Some years ago, I went to camp in Idyllwild, CA. If you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, you might recognize that name as the name of a town being threatened by a wildfire. There was a fire the second summer I was there, but it was farther down the mountain and didn’t force us to evacuate as they’ve had to this year. Still, I can remember the faint haze of smoke in the air, the sting of it in my eyes, and the fire trucks they brought up to the campus, just in case.
I hadn’t thought about Idyllwild for years, but seeing the name on the news the other morning made me start to remember it. And memory is a funny thing. I can remember numerous quirky details from the two camp sessions I attended there. I can remember a few names of people who became important to me there, but no faces, really. This was pre-Facebook, so I can’t look back at my pictures and statuses to decipher the facts. But somehow I can remember the feeling of being there. I have a deep nostalgia for it. I remember the paths, and the auditorium, afternoons at the pool, and the teenage boys with skateboards. It’s all wrapped in this haze, as if it happened to someone else, a lifetime ago, and I watched it as a movie once. But then the random details are so vivid, I know I must have lived it myself…
I found Idyllwild because I was granted a scholarship from the theatre department at my school in 8th grade. I attended APAC in the Jackson, MS Public Schools from 4th grade through 10th grade. APAC was a unique program that allowed students to test into advanced academic classes and audition for an art “major” to do as well. In 4th and 5th grade, you attend academic classes in the mornings and your art major in the afternoon, all on the same campus. In middle school, you attended your art in the morning and were then bused to a different school for your academics. And in high school, you attended academic classes at one high school all day and then walked down the hill to the other campus for your art. The scholarship to Idyllwild was a coveted award that I was ecstatic to receive. My parents flew out there and dropped me off, then took a drive up Route 1 for their own vacation. They sent me a postcard with an otter.
What I mostly remember about that first year was that everyone was enthralled by my supposed southern accent. Southern Californians evidently didn’t encounter too many people from Mississippi, and so I became known simply as the name of my state. We stayed in cabins segregated by girls and boys. There was a drought that summer and signs in all the bathroom stalls admonished, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.” As girls are wont to do, our extracurricular hobby seemed to be lurking outside the boys cabin, teasing and being teased. I was doing the musical theatre camp that year, and our play was based on the non-fiction book The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. I can’t remember much about the play, but I could still sing you several of the songs. The mother in the story wrote jingles to support her family, and in fact the jingle we sang for Tetley Tea goes through my head just about every time I make a cup. I wore high heels for the first time as the aunt-character I played, and I remember a heel getting stuck in a crack between slats of our outdoor stage as I was trying to come on for the curtain call. I came out barefoot. I made friends with a boy named Ari from Marin County. Some nights a group of us played spin-the-bottle in the woods. On the last night of camp, several of us decided to sleep on the deck of our cabin and look at the stars. I tried to take a picture of the sky but my little point and shoot camera couldn’t do it justice at all. I missed the first week of high school while I was out there, because schools in California start much later.
I loved Idyllwild so much that I went back the next year on my parents’ dime. This time I had “aged up,” so our accommodations were more dorm-like. I roomed with one of the scholarship recipients from my school that I didn’t know well, and it was odd being together in such a non-school setting. When I got to camp my name tag said “Laura Chaives,” because evidently my adolescent r’s looked like v’s. I took the poetry workshop that year. Our classroom was a treehouse-like cube on the outskirts of the camp, nestled amongst the trees. I made a friend that year named Hannah. Our poetry teacher called us Mutt and Jeff, based on an old cartoon, because I was tall and thin and she was short and round. Hannah had diabetes, and since it was cheaper to buy one big drink from the snack counter and share it than to buy two smaller ones, I got hooked on the Diet Coke she had to drink. We also loved the cheese fries you could buy there, and Luna bars from the bookstore: Chai Tea and Lemon Zest. I had one just the other day and remembered sitting outside at a picnic table, making Hannah laugh so hard that Diet Coke came out her nose. I also made friends with a boy doing the jewelry workshop, and he forged me a ring. There was also a boy named Lori (if memory serves correctly) who played the cello, and I remember listening to him play and falling into the waves of music from that beautiful instrument. I’m not sure I’ve specifically heard a cello since then. One night walking back to the dorm I was convinced there was a bear in my path, but it turned out to be a boulder. This was the year of the fire, and I was amazed at how nonchalant all the Californians seemed to be about it. I was quaking in my boots. I remember going to the theatre performance at an outside amphitheater and being so scared to be out there with a fire raging somewhere nearby. That year the actress who played Matilda in the movie was a fellow camper, but she didn’t want anyone to know who she was. I recently read her article for Cracked about being a child star and I thought about the small part I played in her trajectory by being at camp with her that summer and knowing her “secret.” On my birthday Hannah bought me one present for every hour of the day.
I wrote poems that summer–the best poems I’ve ever written and probably will ever write. Having the structure of a workshop forced me outside the realm of teenage angst poetry in a way that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to muster again. My aunt and uncle, who live in Southern California, came to our culminating reading and I remember feeling a bit embarrassed to share my rawness with them there. I wore a blue spaghetti strap top and a dusty mauve A-line skirt with blue flowers from Anthropologie for the reading. I’m not sure why I remember that.
Camp relationships are a funny thing. Hannah and I, inseparable for those two weeks, kept in touch with letters from awhile–maybe a year or so. We were on the cusp of adolescence and I think we both had rough 10th grade years. Pen and paper couldn’t convey what we were going through very well and so eventually we fell out of touch. I can’t remember her last name to look her up on Facebook. Ari called me once or twice after that first summer of camp, back when calling long distance was still a big deal, once right after he had broken his wrist playing hockey. I hadn’t even known he played hockey. You get to know someone so deeply by spending two weeks practically living together, and yet in most of the ways that matter you still don’t know them at all.
And all this from a wildfire that put the name of a small mountain town in California in the news…