Naturally, the camp had undergone some capital improvements. There was a nifty gazebo for yoga, and gluten-free options offered at every meal. (Back in the feathered ’70s, nobody knew what gluten was.) There was also a wonderful and wonderfully terrifying new ropes course.
I emphasize terrifying in deference to Josie, who inherited my fear of heights and did not at all enjoy being 30 feet off the ground. The fact that she was clipped into a safety harness offered her little reassurance. And yet she was determined to walk the rope strung between two trees.
Three times she climbed up and struggled to take that first step. Each time, fear paralyzed her and she was belayed to the ground, red-faced with shame. Finally, a pair of instructors took Josie aside and gave her the kind of pep talk most effectively delivered by hip young women with muscles and tattoos.
Up Josie went for one final attempt, cheered on by her mentors. She took one step, then another and another, and didn’t stop until she’d conquered the rope. She returned to terra firma triumphant, hugged both the instructors, and floated back to our cabin.
Not surprisingly, Josie is already lobbying to attend Tawonga—without her parents. The problem is that we live outside Boston, not in California, and the tuition for a three-week session is way beyond our means. As Josie has pointed out—a pox upon the internet!—Tawonga offers financial aid. So you might say we’re in a phase of negotiation. (Parents will recognize “negotiation” as a euphemism that can be roughly translated as “absorbing an unrelenting barrage of pleadings and guilt trips.”)
I’m sure I’ll eventually relent, and not just because Josie is a world-class lobbyist. Seeing the look on her face after her high-wire triumph, I remembered why camp had been such a big deal, why memories of the place had stuck with me for so long. I’d been the same kind of kid as Josie: anxious, easily frightened. Camp Tawonga had been the one place in the world where I could ditch the version of myself enforced by my family and school mates and become a kid who was a little less self-conscious, a little more self-forgiving, and therefore a lot braver.
At camp, I did things I never would have tried at home. I dove off rocks into mountain lakes. I marched into woods I was certain were overrun by rattlesnakes and bears. I edged my way across sketchy footbridges. I snuck over to the girls’ side of camp to rendezvous with my first real girlfriend. I threw my arms around the shoulders of my bunkmates and fought back tears when it came time to sing “Friends, Friends, Friends” at the campfire on the final night.
And yes, I fell off giant 8-foot boulders.
As a father, my achievements didn’t seem quite as epic as they felt at the time. But I could also see now, through the eyes of my children, that I was missing the point. Camp was a place where kids went to enlarge their sense of possibility, a sacred ground reserved for the creation of personal myths.
The moment Josie returned home, she told her grandfather that she had walked across a “tightrope 50 feet off the ground.” By the time she has kids of her own, that rope will likely have risen to 100 feet, and it will be strung across a gorge filled with rocks as sharp as teeth.