On free evenings my cousins and I would go to the swings beside the Barn, eager to spend all of our downtime talking, swinging, and philosophizing. As we swung higher and higher we heard the stuttered screeching of the surely-rusting chains on the metal skeleton as they pierced the half-stillness. We faced the Main House, where the dining hall, counselor living room, mail room, and, on Sundays, a doughnut bar, were found. Despite decades of weather and children, the House remained perfectly white.
The Barn was unremarkable on the outside, but as soon as we walked through its massive front doors we’d find the inside covered in metal chairs and a piano, sometimes with long tables and decorations and a piano, and sometimes we’d find nothing but the piano, sitting alone by the stage. We’d sit inside and revel at the walls, smelling the dust and the age and the wetness of the Vermont rain, observing the wall covered almost floor to ceiling in wooden history: painted shields by campers from decades ago that eventually we came to recognize and even memorize. Sometimes we would swear something had shifted between visits to the Barn; back then, we thought it was the shields. One time, the three of us were absolutely certain we’d caught one of those shields in its act. It felt like victory. But when I went to bed that night I thought it all over again, wondering if it had actually moved, trying to get the memory just right, reconstructing it piece by piece the way in which everyone fails. I realize now it was me who was changing.
I tried anyway: that was the magic of camp.
The Barn faced out onto the Main House, and, beyond that, lay the rest of camp. There was one main road where the cars came and went, branching off in two directions in front of the Main House. One road led up a gravel hill, where I once accidentally touched poison ivy and waited in the pounding summer sun for it to begin itching. It never did. The other branch led off into our hikes and our outings. I remember coming back to camp, looking out the windows of the van, and remarking at how I had never seen it from this angle.
The road carved out a field. To my young eyes it was endlessly wide, perfectly cut, and seemingly always wet, even when there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It seemed like every fall would leave a stain on my gray uniform, all the way up my side or back, sticking the shirt to my skin for the rest of the day.
Sometimes I’d try running the whole field, breathing the stainless New England air in heaving gulps. Yet my cousins and I almost never participated in those field activities. We preferred to hear the laughter and shouting, the sounds of life and camp, from a distance. Instead, we kicked around music suggestions as we sat on those rusty swings, happy that the camp let us keep swinging.
The whole camp had a smell. It was extremely distinct; like pine, but softer and wetter. It must have seemed normal to us as we watched those brilliant summer sunsets, or walked along trails, or left the barn. It was everywhere. Sometimes, when I walk around in the real world, I smell it and get slammed with a binder full of memories.
The camp was hunched near a lake named Morey. There had been mandatory swimming since the beginning of camp, as if the founders knew Morey would stay pristinely beautiful forever. On free evenings people gathered there, looking off into the surrounding forests, talking, paddling, playing tennis or, if they were lucky, shooting arrows into straw targets. The lake was big and full of adolescent wonders. Like its swimmers it started off shallow, but quickly nosedived, becoming deep, mysterious, and uncertain. We were told that there was a steamboat wreck at the bottom from decades ago, but I never got deep enough to see it for myself. In the archery shack there was an arrow embedded in a piece of wood. The story went that a counselor had made a bet that he could shoot an arrow across the entire lake and hit something, and somehow he had succeeded. Every camper who saw it would ask if they could try too, but the counselors said no: the lake would beat them for sure.
On free evenings you would find my two cousins and me swinging on those surely-rusting swings, breathing that camp smell in but not knowing we were. Behind us lay the woods, where rustic paths split, then split, and split again: one way to Camp Fire, one way to Chapel, one way to an abandoned wood-cutting lodge, and one way to the riflery hut. On different days the spots would light up with lively chatter or solemn candles, but on these free evenings they lay silent and full of darkness. Every so often, between the metallic creaking, I’d turn to look at the shadowy trees with their deep black shadows and absolute motionlessness to make sure nothing had changed. We were swinging on the border of adolescence, after all, in the half-stillness where objects moved on their own, and, if you were lucky, you could stay up all night wondering if you could prove they’d done it at all.