Delmar Sleepaway Camp
“Get the fuck outta there!”
I hold very still. I can hear my breath, shallow, encouraging me to stay grounded and calm. You don’t know who that is. It might not be the cops. It’s probably the caretaker. He’s just doing his job. I don’t know where Julie’s run off to, but I know she isn’t far.
I yell back first. “Okay, we’re coming out right now — ”
“I said, I’m calling the fucking cops if you don’t get the fuck outta there! — ”
“We’re coming! We’re coming!” I yell.
I hear Julie repeat, “We’re coming right now!”
We park on the side of the road, on the eastern of the property.
I make an assumption that it’s yet another Jewish children’s camp as I have no information about its history. This is typical of my journeys to abandoned spaces across the country. I’m not so keen on learning a place before I explore — I wait until after I’m through any given adventure, simply because I don’t want any prior knowledge to infringe on the possibility of my imagination taking the lead. The “blank slate effect” is most conducive to my mental wellbeing. It provides the space to make up entire worlds in my head, to break away from the daily horrors of the real one. It’s not that I’m uninterested in the backstory behind any of these All-American Ruins — I would rather just let my brain paint its own picture first, without any preconceived notions interfering with my spiritual healing practice of accessing my imagination inside abandoned spaces.
Today, I’m with my buddy Julie (who you met on my journey to the Homowack Lodge a few chapters back), and we’ve taken a jaunt to this deserted campground that I’ve passed many times on my trips into the Catskills to explore (what’s left of) the Borscht Belt. I’ve always been curious about it. Growing up in the mountains of Colorado, I was an avid camp kid. My brother and I were regular summer attendees at Camp Elim in Woodland Park and Eagle Lake Camp in Colorado Springs, both of which were Christian youth camps.
As Julie and I begin to venture into the tall, thick brush of this overgrown wonder, I imagine that this, being smack dab in the middle of the “Jewish Alps,” was a place occupied primarily by Jewish kids. It makes sense: there are still many active Jewish youth camps in the area.
When I take these time travels with Julie, I am often grateful for how we navigate spaces like this together. She’s always down to split up so that we can follow the map that best suits us and create our own experiences. She is more interested in the objects left behind while I am more moved by the buildings themselves.
On site, we see several cabins, white and green.
We start at the first cabin, together. It doesn’t disappoint. It’s clear that some of the stuff lying around was brought in after the fact while other tchotchkes are original left-behinds, including the Garfield stationery I magically discover which whisks me back to the mid-1990s when my brother was off at camp and would send us mail on, yes, you guessed it, Garfield stationery, likely a stocking stuffer from Mrs. Claus. He always summarized his camp experiences so neatly, and it made me want to participate too, though I was a relatively shy kid who had a tough time fitting in with other boys.
As Julie inspects the odds and ends strewn about, discarded in refrigerators and left in ovens and forgotten inside lockers, I poke into the bedrooms and push my hands down onto the cheap, tattered mattresses. I remember being able to withstand the brutality of these things. I imagine myself trying to get a solid night’s sleep on one of them now and laugh out loud. These days, I have too much anxiety about the demise of the human race and too much inherently-linked neck/back/shoulder pain.
The walls bring me back to my own days at youth group retreats, the four different trips during which I came to Jesus four different times, all over the course of my upbringing in the Presbyterian Church of the USA. I’ve often thought about rescinding my membership, but I don’t even know where I’d start — and quite frankly, I don’t want to hear some monotone script tell me over the phone that, despite my resignation from their limited view of God, they’ll be “praying for my soul.”
Ah, go pray for yourself, why don’t you?
Julie and I exit the first cabin, and her chutzpah carries her on faster than my legs want to move. I’m also deathly afraid of ticks, and I don’t think Julie thinks about them too much. I meander behind her, gawking at the cracked wood on the screened-in porch and hear the measured inhales and exhales of my lungs. I’m waiting to see if my imagination is going to flicker on.
Instead, I’m flooded with memories of my own childhood experiences at Evangelical Christian youth camp.
That time that I clutched Sarah’s hand. She was my favorite youth group pastor. We prayed, and I accepted Jesus into my heart. It was the fourth time. Years later, we became friends on Facebook, and some time after that, she sent me a message, to let me know that she had watched this story about my experience growing up closeted while an active member at the church. It was one of those strange moments in life where I couldn’t really deny in the existence of god. What are the odds that my mom and my former youth pastor who sent me an apology message on Facebook would move to the same corridor of the country, merely half an hour apart?
Or the time I realized that I was probably in love with Ian Baugh in the 4th grade while at a fall sleepaway camp at Elim but couldn’t say a word about it because my church definitely wasn’t down with the F-A-G (my favorite thing to do is replace the lyrics from Sister Act II’s “Joyful, Joyful” that go, “You down with G-O-D? Yeah you know me!” with “I am an F-A-G! Yeah you know me!”)
Or the first time I flew on a zipline over the wondrous Eagle Lake after having memorized two Bible verses, the toll for access to fly over the small body of water that sorta looks like an eagle. I could touch the sun in the sky, flying high over the cool, freshwater, the breeze sprinkling past me like a crowd of strangers getting off the New York City subway.
