Did you have a summer camp experience when you were a young ’un? Did you come away with social skills? Physical fitness? A religious or spiritual awakening? Or perhaps just mosquito bites and melancholy?
Can you hum any part of “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah,” Allan Sherman’s famous letter-to-home novelty hit from, uh, 1963? If so, the sort of nostalgia we bask in herein may be just your cup of hot chocolate.
Yes, time has moved on, our zits have dried up and some of us have bloomed with our own children. Maturity — ahem — separates us from those lazy days of summer camp. Today, for recreation and education, we tend to dwell in the disembodied glow of the computer monitor. And while children of the 21st century grow up thinking a Blackberry comes from Radio Shack rather than a wooded bramble, adults aren’t necessarily any better themselves at negotiating the forest these days.
Nonetheless, some of us find ourselves itching to “get back to the garden,” as Joni Mitchell so eloquently sang in “Woodstock.” For them, where are the opportunities to go to camp again? How does an adult do that?
Join us as we explore some of the prospects. And, if you have certain emotional baggage from summertime camping experiences, get busy unpacking.
The summer (camp) of ’69
Pottawatomie, an hour’s drive from my childhood home in Memphis, is where I attended a weekend summer camp. To think Woodstock was going on many hundred miles north of our Girl Scout camp was more cultural anguish than I had endured since the Kennedy assassination. I loved rebellious rock music, and none of the mud-soaked images on the evening news looked so adult to me. For this scout, it would not be the Summer of Love but my first, and last, camp experience.
Moving from Brownie to Junior and finally to Cadet, I was a dedicated camper — so long as I was not too far outside the city environs. In the summer of 1969, upon arriving, I was scarcely sprayed with insect repellent before I was assigned a task no one wanted.
The only fire I was used to lighting was for candles on birthday cakes. And, save for a few old Sinclair gas stations, I had not used anything but pristine commodes. So, why was I recruited for the jobs of fire tending and of lashing wooden sticks together for a latrine drain?
Today I know the Senior Scouts were bitches. They knew I would take on the task without a fight. While they busied themselves reading Tiger Beat inside their pup tents, I created the most perfect hole for all to “enjoy” after a long night of marshmallows and pork.
Sure, I would get a badge for constructing the latrine area, but there would be absolutely no reward for offbeat feats such as producing the loudest scream in the woods. (The catalysts? Stepping on a rabbit carcass, and also spotting a nearby Eagle Scout’s penis as he skinny-dipped.) And really, shouldn’t badges be developed on the as-you-go and per-person basis? For my sash, I sought the “Most Pathetic Diary Entries,” “Most Creative Application of Calamine Lotion” or a “Kept New Sneakers White” badges.
The comfort of my family’s brick ranch house tugged at my heart. The fear of squaring tender, suburban flesh over a murky pit in the ground seemed to be asking too much. I felt vulnerable, exposed and dirty. And who is to say a spider wouldn’t just crawl into my shorts while they were down around my ankles?
In my mind, a “summer getaway” became an early escape from camp. I longed to return to the air-conditioned comfort of the family den, not to mention the bathroom.
Not much has changed. I’m a grown wimp, mean girls still get the best of me, and I still kick myself for missing the real camping experience on Yasgur’s farm.
Bernheim Forest: please walk on the grass
Louisville is blessed to have the Bernheim Forest in our back yard. The arboretum, beautiful gardens, tranquil lakes, a nature center, large expanses of scenic natural area, 30 miles of hiking trails and a 12,000-acre research forest are nationally recognized. Within Bernheim’s total 14,000 acres, you will find Joe Yurt, who has a knack for sharing information and collecting memories with visitors young and old. He has seen the young mature and the old become renewed.
LEO: What is the most memorable sight or experience you have had that proved there are a lot of adults who need to get out into nature more often?
