I had a strange recovered-memory incident last week. It was morning; I was getting dressed. I put on shorts, and an old camp shirt.
For those not familiar with the style, this is a short-sleeved, not-tucked-in, collared, button-up shirt that is rather square in its shape. I liked this style a few years ago, not so much now, but it was hot, the shirt was weather-and-task-appropriate, and I was in the mood for it. I put it on and walked out into the day’s hot, dry weather, where I was assaulted by memories of a summer camp I went to as a child.
Stanley Ranch Camp was located north of L.A. in rolling hills near Saugus. The terrain was desert chaparral, and daily temperatures in the middle of summer hit three digits every day. The camp offered swimming, horseback riding, lanyard making, fire building (yes, in 100 degree weather, in Southern California, by 10 and 11 year olds), hiking, campfire singing, and quiet time after lunch, when it was too hot to do anything else.
I remember getting heat rash, skinning my shin badly, disastrous lanyards, steep hills to climb, being dehydrated, and failing to get my fire started. We slept outside each night, on cots, under oak trees; no one worried, apparently, about mountain lions, rattlesnakes, coyotes, or ax murderers. The bathrooms were outhouses. We didn’t shower; that’s what the daily swimming was for. Half the stuff we did then wouldn’t be allowed today. It felt a bit like Moonlight Kingdom, except none of us had any wilderness skills whatsoever.
As I ran through all the memories of people, activities, and locations, up came a complete mental image of the entire landscape. First the images were individual, like a slide show. Then I strung the pieces together, and suddenly I was remembering the entirety of the camp–a time-traveling Google Map, courtesy of my brain. I was surprised to find how strong my emotional connection was to the setting of that camp, how much fun it was to revisit. I guess I really did like the place, even if most of the memories seemed to involve injury or extreme discomfort.
The Internet told me that Stanley Ranch Camp has, in fact, endured all this past half-century, and I found it returned to its “original location” last summer, a site now operated by VT Ranch, Camp & Conference Center. I Googled that, and their site had a map. And, yes!!! My memory of the landscape was correct in all its particulars, not counting some new paving, new buildings, and other buildings torn down or repurposed. The pool, the sports field, the mess hall, and the amphitheater are all in the same positions I remember.
Landscapes are powerful in our memories, and settings are powerful in fiction. I think of the Congo in Heart of Darkness, or 1940s Los Angeles in any Raymond Chandler novel. For future or fantastic landscapes, I might think of Ian McDonald’s mid-century Istanbul in The Dervish House, or Westeros and Essos in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. And Moonlight Kingdom was all about setting, wasn’t it? Have you ever seen so many maps in a movie? Setting is essential to story; it is a character in and of itself, bound by time as well as space, and interacting with the characters and the reader’s imagination. Ideally, we become immersed in it, irrespective of whether it comes mostly from our real world, or that of our imagination. We go on vacation (or to summer camp) to escape our mundane lives. We read fiction for the same reason, and there is no shame in that.
The Stanley Ranch Camp of my memory did exist, but once it crossed over from mere historical reality to become entwined with my childhood memory banks, it became more important as a idea than as the humble place it actually was. It became a character in my memory. Because it was all activities, all the time, because every hour of every day was planned for us, my time there had something of the quality of a script, a teleplay. Difficulties at home, uncertainties at school, and nascent adolescent social anxieties did not figure in this script. I had a role, the role of camper, and I knew how to play it. Heat rash and dehydration were part of the plot. It was like going to the movie theater on Saturday afternoon…and getting to be in the movie.