HumorWelcome to Camp Midlife Crisis!
Sometimes grown-up life is hard. Lucky for us, there’s a place we can go to get away from it all. Cabins, color wars, laughter yoga—the works. Rosecrans Baldwin goes undercover for a long weekend at adult summer camp.
I am Spoonhead. I come from village Bear. I wear face paint, men cry when I sing, and my haircut is so inspiring it makes women lift me off the ground. I haven’t drowned in a cuddle puddle yet, but I’m still awesome, even if it took me a couple days to get there.
My wife found it first: Camp Grounded, a summer camp for adults. She knew I’d hate it, maybe love it. Probably hate it. Based on the brochure, it looked like a graduate school for twenty-somethings from the Bay Area: Four days in the redwoods, at a camp established in the 1930s, where people gathered for pickling seminars, stilt-walking workshops, and creative writing lessons with manual typewriters.
However. In case you’re gagging as much as I was, consider that as of this moment, for the first time since 1880, more young adults live with their parents than with a partner or spouse. Chance the Rapper’s latest album is called Coloring Book, at a time when coloring books for adults are bestsellers.
In fact, an entire industry has sprung up to send adults to camp. Most look like Club Med with capture the flag and an open bar. Camp Grounded, the organizers claim, is different. The purpose is a “digital detox,” a long weekend of no phones, no internet. Also, no talking about age, no mentioning of work. No alcohol, no drugs, no glow sticks. Just a couple hundred adults who pay $700 or so to be uncomfortable in the woods.
Growing up in New England, I went to sleep-away camp twice. We shot arrows, we burned things. It was fun. Camp Grounded sounded more like a rehab program. They host multiple sessions each summer and fall. I spoke to the camp’s Director of Play, Brady Gill. “Here’s the thing,” he said. “Technology is incredible. Incredible. But many of us aren’t using it intentionally. Our only goal is to get people to step away from it. Take a detox. Experience other ways of connecting with human beings.”
It did sound appealing. The truth is I spend my days in front of a computer, and scorch my retinas at night bingeing TV. The last time I went a week without a screen was in a different century.
The American Camp Association estimates that a million adults went to some kind of camp last year. In May, Friday dawn, I stood on a street corner in San Francisco with a hundred people and their suitcases. We aged, I guessed, from twenty to seventy, of various ethnicities, evenly balanced between boys and girls. A block away stood three yellow school buses. My dead grandfather berated me in my head: Gosh I’m sorry your email’s so hard on you, I only had to deal with a world war. I was close to bailing when an Asian dude, who introduced himself as Han Solo, came up and asked me my nickname.
This is another quirk of Camp Grounded: no real names. I’d already picked mine out. When I was a teenager, some kid in school noticed that I had the body of a toothpick, a head the size of a pumpkin. Therefore: Spoonhead. At the time, I didn’t really mind. A nickname meant I was worth noticing, right?
Four hours later, high up in northern California, Spoonhead and Han Solo and a hundred other people found themselves bussed into the hills of Mendocino. I was nervous already, like it was the first day of school. Handpainted signs began to appear tied to the trees: “You are now entering a device-free zone.” “The Use of WMDs (Wireless Mobile Devices) Is Prohibited Beyond This Point.” We pulled into a large grassy clearing. A band of nouveau hippies ran toward the bus, shouting joyously. A shirtless guy met us at the door of the bus in facepaint, playing a flute. Behind me, another camper said under his breath, “So I guess dudes wear yoga pants, too.”
The induction process was quick and not unpleasant. We were served milk and cookies. We received ‘pause bracelets,’ to squeeze anytime we felt anxious during camp, to remember that “where you are is exactly where you need to be.” Camp Grounded is very anti-FOMO. The line moved slowly, so I asked the woman behind me her nickname. “Kim Gordon Rocks,” she said, weaving her head side to side. I said, How’d you come up with that? She didn’t answer, just kept moving her head, like a cobra. “So I guess you like Sonic Youth,” I said after a moment. “Or just Kim Gordon.” A second later she said, “I wonder what kind of sex people have here.”
At last came the digital enema: we gathered under a tent to watch an informational video produced by the IIODD (International Institute of Digital Detoxification) about the effects of device usage, then sealed our phones in biohazard bags and turned them in. And from there we were loosed into the wilds.
