13 years ago, I was a socially awkward 13-year-old girl in a hotel room just outside of Asheville, North Carolina. I was on my way to summer camp for two weeks. I’d been to sleepaway camp before, every year since I was 7 in fact, but this was the first time I was going to a camp out-of-state.
13 years ago, I had just gotten a call from my dad telling me that my half-sister had been born. It would be six weeks before I would meet her, and she’d throw up on me the first time I held her (We got past that first rocky start though. Btw, happy 13th birthday Lindsey).
13 years ago, I had no idea that the place I was heading to would turn out to be the defining place of my life. All I knew was that I’d seen it on TV, and I didn’t want to spend another summer at girl scout camp. I wanted a camp where I could learn to shoot a bow and arrow, climb a rock wall, swim in a lake, and do it all without anyone knowing who I was.
13 years ago, I lived in the shadow of my family- my mathematical genius older brother, my compassionate elementary counselor mother, and my personable younger brother. I didn’t share their aptitudes, and I certainly didn’t feel like I ever fit in. This summer camp was my way to figure out who I was on my own terms, without my last name preceding me.
13 years ago, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I spent a total of 7 years at Camp Highlander, starting as a camper and working my way up from counselor-in-training, to barn staff for the riding program, to certified lifeguard and founder of the camp swim team (Highlander Hammerheads forever!). There were rocky years, such as my first year when I wrote my mother every day asking her to come and take me home (she didn’t), and my last year when my graduate school admission was botched and I had to leave two weeks early to try to sort it out (I couldn’t, and it turned out to be a blessing in disguise for my academics, but that’s a different story). However, the good times far outweighed the bad.
The memories that I made, the friendships that I formed, and the lessons about life that I learned over those seven years on Old Forge Mountain have made me into the person that I am today. I told a boy that I liked him for the first time at camp. I cared for a newborn foal and mourned the loss of another. I told bedtime stories about a giant pickle in a grocery store to a cabin of 6-year-olds who are now leading cabins of their own. I learned a lot about the songs of Van Morrison and The Beatles while sitting around a campfire, and how to dance to Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose” in a hand-built wooden gymnasium. But most of all, I learned who I am.
I have grown out of my social anxieties, discovered my own strengths, and yes, even learned how to shoot a bow and arrow (thank you, Terry, for never giving up on a more-than-slightly dangerous left-handed archer, even as the rest of my cabin cowered behind the benches). I am comfortable with who I am (most of the time, at least), and I know I wouldn’t have gotten here without those summers on the mountain. Even though I find myself stuck in Georgia every summer now because of the demands of a grown-up full time job, I carry a piece of Highlander with me every day. A song on the radio, a sunny day with a breeze, even the sound of kids playing in a swimming pool can take me back to those summers in a heartbeat.
13 years ago, and every summer since, my heart goes just north of Asheville, to a camp that’s been sitting literally on the side of a mountain since 1946. And I could not think of a better way to spend my time.