This is a story from about 6 years ago. It was my last summer in the Czech republic before leaving for America. I was 18 years old, have become a legal adult, and was able to get the equivalent of a summer camp nurse training. As such, I was working at a tiny summer camp in a small village in the Czech countryside. We slept in an attic of a barn on old mattresses and with leftover hay all around, had two outhouse toilets for all the kids and caretakers, and ate from mess kits.
Before every ‘civilized’ person who would never send their child to a summer camp without electricity and showers becomes scandalized, let me reassure you that we’ve been doing this for years and nothing bad has ever happened. I grew up spending every summer at a camp like this, and those are still some of my best memories. Kids need to get a little dirty sometimes, and as long as we wash them off, they’re always good as new, if not better, when we’re returning them to their parents.
This summer camp was special. It was special because, besides kids, there were about five or eight horses that we all took care of every day, and because the days were generally a little looser than the very structured camps I went to as a kid, and, later, as an instructor. Everyone was a little more relaxed, and we never had any problems with kids whining that they didn’t want to do something.
Because I was the oldest one of all the caretakers, and because I was the nurse, I had the final say in whether the games the other caretakers came up with was a good idea or not, and, usually, it was a good idea. If I remember it correctly, I put a stop only to one idea, that idea being to wake the kids up at night, march them somewhere and let them find their way back home.
Instead, I took the idea and revamped it into a new one: have the kids pack their pajamas, sleeping bags, and stuffed animals, take them to a good overnight spot, have them mark the route in a map along the way, sleep there, and try to find their way back home the next morning (in a group, everyone together). While the other caretakers were walking with the kids to the spot we chose, I’d pack tarps, a cauldron, some cordage, water, and food on a horse, take a shorter route there, and set our campsite up, pretending I was some kind of witch or whatever living in the woods. We spun a few games off of that later, when the kids had to help me look for ingredients for our dinner and a strengthening potion (our evening tea).
Because I was the only one who knew how to pitch a tarp (and make it large enough for all the kids), doing it alone while the others were somewhere on the way with the kids was more relaxing than having to explain it to whomever who wanted to help. By the time they made it to the spot, I had the shelter ready, the horse was nearby, peacefully munching on grass, and the only thing left to do was to build the fire, find the dinner ingredients I’ve hidden around, and start cooking.
This all went well and soon, the moon and the stars were out and the kids, singing around the fire, were getting tired. Everybody got into the shelter, huddling close together to keep warm. The kids slept in the middle, the other caretakers on the outer sides. And I slept in my father’s old original Czech Army bedroll (watch this video on YouTube if you’re curious what it looks like) near the fire. I wasn’t going to fit in with the others, and it was good to be outside anyway, to be able to hold a watch over the campsite in case anything should go down.
I don’t know how my brain does this, but when I take into my mind that I need to wake up every now and then to feed the fire or whenever I hear a weird sound, I do, actually, wake up every now and then. And so I did, feeding the fire, seeing the Ursa Major progress across the sky, and witnessing the mist rising from a nearby lake when morning neared. It was strangely peaceful to wake up every 90 minutes or so, feed the fire, listen to it crackle, and notice the change in the stars’ position. I checked on the horse, too; it was just munching on the grass nearby and snorting here and there.
Even the memories alone make my heart beat slow and steady and my mind fall calm. It was a beautiful, albeit a little chilly night. The bedroll together with the fire kept me warm, and the kids stayed nice and cozy, too. Nobody woke up crying during the night, not even our youngest ones, and the only sound that came from the tarp shelter was the occasional sleep-mumbling.
And then I opened my eyes to a freaking ghost standing on the other side of the fire.
Yep, a full-fledged misty ghost was standing there, looking at me and the shelter behind me. I freaked out, but instead of my body going full berserk, waking everyone, and yelling to run away, I couldn’t move to save my life.
Nowadays, I can tell, being 76% sure, that it was probably just a mixture of the occasional early morning sleep paralysis I get here and there and the mist that rose from the lake. Illuminated by the moon that was setting behind the trees, it could have easily looked like a person.
But could I have explained that to myself back then? Nope. My groggy brain was half sure I was going to die, half sure that the ghost was harmless and just wanted to have a chat, and fully sure that I needed to put more wood on the fire because that would surely save us all.
I don’t know how, but I eventually managed to do just that, and it’s a miracle that I haven’t burned myself, given I was in this half-sleeping, half-awake state. I blew into the fire to help it revive itself and when I looked up again, the ghost was gone. The fire kept me safe, but I couldn’t go back to sleep and instead, watched the sky get progressively lighter, the stars fade, and the new day begin.
When the sun rose from behind the lake and illuminated the millions of tiny diamonds of dew sitting on the grass all around, it was the most beautiful moment of the entire night. By the time the other caretakers and the kids started to get up, I had water boiling and tea ready, and we ate our breakfast of bread with jam. Soon after, the kids packed their things and left on their journey back ‘home.’ I packed the tarp, the cauldron, and everything else they left behind and went the other way with the horse.
Despite the early-morning horror surprise, this was one of my favourite experiences from any summer camp I’ve even been to, both as a kid and an adult, and I half-wish I could go out there again, carrying my father’s army bedroll and food in a cauldron. Perhaps one day. Until then,
Happy trails, friends.
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