The sun was shining, the birds were singing and there was a distant sound of children playing. A gentle breeze rustles the leaves of the trees that tower above me, offering shade from the afternoon sun. Summer was in full flow in New York’s beautiful Catskill Mountains.
It was definitely a shorts and t-shirt day.
After six days of driving and sightseeing along America’s famous Route 66, the end of this mammoth road trip was in sight. My Australian mate Ian and I had driven more than 2,500 miles through 12 states, mostly until the early hours every night, stopping off and seeing some of the most magnificent scenery that the USA has to offer.
But there was one place we both had to visit, a place close to both of our hearts. Without this place, Ian and I would never have met, and indeed, much of my life, my circle of friends, and this particular trip, would have been shaped very differently.
This place is Camp Nashopa, a children’s summer camp in Upstate New York, two hours west of New York City, and where, back in 2002 at the end of my studies at university, I took a huge leap of faith and applied for something called Camp America.
For anyone unfamiliar with this, it’s a programme that enables young people to head across the Atlantic Ocean and work as staff members and counselors looking after and running activities for children at summer camps across America. It was something I had heard good things about during my studies, but with a long-term girlfriend at the time, it was a huge decision to make with the prospect of spending three months overseas.
But there was also a craving for travel and adventure bubbling away inside me. After all, my degree was complete, and a lifetime of work beckoned. With many of my friends making use of long summer and Christmas breaks to travel, while I worked at getting my foot in the door at the Grimsby Telegraph, there was a part of me that felt like I had missed out on some of the other opportunities that university can offer.
“It’s always best in life to regret the things you do, rather than the things you don’t do,” said Jack, one of my closest mates, and at the time, my housemate during the final year of my journalism degree in Southampton. They were words that rang true, words that made my mind up, and words that I continue to try and live by.
And so I headed off to a Camp America recruitment fair at Earls Court in London, armed with a CV and half expecting to walk away without any placement but with the thought that ‘at least I tried’.
“Do you know how to fix a lawnmower?” asked a silver-haired chap at one of the stands shortly after I made it into the large exhibition hall.
Thinking about dads electric mower at home, where the worst thing that can happen is the blade might catch a protruding rock and need adjusting, I said yes.
“Excellent, you can be our go-carts specialist,” came the reply.
And that was that. A couple of months later, I found myself on a jumbo jet and heading to New York for my first ever glimpse of the Big Apple, a whole load of new friends, and a summertime of fun and memories. The fact I had no idea how to maintain or repair a petrol driven go-cart played on my mind a little, but thankfully there would be a few others who knew what to do when it comes to stripping down an engine or two.
Arriving early in June, it was my job initially just to teach the hundreds of kids how to control the steel-framed go carts and quad bikes, living, eating and breathing in the same space as up to 15 youngsters from 7am until 1am, six days a week. It was hard work, but a fantastic experience. Every morning there would be the sound of reveille, a bugle call that would echo around the camp, followed by a familiar call from Jerry, the boys head counselor.
“Counselors, get your kids up. Kids, get your counselors up. The sun is out, it’s a shorts and t-shirt day.”
It was a phrase that would live on, alongside the all-encompassing “only at Nashopa” catchphrase that would sum up some of the extraordinary events that would take place in the name of entertaining kids from across the New York area. They are phrases that, at many camp reunions since, get wheeled out amid memories and reminiscence about the summer of 2002.
It was during a welcome meeting in the very first days of my time at camp that we were told “the Nashopa family will live with you” and that we would make friends for life, the bonds lasting forever. I admit that at first, I was among the many who thought it was a bit of the usual American cheesy, over-the-top but friendly welcome, being swept along with the initial happy-clappy feel of the place. But it was true, and 10 years on, that summer is still talked about regularly, people travel across countries, and even continents, to visit friends and keep up friendships that were built during June, July and August of that year.
As well as being a life experience, my time at Camp Nashopa allowed me to travel in the States and introduced me to scores of new people, many of whom became close friends who I am still very much in touch with. Among them are Nat and Katrina, whom I stayed with in Australia, and of course Ian, who was a counselor in the adjoining bunk to me. Back in 2002, Ian was among the friends who I had planned to travel across America with. But back home, towards the end of my stay in the States, my girlfriend at the time sent me an email informing me that she had met someone else. It prompted an early return home to try to save things, which ultimately were unsuccessful, and had the unfortunate downside of missing out on much of the travels and sightseeing I had planned.
