Like many middle class suburban youth of my generation, I spent every summer during my formative years engaging in structured and mandatory play away from home for a few weeks while my parents walked around naked, enjoying pre-cocktail hour beverages. Camp was an annual ritual designed to develop my intellect and sense of independence. The jury’s still out on the issue of whether it worked, and I can’t say that I remember it fondly.
It wasn’t all Kumbaya and personal triumphs for me. There was always a 13-year-old with a mustache who looked like he rode a motorcycle and made a habit of humiliating me in front of an attractive girl, or a kid who would urinate in his bunk because he was homesick, always in my cabin, and the smell would stay with me for weeks. There was even a time I went to Spanish camp and my grandfather died in the middle of it, and while I was devastated that my grandfather had passed away, I was also slightly relieved that I could leave camp early and potentially never go back.
So when I got an email asking if I would like to attend an adult camp, I was dubious, or perhaps still a bit traumatized from the iterative camp experience of my preteen life. But within 24 hours I found myself in a rental car cursing Southern California traffic and heading towards Big Bear Mountain to attend an adult camp for entrepreneurs and creative types.
Most of my fellow campers had met up a few days earlier at The Unique Space in Los Angeles, where CAMP (Cultivate Ambition Map Possibilities) founder Sonja Rasula owns a creative space and operates her successful business Unique Markets. “4 DAYS IN THE MOUNTAINS. 200 CREATIVE THOUGHT-LEADERS. NO CELLPHONES, NO E-MAIL,” the website for Unique Camp promised in apocalyptic all-caps. “Action-packed days with workshops, art classes and inspiration. Fun-filled nights with S’mores, cocktails and dance parties. Throw in archery, polar bear swims and friendship bracelets.”
I’ll admit that archery and cocktails seemed like a bad combination, or at the very least, a potential lawsuit, but who doesn’t love S’mores and a palpable absence of email?
The campers had all boarded buses the day before in L.A. where they were stripped of their cell phones and computers and forced to interact with one another through team building and ice breaking exercises. They had also attended a full day of mini-seminars and were now embarking on day two of Unique Camp.
I arrived while everyone was having dinner and was guided toward the dining hall where I would have my first interaction with my fellow campers. All 120 campers were seated and much to my surprise, they were not the desperate white-collar drones of varying age and decrepitude that I had imagined would be attending. They were young and hip and if any of them had mustaches and drove motorcycles, it seemed forgivable.
But my junior high school self-consciousness emerged from the recesses of my subconscious and just as I began to feel panicky, I was introduced to my “camp counselor,” Adam, who was tall, dressed in a red flannel and had a head full of springy curls that would make Side Show Bob weep with envy. He introduced me to the rest of the table, which included his girlfriend (a macramé instructor), a French hairstylist living in L.A., and an energetic dancer.
Adam told me that after dinner he would show me to my room, which I imagined was a private cabin with a charming fireplace where I would spend my evenings reading Proust by the fire and sipping warm tea. And it was exactly that, but minus the privacy, fireplace, and tea. My room contained two bunk beds, a box mattress on the floor, and other people.
“The top bunk is still open,” Adam said, in full camp counselor mode, though his usual day job is a Portland-based screen printer. The top bunk is great when you’re twelve, but when you’re 35 and have the prostate of a World War II veteran, the thought of having to scale a structure that resembles a repurposed piece of the Titanic seems preposterous.
Adam left me to unpack and and reminded me that I would need to meet the group back in the dining hall for a night time stargazing hike. We reconvened back in the dining hall and were presented with what I can only describe as the most enthusiastic science lecture I’ve ever attended. Dr. Kevin Hainline presented a slide show and gushed over galaxies, quasars, and the significance of space travel, his talk culminating with a slide of a space shuttle taking off while he stood atop a table and screamed, “fuck gravity!”
This was followed by a lovely hike, and then, of course, a dance party with an open bar. And crafts. Dream catcher construction, specifically.
I quickly found a seat with another Portland native, a lawyer from L.A. and his girlfriend, who was a massage therapist and designer. My fellow campers told me about their businesses, hopes, and aspirations in between small talk and attempted dream catching and it seemed as though all of those things were one and the same.
But I did find a kindred spirit. The owner of an alternative greeting card company, my new friend was a single mother in her 40’s who viewed many our fellow campers as a bit too bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for her tastes—so much so that the brightness and the bushiness seemed more like a mutation than a positive attribute. Some of the camp’s uplifting slogans and cheery activities seemed at odds with the difficulties and hard work of owning a business.
