I’m attempting to shotgun milk from a pink baby bottle in the third stage of a 20-leg relay race at Camp No Counselors, a $600 weekend-long, all-inclusive sleepaway camp for adults two hours north of L.A. It’s the culmination of the “Color Wars,” in which 160 campers are separated into four teams — blue, green, gray and red, indicated by color-coded T-shirts and bracelets — and compete in a variety of schoolyard games and activities to determine headstarts in the big relay. The green team’s domination on the kickball and dodgeball courts resulted in a 30-second advantage out of the gate, but valiant efforts from my red team counterparts in the apple bob and wheelbarrow legs result in me being passed the baton first.
So begins a two-person challenge called “Baby Breakfast,” in which one camper (me) sucks down a baby bottle of milk while the other eats a bowl of dry Cheerios using only a spoon. My teammate, a 32-year-old man from Chicago named Don (a pseudonym, as are all campers’ names throughout), tells me he “likes food,” and therefore, he’d prefer the cereal portion of the challenge. True to form, Don dusts the Cheerios in seconds while I struggle to dislodge a smattering of droplets from the bottle. Flashes of blue, green and gray come and go, indicating our lead has vanished. Panicked, I tear into the nipple with my bicuspids, eviscerating the teat and releasing a torrent of moo juice over my war-painted face as I blindly pass the baton emitting a primal grunt.
“Red or dead!!!” I declare, echoing our chosen battle cry.
We narrow the gap over the remaining legs of the race: chugging a beer, forming a six-person human pyramid, holding hands and skipping across a soccer field shouting “I’m a Pretty Princess!” and so on, culminating with a giant Slip ‘N Slide into a game of flip cup. Miraculously, my teammate lands her cup first. Bottles of champagne are popped and showered upon 50 adult strangers and me, maniacally celebrating as though we’ve just clinched a professional sports championship.
“I feel fucking amaaazing!!!” shouts Bill, a 40-year-old from Arizona who came to camp alone and struggles to contain the totality of saliva in his mouth. “Like a newborn kid on Christmas morning!”
Camp No Counselors (CNC), featured on Shark Tank in 2016, is the OG summer camp for adults and holds multiple events throughout the year nationwide, renting out children’s sleepaway camps in their off-season and inviting attendees to “play like a kid and party like a grown-up.” Since its inception in 2013, the adult summer camp market has exploded to include more than a dozen offerings, ranging in price from roughly $450 to $1,250. There’s Camp Throwback in Ohio, which Babble describes as “Wet Hot American Summer meets The Parent Trap”; ‘Camp’ Camp in Maine, “the go-to adult summer camp for the LGBTQ community”; Club Getaway in Connecticut, “an escape for your inner child”; and niche offshoots like Epic Nerd Camp in the Poconos, where adults play Quidditch, learn circus acts and engage in wizarding, and Zombie Survival Camp in the Pine Barrens, where campers “learn valuable skills to survive the zombie apocalypse.”
The demand, of course, is millennial-driven. While other generations have experienced the same loneliness and grief as millennials when they became adults, they coped by getting married and having kids, explains psychologist Krystine I. Batcho, the creator of the Nostalgia Inventory. During difficult times then, they could sit with their toddler or tween and relive their own childhood by watching Bambi or Dumbo. “Millennials, in delaying marriage and having kids, need an alternative,” she says. “Adult summer camps are one way to fill that hole.”
But not the only way. Michelle Joni, or “Ms. Joni,” is the 34-year-old founder of Preschool Mastermind, a month-long program in her Brooklyn duplex where adults return to preschool, replete with a buddy system, finger-painting, show-and-tell, snack time, music time, nap time, and “shaking out the sillies.” “We grow up and make things complicated when there are so many simple concepts we learned in preschool that need revisiting,” Joni tells me. In a world where everything is created to make money or win a contest, Preschool Mastermind is about “creating for the sake of creativity and playing for the sake of play.”
“Millennials are appropriating childhood things through an ironic and nostalgic frame, whether it be preschool, summer camp or adult lunch boxes,” says sociologist Amy L. Best, chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at George Mason University. “It’s a playful, safe engagement with one’s biographical past.”
It was prophetic, however, that all of the Sharks passed when CNC founder Adam Tichauer sought a $300,000 investment in exchange for 7.5 equity ownership. “I just don’t find it investable,” explained Lori Greiner. In early 2019, CNC filed for bankruptcy and a Facebook group called CNC Stole Our Money was formed by disgruntled vendors. “They paid with a check that bounced,” wrote Jennifer in a Yelp review. “This company doesn’t pay staff wages,” agreed Jimmy P. “How can you aim to ‘build community’ when you engage in fraudulent, shady practices?” wondered Nick S.
