The first campers pulled into Timber Ridge at noon, quickly unpacking their gear and staking claim to the best beds in the best cabins. No one wanted the top bunk: Fall out of that in the middle of the night and it's a sure ticket to the camp infirmary.
Within minutes, a game of volleyball started on the sand court down the hill. As more campers arrived, an assortment of basketballs, baseball gloves, soccer shoes, swim gear and tennis rackets spilled from their bags. In no time, a rollicking flag-football game was underway.
Notwithstanding its 40-year-old weathered pine cabins and rustic setting -- 750 acres of God's country nestled in the foothills of the Shenandoah Mountains -- Timber Ridge is not exactly your mother's summer camp.
Except that, it is. For one weekend in August, anyway.
That's when a group of 40 women -- some of them mothers, most of them professionals, all of them over 30 -- escape to the hollows of West Virginia for three days of sports and games, laughter and camaraderie. They come from Washington and its suburbs, of course, but also from New York and New Jersey, Atlanta and San Francisco -- in some cases continuing friendships forged years ago when they were girls together at summer camp in the Catskills and Poconos, but in most instances forming new friendships with women who were strangers to them a few days earlier.
Ranging in age from 31 to 59, and with job titles that include scientist, psychologist, teacher and accountant, they happily abandoned their pagers and cell phones (not to mention husbands or boyfriends, kids and canines) last weekend to indulge in the one thing they all share: their love of athletics.
Now in its second year, they've dubbed it Camp A.W.O.L. (for Athletic Women on Leave).
Some of them played college ball ("The Post-Title IXs," they're called, in deference to the 1972 federal law that opened the door to women's athletics), while others never played organized sports ("The Pre-Title IXs"). It's easy to spot the difference that years of coaching and team play have meant to the younger, more athletic "Posts": Out on the soccer field, they yell "Go for it!" at one another, while the "Pres" are more apt to scream, "Don't hurt me!"
But athletic achievement is not the point of Camp A.W.O.L. Enthusiasm is what counts, not skill. Keeping score is optional, and everyone is welcome to jump in.
That all-inclusiveness is central in the appeal for campers like Karen Gardner, a 36-year-old writer from New York. "It's great that the `Athletic' [in Camp A.W.O.L.'s name] applies to everyone," no matter how many or few events a camper tries, she said. "We all just want to have fun."
For $50 each, campers get three days in which to shed the responsibilities of home and office and reconnect with their youth.
"I'm here to relive my childhood," said Terrie Franks, 37, a financial management analyst from Oakton, echoing a thought expressed by many. "It's easier now, without the angst of puberty."
"My kids get to go to camp every summer. Why shouldn't I?" said Dianne Phillips, 41, who is raising two teenage daughters in Atlanta. "Exercise here is not drudgery. I really enjoy the no-pressure atmosphere. No one gets mad if I miss a shot or `run like a girl.' "
Some of the women are only now discovering the joys of summer camp. "I never did this as a kid, so I've decided it's never too late for a happy childhood," said Becky Cave, a software company employee who took the train from New York City to Philadelphia, rented a car and drove late at night in the rain to get to Timber Ridge.
"I'm 55," she said. "When I was a kid, girls were cheerleaders. I've never known adult women who played team sports."
Such is the magnetism of Camp A.W.O.L. that campers confessed to abandoning a daughter about to give birth, classmates holding a 25th reunion, and a husband with a birthday -- all to be at camp.
"You can always go out to dinner," rationalized Pat Byrne, 50, a clinical psychologist in the District who left her husband home alone to celebrate their 28th wedding anniversary. "But you can't go to basketball camp" any other time.
At Camp A.W.O.L., humor is as plentiful as the red Kool-Aid served with every meal: A camper with a bruised knee is handed an icy bottle of beer to hold down the swelling. A volleyball team self-named "The Losers" is penalized a point for whining about a close call. Sideline cheers for the soccer team are interrupted by a discussion of the various levels of calcium everyone is taking. The catcher on the opposing softball team is booed for actually trying to tag a runner out. During water basketball, gin-and-tonics are served poolside, quaffed down like Gatorade.
And if a camper wants to forgo all that and dive into a good book for three days, that's cool, too.
Mettah Kollmann, 52, a personnel management specialist with the Department of Justice, did just that, curling up with "The Coming Plague," a heavily footnoted tome about viruses that she hopes will help her better understand what her son is studying at Harvard. "I'm into the Ebola virus right now," she said during a break. "My athletic endeavors are limited to biking. I came to camp to veg. It's wonderfully relaxing."
Homesickness? If a camper admits to sneaking off to call home ("Honey, have you found the fridge yet?" is one popular line), good-natured razzing results.
Cindy Aserkoff, a Fairfax computer project manager and, at 50, the founding mother of Camp A.W.O.L., said the best thing about it is "it's a chance to be and act like a kid again. You're unencumbered. You don't have to worry about what anybody thinks. There's nobody judging you. I come here and I feel like I'm 10 years old again."
