By Christina Talcott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 6, 2008
You're never too old to go back to camp.
Toward the beginning of my long and awkward adolescence, my folks sent me off for two weeks on a Chesapeake Bay Foundation trip on the Potomac River, part educational field trip, part summer camp. We plied the waters on fishing boats and skipjacks, paddled canoes out to marshes and slept in tents and cabins on remote islands.
On one of my trips, we stayed a couple of nights in a cabin at Camp Merryelande, a privately owned campground in Southern Maryland with a strip of beach, piney woods and a long dock jutting into the Potomac. At the age of 12, eating fresh-caught, Old Bay-spiced crabs on the dock with a dozen of my new best friends seemed like heaven.
Since then, I'd been itching to go back. The camp is still open, still on the same slice of shore on St. George Island. Would it look like I remembered it? Would I still like it? And if I went back, could I tap into some of that summer's unbridled joy?
Well, why not try?
Driving south on a recent Friday afternoon, the landscape triggered memories from that long-ago summer. When I passed a mowed hayfield with rippling hills, it suddenly reminded me of the waves on the Potomac, how the gentle rocking of the boat lulled me to sleep on lazy afternoons at camp. Since that first summer, whenever I have trouble sleeping, I imagine myself swaying in a hammock on a boat, getting rocked to sleep by the water and wind.
The gravel driveway of Camp Merryelande slices through tall evergreens and winds past a small shack with a "Camp Store" sign. The road ends at a clearing with tents and cabins lining oyster-shell footpaths.
A chatty blond-haired and sunburned staffer swung out of a golf cart when I pulled in and helped me park the car behind a white cabin and a rack of bicycles. When he was registering me in the small camp office, he seemed surprised that it was just me, for just one night.
There weren't any other solo one-nighters at Camp Merryelande. Instead, the camp was buzzing with families and groups: grade schoolers wrapping up a beach volleyball game, parents and toddlers picking up seashells along the shore, couples stoking campfires for the evening's meal.
The place hadn't changed much in 17 years: the same weathered cabins with peeling bathroom linoleum, the long fishing pier lined with benches, a rocky slope leading down to the sandy beach. I remember this place seeming like the hub of civilization back then; we arrived there after spending days on end seeing only our fellow campers and counselors. On this visit, it felt like a remote escape from the crush of people back home, especially having a whole two-room cabin to myself. The air conditioner was blasting when I arrived, but I turned it off, instead opening the windows to the smell of the campfires.
Although the cabin came with a full kitchen and a fire pit, I hadn't packed any food to cook, so I drove back toward the mainland until I found a place called O.C.I./Pizza King about four miles away. While nursing a $2.50 beer and chatting with watermen and students from the nearby Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training, I witnessed a side of the shore I hadn't seen as a kid: drunken crab men, young divorcees, muscle-bound guys feeding bills into the lottery vending machine. I paid my tab and headed back to camp.
I walked along the beach and listened to the waves hitting the sand, friends chatting around campfires, night fishermen on the dock swapping tips and drinking beers. Spotlights on the dock dulled the view of the stars, and I started thinking about watching meteor showers here as a kid, the counselors giving us an astronomy primer while my fellow campers argued over whether you get a wish with every shooting star or just the first one. I remembered how hungrily I soaked up everything the counselors taught us, even if I've forgotten most of it by now.
Back in my cabin, I made one of the double beds with the sheets I'd brought (only pillows and blankets are provided), and I settled in. The noise around camp died down around 11, and a cooling cross breeze and the sound of lapping waves wafted through my windows.
In the morning, I rented a kayak and dragged it to the beach. Out in the murky water, I paddled toward the north point of the island, where I saw a pair of swans swimming side by side and ospreys guarding their nesting platforms. Two men in kayaks crossed my path, and I watched a pair of anglers fishing off a private dock.
Afterward, I took a walk on the beach, picking up shells and multicolored sea glass. I went for a dip in the river, where I discovered that even past the end of the dock, the water reached only to my hips. Teenagers close to shore were splashing and teasing each other, and I heard one girl say, "Look at that lady out there."
To them I was just some "lady" (when did I become a lady, anyhow?) out swimming alone, but part of me still felt like the 12-year-old girl I used to be, at summer camp and away from home for the first time.
When I was finally ready to leave, I drove back down the gravel path, my pockets heavy with pieces of sea glass, their hard edges softened by time in the water.