Disclaimer: I stole all of these photos. All credit goes to facebook friends who actually took pictures at girls’ camp and tagged me in them. If you recognize one of your own and don’t want it here, please do not sue me and contact me directly so I can delete it. Thank you much!
We pulled up in a minivan and stumbled out, one by one, into the dusty camp parking lot. We, of course, brought everything on the packing list (rookie mistake), which meant the trunk was full and our little girl arms couldn’t even begin to carry it all. I don’t remember who drove (it very well could have been my own mother), or which campsite the Youth Camp Leaders led me to. I do remember a handcart showing up somewhere during the process, which definitely helped with the copious amounts of “camp stuff.”
I also remember spotting a beloved leader upon arrival, and as I began to take in the overwhelming scene, she welcomed me with a smile and pulled me in for a big, tight hug.
“Girl’s camp is a place for hugging, then,” I remember thinking.
Twelve-year-old, first year me had no idea.
Though that was nearly ten years ago, I still recall some highlights; the theme, “Driving to Your Destiny” had us earning beads with a distinctive “Cars” theme. Definitively secular characters in the like of Lightening McQueen and T0w Mater somehow took over the camp for the week, and at the time I couldn’t imagine anything more spectacular. For years I claimed Cars as my favorite movie, largely because of its central role in my first year at camp.
As we took our seats at the amphitheater, the leaders and older girls welcomed us with a little skit and some very loud music. After the presentation, when they called the first-years up to perform the Cha-Cha Slide in some horrendous attempt at making us feel comfortable, I nearly burst into tears. I HATED that song. And I HATED dancing! I didn’t know these crazy girls! I wanted nothing else but to run away.
But I didn’t run away. I went back to my campsite, set up my corner in the very crowded tepee, and talked to all the other first years, none of whom I’d met before. I started bonding with my youth leaders and thought they were so cool. They were in high school! And were old enough to go to church dances! Living the dream, man. My camp mom also deserves a shout-out for embracing the antics of an anxious and unpredictable gaggle of twelve-year-old girls.
Soon we were headed to the massive slip-and-slide in the back of a pickup truck, and as the hot breeze blew through my messy blonde curls and the sun beat down on my bare shoulders, I knew that nothing could keep me from deeply, affectionately, and forever loving this place.
Every part of Girls’ Camp, even the less-than-pleasant bits, meant everything to me in those years where finding reliably great things became close to impossible. Camp was a refuge from school, stress, stupid boys, and summer boredom. It taught me how to love nature, and shaped the way I have come to view God even into adulthood.
But first, let’s discuss the weird bits:
Nothing at camp rivaled the Biffy in notoriety. The Biffy (a too-real acronym standing for “Bathroom In Forest For You”) incited fear, disgust, and weirdly enough, a little nostalgia. Yes, the port-o-potty is an unpleasant concept, blue liquid and all. Yes, cleaning them was a always a nightmare, but my first year camp mom made the chore extra fun by offering a biffy bead to whomever finished cleanup the fastest. I still have that biffy bead, and it remains one of the greatest in my extensive collection.
“Biffy fishing” also became a well-established concept as we returned to the ranch year after year. Without going into too much detail, the unwritten but oft-referred-to policy stated that if something went in the biffy that would not properly degrade in whatever hellhole biffy waste ends up in, you had to fish for it. Would they provide the pole? Nobody knows. I recall a sizable gas lantern ending up in the depths of the biffy one year, which was retrieved by hand and promptly discarded never to be heard of again. As you can see, biffy’s are the stuff of legend.
One year, biffy kicking became a fun trend, and it was most definitely not something I started. What do you take me for, some kind of monster who can’t respect the sanctity of the overused outdoor toilet?
Mostly it was fun to scare unsuspecting campers trapped in the dark, swampy, plastic enclosure because apparently we didn’t think it was bad enough having to pee into a funky blue hole. Long story short, a friend’s door kicking became so powerful that it INVERTED THE DOOR. As in, the door, which was meant to swing outwards, had gotten so precisely wedged into its frame, that it trapped the occupant without any hope of escape.
We laughed. She laughed, then cried, then laughed again. We got her out eventually without too much of a hassle. The short-lived biffy kicking tradition had come to an end, but not without a scarring final run.
