I’ve talked a lot about camp this summer, not just here, but everywhere. A few months ago Salem pulled down an old photo album of my camp pictures and I was catapulted back in time and I spent a few days there. I posted some pictures on my personal Facebook page and my camp friends came out of the woodwork and we began to reminisce and catch up. I lost a good week to the group that we started on FB for ourselves.
During this time I was already working on my manuscript about camp, so the timing was kind of neat. There was also a trip to Canada looming and camp is only about forty-five minutes from where I was going to be. I started to dream about heading up there to see the old place, and see what the new owners had done with it.
I emailed the address I found online for the Boys and Girls club that had taken over and asked if I could come visit. The response was that my timing wasn’t great, the gate might be locked that early in the day, and if it was, I wouldn’t be able to stop in.
When the day came, armed with a fancy rental car and the knowledge that this might be a futile trek into farm country, BC, I set out and prayed the whole way that Jesus would give me the gift of an unlocked and open gate.
I wondered if I would still remember the route to get there, through huge pastureland’s and winding roads . . . that was silly. I’ll never forget how to get there. I probably made that drive a hundred times at least.
My stomach was tightly wound in knots as I rounded the last curve. I saw the house beside the ranch property where, in the summer, a huge machine would move slowly over the field with a bunch of people laying in it, picking whatever fruit it was they were growing, and then . . . there it was. The sign. Except it was not the right sign — I was prepared for that. I sucked in my breath and strained my eyes to see if the gate was open or not.I started crying as soon as I saw the entrance to my camp open and welcoming me in.
I knew it was going to be an emotional trip, and I was just hoping that no one would feel the need to show me around or talk to me about anything. I needed time to process and be alone with my memories. If I had lost a week earlier in the month chatting with my friends about camp and posting old pictures, I felt like I lost years the minute I stepped out of the car and breathed in the dry, dusty smell of pine trees and heat. It overwhelmed me. The scent is so unique to the ranch, at least for me, and the tears continued to well up in my eyes.
There was evidence of people — clutter and cars, but no one was around, and I approached the “hotel” (girl’s cabins and main office) cautiously, praying that no one was inside. It was clear pretty soon that there was no one there, and I moved slowly from cabin to cabin, observing changes, all the while memories flooding my mind, my hands shaking with each door knob I twisted and pushed open.
hallway on the main floor of the hotel
Our lifeline to the outside world, also conduit of massive heartbreak for Ms. Julie Thiessen, age 15.
We used to have really nice huge wooden bunks with drawers underneath them and there used to be three closets per room — another lifeline for counselors. We’d hide out in our closets late at night when the campers were asleep and eat candy and oreos and talk about boys. The hardwoods are a nice improvement from the nasty 30-year old carpet we used to have!
So much had changed, but I saw it all through the lens of what used to be, heard the voices of campers who are now parents themselves, laughing and running through the hall, the front door slamming repeatedly as we would all gather in our activity groups to go swimming, or ride horses, or to master the climbing wall once and for all.
I moved on from the hotel and walked toward the new campfire pit that had been built before the ranch was sold, and then to the archery pit which held so many memories for me. Not only did I learn how to shoot a bow and arrow as a camper in that stall, but I went on to teach other campers how to do the same, and now I teach my son, in our back yard, and I’m still a pretty good shot.
The archery pit. Before the stalls and walls were painted, they were covered with names and love notes, dates and memories, inside jokes, code languages and the likes. My fear had always been that they would tear it down. Painting over all of those precious memories never once crossed my mind. I think I cried when I found out. This is also where I started my first and only camp relationship (totally against the rules.).
Next it was on to the dining hall, where obviously we ate, but also where I spent the majority of my first and second summers, prepping meals and washing dishes until I was old enough to counsel a cabin of girls. It was also where staff received their mail, but it always required a little extra effort — a mouthful of marshmellows and a rendition of “chubby bunny”, singing a silly song, running around the dining all like a chicken . . . we were tortured, really. All for the sake of mail. But mail was yet another tie to the outside world, proof that we hadn’t been completely swallowed by the camp world. I walked in and again, it smelled exactly the same as it always has. What’s funny is that a lot of my memories are tied in with scents. There is a cologne I used to go to the store and spray on my scarf as a teenager because it reminded me of the accused heartbreaker from the payphone picture above. For years if I caught a whiff of that cologne, it would mess me up for a few minutes. I also used to keep my old lipsmacker chapstick tubes because I could open them, smell them and remember exactly what time of my life I’d used that particular flavor. Please tell me I’m not alone??? One last one: Every time I walk into the cooler at Costco, I am floored with camp memories because of this little walk-in fridge:
The reason why this fridge holds such a place in my heart is actually really embarrassing to me now, and involves a long story about a ridiculous fourteen year old girl who fell in love for the first time with a boy four years older than her. I’ve never written about that story (that I can remember) because it’s just so mortifying and unfortunately there are people out there whose only memories of me include my immaturity as it related to that boy. Sigh. Thankfully we don’t stay in our oblivious teenage years forever, can I get an Amen? Okay okay, you want the story. I’ll just tell you that someone locked us both in there together after I was “initiated” into being staff (and loved every embarrassing minute of it because said boy was involved) and short of him professing his love to me in that fridge, being locked in there with him was, at that time, the best possible thing that ever could have happened to me. See? It only gets worse from there. Stupid teenager.
I continued my private tour of camp, down to the playing field which was the site of many injuries resulting in ER trips, the climbing wall that my friend’s husband helped build, a new BMX track in a new location, and finally, the spot where the barn used to sit.
The structure had begun to rot and had to be torn down, but in front of that little shed used to be where we kept all the horses who have since been sold or taken to Granny’s farm in the country to frolic and play with the bunnies . . . or something. The barn was the hub of the ranch, it was the main attraction. The kids came to Circle Square to ride horses — at least that’s what they thought. We taught kids everything they needed to know to ride (our) horses (around in a circle in a huge arena that the horses had grown accustomed to, or on a trail ride where the horse you were on would simply follow the horse in front, you didn’t really even have to hold the reigns – but of course we never told them that.). They learned how to saddle and groom a horse, they learned that one of our precious horses, Sabre (Saber?) who was an Arabian if I remember correctly, would nod his head if you held out an apple and asked him if he wanted it.
So. Many. Memories. Even now I can’t stop shaking my head over it all.
I leaned against my car and just let the tears come. That place was more than my second home. For years I had called it home. Now even though so much is the same, the things that are different are so different. The grounds were overrun with weeds and plant life, the cabins and offices were cluttered and dirty, many things had been moved and re-purposed and the place was generally run down. It is old and has seen a lot of life, but still, it never looked so sad to me before. I’m not naiive enough to ignore the fact that my own sadness colored the lenses through which I saw the place, but honestly, it was sad. I’m still sad. No, that’s not a big enough word. Devastated, that sounds about right.
Writing this post has just cemented in my heart that I will, some day soon, begin to write a memoir about my time at camp. From the time I was a camper all the way until I was twenty-years old and about to embark on my adult life, Circle Square Ranch was an anchor for me, and it helped shaped me into the person I am today.
Leaving, for probably the last time.