Camping in the color wars
Some What-We-Talk-About-When-We-Talk-About-Anne-Frank Shit
Thanks for joining me in this part two of many on Burning Man. I realized that in order to talk about my Burning Man tent, I had to talk about — whew — so much else first. Thanks for joining me on this journey.
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Before this past summer, when I went to Burning Man and the FreeFlow canoeing trip, the last time I went camping was when I was in middle school.
My parents sent me to a girls camp in North Carolina. It was the old fashioned kind where you were assigned to a cabin and also a color and we had color wars — I’ve forgotten if your cabin determined your color or not. Maybe not. Maybe you were supposed to love your cabin mates but also hate them.
This American Life had a long segment on color wars at camps except they call them color days. It makes you wonder if they talked to any actual kids for the show. These were not common days. We were at war.
The This American Life description goes like this:
This American Life producer Julie Snyder reports on a three-day competition called "Color Days." It's most kids' favorite time at camp — despite the fact that the girls, at least, spend most of the three days crying and screaming. It's thrilling to be part of a team at this level of intensity. (18 minutes)
I hated color wars. It was not my favorite time at camp. I don’t know if I had a favorite time at camp — I got sent twice and never really liked any of it — but this was for sure not it. I was mainly confused the entire time. Why were we fighting? It was totally random, who got the blue bandana and who the yellow bandana and who the red one. We all knew that, right?
But we didn’t, or at least, some of us seemed to lose track of it. Even the counselors would get into it, encouraging us to prank the other teams. I’d try to go unnoticed, slipping away to pick flowers or just sit on a stump. It was woodcraft, of a kind.
The camp counselors were probably all of 17 or 18, kids themselves.
Did they want to take kids on long, overnight hikes? No. Did they want to stay at camp and flirt with each other and the counselors at the boys’ camp next door and start drama and get the campers to fight and drink out of their daddy’s flasks around bonfires after their campers fell asleep? Yes.
So, there was a whole, long list of steps you had to take before they’d take any of us on an overnight hike. It started with tying knots and I’ve forgotten what else we had to do. A swimming test? Very little of it had to do with hiking.
But I had set it as my goal that second summer and my friend Rosemary wanted to do it too so finally, after a couple of weeks of effort, just before we were about to go home, we signed up for an overnight hike.
I don’t remember much about the hike itself, but I do remember the camp site — a patch of land, covered in pine needles, next to a stream. It would’ve been lovely if there hadn’t been a storm coming.
Despite the series of training steps I had taken, I still knew basically nothing about camping. But it was only common sense not to camp next to a stream with a storm on the way.
It worried me as we began gathering wood for the fire — but maybe that was just an early bubble in my gut. I didn’t say anything. I was just a kid on her first overnight camping trip.
This camp did not believe in giving kids tents. These days a camp like that would probably be sued for criminal negligence or something but at the time we just accepted it — kids got tarps, the camp counselor got the only tent.
The storm came in the middle of the night and all the kids’ tarps got washed away. Of course they did. I knew that would happen but what I didn’t know would happen was that the camp counselor would refuse to bring us, the kids, into her tent. We had to stay outside, in the thunder and lightning and rain, while she stayed safe and dry in her tent.
That’s when I started throwing up.
I didn’t mean to. It just happened. I still remember the shock of it, of knowing that I was soaked through and also crying in the pitch darkness and now I was throwing up on the roots of the tree. I think the other girls were impressed. I had moved on to some other, higher level of misery.
The camp counselor recognized it too. Something got through her permed locks and into her head and it struck her that if I got pneumonia and died she might not be able to keep flirting and drinking with the ease she now enjoyed.
So she brought me inside her tent.
But only me.
I thought she’d bring Rosemary too at least — Rosemary was crying as steadily as the rain — but she wouldn’t. I still remember that zip, excluding the other little girls, and how good it felt to be warm and dry and how terrible it felt to listen to their pleading.
Some serious Gestapo shit. Some serious this-is-what-we-talk-about-when-we-talk-about-Anne-Frank shit. Some serious I-am-not-Anne-Frank shit.
I made a case for the other girls, but not a strong one. I knew that I should protest, should say, if they can’t come inside then I don’t want to be inside! And leave.
The camp counselor had a sleeping bag with one of those fake-fleece linings.
I said, “can we bring Rosemary too?” The counselor said no.
I didn’t leave. I fell asleep listening to the rain and little girls’ tears.
Anyway Rosemary and I aren’t friends any more.
And I haven’t camped again till this summer.
If you wonder, in the upcoming posts, why I’ve had to borrow practically everything, this is why. I’ve borrowed camp utensils, tents, my sleeping bag, and most of all every bit of camping know-how that I possess this summer.
It’s been such a gift from everyone who has taught me or loaned me something this summer. Slowly, very slowly, I’ve patted my body and found I’m not a sick little girl any longer; I’ve listened to the wind and found it’s not the cries of my campmates; I’ve looked around me, and it’s no longer dark.
I hope the ravens have brought these same gifts to my campmates. I hope their own rivers have rocked them to sleep. I hope they sleep in down comforters and sleeping bags and when they drift off to sleep they think of nothing but rain, soft sweet rain, and it means nothing to them except its own sound, like another heartbeat next to theirs.
Do you have camping stories? Horrors? Joys? Please share them in the comments below.