Here's What Happened When I Went To Adult Summer Camp

Illustrated by Norah Stone.
Like 99.9% of humans in the year 2016, I have a complicated relationship with my phone. I love it. I hate it. For better or worse, it is practically an appendage.

So when a friend suggested we attend Camp, a phone-free creative conference resembling summer camp for adults, my answer was not an immediate yes. Despite the promise of s’mores, inspiring speakers, and yoga amidst the backdrop of beautiful Big Bear, CA, forced socialization with 200 strangers in the middle of nowhere is not exactly my speed. But due to a recent career shift, I’d pledged to spend more time outside my comfort zone. Plus, their marketing videos — campers hugging in the woods, campers hugging in a field, campers tearfully hugging upon saying goodbye — totally sold me. Everyone looked so relaxed and enlightened, kind of like Don Draper in the series finale of Mad Men. Could I feel that way, too? In this perfect storm of fate and FOMO, I decided to attend.

In the week leading up to Camp, my phone and I logged many hours of quality time. The flight from New York to Los Angeles was blissfully equipped with Wi-Fi and functioned as nothing less than a digital Last Supper. I emailed, pinned, posted, and commented from my seat in the clouds.

Early the next morning, 200 bleary-eyed campers boarded coach buses bound for the mountains. For three queasy hours, we wound our way to higher and higher altitudes, as our reception slowly dwindled. Terror began to set in.

At the welcome ceremony, we surrendered our phones and computers — deposited into muslin sacks and locked out of sight — then headed to the field to participate in a series of ice-breaking activities. There were intricately choreographed bunk cheers and trust falls; there was staring intently into the eyes of a total stranger. In one exercise, led by a pro athlete named Frosti Fresh, we were instructed to act like a cat, then a frog, then an octopus. “You’re a cat!” Frosti yelled, while adult humans stretched their limbs and mimed licking themselves in the desert sun. “Does a cat care about Instagram? NO!” My mind immediately jumped to Grumpy Cat and her burgeoning internet empire. I kept my thoughts to myself.

Despite my reluctance, here is where the magic happened. Not behaving like a cat, exactly, but the surprising feeling that accompanies being thrust into weird, uncomfortable circumstances with other humans. You have a choice: Either clam up, or let go and embrace it.

The result reminded me of something I’ve come to think of as “The Ladies’ Room Effect,” which transpires when a group of women (specifically intoxicated women) gather in a public restroom. It’s a surprisingly congenial environment, where pretenses are lost and all are united by a common goal. I’m telling you, you’ve never felt such warmth and humanity than when standing in line with three other ladies who have to pee.

I’m telling you, you’ve never felt such warmth and humanity than when standing in line with three other ladies who have to pee.

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The Camp experience was a lot like that. Without a tiny screen to gaze into, free from the onslaught of email and media and the constant reminders of things to do and buy and emulate, we could step off the treadmill for a moment and just feel whole. We were fully present, fully ourselves. One could not help but glimpse the humanity in each and every person.

The sleeping arrangements — 12 women, six bunk beds, one tiny room — promised a night of snores and insomnia. But I slept better than ever before. Devoid of screen time, my brain and eyes were permitted to rest deeply. Within a day, my stress evaporated. When you know there is nothing that can be done to relieve your inbox, the anxiety magically goes away.

Relinquishing my phone was surprisingly easy; I felt nary a phantom ring or vibration. The hours happily ticked by, filled with creative workshops, hikes through the woods, and conversations held across bunk beds. There was even a petting zoo on the premises! (Who needs pet raccoon videos on your Instagram feed when there are live goats and llamas right in front you?) On our second night, faced with four hours of downtime and prohibitively cold desert air, I did something I may not have otherwise: I wrote down my thoughts, including a detailed plan for an upcoming project. It was, without a doubt, the most inspired I’d felt in recent memory.

On our third and final night, everyone gathered for a scout-themed dance party. Amid dozens of people decked out as Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and members of Troop Beverly Hills, I boogied down while dressed like a giant Girl Scout cookie. This was, for me, as uncharacteristic as going off the grid for four days.

Yet, it was our last morning at Camp that broke me open. A small group gathered for an early-morning yoga class with Marco Antonio, a Yogi with a voice like Aziz Ansari and a heart of pure gold. After a deep breathing exercise, we laid on our mats with our eyes closed and screamed into the mountains — deep, primal screams with a volume one could never achieve in civilization, as it would surely attract a few stares. There it was: my voice. I didn’t know until that moment, but I hadn’t heard it in years. The floodgates opened — I cried. (And cried and cried.) I wasn’t alone; there wasn’t a dry eye on the field.

There it was: my voice. I didn’t know until that moment, but I hadn’t heard it in years.

On the flight home, I recalled how Thoreau famously lived at Walden Pond for two years. As he wrote of his decision, “I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately.” Oh, to be so noble. But I re-embraced the real world with this as my aim. To live deliberately.

Am I still hopelessly addicted to my phone? Yes and no. I admit I felt a deep sense of relief upon our reunion. It’s safely within arm’s reach as I type this. But I now understand that “busy” is not synonymous with “important.” Being perpetually, virtually connected does not help us truly connect.

Here in NYC — a far cry from the mountains of California — I’ve been doing my best to seek out that glimmer of humanity in everyone I meet, including the grumpy person at my local coffee shop or the harried commuter who shoves me on the subway. Time and time again, it is always plain to see.

Though I couldn’t have predicted it, I know I will venture into the woods again. Maybe I’ll see you there.
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