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Summer Camps for Grown-ups

It's your turn to take it easy or learn something new in the great outdoors.

By Mike Cox

If you have kids, you know the drill.

Well before spring break every year, you're trying to figure out what summer camp — or camps — to send your kids to. You face more questions than a fifth grader looking at a blank test. Day camp only? One week away? Two weeks away? What can we afford? Should we send them to scout camp, church camp or private camp?

Deciding which camp you think is best and most affordable is only the first step for parents. Once summer arrives, there's the prep work for Off-to-Camp Day. You have to get them packed, checking and re-checking the list of essentials provided by the camp. They'll need money to buy camp souvenirs and all the things you forgot to pack for them. Oh, and stamped, self-addressed envelopes if you harbor any remote hope of getting a letter while they're away.

In my case, a final round of effort came in prying my tearful wife away from her "baby" girl, soon to be alone at camp the first time. She insisted on seeing our daughter's bunk, talking to the counselor she'd been assigned, and hugging her one more time. And then another. All in all, the process of getting our daughter off to camp had not been easy, especially prior to that first overnighter at Camp Texlake on Lake Travis.

As we drove back to town, after all that work now facing a mini-empty nest situation, I said, "You know, there ought to be summer camps for adults."

Turns out, there are. Of course, adults being adults and kids being kids, grown-up camps are not going to be just like kids' camps. And it helps to play a little loose with the definition of "camp" when you're looking for grown-up recreational opportunities. But with some research and the investment of however much you want to spend, it is possible to drop your kids off for camp and then head out for an outdoor adventure geared for grown-ups.

Camp opportunities for kids still exceed what's available for adults, but providing a camp-like experience for grown-ups is a booming industry. Make that a baby boomer industry.

"Boomers are entering retirement with more discretionary money than any other group ever has," says Janet Hodges, associate professor of leisure studies at the University of North Texas. "As a whole, most boomers don't want to sit around and do nothing."

Austin psychologist John Craghead calls it the "now it's my turn" phenomenon.

"You've been beat up by life — work and parenting. And parenting's not a job you can get out of until the kids are grown," he says. "When you've finally got some free time, there's nothing wrong with nurturing yourself. Enjoy it before you start having to babysit grandkids."

But Craghead warns that if you're not careful, the "now it's my turn" thinking can morph into a midlife crisis marked by more harmful second-childhood behaviors. "Going to grown-up camp makes a lot more sense than a lot of things I can think of that middle-aged people often turn to."

Beyond doing something with their free time, the growing interest in camps on the part of boomers also can be attributed to a form of delusional thinking. At least it's positive delusional thinking.

"Baby boomers are more than a little bit invested in cheating the reaper," Craghead says. "That's a big reason we're seeing a lot of programs for those who want to be active and outside, and diet- and health-conscious."

Psychological motivations aside, going to an outdoors-oriented camp tailored for grown-ups can be just plain fun. You get to relive your childhood or make up for childhood experiences you missed.

"Adults camp pretty much for the same reason as kids — to have fun," says Hodges. "They want to experience something new, get to be a kid again, find their inner self, play and have a good time."

Hard numbers back up the camp-for-grown-ups trend. Nancy Diamond, president of a Boca Raton, Florida-based company that runs a Web site called grownupcamps.com, says the site is getting 100,000 hits a month and growing.

"Right now we have 89 adult camps listed for Texas," she says. "There's a definite trend toward grown-up camp programs, and we're going to be marketing that more."

(Not all the camps on Diamond's Web site are specific to outdoor recreation. Some cater to adults with special needs; other camps focus on spirituality, recovery and various other categories.)

While plenty of boomers are signing up for outdoor, camp-like experiences, Diamond also sees the post-boomer age group looking for organized outdoor experiences.

"Even younger adults are going to camps," she says. "With the world so busy and hectic, when you have a vacation coming or can take a couple of days off, people want to pursue an interest they may have or enhance a skill they have."

Diamond got into the camp database field more than a decade ago when she launched a Web site listing summer camps for kids.

"We started getting e-mails from parents looking at our directory asking if we knew of any camps for adults," she says. "They said they thought it would be fun to go back to camp themselves, or finally get to do something they never did as a child."

To meet that need, Diamond started her Web site for grown-ups in 1996. It grew steadily but slowly until the boomers started reaching retirement age. Now the pace is picking up.

Opportunities for grown-ups include specific programs in camp settings, slots for adult volunteers at children's camps, camps where you work as well as have fun, and educational programs in locations where you can set up your own tent or stay at a nearby motel or hotel.

Many adults have pleasant memories of childhood camp experiences — participating in exciting activities, enjoying good chow, making new friends. On the other hand, if you're the one whose underwear ended up in the freezer and who always got short-sheeted, your recollections may not be quite as pleasant. At least as an adult, you have more power. Now you can short-sheet someone else's bunk, not to mention staying up as late as you want.

