Dear Camp Ridgecrest:
For seven months, the surface of my laptop has worn a sticker of your name; coffee shop sojourners 2,500 miles west of your borders see it everyday.
For seven months of routine mornings, I slipped on a blue bracelet etched with the Indian name you gave me. A name nobody but you or I really understands. Wore it every day for six months until it literally snapped off my wrist.
For seven burdensome months, I wondered whether I’d ever again cross your gate. Your intimidating altogether inspiring gate.
When I tell people Camp Ridgecrest changed my life, they don’t get it. I don’t blame them; that phrase has become watered down. To say something “changed” one’s life has become commonplace.
“Disneyland changed my life!”
“In-N-Out changed my life!”
And while I’ve exclaimed these very things myself, I admit my innocent deceit; a mere amusement park or double-double hamburger cannot truly change one’s life. Not mine or yours or anyone’s.
Camp Ridgecrest changed my life. Changed it so drastically that it finally prompted the outpouring of a struggle-laden book, four years in the making.
Camp Ridgecrest gave me courage.
Camp Ridgecrest affirmed my self-worth.
Camp Ridgecrest filled me with fear and shame and unparalleled inferiority. And yet.
Camp Ridgecrest gave me redemption.
For every momentous gift Camp Ridgecrest offered me last summer, I feel entirely indebted to Camp Ridgecrest. Feel I’ve not given her nearly what she’s given me.
Even at 2,500 miles away, why wouldn’t I return to Camp Ridgecrest this summer?
A month ago, I did what I’d long put off doing: I applied. Believed wholeheartedly the illogical yet quite logical story being written before my eyes: a 2,500-mile return trek for Traveling Golden Trout to the magical place that first birthed his new name. His new identity.
The very place that wrecked and redeemed him all the same.
And yet after submitting my application, I went to bed that night unable to sleep. Physically writhed betwixt my bed sheets as pangs like ulcers struck my gut. Felt anything but the “peace like a river” I’d anticipated swimming into Happy Dream Land.
Why was this decision so difficult? As an emotionally marred introvert desperate for purpose and belonging on this earth — so desperate as to travel to and fro across this country year after year after wearying year — wouldn’t it be obvious to return to the place I found said purpose and belonging?
Camp Ridgecrest has existed since 1929; it’s not going anywhere soon. The same kids return summer after summer; the same counselors do as well. A three-month Paradise of purpose in the mountains of North Carolina.
For two weeks, I stared at the contract offer in my inbox. Couldn’t respond either way.
What was wrong with me? Why wouldn’t I return to redemption? How dare I defy its extended hand?
Over the last few agonizing weeks, I’ve spoken with dozens of precious people. Vented at length over this decision. Cried over its unfairness.
When my Traveling Golden Trout bracelet recently snapped, I seriously pondered the meaning of such a seemingly random occurrence. I love traveling — surely this snap didn’t mean my name — my very identity — was broken, too.
Instead of Traveling Golden Trout, was I now Stationary Golden Stoat?
In a year of IDENTITY, it seemed beyond paradoxical not to return to Camp Ridgecrest.
Of course I should pack up my car in May.
Of course I should drive back across America.
Of course I should pull back into the gate — THAT GATE — and breathe redemption’s air once again. Her fresh mountain air.
I’m a wanderer; this is what I do. I wander. Wander from Pennsylvania to Georgia to the UK to California to Milwaukee to California again to Camp Ridgecrest to California once again, latching onto the next passing thrill before returning on my same lonely way.
When camp ended last fall, I fell into restless depression. Knew California beckoned my return, and yet so much had been taken from me over the prior three months: roommates, primarily. A place to live.
For all Camp Ridgecrest had given me, she’d taken my home. How could I repeat the same journey a second consecutive summer?
Since October, I’ve steadily regained my life of the last two years. Rebuilt floors upon the stack of cards that had crashed at summer’s end.
I found an older married couple to take me into their home in the boondocks. A home inundated with African masks and lemons.
Then found a more ideal place to live with Christian guys my own age in the city.
Found one job, then another job, then another, and another, and before I knew it was privately tutoring 12 kids at libraries and homes while also working at a middle school and a learning center.
Beyond financial security, I began uncovering deeper purpose and belonging in California. Relationships with old and new faces alike. A return to the church that reversed my story of the prior two decades. The life group who accepted me and even baptized me.
Months upon arduous months after Camp Ridgecrest’s last camper exited the gate — that epiK gate — I’ve financially emotionally spiritually found here in California what I so dramatically found there in North Carolina.
Turns out I don’t need to drive 2,500 miles to breathe redemption’s air.
I have no doubt I could’ve returned to Camp Ridgecrest this summer and been broken and blessed all over again. My story-loving soul would have loved nothing better.
And yet it’s here too: redemption. It doesn’t have to be centralized at a camp or baptism or mission trip or any other inherently temporary environment.
Intentionality and redemption can exist in normal, day-to-day life. Should exist. Desperately needs to exist when our culture has swept meaning under the rug in exchange for safe status quo jobs, surface-level relationships, and otherwise mundane existences.
Truthfully, this decision devastates me. To let go of a place so distinctly impacting on my life — it’s brutal.
And yet it’s beautiful. God’s redemption stories never cease to amaze me, whether from another life or my own.
I can’t wait to share the entire story. The last couple chapters of Struggle Central will do just that.
Even in the midst of certain struggle, there is always redemption.
Goodbye, Camp Ridgecrest. You’ve given me so much. I can never repay you or say “thank you” enough.
Here, our paths mournfully part. Until that giant lake blob in the sky.
To invoke the words of a soul-tugging campfire song…
God made Camp Ridgecrest; that’s why I love you.
Traveling Golden Trout