camp: past and present

First, let me start by saying Happy New Year! I think we can all agree that 2020 was challenging and we all look forward to a fresh start. I hope everyone enjoyed a nice and relaxing holiday. Like many people I tend to get a little nostalgic this time of year, but this season it started about a week earlier that usual as we took our youngest up the mountain to Mentone for the last time.

All of our girls have attended Camp Skyline Ranch. Camp Skyline has three teams (Rangers, Mounties and Troopers). The team a camper will be on is picked the first night of their first summer at camp. Picture the sorting ceremony in Harry Potter except instead of a hat doing the choosing, a girl picks a colored bead from a special hat. Each bead is one of three colors. The color of the bead chosen corresponds with the color of the team she will be bound to for life. Once a team is chosen there are clothes and swag unique to each team. But if you have an older sister already on a team you can forgo the sorting ceremony (bead ceremony) and elect to join your sister’s team. But not our girls. We have a girl on each team, which, I am told, may be historic. What can I say? That’s how we roll. All individuals.

Our final trip up the mountain marked the end of an 18-year relationship with Camp Skyline. As the aforementioned sorting ceremony suggests, our girls, and us by extension, have enjoyed an experience steeped in tradition and bonding that transcends the two weeks spent at camp. Time spent at camp has been the highlight of many summers. I am remembering all of this as we are going up and up.

I believe I have enjoyed the annual tradition of drop off as much as the girls have enjoyed their two weeks of camp. The best part? The homemade doughnuts. I get a little misty even now thinking that I will never enjoy one again. But enough about me. The camp is beautifully nestled in the foothills of Appalachia. Campers enjoy swimming, canoeing, archery, riflery, biking, arts and crafts along with horseback riding and a ropes course. Movies, skits, campfires and even a dance with the boys from a neighboring camp all go towards making up this idyllic, almost antiquated experience of summer camp, one that seems to be fading away under waves of technology and the unrelenting schedules that define current culture. All that being said I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the fact that 16 is the perfect year to age out. Although it is safe to say that our girls will never forget their time at camp and have made some good friends along the way, it is equally safe to say that they were and are ready to move on.

I now realize that what I am being truly nostalgic about this year is not only our camp time ending but my memory of our children truly being young and excited about the things young people truly get excited about. The night before going to camp, at times, rivaled Christmas eve itself. But I digress.

Thanks to Covid-19 our youngest missed her age-out summer with all the pomp and circumstance that implies, but the Camp Skyline staff valiantly put together a long winter weekend so that speeches could be given, banquets enjoyed, and rings bestowed (another beloved tradition at camp). This was why we were taking our final trip up the mountain, not in June as usual, but the week before Christmas adding yet another emotional, albeit mostly happy, wrinkle to the end of a disorienting year.

Yet this drop off was different. No doughnuts (did I mentions how much I will miss them), no setting up the room or meeting the fellow campers sharing a bunk. Parents were encouraged, very strongly, not to even get out of their cars. Temperatures were taken and masks donned as campers were guided into Riverside not to be seen again. Riverside is an old hotel that has been converted into a castle from which the oldest girls reign over camp. Naturally it comes with its own ghost. Normally the very sight of this storied lodge would spark excitement, but this year the mood felt melancholy. In years past we would make a trip to the tee shirt corral for a new tee shirt or camp chair, we would put money in their accounts so they could buy snacks at Belly Deli, we would mull around to make sure that the physicals went ok, and just wander the grounds enjoying the space a few minutes more before getting back in the car for the long trip home. But not this year. This year’s drop off was just another in a long line of surreal reminders of the new “normal” we all now live. As we left the mountain for probably the last time, I saw the site of the old Mentone Springs Hotel and was reminded of a post I had previously written about this place and our time here. I have included it below.

“Although my grandfather constantly warned against it, I tend to get sentimentally attached to places. I was reminded of this fact when I heard that the Mentone Springs Hotel burned to the ground Saturday—the story received national coverage. I was deeply saddened by the news. It wasn’t because it was one of the oldest hotels in Alabama (built in 1884), nor was it the fact that it made the National Historic Register, nor was it because the Mentone Springs Hotel was listed in the New York Times best seller 1000 Places To Visit Before You Die. It was because for many years, including this coming summer, we have gone to Mentone carrying girls to camp. We have fallen in love with Dekalb County, starting in Valley Head (where Sequoyah taught the Cherokee Alphabet to members of native American tribes that had travel from far and near) then working our way upwards toward Mentone. The Mentone Springs Hotel always proved to be a warm and familiar greeter for this charming mountain town. Ironically, we have stayed in several B-and-Bs in the area but still had the Mentone Springs Hotel on our own “1000 places to visit before you die” list. Sadly, we will never have the opportunity. I was very grateful to find that the yhtc had an archived picture of at least a part of this storied landmark. So, to the citizens of Mentone, please accept our deepest condolences on your loss of a great hotel and a good friend.”

In some ways this year has provided the perfect backdrop for saying goodbye to camp. This year more than most, we have spent time reminiscing about the past while being extremely hopeful about the future. Although we will miss this chapter in our lives, we are excited about the adventures that lay ahead for our children and ourselves. We look forward to the new year knowing it will be less predictable than those that came before it. We will survive and hopefully thrive in the 2021. Stay strong Alabama!

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