Camp Grounded, if it’s not already obvious, is slogan-ed and produced down to the last nostalgic neckerchief. It didn’t need to add much to the natural beauty of the place. Amidst a forest of redwoods, encircled by a river, there were fields, teepees, swimming holes, and dozens of old wooden buildings. A giant signboard showed all of the activities and workshops on offer for the weekend, several every hour from dawn until late at night. A folk band was playing, with people dancing below the stage. There was a canteen, a camp post office, many bonfire pits. Staff members offered face-paint and haircuts. In a nearby field, men and women in tutus hula-hooped like there was no tomorrow, literally no tomorrow. Because there wasn’t: at Camp Grounded there were no clocks allowed, no watches, no sense of time beyond the here and now, the anxiety-ridden here and now.
A small signboard proclaimed, “Human Powered Search.” You could post a question and hope someone answered. I scribbled on a note, “What the hell am I doing here?”
My aisle-mate on the bus was Potatohead. The nickname was what his dad used to call him. Potatohead was tall and stocky, a white guy in his early thirties, from Toledo, Ohio. (I should note here that while Camp was excited for me to attend as a journalist, they asked me to keep my purpose secret, so as not to interfere with other campers’ experiences. To that end, many people’s nicknames and characteristics in this article have been changed.) When Potatohead and I met on the bus he was keyed-up and edgy, from nerves or too much coffee. Like me, he was a Camp Grounded novice; we were told that almost half of the people there that weekend had attended camp before. Potatohead looked like he regretted it already. I asked, Why camp? “I don’t know, to be honest,” he said, gruffly. “I guess to unplug for a while.” He mentioned that he worked by day as a geological consultant. “Oh shit, I’m not supposed to talk about work, right?”
Han Solo, behind us, leaned forward into the aisle and grinned. “Isn’t it interesting how quickly we’ve decided to play by their rules?”
Camp Grounded divided everyone into villages, named after animals. Each had its own counselor, campsite, cabins, and latrine. Potatohead and I were Bears, two of seventeen. Once we arrived, our counselor, Prince Pause, gathered us together around a campfire for introductions. Like a lot of staffers, Prince was highly charismatic, also big on eye contact. “It is amazing to be here with you guys. It’s amazing.” He led us through games to get to know each other. He said, “Let’s talk about intentions. That’s a big word here. What are you expectations of camp?”
One guy said, “It reminds me of Peter Pan.”
“All the childhood stuff?”
“Yeah, and all the guys in tights.”
Prince Pause said nothing—and we quickly understood it wasn’t cool to be anti-tights. “You know what?” he said. “There may come a moment when you don’t feel like camp’s for you. It’s too silly, too much. That’s okay. Camp is what you make it. You can do anything with it. Do something wild. Do something you’d never expect yourself to do.”
The rest of the afternoon flew by. We marched back to the main field, where all the villages were gathering, a giant tribe of apprehensive people in their best Patagonia. Onstage, in a floppy tophat, was Honey Bear, the same Director of Play I interviewed on the phone. To get everyone to quiet, he shouted, “If you can hear my voice, clap once.” We clapped. “If you can hear my voice, breathe two times.” We breathed. I thought: Isn’t this how kindergarten teachers get their classes to pay attention?
When the air was quiet, Honey Bear said, “In case it’s not obvious yet, people, this is not a summer camp-themed festival. This is fucking summer camp!”
The crowd went nuts.
Honey Bear explained the rules and the camp’s philosophy. He said at one point, “If you find yourself making a mistake over the weekend, that’s awesome. Think about it. The great innovators, the greatest inventions, only came about because people were willing to make mistakes. In the real world, we’re told that, as adults, we have to have all of our shit figured out. That we can’t make mistakes. So how do we grow? Anytime you make a mistake, I want you to say to yourself, ‘I’m awesome.’ Everyone say it, ‘I’m awesome.’”
The announcements started to blur together. Long instructions were given about meal procedures. There was a tutorial on how to clear our plates, as if to emphasize that we were reverting to toddlers for the weekend. Dinner was held in a rustic dining hall. Songbooks were passed around. A guy with a guitar led us in a sing-along of “Brown Eyed Girl”—and when he called out the wrong page for the lyrics, at least half the room shouted, YOU’RE AWESOME.
The camp gathered in the woods later, at an amphitheater lit by a bonfire and lightbulbs in the trees. Counselors performed songs. One was about “consent bubbles,” how different people have different tolerances for being touched by others. (Picture John Denver conducting a tolerance workshop at your office.) The weekend’s aim was to not pop anyone’s bubble—and I’d like to say my own bubble for politically-correct bullshit was popped at that moment, but the tune was so damn catchy. Down around the bonfire, staff members were cuddling under blankets. Overall, the ratio of staffer to camper was about 1:3, and I couldn’t help imagining that some of the staff (largely Burning Man extroverts) were just waiting for the campers to go away so they could resume their private orgy. Then again, hadn’t it been the same at the camps of my youth?
