Adult camps: A rite of summer for your inner child
ADULTS ONLY may strike you as a bit of an odd policy for a summer camp -- until you realize those adults are actually just kids at heart. Our Cover Story is reported by Luke Burbank:
Camp Wandawega, in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, looks like a place that time forgot -- a place where childhood memories are made. Except for one not-so-minor detail. There aren't any kids here, and "Reveille" plays at the crack of ... 9:30? Which still seems kind of early for many campers!
Welcome to adult summer camp, where your inner child meets your outer grown-up.
"We were just hanging out here with our other friends who didn't have kids, and we used to joke about it," said David Hernandez. "It was like being back at summer camp, except the camp counselors were gone and we had the keys to the liquor cabinet."
Hernandez and Tereasa Suratt bought Wandewega 10 years ago for a song. David grew up coming here when it was run by Latvian priests.
"It was just a place where kids could be kids," he said. "You can wander off into the woods, and take a boat out, and go swimming, and do the kind of things that you just can't do growing up in the city."
By the time Hernandez and Suratt bought it, it was in need of some serious TLC. "My idyllic childhood memories were a little different than the reality of the place," Hernandez laughed.
"It was like 'Blair Witch,' all these abandoned buildings," she said. "I was so freaked out!"
Today, Wandawega campers can kick back, canoe, shoot arrows, or learn to use a tomahawk.
For camper Kristen Olsen, it's not so much about reclaiming fond childhood memories as it is about replacing them.
"I did go to Girl Scout Camp once and it just did not go well for me," she said. "So I think I just swore off camping in general."
"Is this camp going better for you?" asked Burbank.
"This is going much better for me, yeah!"
Hernandez says it's a place where people can disconnect, "to reconnect with the simple pleasures of simpler times."
Well, disconnect, kind of. Burbank asked one camper, "How many times have you checked your phone since you've been here?"
"Like every ten minutes," she replied.
"Which is sad," another woman added.
"You have no idea how many mobile phones there must be in the bottom of the lake," laughed Hernandez. "It's Mother Nature's payback, for them to lose their cell phones in the lake."
"That lake is just full of sunglasses and cell phones," added Surratt.
An estimated one million adults sent themselves away to camp last year. Answering this new demand: A variety of offerings -- camps where grown-ups can learn to breathe (such as the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Mass.), to sift through the sands of time (Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Cortez, Colo.), or even to run away from zombies (at a Zombie Survival Camp).
For Jeremy Schwartz, camp is about living his childhood fantasy of playing in a rock band. "I first picked up the bass a year ago July," he told Burbank. "And I thought, what the heck, why not, why not give it a shot now? You know, you're only 42 once!"
By day, Schwartz is a librarian. But every Wednesday night this summer, he's been part of a Kinks cover band in Beacon, New York.
"To be able to have that catharsis of just lettin' it out and yelling at the top of your lungs and jumpin' around and dancing, it's better than therapy," he said.
Does anybody at the library know about this? "I'm not sure it's really their scene!" laughed Schwartz.
When musician Stephen Clair founded the Beacon Music Factory, he thought it would mostly be for kids.
Burbank asked, "When did the idea of having adults learning rock music, and music in general, come to you?"
"When the parents of our teen rock campers begged me to do it for them," replied Clair.
It turns out, though, that slipping into another world to expand one's horizons in the summertime is not a new idea. The Chautauqua Institution in western New York State was founded in 1874 as just such a place, where people could take time out to pray, to play, and to learn.
"After the Civil War, there was a lot of concern about how leisure time was being used," said Chautauqua historian and archivist Jon Schmitz. "And so there was a desire to find a way of spending your time in a more constructive way.
"People would learn a new hobby, a new sport, as well as take up more formal forms of education. And it was extremely popular. In the first assembly, over 20,000 people came for the two-week assembly here at Chautauqua Lake."
So popular, in fact, that Chautauquas sprang up around the country -- 250 at one point -- and "Chautauqua" became a word in the dictionary.
Things have not changed all that much here in the last 140 years. Chautauquans attend poetry readings in the Hall of Philosophy; listen to symphonies in the amphitheater; plus, of course, enjoy plenty of outdoor activities.
For Jack and Yvonne McCredie, Chautauqua has been a way of life for more than half a century.
"I have been coming here all my life," said Jack. "My parents met here. This is where I learned to swim and to sail, and played Little League baseball, and learned to play the piano, and all those kind of things."
"You can take classes, you can go to lectures, you can sit on the beach, you can sit on this porch," said Yvonne. "And children have clubs and all kinds of activities. So there is something for everybody. And this is one of the few places, I think, that you get that."
"Is this a good way to keep your brain young?" asked Burbank.
"Yes," said Yvonne. "It breathes life into you."
Meanwhile, back in Wisconsin, another day of adult summer camp has come and gone at Wandawega.
On Monday, these campers will go back to their real lives, back to office jobs and bills, and the pressure of being a grown-up. For now, though, that all seems pretty far away.
As more and more Americans seem to be figuring out, there's just something about s'mores and campfires and new best friends that make for an unforgettable summer ... no matter what your age.
For more info:
- Camp Wandawega, Elkhorn, Wis.
- Beacon Music Factory, Beacon, N.Y.
- Chautauqua Institution, Chautauqua, N.Y.
- Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, Stockbridge, Mass.
- Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, Cortez, Colo.
- Zombie Survival Camp | Locations
- American Camp Association
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