When I was fourteen and a camper on the Junior Leader trip, my friends and I used to beg our counselors to stop at any playground we passed. We would shout and shriek with joy when we were given time to swing on swings and slide down slides. We’d take pictures of ourselves on monkey bars and smile through slats in neon tubes that were far too small to fit our teenage bodies.
I don’t know what it was about playing on a playground with my favorite people in the world that made it so much more enticing than it would have ever been for kids our age out in the real world. We were in high school. Never in our home lives would we have seen a playground and begged to spend some time there.
This love for playgrounds, however, is not specific to my own Thunderbird group of friends.
I recently returned from leading a bike trip with a group of twelve and thirteen year old girls. Along the trail were many playgrounds, playgrounds at which the campers never seemed to get bored of playing. I was so content watching these near eighth graders giggle under jungle gyms as they played hide and seek and pump their legs as hard as they could to swing high into the sky.
This is not the first time I have led this trip, and every time I do, the kids get equally excited about how many playgrounds there are. It makes me so happy to see them just being kids, to throw up their arms and not care about acting cool or seeming old. I think Thunderbird campers love playgrounds because when we are here together with all of our friends, at this place that teaches us to be ourselves and act silly and stop caring what other people think, we realize what is truly important. We realize how silly it is to ever be in a rush to grow up.
The thing is though, these kids may have played on playgrounds, but they also cooked me dinner every night. With very little help and almost no reminders from my co-leader or me, they set up camp and took it down each day. They biked up hills that even I struggled on, and instead of complaining they belted Fall Out Boy and Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift. They cheered on their friends and pushed through some challenges that I truly believe many adults would have given up on. They may have played on playgrounds, but in all the right ways they acted far beyond their years.
I have written before that Thunderbird teaches you that being responsible and mature doesn’t mean you can’t also be youthful and wild and free. I don’t think I ever more clearly witness this perfect balance than when leading Camp Thunderbird trips.
When you’re out in the wilderness, there are certain things you simply have to conquer, all of which help you grow up. You have to get to the top of that climb if your campsite is on the other side. You have to learn to light a stove and set up tents and filter water and how to protect yourself from storms and heat and self-doubt.
Tripping gave me confidence in all these things, and for years I have watched it give my campers the same. I have watched it transform them from nervous kids who don’t know if they can make it through a trip into confident young adults who love tripping and believe that they can do anything they set their minds to.
I have also watched tripping teach both my campers and me how wonderful the simple and childish things can be. I have watched it remind us that we do not need an app or a pair of headphones or even the structure of in-camp activities to find joy. Tripping encourages us to look at a pile of rocks and see the giant turtle we can build from it, to transform our long underwear and hiking socks into “fancy” outfits for a dinner party. Tripping shows us that, no matter how old we get, sometimes, all we really need is a good set of monkey bars.
Molly “Pixel” Sprayregen