This is the phrase on the lips of people all over the North Country right now.
When you hear a phrase like that it might bring to mind a sleepover camp, where kids go to hike and learn rustic skills. Or you might think of a camping trip, with tents and Coleman stoves.
If you lived in upstate New York, though, a reference to “going to camp” would mean something quite different, and everyone would understand that difference.
Where I come from, “camp” is a home away from home, a sometimes-smelly place, filled with castoff furnishings, that is beloved beyond measure. Camp is where memories flourish, nature beckons, and daily life is put on hold, in place of something far better.
Camp is heaven.
Upstate New York is full of camps. Someday I’ll tell you about the so-called Great Camps of the Adirondacks—the luxury “cottages” built by the wealthy to escape the city while retaining all the luxuries of home.
But, here, it seems one needn’t be wealthy to go up to camp. Camp might be a ramshackle one-room shack in the woods. It might be a bigger space, with a bunkroom for the kids. It might be a place where one room got added to another, higgledy-piggledy, to make a rambling home that can’t hide its humble roots.
Camp is likely to have been in the family for generations. It’s likely to be a modest dwelling. It might be on a lake or stream or in the mountains or in the middle of nowhere.
Regardless, camp is a way of life. Camps are almost always seasonal dwellings. Not winterized, they only come alive when nature and people come back to life after a long winter’s nap.
“Opening camp” is a big deal, an event to be anticipated, year after year. Folks who haven’t seen their camps in six months or more drive down dirt roads, and hope to find the place as they left it, without damage from a fallen limb or red squirrels or flooding.
Windows are thrown wide open, a pot of coffee is started, old sheets are pulled off the furniture. Adirondack chairs are dragged to the water’s edge. Ahhhhh . . . it’s summer! The rest can wait.
Camp is where the chairs are big and secondhand and the right shape for curling up with a book.
Camp is where the décor consists of canoe paddles, oil lanterns, marine charts, and piles of beach glass and smooth pebbles.
Camp is where the smell of closed-off rooms, redolent with hints of mildew and old copies of National Geographic, is known as a good smell, the best smell, a smell that evokes the transition of winter to spring and the beginning of something new, yet old.
Camp is full of tradition and memories. Guitars are played here. Children learn old songs, and then grow up and teach those songs to their children. They sing of green alligators, long-neck geese, and rocking ones soul in the bosom of Abraham.
Generations of family and friends gather at camp. The older folks talk and talk, and enjoy adult beverages. The younger folks get wet, throw balls for dogs, take a turn in a small boat.
Camp is the essence of summer. The picnic on the 4th of July, where there’s always too much beer, and music, and the same great friends gather, no matter what.
The special weeks when family members and friends visit from the cities, to ride bikes, toast marshmallows, grill simple food and eat too much. And talk and talk.
The days that start with the squawk of the Great Blue Heron and end with the crackling of a campfire.
As it happens, we now live year round at camp. This camp is habitable in all weather and is a special place in every season. And, yet, it is in its glory when the weather warms and the lake laps in pellucid waves against our seawall; when we open our doors and windows and lives to summer.
Camp is an attitude, a state of mind, a place apart.
Where, to paraphrase the words of E.B. White, every day is a happy day, and every night is peaceful.
Welcome to camp.