For most people, referencing home or where they “grew-up” means a house or maybe even a town or neighborhood where they lived as a child. For me, going home to where I “grew-up” means going to an unassuming, but beautiful place hidden in the Blue Ridge Mountains called Caroline Furnace Lutheran Camp. I was a camper there for 7 summers when I was a child. I met my dearest friend there; I met the Holy Spirit there. I learned how to paddle a canoe, build a fire, and take a shower in under 2 minutes. And there is no place in the world that feels more like home to me. Now my children are campers at Caroline Furnace and a new generation is getting to experience a week of living in the woods, creating masterpieces out of yarn and Popsicle sticks, singing songs about yodeling ostriches and that one tin soldier riding away, and collecting slag.
The truth is I could probably write a hundred blog posts about Caroline Furnace, my summers there, and what it means to me. But today I want to share with you my most recent visit. This weekend was the annual spring work weekend at camp where volunteers are recruited to do much needed work around the camp grounds and facilities before the busy summer season. I waffled for a few weeks on whether or not we could attend because my midterm for my capstone is due tomorrow and I wasn’t sure I could really spare any time this weekend. On Wednesday I said to my husband, “do you mind if we go to Caroline Furnace on Saturday for work weekend?” Don’t you like how I said “we”? Of course being the amazing man that he is, he didn’t hesitate at all. Even though he was never a camper there, he gets it about Caroline.
So we decided to go down for just the day. Like good little campers we filled our water bottles, put on our I-don’t-care-if-this-gets-dirty clothes and got on the road only slightly later than I intended. I knew from emails and Facebook that several old camp friends of mine would be there, including a friend whom I hadn’t actually seen since the last time we were at camp together — over 20 years ago! As I drove the familiar curves of the back-mountain road a little faster than I should have, I felt my heart quicken with excitement and couldn’t help but smile as memories came flooding back. It happens every time.
When we arrived, many people were already off doing their assigned morning tasks, since a large number of the volunteers had come up the night before. We were greeted by one of my former counselors, who is now on the camp’s Board of Directors and the driving force behind work weekend. After sharing a few hugs we were quickly sent to our assigned areas. The kids got to be on the “kid brigade”, I was put to work helping clean in the kitchen, and my husband was ushered off to help with work being done at the camp director’s house. I felt a small twinge of guilt and worry because I knew my husband wouldn’t really know anyone and it might be awkward for him. But I silently prayed he would not feel too out-of-place.
As I walked in the kitchen I found my friend Shannon, the one I hadn’t seen since we were kids. We immediately embraced like long-lost sisters and I felt none of the awkwardness you sometimes feel when you run into old high-school friends you haven’t seen or talked to in years. We caught up quickly, as I was aware I was there to do a job. There were a few other people I knew or recognized, and many I didn’t, but within moments we were all working side-by-side like we’d been scrubbing kitchens together our whole lives and it was the most natural thing for us to be doing at that moment. As I chatted to some of the other folks I found out some of them had been former campers, some former staff, others were parents or spouses of former campers or staffers. But everyone was there, gladly giving up their Saturday, because Caroline Furnace had touched their lives in some way.
I later found out there were over 70 people that came throughout the weekend to get dirty, sweat, and share their camp memories. Some of us knew each other before the weekend, others didn’t. But you wouldn’t know it looking from the outside in, because we all seemed like old friends in moments. We were only there for 7 hours that day, but by the end my kids were begging me for playdates and sleepovers with the new friends they’d made and worked alongside, my husband was laughing and shaking hands with several guys he had just met that morning, and I was hugging tightly onto many friends, knowing it would not be soon enough until I saw them again.
As we pulled away I told my husband how much I appreciated him coming with me and spending his Saturday working on a place that was not his childhood home (or even childhood camp). And he said “are you kidding, I loved it! I may not have gone to camp here as a kid, but our kids do, and I get why this place is so important to you. There’s just something really special about Caroline Furnace.” Yes. Yes, there is.