To the Time Machine!

Summer camp: where the living is easy and the world is wi-fi-free

  • Illustration by Gerard DuBois for TIME

    The travel experts predict that this will be a staycation summer, with gas prices over $4 and the economy melting like an Eskimo pie. It's always been a luxury to be able to hop a plane to Paris, to Venice, to the Grand Canyon. But as I read the welcome letter sent to my daughter from her camp director, I decided that she is luckier still. The real luxury travel of the modern age is not through space; it's through time.

    Just the fact of the letter startled me: seven leisurely pages, single-spaced — sentences that meandered from subject to object through a forest of rustling asides. It bore no resemblance to the tweets, texts, e-mails and alerts that race across my screens all day. The director, the aptly named Mr. Woodman, writes of health insurance and head lice, permission slips and spending money. As I read on I came to feel that the letter had arrived not from New Hampshire but from the 19th century.

    The language is stern: there will be no tolerance of behavior that is "abusive, aggressive, offensive or otherwise ill-mannered." It is playful: no blow-dryers, "as the use of them is still prohibited under the terms of an exclusive contract we have for that service with Sun & Wind, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of the highly reputable Mother Earth Inc." It is philosophical: contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as perfect safety, and being around horses, water, farm animals and, for that matter, humans involves some risk, which must be accepted and embraced, and please sign here to indicate that you understand this simple premise about a life worth living.

    And it is elegiac. According to modern risk managers, camp staff should only hug a camper or pat her shoulder if they have the girl's and her parents' explicit permission. "'Tis a sad day," Mr. Woodman writes, "when the spontaneity of expression of encouragement or concern for a child with a timely hug or touch is lost to worries about the possible adverse consequences ... " But such are our litigious, suspicious, ambivalent times.

    By the time I finished reading, I realized that while my daughter just wanted two weeks around horses, I was pleased she'd have two weeks around 1880. Two weeks in a place where the kitchen smells of fresh sweet things, floorboards are wide, hopes are high, hands are callused. Before To Catch a Predator.

    A lot of camps and summer programs for kids seem to have discovered that among the most valuable things they offer is what they don't offer. No wi-fi. No grades. No hovering parents or risk managers or parents who parent like risk managers. The world as it was, or maybe just as we imagined it was, 100 years B.S. (before screens).

    But it's not only kids who thrive on time travel. Time dissolves in summer anyway: days are long, weekends longer. Hours get all thin and watery when you are lost in the book you'd never otherwise have time to read. Senses are sharper — something about the moist air and bright light and fruit in season — and so memories stir and startle. Go on vacation with your siblings; you will be back in the treehouse of code words and competitions and all the rough rivalries of those we love but do not choose as family. I am more likely to read trashy books, eat sloppy food, go barefoot, listen to the Allman Brothers, nap and generally act like I'm 16 than I'd ever be in the dark days of February. Return to a childhood haunt, the campground, the carnival, and let the season serve as a measuring stick, like notches on the kitchen doorway: the last time you walked this path, swam this lake, you were in love for the first time or picking a major or looking for work and wondering what comes next. The past was plump with questions whose answers you now know, and summer is when we get to review the exam and make corrections.

    And then having gone back, touched base, found our firm foundations, we flip the hourglass and travel forward. Summer is also the season of the college visit — and on the way to Mr. Woodman's idyll, my daughter and I did our first, the 16-year-old with the learner's permit driving through winding country roads to arrive at campuses that invite her to imagine herself in new dimensions: the philosophy major, the actress, the astronomer. As I watched her, in wonder and envy at what lay ahead, I remembered that any of us can ask the same questions about what comes next: What do we want to learn? Who shall we be when we grow up? Because it's summer now, and it's never too late to change majors.

    This article originally appeared in the July 11, 2011 issue of TIME.