JOE YURT: Two years ago I had a group of teachers, adult chaperones and middle school students from a large urban area whom I welcomed in the parking lot of the visitor center. As I led them up the walkway to the visitor center building, I stepped off in the grass to lead them to a grassy destination point. After walking 8-12 feet ahead, I looked over my shoulder and observed no one following me, but, instead, standing on the wooden boardwalk which I had stepped from. I hesitated then said, “It’s OK to walk on the grass here. In fact, if you like, take off your shoes and socks and find out how it feels!”
LEO: What seems to be the biggest myth or misunderstanding about nature programs at Bernheim?
JY: The majority of our programs throughout the year — whether nature or arts — are more about the inspiration of nature than about nature education. They are more about our connections and obligations to nature than to the science of nature.
LEO: What’s the key difference between kids and grown-ups?
JY: Somewhere along the way, adults lose the sense of bold exploration that most of us had as kids. Every day I observe children who instinctively know that the adventure is “off the trail” while I simultaneously hear their adult chaperones caution them to “stay on the trail! Otherwise, you’ll poke your eye out on a stick or get poison ivy!”
LEO: Where do you call home?
JY: I live in Louisville. While all of my previous “careers” have been totally unrelated to my work at Bernheim, I literally grew up in Louisville’s Iroquois Park. I truly believe that is the explanation for my ongoing relationship with nature.
LEO: Where do you wander when you really get off the trail?
JY: Every once in a while I want the tonic of Manhattan or Chicago.
Easy outdoor experiences for the kid in you
Kate Perryman is a mellow, organized woman with a vocation as a therapist that incorporates art. She has a very good ear and very energetic and imaginative children (the two don’t always go together). Elizabeth Perryman, known as Eli, is 5, and Liam turns 4 this summer. Kate, her husband Will, and their kids reside in the Highlands with three French bulldogs and a very patient tabby.
LEO: How can one really and truly get away and reduce stress?
KATE PERRYMAN: Well, a vacation that is not a full itinerary of scheduled events has proven to be a great source of renewal for me. Most recently, I discovered revisiting my love of music, through beginning to learn the violin, is an invaluable source of renewal and introspection. With my own kids, I find that the simple things can be the most rewarding … something like taking a walk, an urban hike, turning on the sprinkler, sitting on the front porch or back deck. A walk up to the quick mart to get ice cream and pick up rocks can be just as fascinating, rewarding and much less stressful than a big, planned event.
LEO: What similarities are there, if any, between a children’s camp and an adult retreat?
KP: There are a lot of specialty camps (computer, sports, music, etc.). I think an adult or child could think about what their goals of a camp would be. … Ultimately, it should be about making new friends and having fun, maybe trying something new, being exposed to new things. In a society that seems to ever more focus on specializations, I think, ultimately, camp, for myself, would be about renewal and being exposed to new people and new experiences.
I never attended a camp. However, with a family home in the Grand Teton National Park in Jackson Hole, Wyo., my summers were filled with wilderness adventures, horseback riding, hiking, camping, fishing, rafting, etc. Those experiences taught me so much about myself and instilled a true appreciation for nature and adventure.
LEO: So, it’s not so much distance but a change of venue that’s important?
KP: Ultimately, it was an escape to a world that was entirely different than our daily family life. There was a lot of quietness, a lot of hard work, adventure and a great deal of time for solitude and reflection. Most evenings were spent on the front porch quietly watching the sunset behind the mountains.
I’ve returned there as an adult. The best part was that there was lots of space and that a large group of people would sit watching the sunset usually with few words spoken. … Not every moment had to be filled. A neighbor of ours came over and found us just staring across the wilderness. He said, “Stare time is good for your soul.” I really think that is true, because I never felt more at peace or content than in those moments of solitary or group “stare time in the wilderness.”
Advice for venturing outside the Metro
Quest Outdoors provides outdoors people, from the novice hiker to the sage mountaineer, with hiking, backpacking, rock climbing and traveling gear and apparel. With locally owned stores in Crescent Hill and at The Summit, co-proprietor Don Burch and his staff have been Keeping Louisville Weird, not to mention protected from the elements, for nearly a quarter-century. They strive to prepare people for nature, but recognize that, unfortunately, sometimes nothing can prepare you for human nature.
