summer camp illustration

Welcome Back to Camp Tawonga!

S’mores, cabins, and a reminder that some things never change.

One of the many strange things about being a parent is how much my kids love to hear stories of my childhood. I suspect they find great comfort in the notion that I was once a small and powerless creature, just like them. This would explain their eerie fascination with The Story of the Rock.

The Story of the Rock goes like this: When I was 7 years old, I went to sleepaway camp for the first time. Next to our cabin was a huge rock, and one afternoon I decided to climb it. I managed to get halfway up, and then got stuck. I didn’t have the strength to climb any farther, but there was no way to get back down. I spent many minutes yelling for help. I soon realized I was going to peel off the rock. Down below was jagged stone, onto which I would fall and be maimed or possibly killed. And so, after many panic-stricken minutes, I fell. Miraculously, I landed in such a way that I merely suffered a bruised tailbone—what my children refer to, hysterically, as my “butt bone.”

That is the Story of the Rock, which I have told them 371 times.

It is one of the many yarns my wife and kids have had to endure about my magical years at Camp Tawonga, where I spent three weeks every summer for eight straight summers.

Then a funny thing happened. Last year, a woman from good old Camp Tawonga sent me an email asking whether I might want to teach during a weekend session. I could even bring my family.

I soon found myself driving a rental car full of hyperglycemic children into California’s Stanislaus National Forest, outside Yosemite, winding down the narrow road I had last descended 35 years earlier. All the familiar sights were still there—the tiny lake, the archery range with its tattered targets flapping in the August breeze, the sun-baked softball field.

The first stop for the kids and me was obvious: the rock. They wanted to see the actual site where their actual papa had nearly died.

The rock was still there, just a few paces away from B-1, the cabin where the youngest campers slept. The problem was that it had somehow shrunk, rather dramatically. Instead of the towering granite slab I had recalled, my kids were staring at a softly rounded boulder approximately 8 feet in height.

“Is that it?” my 7-year-old, Jude, asked.

“Maybe it’s harder to climb from the other side,” his older sister, Josie, said, gently. They dashed around the rock and appeared on the summit four seconds later. “They probably moved the real rock,” I heard Josie tell her brother, “because too many kids were getting hurt.”

It’s surreal to revisit an iconic childhood locale, to see the emotionally gigantic landscape of youth reduced to the scale of adulthood. Here was the dining hall where I had, so long ago, slammed my plastic cup with 200 other campers to demand a higher grade of bug juice. Here was the lavishly chlorinated pool where I’d learned to swim in the deep end. And here was the fire pit where I’d made 10,000 s’mores.

They still made s’mores. They still said the same blessing at meals. And they still sang the same songs at campfire each night: “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” “Big Yellow Taxi,” and “Friends, Friends, Friends,” the official Tawonga anthem.

Even the smells were the same. The industrial pine scent of the communal bathrooms, the coconutty waft of suntan lotion, and the smell of campfire that clung to our sweaters.

My wife was quick to observe that I wasn’t the only alumnus wandering around in a haze of nostalgia. There was a whole band of us, dragging our kids hither and yon and grinning our goofy grins.

I took Jude to see the gaga court, which was still in the field next to the pool. Gaga, for those of you unfamiliar, is an Israeli variation of dodgeball in which kids pile into a dusty corral and attempt to smash a ball into each other’s shins. We played a few rounds, just the two of us, until I got a little overzealous and wound up with bloody knuckles, a condition formally known as gaga knuckles.

I took Josie to the river below camp, a journey that had felt epic as a camper but which was actually about 500 yards, and we plunged into the water. Then I offered her a secret tour of the circuitous route we used to take, late at night, to sneak from the boys’ side of camp to the girls’. She immediately understood the appeal of such a mission—i.e., it was against the rules—though she was a bit perplexed about the endgame.

“What did you do when you got to the girls’ cabins?” she asked.

That sort of depended on how old the respective raiders and raidees were, but I kept things G-rated for Josie, who was 9. “We flirted and ate a lot of candy,” I reported, which was also true.

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.

Steve Almond is the author of New York Times best-sellers Candyfreak and Against Football. His new book, William Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life, will be out in June. Email him at

Illustration by Stephen Collins

Originally Published May 2017