Describe a time you had to do something you really didn’t want to do.
Camp Dread or How to Survive a Shockingly Awful Summer
by RANSOM RIGGS
It took me about a week to realize I’d been suckered. The ad in the church bulletin had called it a “horseback riding” camp, but by the end of week one, the only thing I’d learned about horses was how to scrape their stalls clean, and the only thing I’d ridden was an electric fence, which I had backed into in what was probably a subconscious escape attempt. But there was no escaping. I was stuck in the swampy middle of nowhere. Cell phones hadn’t been invented yet, and neither I nor the other campers had the guts to complain to the swaggering, dip-spitting cowboys who served as both our camp counselors and de facto prison guards. As that fence launched me into the air, arms flailing like a rodeo clown, butt tingling with residual electricity, I made a solemn pledge to myself: never again.
I ended up at horse camp because my mother had decided it was important for me to try new things—her definition of which apparently did not extend to watching new movies at the multiplex or playing new Nintendo 64 games in various friends’ basements, which had previously comprised my entire plan for the summer. She had never objected to my lazy summers before, and after nine months of the exceptional torment that was sixth grade, I thought I deserved one more than ever. So naturally I felt a little betrayed when, a mere week after school had ended, she announced that I was off to camp in a few days. And not just any camp—horse camp.
I was baffled too and Mom was short on answers to my many questions. Was I being punished for something? What imaginary crime had I supposedly committed? Did she think I’d actually have fun? I couldn’t imagine why, as I’d never expressed even the slightest interest in horses, or horse-related camps, or camps in general. Then, after remembering how the few girls’ rooms I’d seen the inside of had been veritable shrines to horses, an admittedly unlikely explanation occurred to me: My mother thinks I’m a girl.
I tried explaining to her that I wasn’t a girl, that I didn’t know the first thing about horses and didn’t care to, and that living in an un-air-conditioned cabin with strangers in the sweltering summer heat of Central Florida made little sense when I had air-conditioning and video games and friends to play them with at home. She acted as if she hadn’t heard me.
When arguing failed, I tried begging. When begging had no effect, I resorted to silent fuming and passive-aggressive door slamming. Despite everything, she would not be swayed.
“It’s only camp,” she said. “You’ll survive.”
Finally, all that was left for me to do was dread.
There were so many things to dread about this camp that it was hard to know which to focus on. There was the inescapable heat, the nightly hymn-singing—an inevitable feature of church-affiliated camps—and the possibility of being kicked at, gnawed on, thrown from, or otherwise molested by a horse. But the pit-of-my-stomach dread, the thing I went to bed dreading and woke up in the morning still dreading, was that for the first time in as long as I could remember, I would be stuck in a place where I had absolutely no friends. Hymns and horse tramplings are survivable provided you have a friend to share your misery with, but I would be leaving my merry band of like-minded nerds behind, and had no idea how to replace them on short notice.
The popular kids I knew seemed to make friends effortlessly. Their cliques grew and blossomed and rotated members on a daily basis. My friend group, on the other hand, was like a rare mold that only grew beneath a certain kind of rock at a specific elevation: There wasn’t much of it, it formed very slowly, and it was exceedingly stable. But if a wild mongoose came and ate a bunch of it, the mold wasn’t going to grow back in any big hurry. In other words, I knew how to have friends, but I’d had them for so long I couldn’t remember how to make them—and I wasn’t at all certain I could learn.
The fateful day arrived. I tossed a bag of wrinkled clothes into the trunk of my mom’s car and slumped into the passenger seat. We left our beach-adjacent suburb for the mosquito-haunted swamps of Florida’s primeval interior. The farther inland we drove, the wilder the landscape became. First, the chain stores and strip malls faded away. Then the road narrowed from four lanes to two, towered over by giant, grasping live oaks hung with nets of swaying Spanish moss. Long stretches of pavement had no markings at all save the polka-dot speckle of squashed armadillos. Along the shoulder, deep ditches brimmed with drowning pools of stagnant rainwater.
“You’ll have a nice time,” Mom said. “You’ll see.”
I felt like I was being driven to my own funeral.
After what seemed like hours, we finally arrived at the camp: a cluster of squat cabins, a stable, a few dusty campsites. We pulled into a parking lot crowded with mud-splashed pickup trucks and got out, and that’s when I caught my first glimpse of the kids who would be my fellow campers. They were all milling around the campsite, acting bored and cool, every one of them wearing variations of the same outfit: cowboy boots, T-shirt tucked into high-waisted jeans, baseball cap with the bill curled into a little tunnel that hid the eyes from view. As I stood watching them, country music whining from a stereo somewhere, I realized that the main problem with horse camp wouldn’t be the lack of air-conditioning or the bugs or being forced to interact with large animals that presumably wanted nothing to do with me, but that horse camp would be populated with the sort of kids who wanted to be at horse camp, who liked the idea of spending weeks in the hot middle of nowhere pretending to be cowboys. Among people like that, I may as well have been an alien.