After six years in business, it appeared CNC had roasted its last marshmallow until Joel Rutowski and his wife, directors/owners of Camp IHC, a summer camp for kids in Pennsylvania that served as CNC’s Northeast location (and among the vendors it stiffed the most), bought the brand at auction and took over operations in April. “I’m in the business of building communities,” Rutowski tells me. “People are craving connection. Phones, iPads and video games work in contrast to who we are as people. We’re wired to make connections, and everything else is outside noise preventing us from doing so.”
For me, that connection begins on the sidewalk outside of L.A.’s Union Station where 40 campers await a chartered bus. Impossibly happy men and women with Irish accents wearing “non-counselor” T-shirts check us in, attaching different color wristbands to indicate which team we’re on. (For continuity’s sake, Rutowski employs the same full-time staff, mostly from Ireland and the U.K., for both the kid and adult camps.)
Karen, a thirtysomething woman in a unicorn onesie, huddles a group of other adult campers together on the sidewalk and tells us she has good news and bad news. “There’s no beer on the bus,” she frowns, “but we can buy some in the station and take it on!” Reminiscent of my Sigma Nu pledge class on a road trip, I follow a dozen campers into a nearby bar and leave with armfuls of cheap Mexican beer.
Consequently, the two-hour coach bus ride to camp feels a bit like a rolling frat party, with occasional prompts from veteran CNC campers to switch seats next to someone new. The predominantly white millennials are largely West Coast locals in tech, marketing or health care, though I can’t be entirely sure because we’re not allowed to ask what people do for a living. Some flew in from other parts of the country, like the row of travel nurses behind me (they offered that information unsolicited), and a few even came from the U.K. and Australia. The most common response to my question, “Why are you going to summer camp for adults?” is some variation on “I want to play kickball and escape the tragedy of adulthood.”
“I mean, why do people stop doing fun shit just because they get old?” Karen wonders, handing me a fifth of Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey.
Bill, my red team comrade, explains he traveled alone from Arizona because he wanted to “disconnect from constant emails and real world issues” and reconnect with his inner child while appreciating the “simple joys” he’d forgotten in day-to-day life. And while other guys on the bus are already making inroads with potential hookups, Bill says he’s not here for any of that. “I live in Arizona. I’m not gonna randomly hookup with a girl just to hookup,” he says earnestly. “I’m not judging, it’s just not my type of thing.”
There’s a brief moment of alarm when news spreads throughout the bus that there is, in fact, no lake at this summer camp. There are, however, a number of small cesspools and sewer overflows to be avoided. Mentions of the Fyre Festival abound as the bus creeps into an unlit driveway. Nestled in the Angeles National Forest, Canyon Creek Summer Camp is a self-contained 81-acre facility marketed as “the ideal setting for children to escape the distractions of city life.” With a winding path intersecting a smattering of one-story dorms and a river that’s run completely dry, it feels a bit like a liberal arts college that peaked in the 1960s.
Upon arrival, we’re told that dinner is currently being served in the dining hall. I ask a new friend if she’d like to walk over with me, but she says she has to change. I find it odd that people are dressing up for a summer camp cafeteria, but moments later she emerges in a dinosaur onesie, joining the cosplay animal kingdom.
On the porch of a large stone lodge, we’re asked to sign a waiver indicating that we won’t sue the camp when we inevitably pull a hamstring. We’re then invited to write our first names and favorite type of chocolate on a name tag. “How anyone could choose anything but Cadbury is beyond me,” I overhear a British twentysomething whisper to his girlfriend. I opt for “fudge,” figuring it’ll let people know I’m gay.
I load my plate with slices of frozen pizza, chicken wings and a fistful of crudite and settle at a table of six men between the ages of 25 and 35 (like nearly everyone here it seems), and quickly realize I’m the only person without a beer. P.J., a 27-year-old next to me in a shirt covered in peaches, assuages my sober fears. “I didn’t drink a drop of alcohol last year and it was fun as shit,” he says, rightly noting that (most) kids are sober at summer camp. “Just have fun,” he commands. “We have to fit into a box in our day-to-day life, and I fit into it really fucking well. People at work never see me wearing a goddamn peach shirt. And I can promise you, this is the most normal clothes I’ll be wearing this weekend. There’s a woman over there in a purple leotard who’s twice my age.”