Around midnight, there was still plenty to do. Guided meditation. Stargazing. Concerts continuously took place all weekend, all hours, by bands the organizers had paid to come up and camp. I turned on my headlamp and set off for a “tea spot,” a Bedouin-style camp by a river filled with throw pillows and staffers pouring tea. I ducked inside and sat on a pillow. The Wild Reeds were performing, a band from Los Angeles, three young women singing intricate harmonies, and it was beautiful.
Sitting there in my khakis, I felt painfully untalented. Cynical. Smug. Small-minded.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was nowhere I belonged.
Day two, a bugle sounded around seven a.m. I rolled out of my sleeping bag, determined to take Prince Pause’s advice: I’d do something I’d never done before. And so, by lunch, after an invigorating session of tai chi, I survived two hours of “Laughter Yoga.”
Location(s): 10 in North America
Think Wet Hot American Summer meets Neighbors 3. The camp’s motto is “Play like a kid, party like a grown-up”—so along with the ropes course and arts and crafts, there are Bloody Marys at breakfast and an open bar before bed. You’ll probably run into some dubstep at some point. Note: Attendees are “curated,” so your application isn’t guaranteed to pass.
Location: Interlochen, Michigan
Known for its prestigious youth camps and arts academy, Interlochen, in lower Michigan, now offers “band camp” for adults. More than 70 adults gather for private lessons, group rehearsals, cookouts, faculty recitals, and a final concert.
Location(s): Adirondacks (NY) and Sierra Nevadas (CA)
Soul Camp claims to be “the most transformative sleepaway camp for adults.” We’ve heard it’s like Camp Grounded Lite, but with a stronger new-age vibe, and a higher female-to-male attendee ratio. Heavy on yoga workshops and wellness experts, activities include breathwork and dreamcatcher seminars.
Location: Huntsville, AL
Always wanted to go to Space Camp, but had parents who were nerd-averse? Adults can now throw on a flight suit for a three- or four-day program. Programming includes model rocket construction, training on spaceflight simulators, and space education—all in the midst of “one of the world’s largest spaceflight collections.” Supposedly not to be missed: the 1/6th gravity chair.
Laughter Yoga, it turns out, doesn’t involve much downward-facing dog. Instead there were things like sitting a foot away from a stranger for five minutes—five minutes of nonstop eye contact, no looking away—while laughing in her face. Because plenty of laughter isn’t about funny, our instructor said. We laugh when we’re uncomfortable. We laugh when we’re awkward. The entire group formed a human quilt on the teepee’s platform, all of us lying on top of each other, heads on stomachs, and for fifteen minutes we laughed. We laughed until we were hysterical, until I had no more tears to cry. My ribs hurt. Even my ears hurt. I walked out into the misty trees and felt completely depleted. It felt great.
At lunch, I wandered around the dining hall, looking for someone to sit with—straight back to the nerves of seventh grade. “Spoonhead!” Han Solo waved me over, like he’d been there for years. He said he’d spent the morning at Thai Massage 101. He looked deeply chill. “It was amazing. I only wish it had gone longer.”
Potatohead plopped down his tray. He’d planned on doing archery, but somehow wound up in Thai massage, too, and it was totally weird! But good! He tore into his food. “Man, I’d planned on doing the ropes course this afternoon, but…” He nodded a couple times. “I saw a sign for ‘Grief Exploration.’ So I thought I’d give that a try.” A second later he said, “My mom died two years ago. It’s a pretty big part of my life.” He left it at that.
The sing-along guy popped up again. He wanted to lead the room through “Don’t Stop Believing.” If we didn’t know the lyrics, we could just meow along instead. A few minutes later, the song became John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Hadn’t that song been abused enough? I rolled my eyes and got up to leave, and noticed that Potatohead was standing near the singer, listening intently, nodding and smiling.
By the end of the afternoon I was wiped, but Prince Pause said we needed to hurry up, it was time to change into our whites. The packing list had said mysteriously to bring a set of white clothes. I changed into an undershirt and ran into Potatohead outside the cabin. He looked fatigued. It had been five hours since lunch. I asked how grief workshop had gone. “Thanks for asking,” he said distantly, then out of nowhere he bear-hugged me—a twenty-second embrace. He pulled away. He said grief workshop had gone terrific. To start, they’d broken boxes of dinner plates on a basketball court. I asked what else. He gave me another hug. “Dude, this has been a pretty weird day for me,” he said, laughing.