“Bead” collecting, another unusual yet necessary facet of camp, functioned as a fun way to complete a diverse list of tasks, make new friends, and collect massive amounts of outwardly-meaningless objects on a string around your neck. While the bead tradition started long before my time at camp, and involved the distribution of actual painted wooden beads, it wasn’t long before Mormon lady ingenuity hijacked the concept and made it so much better.
It wasn’t unusual for crochet, leather work, metallurgy, shrinky-dinking, mod-podging, stenciling, needlework, clay-baking, or whittling to have some part in the year’s bead production lineup. I never had the pleasure of working with the bead lady myself, but I do know that by the time we got to camp, she had already put countless hours into beads symbolizing service, friendship, nature appreciation, scripture memorization, polar-dipping, and being a team player among other praiseworthy endeavors. Years later, I still remember the frantic, delightful journey of earning each of the tantalizingly gorgeous beads as quickly and efficiently as possible.
And those were just the camp beads! The possibilities for unofficial beads were literally endless. I already mentioned the biffy bead, but I also distinctly remember a boo-boo bead (for going to the nurse), a value bra bead (a phenomenon resulting from an unfortunate color scheme in the phrase “value bracelet” on a sign placed in dim lighting), and the ubiquitous mailbox surprise beads. Camp mail and sisterly notes, of course, also playing a crucial role in the sisterly camp ritual.
The Sisterhood of the High-Waisted Pants became a coveted fourth-year initiation ritual, and undoubtedly died out soon after my time at camp was through. Though the sisterhood had noble goals of nonsensical fashion choices to be practiced only among fellow dirt-encrusted women, high-wasted pants actually became stylish not long after. The girls of today have no choice but to come up with new equally terrible ideas that will inevitably become mainstream in due course.
We crafted masterful “camp cheers”, a blanket term for then-hilarious song parodies that incorporated camp culture in every conceivable way. We sang about needing showers, snoring, boy-deprivation, and exhaustion using melodies stolen from sources ranging from Katy Perry to Mulan. One year we used Les Mis tunes for literally every cheer, and I’m guessing most of the younger girls had no idea what was going on since that’s kind of an adult musical. We pushed the envelope in our songs and our pranks – don’t even think of providing teenage girls with a set of perfectly breast-sized coconut shells – often to the delight and chagrin of presiding adults. We relished in our creative freedom and rarely got in any sort of real trouble.
I also can’t discuss girls’ camp in scenic Eastern Washington without mentioning dirt. I’m only a few weeks into my geology course so I wouldn’t consider myself an expert, but based on my own experience I’ve come to the conclusion that our camp’s foundation consisted entirely of miles-deep, loose, light brown, breathable filth. How do I know it was breathable? Ask anyone who has blown her nose within two weeks of returning home. That stuff knows how to stick around. Every pair of socks, every hem of every pant leg, every scripture case I ever brought to camp, became riddled with dust almost instantly. An unknowing young girl might go to the camp showers and notice, while undressing, that she has developed an impressive leg tan. It will wash off, then miraculously reappear within minutes of leaving the flushies (our affectionate term for civilized toilets actually connected to semi-modern plumbing).
And you know what? I loved that dirt. Whenever I hike or drive through that part of the state, I can’t help but enjoy the unmistakable musk of woodsy dirt smell. Whenever I use a port-o-potty, I gag, then some weird conflicted part of my hippocampus lights up and reminds me of smelly, wonderful camp times. My beads still hang on a wall at home, and I occasionally take the time to search through them, most distinct memories of earning them long gone, but that euphoric feeling of accomplishment alive as ever. I cannot hear “Castle on a Cloud” without remembering “there is a tepee in the camp – I like to go there when I sleeeeep! Three to a bed is very warm! It is a mess, and that we warn.”
Camp allowed us to grow, as women, among friends and nature. In a world where makeup, flat-irons, and expensive shoes dominated, those six days per year reminded us that sunburned, mosquito-bitten complexions can be just as attractive as carefully-manufactured appearances. Smiles began to replace pubescent scowls, embarrassment about our bodies melted away as even the chubbiest of us (ahem) scaled walls and joined in trust falls at the ropes course. We learned that our bodies are sacred as well as a tremendous source of fun as we rode horses, flung ourselves down the massive slip-and-slide, and spent lazy afternoons canoeing and floating down the river.
