Endless Summer

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 20, 2006

Escape is found at the end of a tree-lined road, one that ducks into the woods off Central Avenue in Anne Arundel County, the hot pavement giving way to gravel as it winds past the horse barns, the swimming pool, the rustic cabins that smell like damp towels and sweaty flip-flops, a salty-sweet combination that never quite blows away no matter how many electric fans whir.

Rowdy boys trudge up the pathway, play-shoving. Silly songs pierce the air: "Peanut, peanut butter. And jelly!" "Princess Pat." "Baby Shark."

Bracketed by two inlets on the Chesapeake Bay, the YMCA's Camp Letts is a summer hideaway for 300 kids -- and for the 85 counselors who come from all over the world to spend a fleeting season sleeping in stifling cabins, eating endless hot dogs, sacrificing most of their free time and virtually all of their privacy.

For the kids, sleep-away camp is about tasting independence, trying new challenges, discovering things about themselves. A place to let go.

For many of the counselors, though, teetering on the cusp of adulthood, it's a place to hold on to something. A place that gives them the freedom not to figure it all out. Not yet.

For Kayla Owens, escape is standing chest-deep in that water, hours at a time, fending off the jellyfish and water snakes, strapping kids to water skis. She has flown from Australia to work at Camp Letts for a third straight summer. It will also be her last. Camp has been a way to defer her enrollment at university back home in Melbourne, as well as the excuse she uses when guys there want to get serious ( Why get close when I'm just going to go away?). A surfer, a water-lover, she wasn't ready for a life lived inside. She wasn't ready to seriously consider career interests and long-term goals. She turns 21 this summer. Time is about to run out.

For now, though, she has one more summer, one more chance to disappear in what she calls "this other universe."

* * *

Kayla's got a construction paper card on her bed in the cabin, pressed upon her by a camper who's already decided that she's "the best!" Tonight she's ordering pizza for her girls. The other morning she laughed hysterically, bumping and grinding, as her girls taught her some hip-hop moves so she wouldn't make a fool of herself at the camp dance. She also let them teach her the words to the "naughty" camp songs.

As a repeat counselor, Kayla could have requested some adorable 8-year-olds with their stuffed bunnies and easy-to-bed ways, or she could have asked to hang out with the senior campers, 16-year-olds who converse almost on her level. Instead, she picked the middle ground, girls still struggling through the agonies of adolescence, uncertain about boys, uncertain about themselves, beautiful and awkward all at the same time. Girls who worship college-age women like Kayla. She gets that. She gets them. She chos e them, and they love her for it.

So when she wears her Joe Boxer pajama bottoms to breakfast and surveys her troops, it's easy to see how she strikes her campers as the savvy big sister, one who would never try to lock them out of her room.

She's got one girl with a knee injury, one with a mouth sore, one talking about "Where's the overflow boy table? I know I can't go there, but I can loo k !" She gives permission to go to the nurse to the first two and rolls her eyes at the other. Then she looks across at the one camper who is absolutely morose, hair draped across her face, spoon doing circles in a bowl of Rice Krispies.

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