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On the Ranch

I swear I didn’t throw the archery contest.

Don’t get me wrong, other happenings of the week as a camp counselor at the Roundup River Ranch would make clear that I reveled in performance opportunities.  But in the contest of counselors versus campers in archery, where having to don costumes and sing “I’m a Little Tea Pot” for the whole camp was at stake, I gave it my all with not a trace of mercy for the potentially stage-averse little ones.  I can prove it because I hit the target every time, making the maximum points on my turns.  It was thus my follow counselors who missed enough to have us down by 6 at the end of the match.

Whether or not they missed on purpose I never got really clear, but whatever their intent we suited up right after lunch that day to give a stirring a cappella exposé on how a tea pot works for the 90 odd folks gathered in the cookhouse.  One fellow dressed like a 20’s flapper complete with wig, another in a rather impressive chicken suit, and me as a banana.

And we rocked it.

At least in spirit, anyway.  I messed up the lyrics once or twice during the 4 lines, had my handle/spout turned opposite the way of my co-stars, and I’m pretty sure our entrances were sloppily uncoordinated.  But still, it had heart.

Backing up a little let me say that camp counselor life agreed with me.  On the second day shortly after the campers had arrived en mass via bus, Tracy said to me “You’re perfectly built for camp.”  I found this a strange statement, and thus asked her to clarify.  (“Darling, I agree that my tall slender frame is quite nice, but I’m not sure how that really translates to an edge in a camp setting.”)  She explained: “You love to sing, you love to dance, you’ve got drawing abilities, you’re goofy and do all kinds of crazy accents.”


The previous day I painted a rather kickin’ portrait of Bender, the robot from Futurama, to serve a suitable target for archery (consistent with the time-travel theme for the week).  Song and dance would be invoked throughout the week after all meals when a quasi-structured line dance party/sing along was administered.  Goofiness & accents would be doled out at regular intervals in interactions with both campers and staff alike.

What really warms my heart about the dancing is the unintended consequence of my zeal.  We counselors in general have the task of setting the tone for the campers: at dance time that looks like being all out silly & involved to encourage them to do the same.  I was assigned to the cabin with the oldest boys (our gang of six consisted of ages 11 through 14), and as you might imagine for the age group they started the week out with all six just sitting at our table during cookhouse dance time.  By the end there were always at least three, sometimes all six of them busting a groove.

Our youngest camper explained it to me with all the candor and frankness that 11-year-olds are blessed with: “You dance really crazy and weird, but it’s kinda cool so it’s okay.”  That was the turning point by which I think I made dance look fun (cool?) enough to join in, and I was goaded on to lead dance-time operations for my camper crew regularly from then on.  This culminated with their earnest request to make our Stage Night1 sketch be a bit where I would dance and they would follow as one big merry troupe.  We settled on something approximating that, with me way less the focus but still helping the cause2.

Getting the kids in our cabin to warm up to public displays of dance-time silliness was the most surprising accomplishment of the week for me, and I can’t help but notice the probable significance in the fact that I never pushed for it.  I just consistently had a great time of dancing myself and curiosity to follow crept in among my campers of its own accord.  I reckon there’s a lesson in child rearing in there somewhere, methinks I’ll tuck it away and revisit it in a few years whenever personally relevant.

The natural scenery in the valley that is the camp’s setting was spectacular: pristine and delightfully isolated.  Silvery moonlit skies compelled me to sit on the grass and just stare for about an hour one night, a sort of moon meditation where the stillness and beauty of everything had me convinced of the majesty of this world (to say nothing of the myriad stars beyond), the relative and humbling smallness of me (to say nothing of my petty problems or concerns), and the profound privilege of having this world be the playground of my existence for this handful of decades.

A train track running parallel to the length of the camp was but a few hundred feet away, and trains would go by several times a day. It was rather welcome in that it made you feel like you were in a model train scene all nestled in the valley, and if you played your fist-pumping cards right the conductor would totally sound the whistle for you and fellow campers.

On Wednesday we had a serious downpour from clouds right above while the setting 5pm sun brightly illuminated it all.  One of my personal myths is that sunny rain is good luck.  (It may as well be, I figure, since it’s both pretty and rare.  I heard one of the campers had said that in her family they believe that sunny rain means the devil is beating his wife.  Since they’re both made up fictions I’m content to stick with my “good luck” theory.)  This was one of the sunniest and most intense downpours I’d ever seen: the dense droplets looked like a golden flurry of snow falling slowly against the tufted valley hills.  Amid such a gorgeous good luck downpour I could hardly be bothered to do anything stare for a while.  A triple rainbow marked the finale of our quickly passing valley weather.

