S’mores And Smiles: My Weekend At A Digital Detox Summer Camp For Adults

This summer I turned in my electronics and spent a weekend in Northern California digital detoxing and playing games. It was absurd.

Image courtesy of Dan N. Johnson and Camp Grounded

I never liked summer camp as a kid.

I spent eight weeks at an all-girls sleepaway camp when I was younger, and all I remember is feeling totally overwhelmed by my emotions and fears. At age 24, I decided it was time to replace those anxious memories.

So I went back.

Nestled among the redwoods of Northern California, Camp Grounded is marketed as both a digital detox and as a weekend-long “summer camp for adults,” but that doesn’t entirely sum up what it is. The food is all vegan- and vegetarian-friendly, the activities are optional, and you get to decide your own bedtime. The weekend is whatever you want it to be. You’re asked not to use your real name or mention your age. You’re forbidden from talking about “the w-word”: work.

This isn’t a place for networking. This is a place for pure, unadulterated fun.

Image courtesy of Dan N. Johnson and Camp Grounded

The hardest part of the three-hour ride from San Francisco out to the redwoods is the anxiety that seems to be sitting directly over my stomach. Campers around me rehearse a song to sing when we get into camp, and I worry that I’ve made a horrible mistake. I don’t know any of these people. Who will I hang out with? What if no one likes me? Am I too cynical to truly allow myself to buy into the whole “hippie” ethos?

Hours later, I’m sitting around a fire pit next to my bunk. The camp has taken my phone from me, and my company, usually a sea of computer monitors at my office, has been replaced with a cozy circle of 12 women. I wonder what these women, some older than my mother and some younger than me, will be like; I wonder who will be the loud one, who will become overly eager about all the group activities, and who will be the quiet rebel. I have a feeling the last will be me, as it usually is.

Our introduction games end in laughter, and everyone opens up like we’ve known each other for weeks. When we discuss our intentions for the weekend, many of the women mention wanting to recover from the constant time crunch of their lives. Some say they feel like they’ve lost track of who they are because their jobs are so overwhelming. A few feel as though they don’t have any space to truly be themselves. Right then, I realize how much these people need this weekend. I decide immediately that I want to honor their space to feel what they want and need. Even if I don’t end up feeling anything at all.

“This is going to be one of the best weekends of your life,” Fidget, the “camp director,” tells us. My eyes roll to the back of my head. Part of what makes camp so fun when you’re a kid is that you’re unaware of how great things are. You don’t experience things with a lens of nostalgia. But as an adult, you become so aware of living in your own memory; and I find myself frustrated with the idea that they would possibly be manufacturing memories for me. Can you create that type of intimacy in such a short time?

Well, Camp Grounded sure as hell tried.

Hunnybear, the leader of camp morale, starts us off with the most intense game of rock-paper-scissors I’ve ever seen. Everyone plays with one person, then each loser becomes the cheerleader as their opponent goes head-to-head with someone else. Whoever wins that round wins the followers and the ability to continue to play. It’s amazing how quickly people get into it. Screams fill the air and everyone chants as the camp splits in two, everyone backing their opponent. This is clearly a group that is going to go all in this weekend. Their energy seeps into my veins.

The whole weekend is filled with these types of seesaw moments. One minute I’m all in, drunk with energy and excited about what is going on around me. Other times I feel like I just don’t get it, and I want to pull away from what’s happening. Saturday morning is one of those times: I spend the day lying in a hammock by myself and watch people participate in classes and do yoga on the lawn.

Image courtesy of Dan N. Johnson and Camp Grounded

There are no clocks at Camp Grounded (which is why I can’t tell you how long I spent staring at the tops of trees). Kids are less concerned about how much time they spend playing soccer. Only as an adult do you find yourself obsessing over time, which is exactly why we weren’t allowed to know what time it was. We were urged to keep doing things that felt good.

I went to bed when I felt like it, not when I thought I should, and I woke up happily to the squeal of the bugle in the mornings. A counselor told me she found that on the days she didn’t know what time she was waking up, she was less tired than when she knew what time it was. It makes sense. If you know you’re waking up at 7 a.m. and you didn’t go to bed until 3 a.m., you’re aware of how tired you are. I was not.

Saturday night is when camp starts to lose me a little bit. I was told ahead of time that we would be having an “all-white dinner,” but what they didn’t tell us was that it would be silent. As I walk down to dinner, people are meditating. A few others are pacing back and forth; some are lying on the ground or sitting on redwood stumps. I hear muffled crying from all different spaces in the camp. It’s clear that many are deeply affected by just how jarring silence can be.

I, on the other hand, can’t wait to talk so I can see if I’m the only one not getting this. I open the envelope that I’m given by my counselor before I head to the field for dinner. “Write down something that is ‘no longer serving’ you,” it says, and then you’ll all throw the fear into a raging bonfire. As I watch people take deep breaths and throw those pieces of paper into the fire with such force, I wonder why I can’t attach to this. Yes, I could write down my ex’s name and throw it into the fire, but when I get my cell phone back on Monday, his name will still be there in my contacts. But many around me say that they felt better once they’d literally tossed that fear.

I take a seat on a large log in the back of the outdoor amphitheater. The talent show is about to begin — everyone is encouraged to participate in the show (I participate by clapping extra loud) — and in true Camp Grounded form, those who are admittedly lacking in their skills are given a bigger applause than those with true talents. It is nice to see people being truly supported, because that metaphorical safety net under each performer makes me realize that we should be champions for one another. Everyone is self-conscious, even those who say that they aren’t. We should keep this in mind when interacting with those around us. We should focus on wanting the best for everyone instead of competing. But maybe it’s just the incense getting to me. It smells like pinewood and happiness.

