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Recalling freedom, fun of summer camp

Each summer in the early 1950s, I impatiently watched the scenery pass by as my dad drove his big Buick higher into the Colorado Rockies from our Denver home. Finally, around the last curve, there it was, nestled in a valley between two rows of pine-covered mountains: my beloved Camp Tomahawk, the place of my heart for two weeks each summer from ages 7 to 14.

The small, brown, rustic main lodge sat near a ramshackle barn, surrounded by pines. Each age group stayed in separate campsites in the trees, connected by rocky dirt trails which led to the lodge. I would be part of a group of 10 girls my age, whom I didn’t know yet, with two young women as counselors. I could hardly wait to get out of the car.

With the required bag of labeled clothes, three Band Aids “in case,” an old Army canteen and my cherished Girl Scout knife, I was ready to hike and ride horses far away from siblings and parents. Without regular school sports for girls in the 1950s those of us who loved to run, climb trees and play hard were indulgently called tomboys, but also expected to be young ladies ... except at camp where we were free to be strong instead of sweet. Having adventures was so much better than just watching them on television at home.

Up in our group’s campsite we stayed in large canvas Army tents, four to a tent, with wooden floors and loose side flaps that tied together at the corners. At afternoon rest time we tied the flaps up, reading while the rich scent of pine drifted in under the hot Colorado sun. We worried at night that any nearby bears would smell our hidden chocolate bars, but none ever appeared, thank goodness.

We clambered down the trail for meals at the lodge, with s’mores and taffy pulls some nights. Best of all, at the end of every meal we sang cowboy songs, Girl Scout songs, school songs from a time when music was still a daily part of class. Our voices rang out across the valley under the deep blue mountain sky. These songs I still remember.

As young teens our group was trucked up to remote mountain areas for a week of hiking, with no means to contact the outside world. The sky shone with millions of stars at night and we fell asleep sensing the silent bats flying low above our heads. Days were spent hiking and campfire cooking until the truck picked up us, tanned and happy, a week later. The warm shower at the lodge felt delicious after bathing in icy glacier-fed streams all week.

One year, as teenagers, we took the horses on an overnight ride into the mountains. The horses, used to pasture, fought for hours in the makeshift corral that night. On the way back, my cranky horse took a sudden turn, knocking me hard out of the saddle to the ground by running under a low branch. I climbed back on without a pause; no whining, no excuses even considered. We were strong and determined, fine preparation for our lives to come.

During my last year there, we climbed Mount Rosalie from our remote campsite. Singing as we crossed meadows in the early morning, we were gasping for breath hours later in the thin mountain air as we climbed over massive rock fields far above timberline to reach the 13,500-foot summit. Although we had only light canvas sneakers on our feet — no REI then — no one quit. We rested at the summit, then made our way down for hours, exhausted and proud with a memory to last a lifetime.

Each year on the last night, we had a huge campfire for the whole camp. The firelight illuminated our faces, while in the dark beyond the circle of girls the mountains were black cutouts under the glittering night sky. Tales were told, awards given, then we sang together for the last time, ending with taps and a soft “goodnight” in unison.

For weeks after my return home each year, I yearned to be back in that mountain valley. I wasn’t ready to be a young lady yet; I wanted to be free just a while longer, but time goes on.

Decades later, those songs were my daughter’s lullabies, every word remembered as I sang in the dark of her room thinking of camp days. “Tomahawk ... come where the voices are ringing, all hearts are singing, meadows lie, beneath the mountain sky ... we’re wishing joy to you.”

Peggy Keonjian is a member of the Jottings Group at The Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.