Photos by J.R. Switchgrass of Idle Theory Bus
I’m Hannah and I’m the only 17 year-old I know who has mastered the art of peeing in the woods without getting it on my shoes.
You see, I’ve had practice. Lots of it.
During my boarding school’s three-month summer break, most of my friends attend prestigious summer camps. Some immerse themselves in foreign cultures by studying abroad. Others head to the Northeastern states to attend Ivies for college credit. In all cases, they have a bed, a shower, a toilet, a closet, and the world at their fingertips.
Not I. I attend “Summer Camp is Where You Park It.” This extended camping experience is the hashtag under my summertime Instagram pictures as well as the official title of my summer life.
Each summer, I dye my hair bright pink, fly into a city and hop aboard Sunshine, a ’76 Volkswagen bus. I live with my older sister Kit (she’s 28), her boyfriend J.R., and my 15-year-old brother, on the road and away from everything I know as normal.
We hike. We build fires. Watch elk. Absorb the beauty around us.
“Practice the art of being idle,” my sister likes to say. It’s all very back to the land. “That’s the whole point,” my sister likes to say.
This wonderful summer-long offer includes a tent, a sleeping bag, and, on good nights, a ground pad with no holes. It comes with the world as your toilet, lots of rainy mornings, and last but not least, bugs. But wait! If you call now, you’ll also receive one shower a week (if you’re lucky), one warm meal a day, and maybe a glimmer of Internet access every now and then.
You heard right, people. No showers, no toilets, no Internet. What a time to be alive.
One day on some back road in Utah it all paid off. We were probably an hour’s drive down the old dirt road. “Just don’t tell Mom,” my sister told me as I climbed into the driver’s seat. I stared through the dashboard of the bus and put my foot to the gas. I was 14. Not yet legal to drive. My hands were soaked with sweat. My strawberry-electric hair flew in and out of the window as I hit 45 mph. The mountains of coral sandstone that kicked my ass only hours before shrank every mile we drove.
Earlier that day, we’d hiked Angel’s Landing, a route that switchbacks in a thousand foot climb. One thing I’ve learned at Summer Camp is that switchbacks are an invention of Satan himself. The “trail” consisted of a chain along a narrow ridge. I freaked out up there, a thousand feet above the valley floor. In the last decade, six people have fallen to their deaths taking the very steps I was taking. I looked up at my sister. She was scaling the rocks, oblivious to what could happen if she took one wrong step. Two times that day I thought I’d have a heart attack. “See? You get it! That’s what it means to be alive!” Kit told me excitedly. Yes. Life and death. So very close to each other.
People often ask, “How can you possibly relieve yourself without a toilet?” or “How do you not smell after a week without a shower?” Or “How do you stay connected without Internet???”
It’s quite simple, actually.
A. I go into the woods, pull down my pants, and pee. It sounds barbaric, I know, but it’s actually not that bad.
B. I do smell. Quite bad, actually. Within the insulated world of summer camp, you realize that everyone else smells just as bad. It creates a sort of camaraderie. That is, until it becomes unbearable. Then we pay for showers at the truck stop.
C. I don’t stay connected; which is almost unheard of in my world. I mean, I’ve had a phone since I was eleven. Besides the occasional cry for content, I float in and out of service, check email, texts, Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, when we pass through a town or stop at a Laundromat. Contrary to popular belief, unplugging can be nice. My sister says it’s a luxury to disconnect. I say that’s a stretch.
Now listen, I’m not saying I always love it, but I get used to it. I’d prefer a bathroom, nightly showers, and a constant Internet connect, but for a fixed amount of time, it’s manageable. I can avoid peeing on myself, I can deal with the smell, and I can resort to old-fashioned methods of entertainment, like books. Yes, my generation can in fact still relish a good book.
While I’m at summer camp, I forget I’m missing out on the “luxuries.” It’s kind of hard to remember you’re wearing the same clothes you’ve worn for the past week when you’re making your way through the mountain trails of Yellowstone. Seriously. I wouldn’t lie to you. There are some major perks to this “back to our roots” kind of living. Would I do it fulltime, like my sister? No way. But I can appreciate the lessons it provides. Especially when I’m appreciating those lessons while eating hot pizza with a side of Netflix in my air-conditioned dorm.
When I return back to my normal boarding school life, I look at my cushy surroundings with a new appreciation. I walk down the hall and overhear freshmen complaining about the state of the bathroom: a little bit of toilet paper on the floor, maybe an unflushed toilet. Showers. Shampoo. Conditioner. If only they got to experience Summer Camp Is Where You Park It, they’d understand what a luxurious life they’re living. I mean, running water!
I remove pink dye from my hair. That’s just a Summer Camp Is Where You Park It thing. It’s my wild and free persona. I dye my hair back when I return back to real life, to erase the judgment that comes with eccentric hair colors. To fully fit back into the “normal” world of term papers and AP exams.
As the brown dye washes down the sink, I realize a new gratitude, one that I have a tough time communicating to my friends. It has something to do with the Milky Way and driving illegally and that proud moment I stood on top of Angel’s Landing. But it also has something to do with streaming music from Spotify and takeout. Sometimes you have to lose your comforts to realize how much you take them for granted. I’ll miss my pink hair, but brown suits me quite well. It feels like home.
Follow along with Hannah, Kit and the crew with #SummerCampisWhereYouParkIt