Place, Possibility and Potential

A Coppercreek Vintage discusses the meaning of camp

Sarah Margolis Pearce

Nearly fifty years ago, my mother showed me the Summer Camp Directory in the back of Sunset Magazine. The page featured several large advertisements for camps around the country. From Maine to Michigan to Georgia to Hawaii, every variety of camp imaginable showed off their activities. There were photos of kids on horseback, canoes on lakes, girls sitting on potter’s wheels, boys shooting arrows and promises of “fun-filled, character-building” summers. I saw a picture of a dining hall with dozens and dozens of camper-lined tables, hundreds of faces turned to the camera. It looked like my entire elementary school in one cavernous room. I tried to imagine myself sitting at one of those tables. I could not. I would be lost in the crowd. I was shy and not fond of large boisterous groups. Those camps looked like nightmares.

I might have closed the magazine altogether but my eye caught a very small advertisement near the bottom. It was the size of a return address label. It said “Coppercreek Camp” in a font that looked like a wooden sign from the old West. No pictures of kids or corrals or sailboats. Just a couple of paw-prints next to the name. Small and unassuming. Like me. When the sepia toned Coppercreek Camp brochure arrived in the mail, it was unlike the splashy, shiny ones that came from bigger and more well-known camps. It was understated and hopeful. Like me.

When I first arrived at Coppercreek in June 1969, two people stood on the porch, smiling and waving as my parents drove up. Anyone who remembers John and Lynne will recall their warmth and gentle ways of making even a shy camper come out of their shell. John, who walked like a cowboy and pronounced Los Angeles with a hard “g”, would be to many of us, a father figure well into our adult years. An admonishment from him was devastating; a compliment coveted for life. Lynne’s earth mother-ness, her distinct choices for “Morning Music” and her quiet but firm guidance offered security.

I felt that I could be something different here because there were  people around me who wanted that to happen. Over the years, I came to value John and Lynne’s vision of a place where nature and the outdoors provided subtle lessons about self-sufficiency, resilience and confidence. As a camper and, later as a counselor, the lessons I learned at camp lasted a lifetime.

The meaning of these lessons has taken a lifetime to understand.

The Vintages [former campers and staff who, despite age, distance and varied lifestyles, come together yearly to celebrate camp at Reunion] frequently discuss the meaning of “camp”. The notion of possibility, potential and place, as integral parts of the camp experience, is a common thread. The possibility of a new friend, a new skill, a new goal to reach and the chance to reinvent yourself at camp.  The potential for a changed self, one that is positive and confident, recharged for the school year.

And then there is the physicality of Coppercreek. The place. Is it the setting beneath Keddie Peak or the smell of pines, firs and cedar or the light through the trees or the cool little town of Greenville that defines “camp”? I feel the place called “camp” in my heart the minute Highway 36 opens onto Child Meadows.  It is here that I know I’m back The Vintages refer to as The Motherland.  It is here that the blissful ache of returning catches in my throat.

When The Vintages converge at Coppercreek each September for Reunion and set up chairs on Battleship’s porch, we embrace our shared and personal meaning of “camp”.  Some of us recall with tenderness, nostalgia and an almost religious respect, the idea of camp as a respite from the outside world. Or a refuge from difficult personal lives. Or a time where we felt best about ourselves.

What makes The Vintages keeping coming back to camp? Sutter, Taylor, Becky and Craig welcome us at camp without question. They “get” that camp is an important part of our lives. I am positive that each day that Coppercreek is in session, Sutter, Taylor, Becky and Craig know that there are campers, like The Vintages, who will carry camp with them forever. It’s a big responsibility and a huge honor that Coppercreek takes on with love, joy and sincerity. And then there is the chance to spend time with like-minded folks for whom camp is a jewel in our lives. A moment that was all too brief but remains a strong and steady beam of light.

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