For that reason, it felt like I was laying a ghost to rest by making this epic coast to coast journey across the States with Ian. It might have been 10 years on, and we’ve both aged and matured a little bit, but we were finally making the trip that we had both imagined and talked about during those days of teaching kids how to press stop and go on a go-cart. We might live on opposite sides of the world now, and we might only see each other every few years, but that ‘Nashopa bond’ has stayed with us, and so it was important that our route to the Atlantic Ocean passed by the town of Bloomingburg, enabling us to visit the place where our friendship began. A place that helped shape so many of our friends futures, and helped inspire so many of our future travels.
Driving along the Interstate 84, we turned off at the town of Middletown, a place so familiar to us both with the Galleria Mall and Walmart being places where we spent so much spare time during camp buying supplies, relaxing and using the internet café to stay in touch with family and friends back home. We turned onto Highway 17 north, arriving at the Bloomingburg turn off a few minutes later. It was lunchtime, and we were both hungry. There was only one place we could stop. The Quickway Diner.
Quickway was famed among camp counselors, mainly because of its ability to supply artery-clogging – but tasty – food and drinks. When we’d tired of eggplant parmagiana for tea by the second week, we were in need of supplies to tantalise our tastebuds. And so Tanos pizza place – which, unbeknown to us at the time, was run by someone who would go on to get shot by the police during a bank robbery – supplied pizza, while Quickway supplied cheese, fries and gravy.
Now, when I have told friends back home of the delights of how chips, cheese and gravy go so well together, the usual reaction is to have a nose turned up and the outrageous idea of mixing the three foods together thrown out in disgust. Trust me, particularly at Quickway, it is a taste sensation!
And so we rolled into the car park of Quickway ready for lunch, and it immediately felt oh so familiar. The signage was the same, the general layout of the gas station and diner was the same, but Quickway has also had a bit of a makeover. It now looked much smarter from the outside, but thankfully retained its typical American diner interior. Infact, it was exactly how it was 10 years ago, reassuringly familiar, and thankfully, the famous cheese fries and gravy were still on the menu. And, they tasted just how we remembered.
Quickway was also the place where I first discovered Buffalo chicken, a spicy, tangy, bright orange coating that makes your lips zing. It was only right that I had the Buffalo chicken burger, a favourite of mine when I called these parts of the US home for the summer. Again, a tasty reminder of good times past.
We said farewell to Quickway and headed off to the town, swinging by the Last Chance Saloon, a pub where Ian and I spent so many nights in 2002, including the night of my 21st birthday. Drinking illegally for the first few weeks of my Camp America experience, thanks to the raised drinking age in the States, it was the place where I had the second ‘first legal drink’ of my life. It was closely followed by a second, a third, and many more, resulting in me having to ‘sign in’ at the main camp office at 1am with the help of three people holding me up, and collapsing on the soccer pitch.
Its not called the Last Chance anymore, but still has a familiar look about it, and we continued on the short distance to Camp Nashopa, pulling up outside the old Alderbrook girls bunk and parking up close to where the laundry once was. Straight away, 10 years melted away, a familiar place with so many fond memories that felt so normal to just park up by and wander to the main gate. Except, it’s no longer a regular summer camp. It was closed down a few years ago, and from what I understand is now used as a smaller Jewish camp. After a few photos by the main gate, Ian and I continued round to the main area where we have both spent a lot of time in the past – the go-cart track.
Ian was a go-cart specialist counselor the year before me, so he too was keen to have a look around. It was only a short walk along the quiet rural road before a gap in the trees opens out onto the track. Its not used for go-carts anymore, and the surface is breaking up in parts, but the tyre walls that Ian once built were still in place. It was a surreal feeling to step onto the tarmac again after so long, but yet it only felt like yesterday that we were both last here. We could almost hear the sounds of the engines as the excited children would race around, us keeping an eye on them and ready to run the moment one of them would stick their front end into the tyres (it happened quite a lot!)