I won’t claim we didn’t experience drama. It’s impossible not to experience drama under those conditions. Tears were shed often; happy, hormonal, homesick, sad tears, sometimes all four at once. Smiles happened, both in delight and malice. Some mornings I was just tired, and wanted to stab whichever leader was tasked at waking us up at an ungodly hour with some insufferable camp tune. (Did I mention camp songs? They existed. I embraced them several years in. They never really leave you. Enough said.)
Above all, camp became a refuge. We sang sappy EFY songs meant to make teenagers feel spiritual. We bore testimony. We learned from others like us about the challenges of peer pressure, doubt, and making mistakes. We learned that God cared about us even through our greatest struggles, and that we had value as strong, independent, devoted women. We learned that no sin or mistake was too great for the power of the atonement. We learned, above all, that we were loved; by our leaders, by each other, and by our Heavenly Father.
In return, we learned to love. I learned to love new friends. I learned to love myself. Since my family didn’t camp much, I learned to see nature as a sanctuary through my experiences at girls’ camp. I found a passion for the trees, wind, mountains, rivers, sky, a love that hasn’t faded since growing up and leaving organized religious camping events behind.
It was that time in nature with God and our awkward, growing, learning, believing selves that made so many of us LDS women who we are today.
Things have changed of course. Life gets complicated, we all go in different directions, camp isn’t quite what it used to be. I’ve seen many women who found themselves at camp lose themselves in the stresses of post-youth-program LDS life. I know many who’ve left the church, for a wide variety of reasons. I hope they still remember their times at camp fondly, but I can never be completely sure.
The amphitheater is now known as the “outdoor gathering center” and the camp is slowly replacing the beloved tepees with cheaper, more reliable wall tents. This year my stake joined with the entire region to put on a super-camp of over a thousand girls. I spent a day at the unfamiliar BSA camp, and it looked like everyone was enjoying herself – but it wasn’t the camp I remember.
Since going to college and hearing other ladies’ camp experiences, I realize I might be in the minority in my passion for Mormon girls’ camp. Whether due to lackluster leaders, unpleasant campsites, or general snobbishness, a lot of LDS women I know never really took to camp in the way I, and a lot of my friends, did.
What I do know is that thanks to the service of longsuffering leaders, a holy outdoor space to pitch our tents, and an overwhelming sense of love and devotion, I left camp for the last time with a set of values destined to guide me through rough times for the rest of my life.
I might have a hard time with my fellow Mormons at times. I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that I regularly feel like an outsider among the general population of Utah County. My worldview never ceases to change and thereafter cause disappointment in my day-t0-day life, but I will always have that crucial foundation to fall back on. Doubt has trouble erasing those sacred feelings I had while sitting around a campfire, studying the scriptures in the woods by myself, or singing a meaningful song among friends as the sun set above us.
I’m not sure what the original goal of Young Women’s Camp must have been. If it was an attempt to give girls a scout camp replacement, I’m afraid the church has failed. Sure, I can light a fire, fashion a tourniquet, tie a couple knots, pee in the woods, make a bedroll, build a raft out of milk jugs, protect against bears, perform CPR, leave no trace, and identify several types of plants, clouds, and animals, but that stuff (as useful as it is) seems trivial compared to the lasting effect of camp on my psyche.
Leaders, realize how important this is, and that your work will indeed be worth it. I don’t care if every one of those girls you serve leaves the fold someday; it will always be of importance that you gave them a positive experience. Girls, remember to thank your leaders, and try to see beyond the grime to find the beauty just below the surface. I might be a sentimental, nostalgic mess, but I would like to think that every girl can find at least something to like about camp.
In the end, we’re all just trying to find our place in the world, and I for one am glad my world has included a healthy portion of stargazing, joke-playing, song-singing, bead-collecting, self-loving, tree-hugging, God-feeling bliss.
Thank you, Mormon girls’ camp, for giving me hope, and helping me navigate a world that doesn’t always tolerate silly song parodies or coconut boobs.
Thank you for teaching me that “woman” is not an insult, but a term encapsulating raw human strength and perseverance despite all odds.
Thank you for showing me light in a world that is so often dark and full of uncertainty.
Thank you for making me the complicated, passionate person I am today.
Thank you for bringing me closer to my God.
And perhaps most of all, thank you for the hugs, because I needed them.