Maine. Land of endless pine forest, pristine lakes and parkin’ in the dooryard—a refuge of campfire tales and summer friendships. A place where a kid can still be a kid, where parents can ship them off for the summer without any worries. The perfect place for American Summer Camp—and seasonal work.
As a climber, I found the opportunity too good to pass up. Free housing, free laundry service, three free meals a day. I would be teaching kids to climb at one of America’s premier (read: obscenely expensive) summer camps. The list of movie stars and magnates that send their little darlings to this particular camp was a tad hair-raising, yet as college graduation loomed, I couldn’t think of a better way to avoid getting a real job, so I accepted a position as a climbing instructor. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
It was my turn to take Sam for his bedtime sandwich. He wasn’t even in my cabin, but somehow I got pinned with sandwich duty. Sandwiches were somehow the cure to Sam’s recent bout of nighttime “stomach aches,” though they were really just to get him out of the cabin while the other boys got ready for bed. The week before, when the 12-year-olds were wrestling before lights out, trying to fart on each other, Sam tried a little too hard and shit himself.
“How much do you get paid?” Sam asked.
“Not enough,” I said.
“Do you even know?” he probed.
“Yes. Eat your sandwich.” I almost wished I didn’t know. It was too close to slave labor.
“Then how much?”
“Why do you want to know?” I asked.
“Well I already know, I was just wondering if you knew.”
“Eat your sandwich.”
“Do you have a girlfriend? What color hair does she have? How long is it?”
If you don’t eat that sandwich I’m going to shove it in your face, I wanted to say.
“Geez, I just wanted to know how long it is. Like shoulder length or longer?”
After breakfast and cabin cleanup came the first three activity periods—my favorite half of the day since the air was a little cooler than in the sunny afternoon and the two 55-foot wooden climbing towers were in the shade. I could zone out, belaying child after child, so accustomed to the calls of Where do I go? I’m stuck! I need a boost! that I no longer heard them—eyes glazed over like an animal in captivity.
By the middle of summer, counselors survived on simple pleasures, like 24-hour benders on time off, chicken nugget day and chanting for the girls’ head counselor to jump in the lake whenever she wore a white t-shirt to all-camp meetings.
But I soon discovered a miracle to keep me sane. I could sneak off to the climbing towers during rest hour, drag a crash pad to the top where I was out of sight, and nap—a full glorious hour in my treetop sanctuary. I entertain myself with daydreams of quitting, with images of myself walking out of the camp gates and never looking back.
When the bell rang for fourth activity period, all I had to do was rappel down, right on time and ready to go for another three straight 50-minute blocks of belaying.
Rainy days were the worst since we couldn’t climb. It was up to the climbing counselors to keep the kids entertained for the full period while we huddled under the bouldering pavilion. The campers always seemed to love testing how many pull-ups I could do with one of them hanging on my back.
“Do me! Do me! I weigh 63 lbs!”
“Oh, me next! I weigh 70!”
“Try me, I’m 95!”
But kids are only so big and the weight range is limited. Another climbing counselor jumped on my back, 140 pounds’ worth. The campers cheered, my arms strained and shook, veins appeared as I gasped for air and then pop! I separated a rib.
I had the night off. Once I was outside the camp gates, I debated ever returning. I could keep driving, it would be so easy. I didn’t need to go back. Instead, I ran lap after lap on the unkempt trails of a nearby nature reserve, trying to clear my head. I almost didn’t make the midnight counselor-curfew.
Ana, 11, was in fourth period climbing. She was from Spain yet spoke perfect English with a British accent that melted my heart. She was usually enthusiastic to climb, but I found her sitting alone on the bench one day.
“Hayden,” she said, “I don’t feel like climbing today.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“I just don’t. Actually, can we boulder? Will you help me?”
We walked over to the bouldering pavilion and I challenged Ana to traverse all the way around the outside. She fell every few moves but always got back on and eventually made the whole distance.
“I did it!” she shouted. “Isn’t that good?”
I dared her to do it with only three falls the next time.
She tried the entire period, getting down to five falls. The day after, three. By the end of the week, she had completed the full traverse and I was just as excited as she was.
I was excited, maybe a little too excited, for our camp to host the inter-camp climbing competition that week. Neighboring camps were coming to our turf to see if they could best our climbers. I was jittery with nerves for my campers. I walked them through the point system, talked strategy, picked out the best routes for their individual strengths. Then it was game time.
Since we were the host camp, I was stuck belaying and it killed me not to be able to watch, but I made sure to be stationed on the wall with the hardest climb. Only four campers sent the hardest route that day, three of them mine. As a camp, we claimed overall victory for both boys and girls—podium places filled with our camp’s color.
All summer I thought about quitting. But I never did. When summer ended, I picked up my paycheck and ran out of there without saying any good-byes, so happy to be putting miles between us. Almost a year later, while shifting through the memories, I realize I kind of miss the place.
Originally published March 17th, 2015 in Rock and Ice