Without any hesitation, if someone were to ask me what the most formative experience of my life has been, I would have only one word: camp.
I was 12 when I first arrived at what would soon become one of the most memorable places of my life. It was summer, and we had driven 8 hours to get to the middle of nowhere. We drove through a winding forest, and eventually pulled up to a country-style home that stuck out like a sore thumb, as it was surrounded by acres of forest, with only an old barn to go along with it.
What in the world had I gotten myself into, I thought, as any supremely girly 12-year old would. I arrived with glittery makeup and perfectly straightened hair. My makeup bag was larger than most people’s duffle bags, and my suitcase was larger than most people. I was there for a week, but I had packed enough to comfortably immigrate to Africa.
To my horror, we were promptly informed that we would have to carry all of our luggage to the cabins, which were about a kilometre away – a 10-15 minute walk through the forest.
You see, for most kids, this was a non-issue. They arrived looking like this:
Whereas I, on the other hand, was caught like this:
I believed there was no way I could carry my things. But I had no choice. Either I carried everything, or I would have nothing for the week.
So I carried my bags the entire way, and it was actually more horrible than I thought it would be. I truly thought I might die. But I did it. And now, every time I have to carry a heavy bag, or do something slightly too challenging, I remember that incident, and I remember that I survived. And nothing has given me quite as much strength as that experience.
What came to pass in that week was not much different. It was a week-long initiation to all things outdoors; but in hindsight, it was really a week-long discovery of my own inner strength. We had to use outhouses, we had no electricity, we ate vegetarian, and we showered maybe once or twice the entire week. Okay, we probably could have showered more often, but it just didn’t happen, as with most other hygiene rituals that are voluntarily abandoned at camp.
“It’s always the best thing any of us have ever done. And I don’t understand because it’s also really technically quite miserable, I mean you have to like poop in a hole that you dug yourself with a stick, and you have to sleep on the ground and it’s cold and it’s hot and it’s all of these things and you have blisters. But there’s something about doing something hard, making yourself suffer in a physical way, that feels like the opposite of suffering – [it’s] incredibly restorative.” – Cheryl Strayed, on the Tim Ferris Show
Flash-forward to 10 years later, when I can proudly say that I not only returned excitedly for several years, but I became a counsellor of that camp, and went on to train future counsellors in my last few years there.
Every year, my first thought upon arriving is “why”. “WHY did I do this to myself again? Did I somehow forget how horrible it is to have to pee in the forest and get attacked by bugs and to have to braid my frizzy hair all week?” And then by the second day, I remember: because it’s always the best thing I have ever done.
The friends you make, the memories you make, the sheer bliss of surviving a type of suffering you thought you could never withstand… it’s transformative.
It is absolutely, unequivocally transformative.