Yet for all that, there were abundant signs at Timber Ridge last week that these campers are much closer to post-menopausal than premenstrual.
For starters, there was the suggested packing list, which included: lawn chairs, Lysol disinfectant, a shower curtain, night light, Citronella candles, ice packs, ace bandages and plenty of painkillers.
Some campers tossed in hair curlers, lipstick, moisturizing lotion and foam earplugs (in great demand after the late-night recounting of the hair-raising story of Aserkoff's daughter who, while sleeping, had an inch-long beetle wedge itself in her ear AT THIS VERY CAMP a few years ago).
At Camp A.W.O.L., fitted sheets were the norm. And everyone made her bed and brushed her teeth.
Plumped-up air mattresses -- viewed as an eccentric luxury on Friday afternoon -- were coveted after two nights hunkered down on one of the camp's inexhaustible supply of inch-thick mattresses. Some campers pancaked three or four of the lumpy pads atop one another in a futile attempt to make their own Posturepedic.
Others found comfort in a different form. Inside Cabin 24, home of the Bobcats, according to the wood sign nailed out front, the whir of the blender signaled the imminent arrival of another batch of the official camp libation -- a Kahlua, creme de cacao and rum concoction called a Mudslide. After a few Mudslides, nobody was keeping score.
In addition to its full-service bar, Cabin 24 was home court for Camp A.W.O.L.'s cigar-smoking cadre, who puffed away -- uneasily at first -- on a few Hajenius cigars flown in from Amsterdam. "Aren't they nice and smooth?" asked Sandy Meyer, 41, a nurse from Fairfax, coughing twice as she said so. "Don't inhale," she advised.
As campers wiled away the night swimming under the stars, storytelling on their cabin decks and line-dancing the Electric Slide under a strobe light in the mess hall, one couldn't help but wonder: Where are the counselors?
For most of the summer, Timber Ridge is crawling with them. Its two campsites, White Mountain and Green Briar, are home to some 850 campers ages 6 to 16, whose parents pay in the range of $3,000 to $5,000 for one- or two-month sessions, according to Jerry Shoemake, the camp's director of operations. White Mountain, the older of the two sites and host venue for Camp A.W.O.L., opened in 1955 and is outfitted for 350 young, or young-at-heart, campers.
Adolescent campers have immortalized themselves over the years by festooning the walls of their cabins with musings on camp life and one another. Surprisingly, most of it is tasteful.
Other campers showed a flair for the decorative arts. "8 Weeks of Gum!" penned a camper named Rachel next to 24 colorful blobs of dried-up chewing gum carefully arranged on the side of what had been her nightstand. "8 Weeks of Gum!" was the last thing Rita Jamros, 44, a software engineering manager from Annandale, saw as she went to bed each night last weekend, and the first thing she saw each morning. It kind of grew on her.
"Camp is camp," said Gardner, recalling girlhood summers spent in New York's Catskill Mountains. "We did some of the same things." Gardner said Timber Ridge takes her back in time, "although at my old camp we'd be lucky to have a field full of enthusiastic players."
Fielding a full team is no sweat at Camp A.W.O.L.
"There's no holes out there," complained Nancy Falk, 43, as she stepped to the plate in softball and scanned an infield and outfield gridlocked with 17 defensive players.
The pace of play can be daunting. "I feel like I'm at the mini-Olympics," said Alexandria office manager Sally Cameron, at 31 the youngest camper. "It's only 2 p.m., and already I've played nine holes of golf, a few sets of tennis and a game of softball. Football and kickball are on the schedule for later today. I think I'll try and grab a 10-minute nap while I can."
The iron-woman nature of the event was lost on no one. "Okay, on to the pool!" Falk yelled the minute she and her teammates wound up a soccer match. "Yeah, we don't have all day here," joked Kim Carroll, a 46-year-old Fairfax accountant. "Well, actually, we do, but we've got to move on to another sport."
Falk, who works for a digital photo company and lives in Falls Church, said she's not escaping anything at Camp A.W.O.L. "I'm coming to something," she said. "I just really like these people, a down-to-earth group of women who're staying in cabins. Three-fourths of my friends would never do this because it doesn't have bubble bath. . . . It's like coming to an all-you-can-eat buffet where you can pick and choose what you want to play."
For Diane Perrine, that in itself is amazing. She's 59 -- "way before Title IX," is how she puts it -- the oldest of this year's contingent. "Growing up, I wasn't able to play many sports," said Perrine, a marketing consultant in Fairfax. "Then comes this opportunity to be in a decathlon of sports over a three-day weekend in a wonderful camp setting. . . . And it doesn't matter how athletically talented you are."
No doubt about it, Perrine is hooked on Camp A.W.O.L. "I'll never miss it," she vowed. "They'll have to install a wheelchair ramp."