I’ve been privileged to call many places home in my life. I’ve lived in Israel and in Northern and Southern California, but chief among my many homes is Berkeley Tuolumne Family Camp. No matter where on the planet I lived during the off-season, every year of my life–without fail, and including one year in utero–we would make the trip to Groveland, a stone’s throw away from the West Entrance to Yosemite Valley, down to the South Fork of the Tuolumne river, where families from all over the world have a chance for a quasi-rustic week away from it all.
Some 70ish tent-cabins adorn the hillside and straddle the river, with wooden bases painted a forestry-mandated café noir and canvas tarps acting as roofs. A dining-hall-slash-kitchen sits right about in the middle, where the 250-300 campers would sit together (family style) for meals thrice daily, served tasty eats by a cheerful dining hall staff. During the day, campers were free to do as they wish, but the recreation, nature center, and kiddie camp staff offered a variety of activities, ranging from hikes to lanyards to block printing.
Camp is more than it’s activities and buildings. People have talked about how their camp is the special one, about how you simply don’t understand the difference–but how could you? This is camp we’re talking about. Not some “camp.” The camp. The best one. I won’t bother trying to explain it, because my attempts will ultimately be inadequate.
There’s even a This American Life episode about camps. Ironically, the episode talks about how “camp people” feel like their camp truly is the exception: the only place on earth that offers the wholly unique experience of being a member of this special type of community. When I listened to the episode for the first time, my response was something along the lines of “Yeah, well…they definitely seem to grasp that people like camps, but they don’t know BTC. They’ve never been there. They’ve never seen us (the staff) in action.” I guess I fit in perfectly with the “my camp is the best” crowd. For the record, our camp actually is the best.
My family has been connected to Camp Tuolumne for 5 generations, which is not uncommon with BTC. My extended family used to attend together, but over time it was just our immediate family, and ultimately, when I volunteered for the first time in 2002, my family stopped their tradition of annual attendance. From then through 2010, I worked at camp, and the value camp holds for me grew exponentially. Family still visited, but the context changed entirely.
Camp provided a safe place for me to grow and learn, to discover myself, and to take pride in who I am. Camp was a place for first loves, for a support system that will pick you up when you fall. It was a place where a tech-obsessed guy like me can truly get away and take a deep breath, smelling the dust and the pines and the dogwoods, sit in the river and just be. It was a vital part of every year and, towards the end of my tenure there, became a place I’d work for 5-6 months, augmenting the rest of my year with a part-time stint at the City Office, assisting with preparations for the next camp season.
There are a million thoughts, memories, and emotions buzzing through my head about camp. It’s as though the fire that decimated my home-away-from-home stirred a bed of coals that lingered in the back of my mind, and a fire has been kindled in my brain. Not the awful, awesome and destructive force of the Rim Fire that is currently charring a path across a natural wonder of the world. It’s the warm glow of the fire in the dining hall in the evening; it’s the roar of campfire being drowned out by a chorus of voices singing about being stuck in a tree while a bear gives chase. It’s the warmth of bundling up during opening camp, and waking up to a pile of snow and slush cascading through the tin roof and directly onto your bed. It’s the warmth of the connections I made with the people I worked with and the campers we served. It’s the warmth of a shouted “AY-YO” being greeted with a hundred voices shouting in return. It’s the warm air that streams into the open window of the car as we roll it down when we make the right-hand turn onto Hardin Flat at the end of a drive that will always, always put a smile on our faces. It’s that fire that’s making me tear up when I think about losing camp, I swear. All that smoke, you know?
The people are some of the best I know on earth. I live with friends from camp. I socialize with friends from camp. I’m dating a wonderful woman I met at camp some 10 years ago. The pain of losing the place is only dulled by their presence and our shared memory. Seeing the posts on facebook, hearing from friends I haven’t spoken to in years, seeing pictures from the 80s and 90s of all of us, kids who loved camp and whose only dream was to become a staff member; it’s hard, but puts a smile on my face despite the difficulty.
Many of us dreamt of taking our own children there. It was a given, just as camp’s everlasting presence was a given. That it has been reduced to ash is a tragedy that puts a deep and heavy despair in many of our hearts. The footage of the smoldering wreckage is painful to watch, but I keep playing the video, unable to turn away. It’s like seeing the ruins of the house I was born in. In contrast, the overwhelming response of the community has given me hope. Every post on the web has been about rebuilding and looking to the future. I know that, the moment a rebuild effort is announced I’ll be at the front of the line, champing at the bit for an opportunity to help bring about a rebirth of the place I love more than any other.
I’ve rambled enough. Tomorrow I get together with friends, to share in stories over beverages served in stolen or bought camp mugs. Laughs and tears are to be expected. But we have each other and that’s what counts.
There are so many possible quotes from camp we can call upon as we absorb the ramifications of the tragedy, and they’re all good. I was talking to my dad this morning on the phone about it, and what he said rang particularly true, especially as we look to rebuild.
“From where you are, with what you’ve got.”
These are just some random photos I dug up. There are tons more hitting the web on Facebook.