One by one, Prince painted white dots on our faces. He gave us little envelopes and pencils. “Tonight is probably the most special part of camp.” Beginning in a moment, and lasting about an hour, there’d be camp-wide silence, during which we should roam the grounds in silence, then at some point open the envelope and follow the instructions inside.
Dark clouds were gathering. We scattered across Camp. I stopped at a fence next to old train tracks in the woods. People wandered by, eyes on the ground. I sat on a post and opened the envelope. A note inside asked to write down my greatest fear. It started to rain. Could it get any more emo? On the other side, the note said something to the effect that fears are only limitations. And just when I’d starting thinking camp was a pretty good deal—how come the brochure didn’t mention the mandatory self-help?
Two women in white robes walked by, slowly stepping between the tracks. Some stuff I’d admitted to an analyst years ago started to come back. I lay on the fence. What was my problem? Why the skepticism, the always joking? I reached a point that I don’t love to visit: my fear of rejection, the base of my insecurities. To the point that it’s practically who I am. Just like Camp Grounded talked about in its materials, I’d developed a set of social crutches over the years that I used to avoid connecting with other people. Check my email. Sprint for the open bar. Two things forbidden at Camp. All things considered, I was pretty much Camp Grounded’s target audience.
And without even the slightest exaggeration I’ll tell you that a second after that realization a woman in a white dress walked by and tapped a gong.
Down at the teepees, the rain stopped. At least a hundred people in white stared into a roaring fire. Gradually, people stepped forward and dropped in their folded papers. I put in mine. More and more people came forward. I tried to focus on what people there had in common, besides the monk-like clothes. Judging by conversations I’d had, we were twenty-somethings searching for identity. Thirty-somethings looking for meaning. Forty-somethings in the midst of burning down our lives. Fifty-somethings run over by divorce. Sixty-somethings who’d found retirement to be less fulfilling than expected. We weren’t broken, we weren’t even all that unusual. But we were there.
People started to leave for dinner. I was turning when I saw Potatohead step out by himself. He held his paper and dropped it into the flames. Then a gust came up and blew it out of the leaping fire, right back into his hand. He caught it without a hitch. For a moment, he held it, stared at it, then leaned back down and tucked it into the coals.
The dining hall glowed with light. Someone played a sitar. We sat in silence while staffers passed around bowls of rice and salad. At first, a lot of people seemed uncomfortable in the quiet, me included. I worried about when to grab food, how much to take. Gradually we served one another. After maybe an hour, it was signaled that it was ok to talk. It took a few minutes before anyone spoke. I don’t think anyone saw the need.
Earlier that day, before I signed up for “Hip Hop Dance,” no one warned me I’d be obliged to participate in a talent show, in front of 300 people. But like Honey Bear said, how else do you grow? For three hours we rehearsed that afternoon, twenty of us doing our best Fly Girl impressions in a tiny practice room. Body roll. Kick ball change. I tried for hours to get my left hip to “hit.” Aside from the instructor, two women were clearly dancers, the rest of us were newbies trying to link together dozens of moves in three minutes of choreography set to Tupac’s “California Love.” I was horrible, but that didn’t bother me. What worried me was that I was legitimately scared. For the finale, we’d build three “twerking pyramids,” which required for a centerpiece the instructor standing on my shoulders, shaking her ass at the audience, and my job was to not drop her.
“You can do this, right?” she said. “You’ve got me?”
The night sky was clear and full of stars. After four or five acts, it was the Hip Hop class’s turn. We got into position. The stage was soaked wet from the rain. The audience roared. I couldn’t remember half the moves, then the music started and it didn’t matter anymore. Through the noise, the audience shouting, I thought: Just don’t drop the teacher. When twerking time came, I didn’t.
Jumping up and down with my Fly Girls afterward, all we wanted to do was go back out there and do it all over again.
Late that night, or early the next morning, I was crossing a rope bridge on my way to a yurt when a group of campers invited me to join a cult—and did I ever envision typing that sentence? A tall guy in a silver shirt explained that, in the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin had run a group where members taught one another things, and we’d model our cult after that. So, I’d fallen into a pack of nerds. Of all tribes, was this not mine? We sat in a wood cabin in the dark and went around a circle, suggesting topics we could each teach. I offered “William Faulkner,” and “Nachos.” Silver Shirt said “A Brief History of Electronic Dance Music,” and “Accounting.” One guy, who looked like a CTO somewhere, said gravely, “I can explain to you precisely how GPS works.”
In the group was one of the woman from my Hip Hop class, the one who could actually dance. She said she was a professional dancer in real life. However, offstage, she couldn’t stand being in a room of strangers. “I guess what I fear is being judged? This weekend’s been about enunciating things I really feel. To hear people who have the same experiences.” A moment later, in the dark, she said lightly, “You know when people say you’re not alone? It’s different when you find out you’re really not.”