LEO: What danger signals arise when a novice camper tries to take that life-changing break from the office and venture into nature? How do you help them transition into the wild?
DON BURCH: They take too much stuff. To break away means to leave behind, and that means stuff, too. In my opinion, the value of the outdoor experience is you do get to leave your cell phone, Palm Pilot and other tethering gadgets behind — not to mention the daily regimen that ties you to a place and duties. It’s all about freedom. Ironically, you need some of the same things you use on a day-to-day basis, like water, food, shelter — if overnight — and nutrition … all in moderation. Go light and enjoy the trip and the freedom.
LEO: How did you benefit from your first camp experience as far as social skills or rites of passage?
DB: When I went to Camp Piomingo in Otter Creek Park at the age of 12, it was my first experience away from home and in the woods. Not then, but now I can look back and realize it was the start of my love of the outdoors.
LEO: Would your experience be described as Charlie Brown, Bart Simpson or Huck Finn?
DB: Indeed, a little Huck Finn — frogs, crawdads and other wildlife. Charlie Brown? Yes, I was a bit naive like Charlie and was tricked quite a bit by my cabinmates who one night put a frog in my bed.
LEO: What can you recommend to the average Metro citizen who wants to get away from it all?
DB: If you’re a bit uneasy about staying in a tent, Kentucky’s state parks have a great selection of cabins located over the entire state. If you’re a little more adventurous, ask someone who you know that goes backpacking to take you. Day hiking is a great option, too, and there is so much available locally, including the Jefferson Memorial Forest and Otter Creek Park.
Finding retreat time
Dick Sisto has a way with a soft mallet. Although he spends his own share of time at a computer keyboard, his way with pounding the long planks of a vibraphone spells out a mesmerizing aural story. After his musical career brought him to Louisville, Sisto hooked up with the city’s jazz crowd and the music aficionado Thomas Merton — who also was a monk and mystic and is the subject of Morgan Atkinson’s recent film documentary “Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton.” The film features a soundtrack by Sisto, and his current CD release is Soul Searching. His jazz programs “The Inner Ear” and “Jazz Folio” are broadcast on WFPK-FM. Sisto has a lot to say about retreating for self-discovery.
LEO: Why do we retreat?
DICK SISTO: The tradition of spiritual retreat is an ancient one. From the earliest times, men and women left the cities to roam or settle in a hut or cave in the mountains, in deserts and in forests of the earth. The purpose and the goal is always the same: to achieve inner peace, enlightenment and become one with the source of life.
LEO: What to pack?
DS: The method consists of living a simple lifestyle with few accoutrements, a moderate and sober diet, a regular schedule of spiritual practice in accordance with the chosen path of the seeker. A retreat can be as simple as finding a secluded spot, remaining silent without visitors and spending the time mindfully doing the small chores of living as well as periods of spiritual reading and meditation.
LEO: What is good for the spiritual journey if you are a day-tripper?
DS: A spiritual retreat can also be more guided or structured. There are monasteries, convents and multi-discipline retreat centers available. Group or hermit arrangements are available.
In Kentucky, the world famous Abbey of Gethsemani is an excellent place. The retreats are not structured, but the retreatants are invited to join the monks in the prayer hours of the day. The grounds are large and beautiful, and the rooms comfortable and available to men and women.
The small hermitage and solo retreat is available on the grounds of the Sisters of Loretto, not far from Gethsemani, as well as a small retreat center called Bethany Springs, run by The Merton Institute for Contemplative Living.
In Southern Indiana, the Mount Saint Francis Center is a beautiful place for a retreat, as is Saint Meinrad’s Benedictine monastery.
LEO: Then who comes back to the city?
DS: The process and the goal when realized are actually the same thing. In other words, when we give ourselves entirely to the retreat, we arrive at our true home.
Contact the writer at