I bid my new friend a good night and headed back to my bunk where I would spend the next few hours trying not to breathe too heavily lest I topple the rickety bunk bed, crush my snoring bunkmate, and find myself responsible for the first Unique Camp casualty.
I awoke the next morning and made my way to a morning class taught by Cyndie Spiegel, a small business strategy consultant and coach from Brooklyn, New York.
Even though I’m still thoroughly confused about what small business coaches actually do, Cyndie was charismatic and held my attention for a good hour and a half. The thesis of her talk was that entrepreneurs often have a hard time differentiating between potential collaborators and competition, and that we should be more open to the former. Share your ideas, she encouraged us, because what was the worst that could happen?
The worst that could happen in my experience was that someone could steal your work. Cyndie took an optimistic approach to this conundrum and insisted that if the worst did indeed happen, one would simply have to produce a new idea. I was skeptical. Perhaps my fellow campers were veritable fonts of ideas, and those ideas didn’t take lots of effort to develop and refine the way mine did. But I doubted that even the most creative among us merely plucked an idea from the idea tree (and when that tree was bare, moved on to another idea tree in a fictional orchard of idea trees, perhaps in the middle of a vast idea forest).
All of this fantasizing about unlimited ideas nearly lost me until Cyndie won me back back when she stressed the importance of contracts. The mention of intellectual property protections filled me with relief, even as it sent chills down the spines of some of my artier and less corporate fellow campers. Cyndie had put the adult back into adult camp, which I was starting to crave. One can only tolerate so many songs and crafts in early middle age that don’t involve the participation of one’s own under-the-age-of-ten progeny.
My next class was Movement For Creatives taught by professional choreographer Shaun Evaristo. I am not a dancer, but the class had been highly recommended by a few of my colleagues-slash-campmates. It took place on the camp soccer field and seemingly half of the camp was in attendance. One ringing endorsement promised, “it’s the class where everyone cries.”
The class began with high-energy pop music as we all faced the instructor and he tried to teach us basic dance moves. I flailed awkwardly in the back of the crowd for a while and then lumbered to one side of the soccer field where we were instructed to dance across the field to the other side while staying close to and interacting with the ground. So we collectively flopped, rolled, and squirmed to the opposite side like disoriented earthworms. We were then instructed to dance back across the field with our knees bent and our bodies low, but not touching the ground.
We went back and forth a few times and then were told to find a partner and dance across to the other side in an awkward half-embrace without breaking apart from one another. We joined hands and shoulders and moved across the field in a harmonious, if bizarre, entanglement of limbs and torso.
Then something happened: I realized I was enjoying myself. My body loosened up and we got into a flow of sorts. We then were told to enlarge our groups to five. We stumbled and laughed but achieved a modicum of harmony in the process and I could feel myself finally relaxing.
As we neared the end of our session Shaun asked us to envision the aspects of our selves that we didn’t like, and to imagine using movement to let go of those traits. I imagined my layers of insecurity and cynicism and pictured myself shedding them with the movement of my body. It made me feel more vulnerable, but with that vulnerability, more open.
Then Shaun prompted us to imagine someone to whom we wanted to say something and had never had the chance. Maybe it was the context of that vulnerability, or the intricacies of the moment. Maybe some of the cheery camp songs and supposedly life-affirming crafts had secretly gotten to me. But I pictured my father, who died when I was 28.
And then I lost it. I began weeping in front of 130 strangers.
I can’t say I wasn’t warned. This, after all, was the class where everyone cries.
Somehow my body had become a conduit for my emotions. The dream catchers didn’t do it for me, and neither did thinking about collaboration in the absence of mutual non-disclosure agreements, but the dancing did. Being in the moment with other people, away from work, away from normal life, made it easier to drop my normal defenses and pay attention to what I was feeling—for myself, for the strangers who were there with me, and for my father, who I missed.
I spent the rest of Unique Camp feeling as if I was in the embrace of a benevolent universe and enjoying the literal embraces of my fellow campers. I did more camp-like activities, which in my case consisted of played basketball with the owners of Coolhaus Ice Cream, practicing my subpar archery skills on innocent bales of hay, and tackling the obligatory rope course with newfound sincere enthusiasm.
On our final day of camp we all gathered on the soccer field once more for dancing and, well, handholding. It was late morning, we lay on our backs in a giant circle, shoulder to shoulder, facing up towards the beaming sun, and for the first time in the history of my experience with camp, I didn’t want to leave. Kumbaya.
Photos are courtesy of The Unique Camp.