We walked over to the main shed, where once I would spend hours at a time sat outside, watching over the track and talking to Nat, my go-cart companion who had equally as little knowledge about running the activity. Nevertheless, we ran it well, thanks to Mark and Igor who knew about the mechanical side of things, choosing to leave the educational side to ‘Go-Cart Phil’ and ‘Go-Cart Nat’ as we were nicknamed over the camp tannoy.
Perhaps the most moving part of the day was walking into the shed, that had been left open. The go-carts had been replaced by canoes, no doubt being used on the nearby lake, but there was a lasting reminder of those of us who once worked on the track.
On the wooden walls of the shed, it was customary, as it was in bunks and rooms around the camp, to leave a dated signature behind, a potted history of all who had been before. And there they were, on the back wall – the spray painted signatures that Mark, Igor, Nat and I had left behind on our final day at the track.
Still as clear as day, as if they had just been written, lasting the test of time and telling all who had been in the shed since about the special group of people who had once spent the summer manning the activity.
I had even written a tribute to my football club, Grimsby Town, who back in 2002 were in a much better place than their non-league position these days. It brought back memories of how fellow counselor and good mate Steve Rose would tell me all about how Yeovil would rise from non-league obscurity and be playing the mighty Mariners one day. How little did I imagine that they would eventually rise through the leagues, occupying a league spot divisions above my beloved team 10 years later. And above, someone had declared me ‘sunbather of the year’ a title that I probably deserved thanks to the amount of time I skived away under the suns rays working on the tan.
As I looked around the shed, there were remnants left behind from the go-cart days, including the old sign board we used to have next to us with the rules for kids to follow.
Even Ian’s old message from the year before my stay at Nashopa was still visible, something I remember reading back in 2002 – mainly because of the mangled steering wheel that was placed above it as a reminder of what can happen when things go badly wrong (it was one of the counselors who crashed!)
Stepping outside, I took a seat on one of the benches that I once asked children to sit on while waiting for their turn. I looked out on the track from the position I used to sit and watch from, picturing the go-carts and the excited faces that used to come hurtling around the final bend and down the straight before me. A time before I knew what I would be doing with my life, before any job offers at newspapers and the BBC, and before I knew for sure what direction any career would go once I was back home. At that point, I didn’t even know if I would be staying in the Southampton area where I studied, or returning back to my parents in Grimsby. Little did I know how exciting the 10 years between visits would prove to be.
Before long, a group of children appeared, walking down the hill opposite, and looked slightly concerned at the presence of Ian and I. We both decided not to outstay our welcome, or get into any trouble, so walked back out to the road and made our way towards the car. But before heading back to the Interstate, we decided to walk ‘up the hill’ to the main camp to see if anyone was around, just to see if there was a chance of having one last walk around Nashopa.
We couldn’t get far, thanks to a barrier being across the road, but we got up far enough to see the dining hall and kitchen area, as well as the main front office. We were hoping to see someone to let them know who we were, but there was nobody around, besides a few children playing. But we had seen what we wanted to see, and I think quietly we’d said the quiet ‘thankyou’ that we both wanted to say for the opportunities that this great little camp had opened up for us in the years to come.
It was a strangely emotional visit, a time to reflect on those good times in the past – our days in the sun, of barbecue cook-outs, carnival weekend, Tribal and Colour Wars, of drunken nights at the Last Chance and of nights being sat on a wooden porch until 2am waiting for the kids in your charge to go to sleep. They were days of sport, singing, dancing and laughter that not only enriched the lives of the children we were looking after, but of the young adults from around the world who travelled thousands of miles to help run the camp.
With the wonders of social media these days, those 12 year old kids who Ian and I looked after have now grown into 21 and 22 year old adults that we ourselves were back then. Many have dropped us notes over the years to say how they’d always remembered the time we all spent together in this small corner of New York. And now we’d been back to keep our own memories alive, to keep our affinity with the camp burning, and to see it all for one last time.
Except, there’s something inside Ian and I that knows there will probably be another similar visit in years to come. There is something about it that pulls you back, to take you back to those fond memories and happy times. To remember the part we all played in so many people’s lives. And I guess that’s something you only find at Nashopa.