It’s those precious moments, despite all the secrets I used to keep at church camp or church youth group or church choir or church handbells, that I could feel safe and free, connected to God, or what I thought was God, or higher power, or whatever you want to call it. I just knew that, ziplining across the sky, I could be myself, if only for those 35 seconds of skyheld paradise.
Julie has already gotten three or four cabins under her belt by the time I catch up. She enters a much larger building ahead of me, and it’s filled with all sorts of shit. Mattresses piled up, mirrors leaned up against each other in horizontal stacks, old dressers and lamps and songbooks filled with Jewish folk songs, plus a tower of books and an old map of the Catskill Mountains. Julie rifles through each and every object strewn about the large, dusty, and open room while I take photographs of a discarded bottle of Boone’s Farm and recollect on the first time I got drunk, alone, at 16, pounding shots of vodka from a plastic bottle, unsuspecting of the two-day hangover that was about to erupt and take me home from school, which I lied about to my parents, merely stating I’d gotten a stomach bug.
As I stare at the bottle, Julie encourages me to go look in a particular cabin where I find an old can of cola in the fridge and a bottle of Dial soap that matches my eyes. The mid-afternoon light streaks through the windows, hovering over the bunkbeds. I sit on one of them for a moment. This place once held many joyful, childhood moments, and it still holds many beautiful, childhood memories, though none of them are mine. I’m here creating new ones, layering on top of the old ones like paint.
I smile, gather my thoughts, and head outside to another porch.
That’s when the yelling starts.
At first, I can’t tell if it’s real. My imagination has been dormant this entire trip, so maybe it finally sputtered on, but — no. I can hear a real, human voice, and it’s demanding that we —
“Get the fuck outta there!”
I start to envision the worst-case scenario of being shot at close range by some fanatical Trumper with bloodhounds and an eye-patch. My imagination doesn’t always serve me well. I begin to move quickly, being sure to keep responding to the voice so that it knows I’m getting closer to it, that I’m following its orders.
As I emerge from the weeds and the memories that aren’t mine, I arrive at my car to find a tall, lanky man. No guns, no bloodhounds, no eyepatch. Just a lot of “fuck!” being repeated over and over again, angrily, but comically so. I’ve wasted his time! he screams. I should’ve paid attention to the no trespassing signs! (there are none) he screams. He’s doing me a huge (pronounced “yuge”) favor by not calling the cops! he screams. Etc., etc.
As he pops off, I decide that the best move is to let him rant. Every chance I can get a word in edgewise, I apologize and agree with him and let his desire to be bossman-who-gets-to-be-in-control-of-something-in-life run free. I am far from interested in getting arrested today.
The man wears torn jeans and a ratty t-shirt that says “Iron Mountain” on it. I wonder about his life.
Where’s he from?
What was his upbringing?
Who’s his community?
Does he have a community?
He continues to repeat the same few sentences until Julie arrives, about a minute behind me. The moment she approaches, his wrath relocates to her. I can tell she wants to argue with him (as do I), but I can also hear in the trepidation in her voice. I know she’s thinking what I’m thinking:
What’s the fastest way to end this comical nightmare so that we can get the hell out of here?
When I’d mentioned to him the (complete) lack of No Trespassing signs, he berated me and said I should’ve driven further up the road to find them, lol, and now I watch Julie go through the same motions. As she starts to press him on the nonexistent No Trespassing signs, I decide to flip on my phone’s audio recorder and begin to sonically capture the moment. His voice is so specific to New York, though it feels like his accent has hints of Long Island or even Bronx origins.
Julie backs off from the argument quickly, acquiescing to his goofy anger, which is when things start to get even weirder. Out of nowhere, he states, “Look, I don’t know who he (meaning me) is to you — boyfriend, friend, or whatever the fuck is none of my business, but you shouldn’t be goddamn fucking trespassing…” The two thoughts are completely unconnected. There is no reason for him to mention anything like that, and suddenly, I realize: I think this dude is family. Queer family. Closeted, ashamed queer family. Repressed, locked up, no escape queer family. My already mounting compassion for him skyrockets, and I’m no longer afraid.
Once he makes us delete all of our photos (none of which we lose because he doesn’t know that there’s a deleted folder on the iPhone), we’re ordered into the car and told to leave. We oblige — but as soon as we leave, the motherfucker starts to follow us. As compassionate as I feel, I can only take so much of this bullshit, so I quickly whip off at a gas station, get out of my car, and I begin to approach his, to ask him to kindly back the fuck off — but instead, with an apologetic tone, he starts to say, “You understand why I had to be tough on you guys, right? You know that’s my job, right?” It’s not an apology, but it’s certainly his version of one. I quickly rearrange my internal attitude and reassure him that we’re all good.
Then, like clockwork, he reverses his opinion on trespassing and suggests another abandoned space for us to visit, some ghost town (we learn upon arrival that it burned down and the rest was washed away years ago) that’s about 30 minutes away.
We thank him and depart, leaving him in our rearview mirror.
Ever since that day, I can’t get him out of my head. I know he was family, trying his hardest to reach out, prevented from doing so by all the internal pain and anguish in his life.
This is to say that, buddy, if you’re somehow reading this, I see you.