I get jealous when I hear about people’s study abroad programs. I always wish I’d gone to Paris, Melbourne, or Tokyo. My school schedule didn’t allow for any overseas travel since I double-majored in Biology and English and was intent on graduating in four years. My schedule was packed from the day I moved into the dorms–including summers in school–until the day I handed in my last final paper analyzing Virginia Woolf’s use of insect imagery in her novel The Waves. More than ten years later, I forget that I hadn’t really missed out on that experience. I spent a full summer surrounded by unexplored terrain in Northern California.
My dad dropped me off at Mulford at the start of the summer. It was the designated meeting spot for half of us camp kids. The other half had driven up in their own cars. There was no limit as to what we could bring. “We know you’re there for a whole summer, so feel free to bring whatever you need.” I had a pillow, sleeping bag, blanket, backpack, radio, my dad’s human-sized Navy tote bag full of my toiletries, canteen, hard hat, tank tops, sweaters, jeans, jackets, sneakers, hiking shoes, flip flops. I brought my butterfly net and killing jar. Two Teachers’ Assistants (Sadie and Ren) were seniors who had spent the previous summer doing what we were doing. Apparently they were smart enough to return and help teach. They each drove a big white van full of underage drinkers and their gear five hours away to our campground in Plumas County, Stanislaus National Forest.
Most of us didn’t know each other. I sat meekly, drifting between a nap and staring out the window. When we pulled up to camp, the camp director and his golden retriever greeted each of us. The campground consisted of a large kitchen and dining area, a few offices, a classroom, a restroom, large centralized one-story cabins, and a smattering of single-person tents around the perimeter. I peeked into one of the open tents and was certain I’d freeze to death in the middle of the night. A sweet girl named Yoko Chavez who was half Japanese, half Mexican asked if I’d room with her. She seemed nice enough. So we started putting away our things in our new home.
Once we were all settled, the camp director gathered us together to give us the background: meal times, recycling, chores, shower schedule, the importance of putting out camp fires. There was a phone booth at the very center of the campground. That’s where family and friends could call. Whoever answered the phone had to go get you or take a message. The camp director was a Cal grad who’d taken the camp class many moons ago. He came back after graduation and never left. “You kids enjoy your night. Classes start tomorrow at 8am.”
The hardest thing wasn’t waking up at 7am every weekday during the summer. The hardest thing was getting up out of your sleeping bag, madly shivering, then braving the bitter cold to take a hot shower in a building not more than 30 feet away. It was torture. But after torture, there was temporary bliss, warming up in the dining room, eating delicious meals cooked with love by our very own camp chef, packing our lunches, then class. Throughout the summer, we had a total of five sequential classes: Ecology, Silviculture, Forest Measurements, Timber Resource Utilization, and Forest Resource Management. Classroom time was limited. It was usually no more than a few days of lecture, then ample field work. I’ve completely lost all of my forestry knowledge. It’s been pushed out by Accounting, Balance Sheets, Income Statements.
I did keep my Forestry binder with my written exams and the classroom picture–a polaroid composite of every person in my class. I have such fond memories of that summer, I didn’t want to throw all my learning away. What happened to my roommate Yoko? Every so often, I try to Facebook her. She has such an interesting, unique name. The person who pops up doesn’t look like her at all. I wonder what’s happened to everyone. What happened to me?
I became an adult that summer–a legally-drinking college student. My friends told the chef it was my birthday so she baked a very large carrot cake–my favorite. With grapes, she made the numbers 21 on top of the cream cheese frosting and the whole camp sang me happy birthday. The closest bar was the Ten-Two which we could walk to in 20 minutes. I exhibited signs of bad direction even back then when I always walked in the wrong direction and everyone hollered, “No, this way!” My friends were excited to get me liquored up on my special night. “She’ll have a Long Island Iced Tea.”
The bartender–a woman in her fifties–soured. “I need to see your ID.”
I smiled and handed it to her. “I’m legal!”
She made a worried face. “I refuse to serve this small girl unless you all assure me she’ll get home ok.”
“It’s ok. We’re all friends and we’re just up there at Forestry Camp. We got her. It’s her 21st birthday. Please serve her the drink.”
I pitched in, “It’s ok. I’ll be fine. I promise.” Then I laughed, knowing it wasn’t my first Long Island.