On the floor in the Arts & Crafts yurt was painted these words: “Don’t just leave a legacy, Be a legacy.”  By about day three this got me thinking: how might I approach being a legendary sort of volunteer counselor, one that sticks out in memory as having been uncommonly good?  This inquiry gave me a game.  I was going to spend exactly 7 days on the ranch either way; win or loose, the aim of leaving as a legendary volunteer gave a delightful aim to my participation.  A personally motivating theme to my presence, if you will.

Relative density of high-fives given, dance mojo exuded, and laughs administered are all hard to measure, and though I held my own in all three categories I don’t think any would have qualified me legendary status anyway.  But there was one thing that might make me fit for counselor canonization.  You see, camp songs in this microcosm of culture are limited in breadth: there were maybe a dozen of them led by counselors for singalongs in repeat-after-me fashion, and reruns were in full swing by the third day3.  My act of doing something memorable, therefore, was to jump into the middle of the singalong circle4 after lunch on Thursday and lead a rousing delivery of the Tooth Decay song from Sifl & Olly, adapted for call-and-response participation with 56 kids.

It was my privately held hope that this song would make it into the regular cadre of camp songs, and I would know my intention was fulfilled were someone on staff to hit me up for the lyrics.  I got laughs during the song and the usual clapping and cheering when it was over, but for hours that day no one but Tracy said anything to me about it, as though I’d perhaps surprised and dismayed the higher powers that be for going off book.  It was only later that night I got word that it was truly liked, and indeed the lyrics were wanted for future camp use.  Legend or not, I was delighted to leave a lasting contribution on camp culture (I was also told it’s super rare for volunteers to jump in and lead a song, so that too was memorable-making).

All told it was a treat to be part of the crew enabling a fab week of camp for kids who would otherwise not be privy to such an experience, and the staff with which we worked were nothing short of fantastic.  Warm fuzzy moments abound, from seeing our cabin campers all gel into a tight group, to enjoying big smiles while unharnessing kids coming down from the zip line, to the uncannily positive energy of everyone cheering each other on during stage night (the place went nuts when one of the more reserved girls rocked out a singing of Katy Perry’s “Firework”, a most fitting song since Stage Night fell on the 4th of July–kinda made up for the fire ban which put the kabosh on any actual fireworks).

At the little root beer float party for the counselors held on the last night, us volunteers were thanked for taking a week off to do this among all things we could be doing with our vacation time.  This was a sweet sentiment for sure, but for me the irony is that this, as vacations go, was WAY more memorable and satisfying than, say, getting drunk on a beach somewhere.  Cheaper, too.  Truly time off well spent, and I wonder if this couldn’t come more into vogue as a vacation-esque option for folks with the right personality strain (i.e. amenable to camp counselor life).

Now we are back in the Denver area, laying low in our charming little AirBNB rental for a few weeks.  Our first order of business upon arrival was Naked Retreat (that’s when you spend 24 hours with your beloved and without clothing, I daresay the perfect remedy after a week of staying in separate cabins).  Now it’s all about getting some work done and tending to final preparations before we leave the country.


  1. Think “Talent Show” but without any presupposition and/or requirement of “talent”.  Verbiage carefully and skillfully chosen to take the edge off.
  2. Our 4 minute sketch went approximately as follows.  One: all but one of the guys would start off break dancing to a Justin Bieber song, intentionally tripping up and falling one by one for maximum hilarity.  Two: I come in from stage left and see the wreck of fallen dancers, pantomiming a certain anguish.  Three: I get a stroke of inspiration for the solution, and motion to the DJ to put on “Peanut Butter Jelly Time”.  Four: I start dancing, and one by one gesture to the kids for them to magically revive and dance beside me to the tune.  To the first one I give a microphone so that he may beat-box rap to the song.  Also, he is wearing a chicken costume.  Five: from offstage runs in the last camper, wearing the banana costume and rocking out with a maraca per the bygone internet meme.  Six: we all dance our way offstage stage right, the Bieberian dance tragedy thoroughly overcome.  We rehearsed it for about 12 minutes, but for the near spot-on execution, hearty reception and big laughs, you’d swear it was at least 24.
  3. Not that I’m complaining.  I think there are very good reasons for maintaining a small set, like quicker familiarity and comfort for the campers.  Through repetition they’re quite catchy, too: I’ve had several nights since the start of camp where songs floated in and out of my head for an hour or more while winding down for sleep.
  4. “Jump in” is actually giving me a bit of undue boldness credit: I was goaded publicly to get on in there after earlier whispering into the activities director’s ear that I had a song I could lead, wondering if it would be okay for me to do so.  My thanks to her for pushing me off the ledge, making chickening out no longer an option.
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