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I guess you could say I was a latecomer to Berkeley Tuolumne Camp (BTC) as the first time I went to camp I was already in my late 20’s. That year I tagged along with my husband for his family’s annual BTC getaway, a trip they’d been making since my husband was a child.

When I first arrived, I honestly didn’t know what to make of the place. Stepping into the loud chaos of the dining hall, I was immediately surrounded by energy and mayhem. This wasn’t the quiet, serene camping I was accustomed to. And over the din of laughter and clanking dishes, people would clap. They would even sing. Loudly.

My first day, wedged between strangers, I poked at the mysterious food on my plate called “turkey glop.” Then someone passed me a pitcher of bright orange “bug juice.”

This was going to be a loooong four days.

A garbled announcement sounded over the loudspeaker and everyone stood up on the benches. Even the older campers (the kind of people who stay seated during rock concerts) joined in. Everyone saluted, and then began clapping in unison while chanting, “Round the hall you must go…” That’s when three embarrassed, but giddy kids in matching caps skipped between our tables. With a mouthful of bug juice I washed down the turkey glop and pretended to sing along.

Little did I know, one day MY kid would be wearing that Ranger cap. And one day, I, dressed in the ugliest homemade tie-dye known to man, with dirt between my toes and a half-finished lanyard in my pocket, would be clapping and hooting along with everyone else.

Okay, so a camp burned down. It’s not the worst thing that could happen. It’s not like a person died. People lost their homes and their livelihoods to the voracious, unrelenting Rim fire. And I don’t want to downplay the severity of their losses. But I would like to take a moment to celebrate and remember a few things about our camp. Because even though it wasn’t a person, BTC did touch our lives. It touched many people’s lives.

I played in the staff versus camper volleyball tournament. Yeah, I know that doesn’t sound like a big feat. But you see, I don’t play volleyball. Never have. Yet, for whatever reason, I did in Tuolumne. And after umpteen years of coming to camp, I finally know (most) of the words to the camp song! Hey, I can even spell Tuolumne on the first try. Woohoo! *Awkward high-five*

You see, BTC was a place where you could step out of your comfort zone without even realizing you were doing it. It was a safe refuge from the city, a rare place for our children to experience the autonomy they so desperately crave. It was where our family reconnected, and where we had a chance to remind ourselves of what our life’s priorities really are.

Camp was not a person; it was a place to remember who we are, and to dream of who we want to become.

What about camp will I miss the most? Well, even though you didn’t ask, I’m going to tell you.

It’s the pure, clean smell of the river at dusk.

It’s sitting in a green Adirondack chair, deciding which book to read next. It’s my 23rd unfinished lanyard. It’s the cackling blue jays who scoff at the notion of anyone sleeping in past eight. It’s the gritty feel of wet clay between my fingers as I make yet another lopsided bowl decorated with leaves. It’s dust in my nose, my kid’s collection of lichen-dressed, googley-eyed Tuolumne trolls, and the dirt that takes a good week to scrub out of our heels when we get home.

It’s my kids darting between trees, savoring a level of freedom they experience nowhere else. It’s me not having to cook, or even think about cooking. It’s bathing our baby in a lasagna tray when she was too small for the bathtub. It’s my kid “falling” into the river every day like clockwork and me pretending to believe it was an accident. It’s children catching fish and making new friends to catch more fish with. It’s my husband teaching our five year old how to properly cook and assemble a s’more. It’s the contagiously positive staff attitude. It’s gathering with our friends every year to hang out, swap stories, and share a toast. It’s picking wild blackberries, and even better, eating them.

It’s seeing my shy eight-year old discover new levels of self-confidence.

It’s showing my kids the big dipper in an infinite sky.

It’s our family. Together.

And with the Tuolumne dust now behind us, I’m left sifting through our tie dye shirts, coffee filter creatures, leaf prints, and dusty sleeping bags in search of something to hold on to. All I find are memories. Luckily, they’re pure gold.