Friday, June 8, 2012

Turning Point - Trail Blazer Camps

Appalachian Mountains
Appalachian Mountains (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I've written about a couple of the turning point moments in my boys' lives in the posts Give Me Twenty and Uno. As summer approaches and the temperatures spike I tend to daydream about the five summers that I spent as a camp counselor at Trail Blazer Camps.  The camp's current mission: "Through outdoor experiential environmental education, we strive to facilitate the development of values and life skills essential for productive citizenship in young people."  They take kids from New York City and invite them to live in the woods, in teepees, hogans, and Conestoga wagons. There were no log cabin dorms, air conditioning or in ground pool. The dining hall was the only building with a an actual roof that campers used.  Canvass was the norm and if your lodging was a little swankier, you had a wood platform floor.

In 1985 I traveled to Montague, NJ, near the Delaware Water Gap, inside the Appalachian Mountains, to work at Trail Blazers Camp (TBC).  Flying into New York City and then finding my way to the Port Authority bus terminal, and at last meeting my ride for the final bit of travel to the camp entrance was a true journey.  We arrived late at night and the rolling hills were dark, barely populated with homes set back in the forest.  As I laid down to sleep in the small cot of my temporary home I knew that I was changing.  I could actually feel it happening.  In a 12 hour period I had taken my first plane ride, navigated NYC (I am a directionally challenged person), and plopped myself into a job commitment that was going to require my terribly introverted self (like too scared to order pizza over the phone type shy) to lead groups of children through life in the woods for 30 days at a time!

There's so much that I learned at the camp, about nature and about myself. There is one moment though that shifted my perspective permanently.  I was participating in the two week training program with the other counselors.  Essentially, older wiser counselors, former camp directors, and seasoned trainers used their summer vacation to play in the woods and teach young and very green people like me how to feel confident in the woods, leading decentralized programming, under formidable and primitive living conditions, while singing songs and playing games.  There was a lot to learn. Red efts, lashing our shelters together, cooking outdoors, tool safety, group motivation, and pyscho social needs of our at risk youth, who would be in our care for a month, all needed to be absorbed in 10 days.  One evening after dinner every single counselor came for a talent show of sorts.  The talents were fun games or sing-a-longs that would be good to use when the campers came.  Everyone was supposed to get up and share something, in front of 30 other staff members. I had been a part of some great one-on-one conversations but the whole group? Heart racing. Gulp. Sweat. Yikes!

When it was my turn to share something, I dug deep.  Somewhere in my past Girl Scouting history I'd seen a kooky dance/song that was an excuse for absurdity and silliness.  It was so far out of my comfort zone but it was the only thing I could think of to do.  I stood up, beet red, nervous,and without any introduction or explanation and shouted in a military cadence type chant:

(shout back to me, "What's that you say?")
(What's that you say?")
"I SAID LET ME SEE YOU SHOOT THE MOON!  OOH AH AH  (pointing gun fingers up at the moon)AH OOH AH AH (more gun fingers and quick spins like I'm in a gun fight) AH OOH AH AH AH OOH!"

Resume normal posture and begin again, "LET ME SEE YOU COCK A ROACH!" What's that you say?
Drop to ground laying on my back, hands and feet in the air, like a large roach turned over on it's back side and wiggling. "OOH AH AH AH OOH AH AH AH OOH AH AH AH OOH!"  There were about three other verses but you get the idea.

teepee & kerosene lanterns
I wish I could find a You Tube video of this chant because it doesn't get  it's just presentation here in print.  I wish I could also have a picture of the group of counselors and trainers that were staring back at me that night.  They were smiling and laughing but also stunned.  Where was the quiet, unassuming, responsible, and probably too serious newbie?  Where indeed.  I learned a lot that summer but mostly I learned that I was very capable, good at motivating others, and a leader.  I was pushed to do stuff that I wouldn't have done or even thought to do on my own.  The pushing allowed me to learn about myself and my capacity.  There was something about being so vulnerable, physically outside, that pulled out this courage and confidence in me. Lake Mashipacong, The Lodge, Awanasa and Fernhill Farm campsites, the Dining Hall lawn overlooking the garden and the mountains, these are the places where my hardest and best summers took place. These are the places where I started to discover my current self.

Happy Summer!

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  1. it is a rare and treasured insight to hear about the moments when you felt weak but that brought you to where you are today. You have always been this beacon of calm, reasoned strength. I appreciate you sharing this story.

  2. It was a fun process to write this. The things that change us profoundly can't always be anticipated.

  3. Fascinating post. You - shy??? Who knew?!?

  4. I wonder how I will be different when I'm 65...

  5. Hi, Eltee. Great story. That camp sounds like a really special place and clearly an important part of shaping you into the strong & compassionate leader you are today.

    I really enjoy all your, it gives me great pleasure to give you this award: Check it out! :)


    1. Jennifer, thanks so much for that act of encouragement. It was well timed and much appreciated. xo

  6. Hi Eltee!

    We came across your lovely post and are curious to know if you would be interested in sharing more of your photos and stories from your time at camp. As we celebrate 125 years, we have been reaching out to alumni for reflections to share on our blog: Or you can reconnect with fellow Trail Blazers on our Facebook page.

    - Tiffany