I’m pleased to learn that, at 41, I’m not the oldest person at camp. Eugenia, a 49-year-old physician administrator from Florida, grew up on her grandaddy’s farm in Georgia and traveled here with her partner, Audrey. “I started on the farm in the 1980s when I was 10 years old, when it was about working for the greater good,” she says. “Now society’s all about ‘me.’ But not here. I wish more people in real life would be exactly who they are at camp.”
“It’s nice to be in a place where you can be weird and wear a peach shirt,” affirms Scott, a millennial from Seattle who works for Microsoft. “It’s interesting because everyone was shy at the bus stop, and now suddenly we’re all best friends.” Meanwhile, Bill basks in this new reality and explains he’s had a smile on his face all night when I run into him at the buffet.
Being this close to L.A., there have been some celebrity sightings at CNC like Macaulay Culkin, who attended last year. This time around the biggest name in the room is Michael Rosenbaum, who played Lex Luthor on Smallville. Rosenbaum, who’s camping gratis in return for promoting CNC on Instagram, is being inducted into CNC’s esteemed “Alpaca Club” this year, indicating his fifth consecutive attendance (you join the “Moose Club” upon your third visit). “This camp changed my life in a lot of ways,” he tells me. “It’s a complete departure from the everyday grind and forces you to connect in a completely different way, bringing out the inner child in all of us.”
As dinner winds down, Dave Kushner, the 39-year-old head non-counselor with an unruly brown beard and “cool older brother” energy, picks up the microphone to a blown-out PA system (likely the result of immature summer camp boys). While there are no rules at Camp No Counselors, he explains there are a few “hard asks”:
- Don’t swim in the cesspools.
- Put your phones away. There’s no service anyway, and a professional photographer will be taking IG-worthy shots all weekend.
- No drugs or outside alcohol. (CNC provides Bloody Marys and mimosas at breakfast, mixed fruity drinks at the pool in the afternoon, coolers filled with beer and Truly Hard Seltzer at various engagements throughout the day, and an open bar at nightly theme parties. There’s also a 2 a.m. curfew. “I think that’s appropriate when you live in a communal world,” says Rutowski. “You have to be sensitive to other people’s needs as well.”
- No smoking indoors (CNC is moderately 420 friendly, with campers occasionally passing joints outside).
- And as I mentioned earlier, no work talk. That is, do not attempt to make friends by asking people what they do for a living.
“We’re not here to network,” Kushner adds, “we’re here to make friends like when we were kids.” Everyone cheers, collectively resolving that for the next 48 hours we’ll return to a simpler time. Kushner’s tone changes, though, as he raises both of his arms in the air. Returning campers instinctively do the same, silencing the hall.
“Listen, this is important,” Kushner says with abrupt sincerity. “We’re at co-ed summer camp for adults, and there’s an open bar. At times it may seem like lines are blurred, but I want to be very clear: There are no blurred lines. At any time if you’re alone with another person and are unsure if you have consent, you do not have consent.”
The room erupts in applause.
Later, at a campfire party near the beer-pong table, I meet Kelly, a 35-year-old nurse from Cleveland with a husband and two kids at home. “There was some fucked-up shit that happened here a couple years ago,” she says, explaining that a guy tied up her best friend with arm restraints and had sex with her in the next bunk over. “We woke up the next morning, and I could see the marks from the wrist restraints. Was it consensual? She said ‘yes,’ but she was drunk and spent the next two days crying, so you tell me. Now they make that consent announcement before every camp.”
Rutowski hadn’t heard about the incident when I tell him about it, which would’ve occurred years before he took ownership of CNC, but calls Kelly’s story “horrific” and explains the “significant measures” he’s implemented to prevent anything like it from happening on his watch, including adopting 24/7 roaming security, limiting the open bar to certain times of the day, scrapping camp-sanctioned drinking games and not housing men and women together unless it’s requested within the same reservation.
When I signed up in June, I was told my application was “under review” and I’d find out in five business days if I was selected. I later learned this was because all campers must now pass a social media and public criminal background check “to make sure people checkout,” Rutowski says, explaining his staff looks at “what people are posting, where they hangout and what they comment on” to make an assessment. Additionally, once at camp, non-counselors constantly reinforce the importance of looking after one another. “I believe this shows our commitment to safety and creating a safe space for all campers to enjoy themselves responsibly,” he adds.
Despite her troubling experience, Kelly remains a believer in the power of camp and has attended six CNC weekends to date. “You’re making relationships with other human beings and bonding with complete strangers,” she says, cracking open a Modelo. “I would never meet you or any of these people anywhere else but here. It’s an escape. I’ve been married for 12 years. He’s a Trump supporter; I’m not.”