The bugle called early the next morning. I dragged myself to the river. A big fire was already burning against the cold, with bricks glowing orange in the coals. Hummingbird, Camp’s “spirit guide,” had built a sweat lodge from branches and blankets. “It’s going to be intense, but don’t worry,” he said. “Your mind will tell you to quit long before your body is in trouble.” To me this sounded like human survival skill #1, but never mind.
Twenty of us clustered inside, so tight we couldn’t budge an inch. The blanket door was closed. Utter darkness. The heat was intense. Hummingbird sang in Lakota. Everyone was in their underwear, slick against each other. We went around a circle, offering prayers. People prayed for relatives with cancer, for children who didn’t love them back. Hummingbird brought in more bricks—more singing, more prayers, people weeping. One guy said he was about to pass out. My mind was bending, I couldn’t feel my legs. After a fourth round, maybe 60 or 90 minutes into the sweat lodge experience—I’d lost my grip on time—Hummingbird opened the door and led us out into the cold river. On his command, we stood in a circle, holding hands, and all went underwater at the same time.
I stayed in the river another ten minutes and felt utter peace.
A week after camp, back in Los Angeles, I met Prince Pause for a drink. I asked him what had been the point of it all. Prince’s real name is Edward, he’s a graphic designer in LA. He’s been a part of Camp Grounded for four years, since the very start. He smiled. “The point of Camp is to make people feel very safe being uncomfortable. Because when people feel uncomfortable, magical shit happens.”
I’ll be honest, for the rest of the weekend, after the sweat lodge, I barely took notes. That afternoon, at least half the camp participated in color wars. I won a contest for how long a partner and I could sit back-to-back like two human chairs. My hair was dyed, my face was painted. The final game was called: Each team had to submit someone for a 60-second haircut, with points for creativity. It took barely a second before I’d volunteered. People shouted in my face, “Hair grows back!” while one of my teammates gave me bald spots in addition to my bald spot. Our team didn’t win, but afterward they pulled me onto their shoulders, chanting my nickname. SPOON-HEAD. SPOON-HEAD.
The last night was a Halloween dance, to which I wore a unitard, Mardi Gras mask and cowboy boots. By this point my bubble had been popped with full consent. Not that I said ‘yes’ to everything. I ran into Potatohead and a woman in the dark. They were organizing a ‘cuddle puddle,’ did I want to join? This is even weirder than it sounds, but also more platonic. All weekend long, everywhere you looked people were massaging each other’s legs, snuggling on a blanket, and yet I don’t think a single person got laid. But still, I have to ask, are you rolling your eyes yet? And if so, when exactly did we cross the line? Because I’m pretty sure we all have a line in the sand across which we cringe—and Camp took my line and tossed it deep into the woods. Even so, I passed on the puddle, though until an hour before sunrise I sang my heart dry around a campfire, and during “The Weight,” I harmonized so hard I swear I saw a dude cry.
In the end, no one answered my question on the Human Powered Search board. It didn’t matter. So much happened that I don’t have room here to detail. About solar carving, cosplay, and “intimacy workshops.” About how to defrost a frozen T-shirt with urine. About the time I spotted Potatohead in a hammock with Kim Gordon Rocks, the woman I met in line on my first day. He found me later and announced, still stunned, “Dude, I was just going to get some water, and she invited me in!”
A week after Camp, I called Potatohead to see how he was doing. In his case, Camp was transformative. He’s 32, single. He told me a lot about his past. Suffice it to say he’s survived some very dark chapters. But he was adamant that I not change anything about his Camp experience except his name. “There are a lot of guys out there like me. People who are stuck. Who want to do something different with their lives than just drink or party.”
Camp, he said, had been groundbreaking, and more than just therapy. For a brief moment, he got to experience some of the childhood he never had. One outcome was that he decided to go to graduate school for a long-desired career change. “You know, in my head I had Camp planned out one way. Archery, the ropes course. And then it worked out completely different. It was honestly a dream come true.”
Hearing his voice reminded me of our last hours at Camp. They held a final ceremony where all 300 of us stood in a circle in a field, holding hands. As a closing gesture, Honey Bear asked for someone to step forward, someone who’d had a pivotal experience. Potatohead walked out and took his hand. Slowly, the giant circle began to wind itself inward, an enormous pinwheel that slowly embraced him. He’s already reserved his place for another session in the fall.
*Rosecrans Baldwin is an author, most recently of Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down. His last article for GQ was “Am I Too Old To Win The U.S. Open?”*