When I think back on the best times of my life, I always end up thinking about summer camp. My experience at camp truly shaped who I am today. It helped me see the world in a new way. As a camper, I learned that my view of the world was an internal thing, a subjective interpretation. The counselors and trip leaders didn’t just guide me into the wilderness, they guided me into a new way of seeing.
At Sanborn camps, there is a two day trip called the Lone Vigil, a little adventure that I signed up for when I was a kid at camp. The trip is simple: a camper spends time alone in the wilderness, two days and one night…alone. On other trips, the campers and counselors stay together, hike together, set up tents in a cluster, cook, eat, and sleep in a small group. But not the Lone Vigil. On that trip, the goal was solitude. A group of campers are lead by their counselors into the woods, then after a mile or so, the campers split up and head in different directions. Everyone strikes out alone.
I can remember walking alone, feeling the weight of my pack filled with food, shelter, and provisions. I was self-sufficient, hiking alone in the woods, nervous but confident. I was armed with new skills learned in camp — the ability to read map and compass, the knowledge of fire safety, the tenants of leave-no-trace camping, and a good book. I soon found my campsite, close to water but not too close. I set up my tent and gathered wood. The solitude was amazing. I felt the wind in a new way, heard the birds more clearly. I spent the entire afternoon alone, building camp alone, cooking and watching the sunset alone.
So many emotions rolled through my body. I was excited, afraid, lonely, uplifted, refreshed, and curious. The hours ticked by in solitude, and my eyes began to open up and really see the woods. Dappled sunlight. The idleness of a huge boulder. The paper-wind-chime music of an aspen grove. Movement caught my eye, and I turned to see a group of deer staring back at me. I felt like I was…part of it.
As darkness settled in, a bit of fear filled my young mind. Alone in the woods all night? Could I pull this off? A welcomed visit from my counselor calmed my nerves. He approached through the twilight with a bag of candy and a few fun stories. He assured me that he was keeping an eye on me from a distance, not far away, not to worry. The counselor walked off into the dusk, heading out to check on the other Lone Vigils.
The light faded, and I was alone with the stars. There were so many stars, countless tiny jewels. The fear inside me melted away. The limitless stars seemed to echo what my counselor said: I was safe. As I faded off to sleep bundled in my bag, the cosmos kept me company.
I woke at first light, alone in the sunrise. I watched the trees, smelled the trees, listened to the trees, was the trees. A golden eagle circled above me, then dove down the wind into a field. I had never seen a eagle before and its size threw me, I swear it was bigger than my dog back home. The eagle’s wings blurred in the grass, then the bird took back to the air with a rodent locked in its talons. Breakfast. Good idea. I got up and cooked myself some oatmeal, thinking. I’d never seen anything like that, the circle of life, the hunt of a golden eagle, the pulse of the planet. It was a natural, personal, adventurous experienced that was only possible at summer camp.
Years later, when I became a counselor at Sanborn, I learned how the trip really worked. I learned that the counselor was indeed always near by. Even though it felt like I was completely alone, an adult was just over the ridge, just behind the aspen grove, always watching and making sure I was safe. But when I was a kid, I didn’t know that for sure. All I knew was the change I went through.
On camp trips like that, I learned to respect the earth, because we are the earth. The survival of the human race depends on nature, yet the survival of nature does not at all depend on humans. We were born with nature, we are part of it all. For me, it was my time at summer camp that helped me see that. Nature is always with us. Even on a Lone Vigil, we are never alone.