A note to Gold Arrow Camp’s summer 2021 Staff:
Tomorrow is arrival day for the 2021 Gold Arrow Camp staff, which means a whole bunch of college kids will arrive here on the shores of Huntington Lake with their summer lives crammed in plastic drawers and their T-shirts labeled with camp nicknames, a decades-long tradition established so we don’t have to deal with the confusion of five Logans or six Sophies. Instead, we’ll have kids named Brownie and Doxy and Goat and Kronk, things like that, which makes for a whole lot of fun on the mountain. More importantly, though, the pseudonyms allow this young, plucky group to take on a new summer identity, kind of like a tan, and leave their old selves behind for a short while. They’ll arrive excited in university logo sweatshirts, able to sprint up hills and sleep comfortably on old army cots, their insides churning like they’ve got bats trapped behind their ribs.
I know, because thirty-one years ago, I was in their hiking boots.
My first summer at Gold Arrow Camp was 1990. I pulled into the camp parking lot the evening of June 15th with everything I owned crammed in a 1976 Toyota Corolla hatchback, white with blue rally racing stripes. That last detail is important, I think; in the 1980s, every cool kid had a car with rally racing stripes. I was a kid; I had a car with rally racing stripes; I was cool. Never mind that it was a 1976 Toyota Corolla.
Ten hours earlier, I stood among hundreds of other UCLA graduates on the infield at Drake Stadium. Here’s what I was thinking at the time: “I’m a college graduate. I’m going to relax this summer as a camp counselor before I get a real job.”
Here’s what I found out: I could not relax when I was a camp counselor. As far as jobs went, camp counseling was as real as it got.
This June and July, I will spend part of my 28th summer at Gold Arrow. I am not alone in my lengthy tenure. There are more of us out here, and we have gone on to all kinds of “real jobs,” but none can hold a campfire to the two weeks or more we get to spend at Gold Arrow, where several of us have watched our own children live as campers and actually work as counselors. This summer, inconceivably to me, one of my daughters is among them. If you add up all the years a few of us have been involved—Tigger, Chelster, Trapper, Junior, Bean, and me, for example—the total comes to somewhere near 4 million. That figure, of course, is hyperbolic, an exaggeration for effect, but you get the idea.
There are many of us who started as young buckaroos and never left. For some reason, Monkey and Sunshine keep inviting us back, despite being long-in-the-tooth, despite being mostly out-of-touch with the kids these days, despite thinking cars with racing stripes are cool. That’s because we have what is called “historical knowledge” of the place, which is a euphemism for “that dude was here when Manny founded Gold Arrow,” and there is value in that, apparently. It means we get to tell funny, embarrassing stories about people who no longer work for camp, almost always because they did regrettable things, none of which I will share here because, well, no one needs to get any dumb ideas.
So, here we are again. The old folks have returned for yet another chunk of summer. It’s like Cocoon without the aliens: a bunch of savvy, doddering ancients looking for renewal in the High Sierra. We will dip our toes in these rejuvenating waters as long as we have toes to dip. And when we leave, we’ll return to those real jobs we eventually settled into: Tigger to Southern California, where she teaches kids; Trapper to Portland, Oregon, where he manages other people’s money; Junior to Fresno and his job as a battalion chief for the Fresno Fire Department; and me to Fresno State where I measure the margins of master’s theses; Chelster (whose parents met at Gold Arrow in the sixties!) and Bean (who wouldn’t marry Soy unless he promised to work at camp) are now capital-D Directors, which means they are the ones, with Sunshine and Monkey, who make sure the salad bar is well-stocked with jícama and, in general, try to keep everyone happy.
Each one of us, at some point this summer, will lace up our boots and set our steps goals to 20,000. We will teach you young folks to shoot guns and drive boats and work with children who are impossibly homesick. And when we have a moment, we will reminisce; but mostly we will also lend you our ears, if you’ll have them, and we will share little bits of our wisdom, which you can take or leave, as you see fit. You see, we see parts of ourselves in you, funny as that may sound. And because we see parts of ourselves in you, we want to help. We want to help you grow, realize your potential, and teach you things, the first and most important of which may be this: Don’t do anything embarrassing or regrettable, because we will certainly talk about you later.
Want to know more about Gold Arrow Camp’s old timers? Check out the book, Sierra Summers: The History of Gold Arrow Camp, available on Amazon or from the Gold Arrow Camp store.
Interested in more of my writing? Check out my website (charleslewisradke.com) where you can read more essays and even buy my book, Stuccoville: Life Without a Net.