May 18, 2020
For most people, home is wherever their family is. By that logic, I happen to have two homes. Both of them are physical places, and both are equally important to me.
One is in McCandless, Pennsylvania, and the other is in Fort Hill, Pennsylvania. My second home has no WiFi, air conditioning, or gourmet food. Instead, we get hot days in even hotter cabins, no cell service, and food that sits in your stomach like a rock.
To most teenagers, this would be a nightmare. But to the devoted campers of Deer Valley YMCA, it’s imperfections make it even more lovable.
Since I was four, my family has camped at Deer Valley during the same week each year.
Here, campers come up to experience a week of nature, friends, and family without interruptions. Bonds are made at camp that wouldn’t be made at home, and kids get to interact with each other in ways they couldn’t back home.
The weeks leading up to camp are the longest of the year. My sister and I used to wake up each Saturday morning and count out the weeks until camp on our family calendar until the final Saturday morning that we drive up.
The Saturday morning we leave to head up into the mountains is filled with butterflies and excitement. My mom and dad usually pack the car as my sister and I watch from the air conditioned garage, endlessly asking when we’re leaving. After what seems like hours of packing the car, it’s finally time to go home.
Our car ride is two hours, which is nothing compared to those that others have to go through. People around the whole country visit Deer Valley, some even go to the lengths of flying in. When I was a kid, though, the two hours up to camp felt like it took years.
I remember constantly bombarding my mom with the question: “ARE WE THERE YET?” The first few times it was funny, but then my parents got seriously irritated.
Then there’s the euphoric feeling of coasting down Mount Davis (the highest point in Pennsylvania, which is right near the entrance), and seeing the gates of camp. A group of SALTs and CLIPPERs, the “Counselor-In-Training” kids at camp, stand atop them, cheering as we enter.
There’s a feeling of incredible coincidence, almost, when arriving at camp. You arrive and see all these people around you, all in the same place. It’s quite beautiful. Everyone’s at camp, despite everything that happened the previous year. It’s a constant in people’s lives.
If I close my eyes, I can still see myself on top of Bachman Rocks, looking out at the Pennsylvania State Forest with all my friends. I can see friendship bracelets being made on water bottles. I can see my friends playing Sardines on the rocks (which probably wasn’t the smartest idea on our part), laughing and yelling. Sometimes, I can still smell the sunscreen in the hot sun.
I can see the waves on the lake. For some reason, the water there is different. It even smells good. There’s no better feeling than sticking your legs in the cool water and letting the dock slowly rock you in the afternoon sun.
I can still smell the lake water rushing through my nostrils as I fall into the lake during canoe tipping. I remember shrieking the Pirates of the Caribbean song as we paddle away.
The lake alone brings back so many memories to me. I can remember convincing my friends as a kid to take out a rowboat, only for us to get stuck on the water. Our moms laugh about it, but we’re still bitter. The wind and the oars weren’t playing fair.
Sometimes, when we would feel like wild children, our chaotic group of teens would jump into the lake. Fully clothed and all, we’d run screaming into the water.
The days at Deer Valley pass by in a warm and happy haze. Soon enough, it’s time for dinner. Adults and kids tell the story of their day at camp over a hot meal, then the best part of Deer Valley begins. The night time.
Each night brings a different adventure. If you can imagine the perfect summer night, that’s what it’s like. The smell of campfire, the feeling of freedom and pure elation are in the air. It’s warm, but there’s a slight chill.
Whether it’s a dance, a giant sing-along (where we somehow always end up singing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” at least twenty times), dodgeball, a hike to the graveyard on camp grounds, or the final teary-eyed night, there’s always something fun to do at night.
There’s some kind of vibe at night at Deer Valley that you don’t get anywhere else. Like at breakfast in the mornings, there’s a tired kind of happiness. At night when you get your third ice cream of the day at the snack bar (chocolate will always be the best flavor, sorry not sorry), or when you get scared at the graveyard. It’s a feeling of being content. Whole, almost.
The feeling of being surrounded by people who truly understand you is one of the best feelings in the world.
And I don’t mean “truly understand” in a way like they know your name and things you like. These people know everything about you. They’ve seen you when you’re a crying mess, but they’ve also seen you when you’re the happiest you’ve ever been.
Whenever I want to play a game back home, it’s never the same as Deer Valley. Odd man out isn’t as fun unless you have your best friends in the world with you. People look at you with confused stares when you say: “We should play vegetable wars!”
I miss so many things about camp. I miss the smell of popcorn that hits you as soon as you walk into the snack bar, I miss the mountain-like hike up to my cabin every night and hearing our parents complaining about how late it is.
I miss late night star gazing on the docks. I miss those special weird conversations that only occur around midnight. I miss kids dance on Friday nights. I used to be embarrassed when my Mom would force me to go up and do it when I was really little, but now it’s a tradition (more teens end up doing it than kids each year anyways).
I miss building “gnome-homes” during teens and tots, a special program where we spend the day with the youngest kids at camp.
I’ll never forget our stupid skits each year at campfire on the last night. I remember thinking they were always hilarious before, and then realizing they were quite the opposite as soon as they were over.
I still remember Billy’s “Keys to Volleyball.” I can see myself with my best friends on the swings, stealing upside down views of the lake behind us.
Sometimes I’ll hear a song from Deer Valley, and the memories come flooding back. “Saturday Sun” by Vance Joy reminds me of walking up to Bachman Rocks, “Castle on the Hill” by Ed Sheeran reminds me of driving up to camp, and “Misery” by Maroon Five reminds me of playing Secret Hitler with my group friends.
If you take a look around, you’ll notice that life is different at camp. Sleeping for only four hours is normal, having no voice by the end of the week is normal, getting toast at midnight is normal, even yelling “you fascist!” or “your hairline!” is normal (to the kids, at least).
For twelve years, I’ve been able to visit my second home and the people there. I had been hoping that despite COVID-19, I’d still be able to see the people that make me the happiest. These hopes were sadly in vain, though, as my session of camp this year was recently cancelled.
I saw this quote on Pinterest a few months ago about how you never realize the true value of a moment until it’s a memory. At first I rolled my eyes and scrolled past it. I thought it was really cheesy (and it kind of is), but now I understand it. You really never appreciate what you had until it’s gone.
To me, Deer Valley was always something that could never go away.
This year was finally the year that I could begin the journey of becoming a summer staff member. I completed an extensive application process, bothered three wonderful adults for recommendations, and nervously took part in a phone interview to become a Service And Leadership Trainee (SALT). This is the first step in becoming a staff member at camp, and it’s been my dream since I was a wee child in the three’s and four’s Group. And on March 30th, I finally received the email. I had been accepted.
I’m absolutely heartbroken that I can’t be a SALT or see the people who make me the happiest. Hopefully, this can be used as a wake-up call to those who aren’t social distancing. Stay at home now, so that our world never has to experience a heartbreaking pandemic like this again. Stay at home for those who are in abusive households. Stay home so you can see your grandparents again.
I can understand how it may seem like I’m being overdramatic about all of this, after all, it’s just a sleepaway camp. But for me and many others, camp is a very “deer” (pun intended) place. Like I’ve said previously, Deer Valley is my second home.
If you had to take one thing away from this, I’d ask you to please find something that motivates you to stay home. For me that was camp. And I’ll continue to stay home, so that others in later sessions can have their camp.
Find something that motivates you too to stay home and stay safe. Maybe it’s your grandparents, maybe it’s another summer program like this one.
Follow the guidelines of scientists and medical experts so I can go home and be once again “singing at Deer Valley with my friends.”