Thank you for sending me to summer camp. I arrived tonight after dark to find a bonfire surrounded by boozy millennials eating s’mores and playing something called flip cup. A perky young woman gave me a name tag and a Sharpie and told me to write my name and the first record album I ever purchased. I scribbled down “R.E.M.’s Green,” and the greeter—whose name tag said “Blink-182”—looked at me like I’d just written “Bartók’s Hungarian Peasant Songs.”
I’m 36, and not only am I pretty confident that I’m the oldest camper at the Maine running of Camp No Counselors (CNC), but I also suspect I might be the oldest person many of my fellow campers, most of whom are in their twenties, have ever met. But, hey, am I embarrassed to be the only guy here wearing dad jeans? Or to politely and repeatedly decline a turn at the beer pong table because, at home, about an hour away, my wife is alarmingly pregnant with our second son, and it’s not impossible that I get a phone call demanding I sprint from the bonfire and drive at top speed to the delivery room?
Well, yes, I am somewhat embarrassed by these things. But, hey, kid’s gonna need diapers and health insurance. So when one gets an assignment to see what the fuss is about at the nation’s most popular adult summer camp, one grabs a sleeping bag and packs one’s duffel.
Before tonight, I’d never been to sleepaway camp. I’d always considered it an East Coast phenomenon, as foreign as foie gras to my middle-class Midwestern upbringing. My church youth group hosanna-ed its way out to a cabin from time to time, sure, but legit summer camp was a thing that only happened in teen sex comedies, where it looked pretty dope, and I’ve sometimes wondered whether I missed out on some crucial rite of passage—particularly since moving as an adult to New England, where the natives all seem to cherish golden memories of campfire sing-alongs, epic capture-the-flag campaigns, and make-out sessions among the pines.
The nascent adult-summer-camp industrial complex is banking on this kind of nostalgia. In the past five years, at least half a dozen camps in the mold of CNC have hoisted their vintage pennants, from Soul Camp in the Sierra Nevada to Camp Bonfire in the Poconos. The sector’s pioneer is arguably Brittany Gibbons, who founded Ohio’s Camp Throwback in the summer of 2013 and told me the vibe she’s going for is “retro communal debauchery”—placid afternoons of archery, dodgeball, and friendship bracelets followed by raucous nights of body shots, dance parties, and panty raids. Camp No Counselors traces its origins to the fall of 2013, when an NYC startup bro named Adam Tichauer organized a quasi-private camp outing in upstate New York. Tichauer has since promoted his concept on TV’s Shark Tank and grown the CNC camp network to 16 locations, from Los Angeles to Nashville to Miami to Toronto.
The camp you sent me to, Outside, is technically CNC’s Boston outing, although it’s held in Maine, not far from where I live. CNC will host 29 three-night campouts this year, split between early and late summer, when most camp facilities are unoccupied by their usual juvenile clientele. This weekend, we’ve commandeered a nearly century-old boys’ camp called Camp Caribou, an idyllic lakeside spread complete with totem poles, rustic commissary, ropes course, archery range, the works.
Camp No Counselors, I should note, totally has counselors—they just call them non-counselors, which isn’t fooling anybody. They seem friendly, though. Tonight, they paused the bonfire-and-shot-pounding shenanigans long enough to lay a few ground rules. Consider limiting your daytime alcohol intake to mealtimes, the non-counselors suggested. Also, campers are forbidden from starting conversations by talking about our jobs, a rule that serves CNC’s core mission to “enable adults to create genuine friendships through shared experience.” It’s an edict that throws me, since it basically limits my conversation starters to weather, parenting, and the first couple seasons of Veep—none of which seem to jibe with the overall frat-party vibe.
Finally, the non-counselors explained, when they want the group’s attention, they will get it by repeatedly shouting, “You down with CNC?” To which campers within earshot are to yell back, “Yeah, you know me!” until everyone has joined the call-and-refrain. This routine is not only embarrassing but also peculiar, given that the reference dates to 1991, when most of the crowd around me was presumably more into Barney than Naughty by Nature.
It’s been a long week, so after a couple s’mores and a few failed conversations about Veep, I wandered off to find my cabin. I’m the only one here now, about to enjoy a self-imposed lights-out. I’m sure I will build some genuine friendships tomorrow.
Today I caught the winning out in a kickball game, learned to shoot a bow and arrow, and witnessed a scantily clad Batgirl grinding on a scantily clad Wonder Woman. No genuine friendships yet, but that could be because I’m not actually at camp anymore. Let me explain.
This morning got off to a rocky start in Cabin #9. Turns out I’m bunking with two different groups: a mellow band of co-workers from a sunglasses manufacturer in Rhode Island and a hard-partying crew who self-identify as the Thunder Chickens (they have T-shirts) and who are themselves the staff of a youth summer camp in New Hampshire. Between 5 and 6 a.m., three separate iPhone alarms went off on the Thunder Chickens’ side of the room, which—because their owners were basically comatose—prompted shouting from the Rhode Islanders. Tense-if-groggy words were exchanged, and it seemed like things might escalate until a loon started calling outside and everyone quieted down to listen.
At breakfast, we signed up for activities—I put in for kickball, archery, and a free swim period—then set out on a mandatory friendship walk across the property. It was cloudless and humid, and as the temperature climbed to 90 degrees, campers toured the grounds in a hungover throng, pausing here and there to answer icebreaker questions: How would we spend a moderately sized lottery jackpot? Who was our celebrity lookalike?