Image courtesy of Dan N. Johnson and Camp Grounded

The next morning, everyone is going to yoga, and I think, Why not? Now is the time! There is no better place to be! And lots of other positive affirmations that were said to me through out the weekend. Fifteen minutes into it I remember that I hate yoga and leave.

I head toward the typewriter range. The walk is straight uphill and I become aware very quickly that I’m not an outdoor person. When I reach the typewriter range, I’m surprised to see that it’s an actual former gun range that has been outfitted with typewriters. There are no computers at Camp Grounded, so this is the closest we have to a computer lab.

I spend a few minutes reading things people have left in the last few days. Many speak of self-discovery, a few speak of heartbreak. Some are so beautiful that I steal them and fill my pockets with other people’s thoughts. I don’t end up writing anything, but I look out over the meadow in front of me and watch a wild turkey as it clucks its way across the field. Then, out of nowhere, a deer runs, full speed through my line of vision.

I realize I’ve never been someplace so quiet before. Is this the moment of mental clarity that I’ve been waiting to have? My lukewarm feelings about camp have made me feel disconnected.

But right then, watching the long grass sway, I’m totally there. Even if it’s for a short time.

I head back to the main camp ready to go all in. I walk into a game called “evolution rock-paper-scissor-shoot,” which is 110% something that Hunnybear is making up on the spot. Afterward, on a laughter high, we go to pajama brunch. Seventy percent of people are in onesies, and I wonder why so many adults own these completely illogical jumpsuits. I’m instantly angry that I didn’t purchase one. We finish breakfast with a sing-along that involves dancing on tables and a surprisingly on-key rendition of a Backstreet Boys song.

Sunday is color war day. I know it will be like nothing I’ve seen before, and when I’m told it will be the most “peaceful and epic” color war I’ll ever experience, I don’t doubt it for a second. The day is filled with laughter and a lot of very confusing inside jokes that I’m not even sure I understand. It feels like camp but also feels nothing like camp at the same time. Things take a weird turn.

Image courtesy of Dan N. Johnson and Camp Grounded

The last portion of the color war is known as “the absurdity,” and it lives up to its name. It’s amazing how quickly it escalates. Two contestants are asked to put as much colored flour as they can into their mouth and then “poof” it at their opponent. Whoever is most colorful (as judged by a random counselor) wins. A girl’s glasses become so covered in color that she can’t see and ends up hitting her nose on the ground while looking for the bowl. She bleeds her way to the infirmary. All is fair in love and color war, man.

The next event is followed by something that l’ve come to call “the big regret.” The judges ask four people to volunteer to compete in a haircut event. Brave souls sit with forced smiles as a random human cuts their hair. It’s horrible and all I can think about is what they’ll look like when they walk into their offices on Monday. But I don’t have a lot of time to worry because what is next is so insane that I can’t even remember what we did prior to it.

The judges ask for four volunteers who will allow the hair that has just been cut off of some guy’s head to be glued to their bodies. Shockingly, four people make their way to their chairs. They take off their shirts, and the event ends in a fit of laughter and mild disgust.

The final event is a two-person relay. The first person sticks his or her face into a plate of whipped cream to find five pieces of gum to spit into a bowl. The next person takes that gum and turns it into a bubble. I gag.

Image courtesy of Dan N. Johnson and Camp Grounded

At the end of it all, no one wins. Well, not really. Blue actually wins. But every team ends up donating its points to the losing team, which in turn donates its points to charity. It wasn’t about winning. Nothing at camp was about winning. Not as a kid and not now. It was about playing, and it made me realize how little I play in my daily life.

I spend most of my time with my friends catching up about life and using them for emotional support, but I rarely have time to play with them the way I did at camp. As I’ve gotten older, the amount of inside jokes has diminished, and getting drunk takes the place of being weird.

Not at camp. At camp, people danced, ate dinner in large circles with strangers, and did cartwheels. At camp, people were truly themselves, and it was magical.

I don’t know if this would have happened if we had had access to our phones. I doubt it. Not having my phone was the thing I was most nervous about heading into camp. I often use my phone as a crutch. When I’m in an awkward social situation, I immediately pull out my phone as a crutch, spending the time reading an email or writing a text message. I thought it would be terrifying to be without it, but it wasn’t. It was a nice change of pace. I found myself listening better, laughing more, and living without voices in my head.

There are a lot of reasons Camp Grounded is a wholly different experience from camp as a kid. It’s four days long; your mom didn’t make you go; we’re all adults with jobs, many with kids; and a lot of us were there with broken hearts and spirits. But what Camp Grounded was was a safe haven. A place of joy and pain and exploring and loving and laughing and a lot of crying. It made you feel lighter and reminded you why sometimes you need to just give yourself time to breathe.

At the last circle a counselor named Golden Bird asks us to clap once. She asks us to look at our hands and become aware of which hand is dominant. She then asks us to clap again. She tells us to look and see if it was different. It was.

“This is what it feels like to make a new choice,” she says. “It feels awkward, and unnatural, but eventually it will feel like everything else. So try it. Once a day, twice a day.” I cry.

Two hours later, on the bus back to San Francisco, I turn on my phone for the first time. I have over 400 emails, which is less than I’d expected. I don’t read any of them. Instead I put it away, wrap myself in my Camp Grounded sweatshirt, and watch the redwoods as they zoom past until I fall asleep.

Image courtesy of Dan N. Johnson and Camp Grounded

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