In addition to being wise to all the potential camp pranks, if you're retired or have plenty of vacation time accrued, you're not bound to the school calendar when it comes to camp.

This fall, adults interested in reliving their childhood camp experience can really go back to the past at the annual Pecos Experience Camp at the Shumla School (www.shumla.org, 432-292-4848), an innovative nonprofit operation in Val Verde County dedicated to the study of ancient rock art. From October 5 through 10, a maximum of 15 adults will get to see rock art not normally accessible to the public and learn about the archaeology of the Lower Pecos in the vicinity of the school's facility, 15 miles west of Comstock.

Participants will get to visit representative rock art sites, listen to lectures from internationally known archaeologists (this year's visiting scholar will be Jo McDonald of Australia) and learn how to do everything from making the kind of paint used to draw the mysterious images that are found along the river to cooking lechuguilla and sotol.

Campers get three gourmet meals a day, lodging in single- or double-occupancy tents and transportation to archaeological sites.

The uniqueness of the Pecos Experience Camp is in line with what's happening in Texas and across the nation.

"We're seeing everything from fantasy sports camps to volunteer and enrichment camps offering continued learning," Diamond says. "We believe we're just seeing the beginning of what's going to be available for adults. If you're looking for a good business opportunity, developing camps for adults is a good one."

The adult camp market is more niche-oriented than the long-standing youth market. Some camps, however, span both markets. The Sugar & Spice Ranch Camp at Bandera (www.texashorsecamps.com, 830-460-8487) is for mothers and daughters, who, as its Web site says, "want to spend a week having the best bonding experience of a lifetime." Moms and daughters share the same bunkhouse and during the day ride and learn how to care for the horses they've been assigned.

Farther west, the XBar Ranch (www.xbarranch.com, 888-853-2688) between Eldorado and Sonora, offers adult campers a wide range of activities, from hiking to a setting for family reunions. While they have no programs where adults sit around and sing Kumbaya, the ranch schedules stargazing parties and has cabins for grown-ups who just want to get out of the city and spend some time in the outdoors.

"We've tried organizing other events for adults," says Stan Meadows, who along with other family members owns the ranch, "but most of our customers just want to get away from it all and do their own thing."

While many adults think one way to do their own thing is read a paperback while baking on the beach, Dean Thomas of Aransas Pass offers an outdoor education-oriented operation, the Texas Kayak Fishing School (www.slowrideguide.com, 361-758-0463). Though students have to furnish their own accommodations, the course features two classroom and two on-the-water sessions over a three-day period.

"It's pretty camp-like," Thomas says. "There are various spots where you can pitch a tent and camp right next to fishable water, but most people who take the course prefer a motel room. We don't feed you, but if you pay attention in class, you can learn to feed yourself specks and redfish."

For those with more time on their hands who'd like to learn about freshwater fishing, Will Kirkpatrick conducts a fishing school at Stephen F. Austin State University's Pineywoods Conservation Center on Lake Sam Rayburn (www.fishingenet.net/schools.htm, 409-584-3177).

The TPWD-sponsored Becoming an Outdoors Woman program (www.tpwd.state.tx.us/learning/bow/) offers a couple of camp-like programs each year. Set for October 26 to 28 at Camp For All near Brenham is a workshop featuring instruction on everything from backpacking to fly-tying. The program is open to women interested in getting an overview of outdoor recreational activities. TPWD also offers Texas Outdoor Family workshops for the whole gang.

Every summer for the past 40-plus years, the Texas Archeological Society (www.txarch.org, 210-458-4393) has conducted a coeducational weeklong field school that is about as close to summer camp for grown-ups as it gets. Open to anyone for a registration fee and the price of meals, those who attend the field school get instruction in archaeology (if they're first-timers) and then get to assist in an archaeological dig. Jobs range from digging, to sifting for artifacts to cleaning, packaging and labeling items found.

Last year more than 200 people participated in an ongoing excavation project at Mission San Saba outside Menard. This summer, the field school will be near Perryton in the Panhandle from June 14 to 21.

Campers will pitch their tents or hook up their trailer at Wolf Creek Park and adjoining Lake Fryer, about 14 miles from Perryton in Ochiltree County. Participants will excavate at locations ranging from a prehistoric campground to an 1868 U.S. Cavalry supply depot site. Workers wrap up their day by early afternoon so they can spend the rest of the day visiting local attractions, swimming or just taking it easy.

"I think camp is a great idea for everybody, kids and adults," says Ann Sheets, president of the American Camp Association. "It's an opportunity for kids or adults to be in an unstructured environment and really be themselves with no trappings of civilization that get in the way of being who you are. There's a camp for everyone, whether five or 75."

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