My kickball team consisted mostly of short, tan guys who called each other “baby” and pumped their fists a lot. Never have I been among so many men wearing tank tops. Afterward, I reported to the archery range, where a bemused instructor, accustomed to coaching ten-year-olds, taught me and my Rhode Island roomies how to nock and release an arrow. We fired a few dozen volleys and chitchatted about the evening’s costume party—every night is an open-bar costume party at CNC, and tonight’s theme was Superheroes vs. Villains. One of the Rhode Island women was planning to go as Sexy Punisher, and she wondered whether the happy-hour bartenders would fill her squirt guns with liquor, and if so, what kind.
For my part, I spent much of the day trying to tease out whether adult summer camp is a charming opportunity for harried grown-ups to revisit their salad days or a sad little carnival of perpetual adolescents still clinging to them. Over predinner beers on the swing set, I asked the Rhode Island crew what brought them to camp. They told me they just wanted some kind of outdoor getaway, a place to blow off steam with a little boozing and kayaking and lawn sports.
Fair enough, I said, but for $525 a head—the cheapest CNC registration fee—you guys could have rented a swank cabin and indulged all the drinking and paddling and cornhole you could handle. Was there some ingrained millennial instinct at work here? Some yearning for structured, organized recreation, instilled by a lifetime of play dates and music lessons and soccer leagues?
Nah, they scoffed, but who has free time to plan a decent weekend trip? Adult summer camp was basically the woodsy equivalent of Sandals Jamaica, they explained—a little on the douchey side, maybe, but convenient and all-inclusive.
At dinner, I set down my tray next to 30-year-old Lauren Torres, a fit and wavy-haired teacher from Beverly, Massachusetts, who I’d noticed was one of the few other campers rolling solo. Hell yeah, this was an exercise in nostalgia, she told me—summer camp had been a foundational part of her upbringing. “I am who I am because of camp,” Torres said, which wasn’t something that everyone in her adult circles understood. At a place like CNC, she could be anonymous, indulging the same thrill of sudden independence that had made camp so exciting the first time around.
I didn’t pack a costume for Superheroes vs. Villains, so I found a pair of Yaktrax in the back of my car, strapped them tightly around my jaw, and tried to pass myself off as Bane from Batman. Even if I’d wanted to play beer pong, the Yaktrax made it difficult to bring a Solo cup to my mouth, so I just hung around the barn-cum-dance-hall, where a DJ spun house music for midriff-baring Catwomen and caped-but-shirtless Supermen. I even danced a little with what I think was a Powerpuff Girl, who told me I looked “scary as fuck.”
Back at the cabin, I found the Thunder Chickens already sacked out, still exhausted from the night before. I lay on my cot and started drafting this letter, something about how adulthood is swell, but maybe a little arrested development never hurt anybody.
And that’s when my wife called to tell me she was in labor.
I crammed my gear into my duffel, had a lightning round of high-fives with the Thunder Chickens, and tore out of camp within minutes. Once in your life, Outside reader, I hope you get to make the But Officer, My Wife Is In Labor drive—it is super fun. I covered 45 miles in less than a half-hour and got home to find my wife breathing deeply and bouncing on an exercise ball.
Fast-forward a few hours, though, and alas: false alarm. After the contractions subsided, the two of us were blearily eating cereal on the couch when my wife looked over and asked just what the hell were those weird indentations around my jaw.
As of 10:00 this morning, my wife and I were pretty sure we were not imminently bringing new life into this world. So even though the outcome of the color war suddenly seemed pretty trivial, I had no good reason not to return to summer camp.
When I got there, I found things had taken a turn for the weird. A naked man jogged past me as I walked to my cabin (he’d just left the showers, I think, but still). I happened upon my bunkmates (amused to see me) at the kickball field, where a Thunder Chicken who we’ll call Kelly—an otherwise mild-mannered counselor at that New Hampshire kiddie camp—was standing on third base, swilling straight from a magnum of rosé. The camp-wide color war was in full swing: our cabin was on the green team, and Kelly had appointed herself its one-woman pep squad. After kickball, everyone filed into the field house for a lip-synch competition, where Kelly pranced before the crowd, wiping the blue team’s flag on her ass and crushing a half-full beer can on her forehead.
Kelly led my teammates in a chant: “Lean green drinking machine!” Our rallying cry, apparently. I swigged my bottled Frappuccino (free in the mess hall, courtesy of Starbucks) with as much wild abandon as I could muster.
After a tug-of-war and roshambo tournament, the color war culminated in a camp-wide, multi-event Apache relay—kayak races, cereal-eating competition, apple bobbing, you name it. It was just like the climactic camp showdown in all those teen sex comedies, except I didn’t much care who won. My role was to shoot a layup in the gym, roll the basketball between my teammates’ legs, and then run to the finish line for the relay’s final component: a giant slip-and-slide that each camper had to careen down before chugging a beer.
What can I say? My team lost badly, but I got to play on a slip-and-slide, which I haven’t done since I was 12. Also, I watched a grown-ass woman spit rosé out of her mouth like a rotary sprinkler. After the race, there was a lot of sloppy hugging, even a few besotted faces stained with happy tears. Friendships were made, it seemed. And who am I to say they were anything less than genuine?
I bailed on the evening’s Woodstock-themed party, having spent enough time at Phish concerts in the ’90s that getting drunk in a woven poncho has lost a lot of its appeal. Some rites of passage, I would suggest, are better left passed.
Back home, I put the toddler to bed and settled on the couch for an evening of Thai takeout and Veep—just me, my severely pregnant wife, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. You down with JLD? Yeah, you know me.
Here’s to next year,