drink the machine coffee happily, thinking to myself that it isn’t bad at all.
When we arrive at the campsite after a dizzying two hours through mountains, the first thing we do is hand over our cell phones to our “counselors,” who are a bunch of ultra-energetic adults in white tees and red bandanas. Their job is to corral us, which turns out to be more difficult than corralling baby goats, and to instigate CAMP spirit. We are told to take one last selfie before turning off our phones, a last remnant of our digital selves before we castrate our technological lives for the next few days.
Not having a cell phone for four days isn’t exactly a challenge for luddites, but there are no luddites in this group: we are technologically savvy, digitally connected, social media mavens (I can’t put myself in the maven or savvy category, but many CAMP attendees are). I can confidently say that 85% of the people here use at least four social networks per day, if not more (think: Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, etc). Just as organized camping in the United States emerged as a response to increasing urbanization, a conference like this, a camp for adults, is in part a response to our technologically tethered selves. One morning, a girl in my cabin wakes up and tells us that she misses her cellphone; her morning routine involves checking #frenchbulldog hashtags on Instagram.
I’m trying to figure out what I’m doing here at CAMP. “Connect. Unplug. Play. Learn.” is the tagline, and without phones to occupy ourselves, meeting people face-to-face is an integral part of the experience. The introductions are inevitably tied to professions and locales, and with every iteration, my own introduction increases in its self-assurance. “I’m a writer and a photographer,” I say, “but by day I’m the creative content manager at a tech company.” I think about which I should say first—the thing I do that pays, or the thing I do and love to do that I hope will one day feed me. Do I identify myself with a spirit of aspiration or resignation? With idealism or realism? After all, what I say I am—to a stranger at least—is probably what I believe I am.
This isn’t uncommon at CAMP, this struggle to verbalize one’s professional identity, which is often torn between the purely creative and the purely professional, a dichotomy that has been created because the former does not put food on the table and the latter can sometimes grind one’s soul into dusty smithereens. A large percentage of people here are “in transition,” people who have arrived needing, more than any workshop or advice, merely the courage to leave what they’re currently doing and “follow their dreams.” The CAMP theme is, unsurprisingly, “DREAM BIG.” Many people have multiple occupations, “slash careers,” they’re called by Marci Alboher, the author of the book One Person/Multiple Careers. Writer/photographer, actress/designer, entrepreneur/hiker—self-definition is limiting and complicated.
Each day begins with optional activities: a polar plunge in the camp swimming pool, yoga on a turf lawn, a nature hike. Then we all have breakfast, go to two workshops, have lunch, go to another workshop, and do more campy activities: there’s archery, horse-back riding, and crafts provided by Martha Stewart (making necklaces with dyed wooden beads, stamping leather badges, stenciling American-manufactured t-shirts).
The workshops are a mix of inspirational talks, entrepreneurial stories, how-to’s, and crafts. By the end of the first day of workshops, I’ve come to terms with the fact that no one is going to give me the answers to my existential questions, or tell me what decisions to make. Everyone has such a different story and path; if anything, the camaraderie exposes that all of crises—which we think are highly specialized and specific to ourselves—are in fact common, if not ordinary. That we share these crises creates a well of empathy for each other, which is comforting and validating. Anyone who has ever struggled creatively knows isolation and loneliness; is used to people discounting her laments as “bitching and moaning;” has been critized for professional schizophrenia; has been told to “be grateful for what you have,” “stop being so romantic;” “just quit your job already!”
The question, "What should you do with your life?" is a fundamental question, not merely a professional question but a deeply spiritual and philosophical matter. Whenever I ask myself that question, I return to what Annie Dillard wrote in The Writing Life, that "how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing." She says that there is no shortage of good days, but that good lives are hard to come by. Good days add up to a life of sensation, a life of greed that requires more and more, but "the life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet."
The ordinary choices that we make are often the tuning forks for the tone of our lives; one half-step down and your chord is now minor; two half-steps and you're falling into diminished. I try to remember the half-steps when I'm faced with a dramatic, philosophical question that threatens to paralyze me. I think about the next ten minutes, rather than the next twenty years.
There's a poem by Gary Snyder that goes:
Clouds sink down the hills
Coffee is hot again. The dog
Turns and turns about, stops and sleeps.
Just as the clouds sink down the hills over and over again, and the dog turns and turns again, I am going to ask myself, so many times in this lifetime, what I am supposed to be doing and why I am doing it--this consciousness is essential to our existence, the voice of reason, the spirit of faith, the belief in hope. I will never stop asking myself these difficult questions.
On the night before the last day of camp, we are led into a clearing in the forest, where a triangular formation of tables has been set. We sit down for a silent dinner, all two hundred of us. People are visibly uncomfortable, uneasy. We are not used to the silence, the absence of noise. We begin passing bowls of cold vegetables around, and we clink our plastic cups for a silent cheers. We begin to eat. Then someone begins to laugh, and then another person laughs, and then an entire section of a table is laughing and cannot contain themselves. The silence of course, is supposed to be reflective, meditative, and respectful, but the laughter that emerges, defying the silence, is a kind of resilience that is familiar to me, and I am comforted by it, this ordinary rebellion of the spirit, free to disperse its atoms into the wilderness.
*All photos courtesy of Unique Camp. See more photos here.