In that instant, I gave up all hope of making friends and resigned myself to being a loner for the next two weeks. Now I know what you’re probably thinking—and you’re wrong. This isn’t one of those stories where the popular kid defends me from a bully and we become besties for life and the reader learns a valuable lesson about how much rednecks from the boonies and nerds from the suburbs have in common. I’d made up my mind that horse camp was going to be the worst two weeks ever, and that’s more or less what it was. I barely talked to anyone. I shoveled a lot of horse poop. A kid they called Big Dan pushed me around a little, but my response to his taunts was so muted—I’d long ago learned not to give bullies what they wanted, which was a big reaction—that he quickly moved on to another target. Mostly I was just lonely and bored; the most exciting thing that happened was that I got a jaggedy-looking scar on my butt where I touched that electric fence.
Eventually camp ended, and my mom came to pick me up. She asked how it was and I said “horrible” and told her about my solemn pledge never to go to camp again, and she seemed okay with it. As far as she was concerned, I had experienced something new, and that had been the whole idea. That the new thing had been feeling like a giant unfriendable loser for two weeks was beside the point.
As for my pledge, it lasted exactly three years. I’d kind of gotten it into my head that I wanted to be a writer, and when I found out about this camp for young writers that met every summer at a college in Virginia, I decided against my better judgment to give it a try. This time, though, I convinced a friend from home to go with me, as a sort of insurance policy, in case the kids at writing camp were scary or weird or didn’t like me. I didn’t spend too much time worrying about it, though, and I think that made all the difference.
Neither of us had trouble making friends at writing camp, even though the kids there came from lots of different backgrounds and liked all kinds of different things. I had the time of my life, went back the next two summers, and now, years later, am proud to count some of the people I met there among my best friends.
So it turned out that I was totally friendable after all, and I’d been way overthinking the whole how-you-make-friends thing. I thought about it so much, in fact, that back in horse camp I’d gotten discouraged and given up on new-friend-making entirely. I had a terrible time because I told myself I would, and in the sixth grade, being right had been more important to me than being happy. But for all my self-inflicted suffering, it was Mom who was right: It was only camp. I survived.
I still don’t like horses, though.
Ransom Riggs is the New York Times bestselling author of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and Talking Pictures. He lives in Los Angeles, where in his spare time he makes short films, collects old photos, and travels as much as he possibly can.
“Camp Dread or How to Survive a Shockingly Awful Summer” © 2013 by Ransom Riggs; “Sasquatch Is Out There (and He Wants Us to Leave Him Alone)” © 2013 by Kirsten Miller; “Warning: This Essay Does Not Contain Pictures” © 2013 by Scott Westerfeld; “It’s On Like Donkey Kong” © 2013 by Alan Gratz; “The World Is Full of Time Machines” © 2013 by Steve Almond; “Hello, My Name Is” © 2013 by Jennifer Lou; “Breakfast on Mars: Why We Should Colonize the Red Planet” © 2013 by Chris Higgins; “Robots Only: Why We Shouldn’t Colonize Mars” © 2013 by Chris Higgins; “Recall and Defend” © 2013 by Rita Williams-Garcia; “My Life before Television” © 2013 by Elizabeth Winthrop; “A Rite of Passage (and the Importance of Penguin Etiquette)” © 2013 by Chris Epting; “Natural Light” © 2013 by Sloane Crosley; “Home Girl” © 2013 by April Sinclair; “Invisibility” © 2013 by Maile Meloy; “The Most Famous Fairy-tale Cat of All Is a Furry-Faced Fabulist” © 2013 by Daisy Whitney; “On Facing My Fears” © 2013 by Khalid Birdsong; “Raised by Wolves” © 2013 by Sarah Prineas; “Why We Need Tails” © 2013 by Ned Vizzini; “Death Is Only a Horizon” © 2013 by Alane Ferguson; “Blue Jeans, Cat Stevens, and My First Kiss” © 2013 by Lise Clavel; “King Arthur’s Great Power” © 2013 by Mary-Ann Ochota; “A Thousand Truths: (Mostly) a Good Dog” © 2013 by Steve Brezenoff; “Death by Host Family” © 2013 by Casey Scieszka and Steven Weinberg; “The Incredibly Amazing Humpback Anglerfish” © 2013 by Michael Hearst; “Showering with Spiders” © 2013 by Clay McLeod Chapman; “River Girl” © 2013 by Gigi Amateau; “A Good Lie” © 2013 by Laurel Snyder; “How to Fly” © 2013 by Wendy Mass; “Blueberries” © 2013 by Marie Rutkoski; “Banning Books—An Un-American Act” © 2013 by Sarah Darer Littman; “Laika Endings” © 2013 by Nick Abadzis; “From Seed to Flower” © 2013 by Michael David Lukas; “Sex, Drugs, and Rock ’n’ Roll” © 2013 by Léna Roy; “A Single Story Can Change Many Lives” © 2013 by Craig Kielburger; “Creative Boot Camp” © 2013 by Joshua Mohr; “Princess Leia Is an Awesome Role Model” © 2013 by Cecil Castellucci; “The Only Job I’ve Ever Had” © 2013 by Joe Craig; “Break the Rules” © 2013 by Ellen Sussman