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  • This year our daughter started begging for a wilderness experience. She wanted to go to Yosemite or Yellowstone and camp out, but that didn't seem practical. So when we were told by another parent with great enthusiasm about a foundation that runs a bunch of rustic camps in Vermont, we consulted with the kid and she was all for it, especially the six-day hike part. There's a bit of backstory here.

    So your kid goes to overnight summer camp for a few weeks. When it's over, you drive up there to collect the camper. Everyone hugs goodbye, you pile stuff in the car and leave, right?

    Not exactly. In our case, the pick-up took almost three days. First day, three hundred people assembled for an annual reunion. The vibes were heady. It wasn't just parents, siblings, and staff; three generations of ex-campers came to mix, get reacquainted, hold hands in a huge circle, dine at a camp-catered barbeque and listen to speeches. Those festivities occurred in the village of Plymouth, Vermont, at Calvin Coolidge's birthplace shrine, restored to its 1920's glory, as you see above.

    At the party I ran into an academic colleague I hadn't seen in 30 years who now lives in London. He had traveled to be there with his two daughters, who had gone to the camp and now are staff members. Seeing him again sweetened what was shaping up as a memorable weekend.
  • A fair put on by kids and staff from the six separate camps that the organization runs took up the entire next day and evening, and the pick-up happened the day after.

    We were constantly serenaded. The fair began with a parade of 600 campers trooping into a field and performing an amusing skit about pirates learning to get along at sea, like campers have to. After that came the family reunions and fair activities. There was a 20-foot diameter kid-powered wooden Ferris wheel, a slippery water slide, a water toboggan that raced down a 30-foot ramp into a lake, a swimming beach, food and crafts for sale, and music, music, music.

    Our kid sported only one Band-Aid and showed no obvious infirmities. She was almost as glad to see us as we were to see her, but said she could have stayed there longer. Here she is with the camp director in his funky MC outfit.
  • After a final "silent meeting" – sitting in a big circle, Quaker style, for a long moment of silence followed by spontaneous utterances of gratitude – campers and kin exited through a gauntlet of hugs. When we left we headed to an alpine lodge where we treated ourselves to several nights. Next day we enjoyed a five-mile hike to a waterfall and later a lobster feast. Our daughter was eager to recount her adventures, like eating rice cakes in the pouring rain in the wilds of the Adirondacks and describe her new-found friends. She sang camp songs for most of the drive home.

    The camps have been running for 75 years, and this year had the biggest enrollment ever. The proprietor is a non-profit foundation. Counselors and staff are well organized and know what they are doing, which is helping kids grow up to be self-reliant, competent and yet caring and communitarian. Most campers come back for more as long as they can, then some become counselors, and eventually send their own kids there.

    All the camps are different. One is at the farm they run. Campers tend to plants and animals, and slaughter their own chickens and help to cook them. In another, boys live in tipis, gather wild foods and bake delicious bread in a clay oven. Some camps are unisex, others co-ed. Other groups of campers spend three to six weeks on mountain treks and canoe voyages.

    We had feared that three weeks in primitive cabins with privies, days of bivouacking, wholesome food and lack of any electronic communication might not set right with her, but the whole thing was a hit. Now that she's hooked, we need to save up to send her there over the next couple of years. But why wait for next summer? In October, families are invited to a work weekend to harvest crops, clean and repair buildings, and do other chores – singing, of course, all the while.

    It was a thrill for all of us to slide into that environment and come out beaming, can't you see.
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