Over the three days at camp, I definitely see couples en route to (consensual) hookups. I wonder aloud to Kelly if people really have sex in the bunks with others sleeping. She explains at a camp she went to in Texas, she woke up to three sets of couples boning. “Picture it,” she says. “The bunk to my right, people are fucking. The bunk to my left, people are fucking. The bunk across from me, people are fucking. All under the covers, but still…”
I can’t help but stay lost in that particular reverie as I enter my sleeping quarters, “Mancave 2,” an eight-bunk yurt housing a dozen male campers. It’s obviously peculiar to share a room with 12 grown men I’ve never met, half of whom are snoring, farting, and restlessly kicking in their sleep. And yet, for someone who’s predominantly slept alone for the past 10 years, it’s kinda comforting. As such, I happily drift off to sleep after eating the complementary Fig Newtons that were left on my pillow.
Batcho, the nostalgia expert, isn’t surprised by my affinity for Mancave 2. After all, a recent survey finds millennials to be the loneliest generation ever, with one-third of them saying they “always” or “often” feel lonely, compared to 20 percent of Gen Xers and just 15 percent of Baby Boomers. “It’s strange because they have greater access to the world,” she says, “but there’s a psychological distance to social media and data suggests that the more hours an individual spends on social media, the more likely they are to feel depressed. Something like summer camp is alluring because, being a social emotion, nostalgia tells us that what people miss most about the past is impromptu social connection.”
Speaking of nostalgia, the following morning’s name tag theme is “first celebrity crush” (Jonathan Taylor Thomas, obviously), which is followed by a “friendship walk” around camp while playing games of “Would You Rather…?” — “Would you rather have legs as long as your fingers, or have fingers as long as your legs?” — and learning camp-themed cheers. From the perspective of my cynical adult self, it all seems fucking dreadful. But in the moment, I’m totally for it. Ditto the camp-wide rock-paper-scissors tournament with the winners of each color team squaring off for an epic final battle.
The rest of the day is spent rehearsing for the talent show, finalizing costumes for the two theme parties (“Wet Hot American Summer ‘80s Night” and “Under the Sea”) and battling it out on the dodgeball and kickball fields, where it seems more time is spent cheering the opposing team after the game than actually playing. It’s silly, stupid fun, but fun nonetheless.
“There’s a drive toward experiential products right now because people are tired of materialism and want to use their money for experiences and escape,” explains head non-counselor Kushner. “They embrace the ‘don’t talk about what you do professionally’ rule because some people here have really high-powered jobs and don’t want to think about them for a couple of days. Then there are people who are really struggling and don’t want to talk about work at all.” Plus, he adds, “None of that matters on the dodgeball court.”
After a meditative arts and crafts session by the pool (we make friendship bracelets), I skip the afternoon activities and go for a walk around the campground where I come upon a friendly couple smoking weed outside their cabin. Casey, a 28-year-old CNC evangelist, passes the joint and giddily tells me, “I looove capture the flag. Where the fuck am I gonna find 40 people to play capture the flag with me in Los Angeles?”
“I see myself and my friends clutching onto things that bring us joy because we’re an entirely undervalued, underpaid and undermined generation who watched our parents get laid off en masse,” she continues. “People say ‘millennial’ like it’s a slur. I make fucking nothing at my job and have a mountain of college loans. And y’know what? I need to have something for myself, to go back to a place where I was truly 100 percent happy, and summer camp was pure joy for me. Millennials can’t trust the stability of the workforce. No one can promise us anything, so we might as well be happy.”
Similarly sobering is the reality that all summer camps must come to an end, and the mood on the bus back to L.A. is decidedly darker than on the way to camp. All but two onesies are neatly packed and stowed away, their owners sipping coffee rather than energy drinks as the collective realization that we’re not, in fact, a tween anymore sinks in and adulthood looms like Mr. Scary’s pendulumic scrotum.
Bill, seeming particularly melancholy, shuffles down the center aisle playing Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” on his phone, while once-giants on the dodgeball battlefield transform back into professionals who swipe at their iPhone with dutiful purpose. No one, however, has gone so far as to cut off their CNC color bracelet yet.
Personally, I’ve been wearing the plastic gold medal awarded to red team members for a week now. It’s a subtle reminder within the perpetual loop of bill-playing and email-checking that an alternate universe exists in which my only responsibilities are hoovering baby bottles, equitably establishing kickball foul lines and defiantly chanting “Red or Dead!” while enjoying a mid-morning snack.