Freelance journalist Laura Burgoine writes: Like many before me, when I finished high school I was eager to escape the rigid conventions of academia and really see the world. Of course at 19 years of age I was hardly Jack Kerouac and instead opted for the very cliché choice of working at a summer camp in the US.
Never having camped before and possessing zero outdoor skills, I decided I was as suitable a candidate as any and so my adventure began.
The process of getting into the Summer Camp program (we’ll call it “the program” because like Alcoholics Anonymous it only works if you work it) was more intricate than entering the matrix.
The application process began in January and finished at the end of May. Daily phone calls to the program’s headquarters became the bane of my existence. Though the company boasts that many of their administration staff previously worked as camp counsellors, I personally didn’t find this particularly reassuring. Were they going to kayak through the hundreds of other applications to make mine a priority? On second thoughts I suppose if anyone were to arrange your employment in a foreign country you would want it to be someone skilled in low ropes or horseback riding.
Two days before I left Australia I was informed I had been placed at a Girl Scout camp in Washington state. It was predominantly a horse camp. I’m allergic to horses, so much so that I have never been able to sit through Seabiscuit or National Velvet, and this was mentioned on my form. Several times. But this was only the beginning.
I was flown from California to New Jersey where I spent two days lounging around a hotel before being flown back to the West Coast again, this time to Seattle.
I was greeted at SeaTac airport by a Slovenian woman and two crazed Icelandic girls. They were all dressed in matching t-shirts and cargo shorts with pieces of matted string and beads around their necks. They introduced themselves as “Dixie”, “Puma” and “Fish”. My first instinct was that I had mistakenly wandered into some depraved cult but apparently I was in the right place. No one had told me that you adopt a “camp name” but the fact that these girls had chosen these particular names set an ominous tone for what lay ahead.
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On the first night I was taken to my sleeping quarters: “Wagons West” a bunch of wooden primitive prairie-style wagons encircling a pit of mud. The wagons were open ended with canvas tops; the mosquitoes were as much a permanent fixture as the yoga mats that served as mattresses. While the regular camp-goers moved their belongings in backpacks and plastic storage containers, a fellow Australian counselor and I showed ourselves to be true novices in attempting to wheel our luggage up the rocky, muddy path from Wagons West.
The cabins were all basically the same; open and sparse, like carports with horse blankets. There was no electricity. The showers consisted of a Kleenex sized shower curtain and a chain to crank the water. Spiders, banana slugs and mosquitoes infested every single cabin and on more than one occasion a bat flew right through our cabin at night.
The first two weeks of camp was orientation: games, songs, dances, tests. We would learn them all. What struck me most was the return rate of the other camp counselors. Most of them boasted years of employment at this camp, others had been coming there since they were children and then been working there every summer since they were 15 years old. Some of these women were in their 30s and had regular jobs for the rest of the year but religiously worked at the camp each summer. Several counselors were brandished with over-sized Girl Scouts logo tattoos and everyone was wearing these handmade string necklaces. On closer inspection I noticed there were beads, so many beads. I later learnt that these beads represented every year you had been at camp and feats you had fulfilled; they were like Pandora charms for outdoorsy gals. Many of the girls proudly brandished necklaces featuring at least ten beads like an abacus measuring wasted time.
There were so many types of Girl Scouts camp counsellor personas, so many different kinds of lesbians. Probably the most blatant were the hardcore lesbians who were basically there to “out-a-scout”. They proudly boasted an annual rate of at least five counselors who came to camp with boyfriends and left with girlfriends.
On average two girls quit per week. For some it got too much; the politics were infuriating, the hours exhausting and the days filled with singing and dancing in the American mountains eventually made you loathe yourself.
Each day you had a two-hour break that you would generally spend at the common room, referred to as “Troop House 5” which was located atop an epic hill. It took almost half an hour to walk to this spot and upon arrival you would line up for your 15 minutes of Internet or phone use. It was the kind of place where people bickered about co-workers spending 16 minutes on hotmail or leaving DVDs on pause (which we all know ruins them). There was no radio, newspapers or television (just a DVD player and an over-worked copy of Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights). You were both physically and mentally isolated from the outside world, a prisoner to the endless camp rituals and routines. Meal patterns, activity schedules and chore rosters became the only indicators of day or time.
The food at camp was something I never could have been prepared for, nor could my intestine. The bread tasted like cake, the cake was more addictive than crack, and marijuana and magic mushrooms circulated around camp like bi-curious counsellors. Only one staff member was fired for smoking pot at camp but Mary-Jane was a camp name many were familiar with.
While drugs were flying under the radar, the food flags were flying high at every meal. In the dining hall a flag was literally erected to signal first servings, then there was a subsequent flag for second helpings: only in America. The third flag cued dessert; both lunch and dinner came with rich desserts like pumpkin pie, cookies, brownies, or ice cream sundaes, and then the fourth flag was “meds”: medication. Again: only in America.
The amount of over-medicated children at this camp was astounding. Forget years of university to become a pharmacist, just work at a camp and you’ll be administering drugs like Michael Jackson’s doctor. On Sundays when the children (and their medications) were checked in, your backpack would be so loaded with Ritalin, mood stabilizers, asthma pumps and anti-anxiety medication that you were at risk of Charlie Sheen jumping you on the hike to Troop House 5.
I will never understand how this camp managed to avoid accidents, injuries and fatalities when inept counselors (like myself) were as prevalent as drug quantities even the Bali Nine would deem irresponsible. Quite often I would be walking the 20 minute hike between the break-room and my cabin, alone in the dark, and would be bewildered by the “beware of cougars” signs randomly littered across the camp grounds. Knowing Demi Moore’s native territory was states away I proceeded to worry.
The belief that these signs would suffice as ample warning seemed troubling to say the least. After nine weeks of “roughing it” I still hadn’t really picked up any outdoorsy skills that would serve me if I were genuinely lost in the woods. My reliance on lighter fluid to start campfires took the Girl Scout mantra of “leave no trace” far too literally. I went to camp without my first aid certificate and left equally unqualified.
In fairness no amount of Mickey Mouse Club-esque training could have prepared any of us for the responsibility of supervising all these children AND their prescription drugs. Luckily with the trail mixes of pharmaceuticals at camp our jobs were eased, as we were guaranteed no one was going to be sleepless in Seattle.
And so somehow or other I survived my three month stint, though in fairness I could barely navigate my way to the dining hall so fleeing in the night really wasn’t a plausible option.
You may wonder why I haven’t mentioned the name of the camp I worked at, or the company I went through, but like any good Girl Scout I’ve taken the vow to leave no trace.