I have hiked the Appalachian Trail in three states.
I have gone tubing down the James River in Virginia.
I have body surfed in the Atlantic Ocean.
I have explored and hiked trails in Arizona, marveling at the art left in the rocks by those who lived there before my time.
I have climbed a mountain and gazed down at the city of Kyoto, Japan.
I have gone 4-wheeling in the Pyrenees of northern Spain and southern France.
I have climbed Stone Mountain more times than I can remember.
I have sat on a rock overlooking the Shenandoah Valley and watched a hawk soar through the blue autumn sky.
All of these things, and many more, I have done in the 69 years of my life. I have experienced a lifetime of extraordinary days.
But none of these adventures hold a candle to the ones I had every summer growing up, and spending weeks on end at Camp Toccoa in the North Georgia mountains.
From the age of 8 until my 16th summer, the end of school in June meant that summer camp was near. My days were spent in anticipation of going to camp, riding the train from Atlanta to Toccoa, and then spending anywhere from 2 weeks to 6 weeks (depending on my ability to beg my parents to let me stay, and their ability to pay for it) at Camp Toccoa.
I was a very shy little girl – an introvert before I knew the word or what it means – and never was quite comfortable anywhere except in my cabin at camp with 7 other girls. I always felt overwhelmed in a school classroom filled with kids, on the playground at recess, waiting to be picked for a team, and even in Sunday School, where I was never sure where I was supposed to be or what I was supposed to believe. In my everyday life I was somewhat of a chameleon – I could adapt to my surroundings and my environment, but I was never comfortable or at ease. I never felt like I was part of any school group I attempted to join – I was always on the fringes, or so it seemed to me. I was happiest when I was outdoors swinging on a rope swing, lying in the grass gazing at the clouds drifting across the blue sky, or walking on the beach or along a path, either by myself or with a trusted friend.
But I loved Camp Toccoa. And I loved being a Camp Fire Girl. Camp was a place where I felt like I belonged, and being a part of the group that was Camp Fire gave me a safe place to be me and to explore the depths of my imagination and my soul. The counselors and leaders were my mentors, and I looked to them as the role models for my emerging self. Camp was the place where I knew where I was, where I was supposed to be, and who I was supposed to be with. The pressure was off, and I was free to be myself.
This past weekend, the memories flooded back as I attended Camp Toccoa’s 90th anniversary alumni reunion. The camp has changed quite a bit since I was a camper in the 1950s and 1960s, but even with the changes and the growth, there are some things that never change. I slept in the cabin I spent four weeks in when I was 9 years old. I found my signature – along with the silly little writings of a 12-year-old – written in pencil in the rafters of another cabin. I found quartz crystals where I had searched for them as a teenager. I climbed a huge rock ledge to a lookout point where I had spent sleep-out nights as a girl pondering the universe and gazing out at the valley below. I hiked trails that were familiar to me, and a few that I had never been on before, discovering that Camp Toccoa always has something new to offer me.
Seeing old friends and familiar faces was a treat for this introvert, giving me the courage to step out and engage with new friends. Still, at age 69, it can be a challenge! I was a sponge, absorbing everything, every word, every face, every story.
I sat in a rocking chair on the lodge porch, my mind flooded with memories long buried, now bubbling to the surface. I observed the happy reunions as former campers and counselors arrived, recognizing familiar faces, and greeting each other with hugs and lots of love. I watched the night campfire crackle and pop, while children eagerly fed it wood and anticipated making s’mores. I listened to stories of summer camp, and contributed a few of my own as the bonds of Camp Fire intertwined around us all, pulling us all together as a universal family.
I was at camp, my safe place. I was home.
“Beneath the pine trees, I hear the night breeze. It seems to whisper of Camp Toccoa…..Take me back to the hills of Camp Toccoa.”