It’s a perfect summer night in early August, warm but not too hot, the sun still high in the sky. Girls ages seven and up jam themselves into a dining hall for dinner. Their voices and laughter are booming as they braid each other’s hair at the table. You can’t help but smile, wondering what their conversations are like; wondering if they’re anything like the ones you had while sitting in that very same spot 25 years ago. Even the post-meal slow songs are the same; alumni will be pleased to know that during tonight’s rendition of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, the girls still dramatically drag out the words I recall, singing them ten times louder than any other lyric.
But tonight, something’s a little different; a frenetic energy is building.
The kids don’t yet know what evening program is but they suspect it to be Mud Run, and boy are they excited. It’s a newer evening program, and they’ve been waiting for it all summer. You can feel the anticipation growing; they know an announcement is coming but they don’t know how and they don’t know when.
As Pine Manor campers collect the songbooks and Kat asks if there are any announcements…it happens.
Counselors storm Sloan Hall decked out in bathing suits, with swim caps and goggles mounted on their heads. They emerge from the Lodge slathered in mud, chanting — slowly at first: Mud run…mud run…mud run!
As they gather in the middle of the room — their voices getting louder and chants getting faster — the campers begin to shriek and join them. The littlest ones can barely contain themselves as they perch up on their benches, excitedly banging the tables with clenched fists until the entire room erupts in cheers.
As this goes on, my two friends and I – visitors for the weekend and longtime Kamaji campers and counselors ourselves – sit a few tables away, watching the madness ensue. Almost immediately, and quite inexplicably, all three of us have the exact same reaction: We begin to weep.
And then, as we realize we’ve all had this visceral response to the scene before us, we begin to laugh.
In a split second — one that so perfectly mirrored our own camp experience — we were transported back to our youth, to a time when nothing in our lives mattered more than finding out what evening program would be. I was struck by the simplicity of it all. The genuine joy these children were feeling was at once electric and tangible and familiar. And it was all because of a Mud Run.
It made me think: As adults, how often to we get to feel this very specific kind of bliss?
Sure, as we grow up and evolve there are, if we’re lucky, many things to be joyful about and grateful for. Graduating college and living on your own and landing that first plum gig. Engagements and marriages and falling in love and vacations and babies and buying homes.
But these are all big, momentous life occasions.
What felt particularly moving about this night was the realization that the essence of Kamaji remains the same as it was when we attended in the early 90s, and it is this: The purest form of happiness can still be found in the smallest of events.
And I suppose that is, at its core, the beauty of camp. Life here is so stripped down that it forces you to find the magic in the quiet moments: A walk with your best friend, the thrill of getting up on water skis for the first time, the way the light hits the trees at around 8pm in August, closing your eyes and listening to sailboat halyards clank against one another. These moments are blink-and-you’ll-miss-them, but they’re also the ones we remember most fondly.
At Council Fire the following evening the four fires – representing Body, Mind, Soul, and Service – were lit and their meanings read aloud by campers. Service, the fourth fire, has long been my favorite. While the other fires ask us to be clean and show deference, the fourth fire commands us to Be joyful. To seek the joy in being alive.
Seek the joy in being alive.
In a day and age where it’s often hard to keep sight of what really matters, there was Saturday evening Council Fire to remind me. And, if excitement over the prospect of competing against other tribes in a series of challenges with the sole purpose of getting as filthy as is humanly possible isn’t the epitome of this very sentiment, I’m not quite sure what is.
Even in your thirties, it’s somehow still just as gut-wrenching to pack your bags, say your goodbyes, and board the long flight home. But for some reason, this year felt slightly easier. I felt a sense of both gratitude and relief, assured of something that I’ve often pondered: Camp — this sacred place that somehow remains unmarked by time — still matters.
The kids adore it. They are involved and engaged and kind to one another. They don’t miss their devices…too much. Cool is defined by the way you treat a fellow camper. There are still trends; chokers and crocs were my two biggest takeaways. Their passion for tribe songs is both fierce and infectious. They still fidget during flag and they still whine about Cabin Clean up and they still sit with calm and reverence during Council Fire. (That said, it is worth mentioning something new: A dessert at barbecue. It’s called a Chipwich and campers literally left our conversation mid-sentence to go get them. And honestly, after trying one, I don’t blame them. It was the right choice.)
So…will these kids remember Mud Run for the rest of their lives? Possibly so. But my personal hope for them is that they’ll remember, above all things, how happiness was achieved through the simplest pleasures this magical place has to offer. And that this is true throughout all of life, outside of camp’s walls, too.
Down the road, between those big moments of joy, they’ll inevitably be faced with moments of pain and adversity. And during those times, I also hope they’ll remember to always strive to seek the joy in simply being alive.