The freedom of what it meant to be young
Two best friends, one campground, lots of nostalgia
This is my best attempt to capture the nebulous combination of what it looks like when best friends travel through the most iconic years of life together.
Maybe you remember it, too?
My best friend lived at a campground.
At age 12, I thought this was pretty cool. It meant we could do all kinds of special summer vacation things when we hung out: swim, shoot pool, walk nature trails, and play arcade games in the game room at the campground store.
It was a time before iPhones and social media, before Apple and Facebook dominated the world and vied for our attention. We were kids, which meant weekends were sacred spaces set aside to hang out and goof off, and friendships were tight-knit and steadfast.
Our friendship began in sixth-grade gym class as we begrudgingly participated in standard activities like mat ball, volleyball, and the ever-popular square dancing. We talked, we bonded, and it wasn’t long before the innocent intimacy of tweenhood turned us into an inseparable duo who passed paper football notes in the hallway and spent hours on the phone in the afternoons when our homework was done.
Her name was Beth. I called her Al.
Her home was a trailer that sat on one of the campground’s long-term sites. In the back was her bedroom, an eight-by-eight square that somehow managed to house a bed, a TV, a gaming console, and a computer desk—complete with one of the iconic boxy Windows 3.1 machines of the era. We often tucked ourselves in there to play video games or read stories to each other from a series we began co-writing in seventh grade. On warm days, the trailer’s side door stood open and admitted a warm breeze heavy with the scent of greenery and the persistent humidity of the Northeast summer.
There was an element of simplicity to those days. Minimal responsibilities outside of school meant we were free to arrange spontaneous sleepovers (provided our parents were open to playing chauffeur) and spend entire weekends engrossed in what might have seemed, to an outsider, like pointless activities.
The sleepovers spilled out of Al’s bedroom and into the trailer proper, where we had space to make beds on the couch and the floor. Sometimes other friends would join us, and we’d become a trio or a quartet. But much of the time, it was just me and Al, relishing the freedom of what it meant to be young.
Adult responsibilities seemed distant and foreign. There were no jobs to concern ourselves with, no cars or rent payments—just hours of time in which to build our friendship as we came of age in the classic turbulent, emotional way with its epic peaks and valleys.
But the important things happened in the mundane.
Not that we saw it that way. To us, spending afternoons and evenings bingeing on cartoons or laughing ourselves stupid over jokes only we understood was just normal life. It seemed like those times would last forever, even as summers passed into new school years and school years waned into summers.
Al’s dad was pretty hands-off, which meant we could do what we wanted when we hung out as long as we didn’t get into trouble. But neither of us was that kind of kid. Our craziest antics consisted of singing along to our favorite boy band and making plans to become an equally famous girl band who would join said boy band for a tour and, of course, live happily ever after with The Cute One and The Rebel, with whom our young teenage selves were madly in love.
Karaoke night at the campground was the perfect time to take the first step in our ambitious career.
It was the summer after eighth grade, and the boy band had just released their latest album. A token sugar-pop single rang its nonsensical chorus from grocery store speakers and discman headphones everywhere—and we were determined to add our own rendition to the endless refrain.
This, of course, required hours of practice and just the right combination of clothes and makeup. We adorned ourselves in our most grown-up girl band attire, ready to make our campground lodge debut as the hit singers we knew we’d become.
Our first brush with fame was far from flawless. Neither of us was used to singing in front of a crowd. Nervousness made us fumble. Self-consciousness tripped us up. But we persevered and made it through with a round of applause and our dreams of fame intact.
Through afternoons and evenings filled with soda and pizza and salty snacks, we dreamed of a day when we too would be on stage performing in front of screaming fans or hitting the recording studio to put the finishing touches on our latest hit album.
A dream, yes, and only a dream—the fanciful imaginations of two friends living in the stretch of life between childhood and adulthood when we had all the time in the world to fantasize and sing and write stories and run around the campground and lie on the floor talking at midnight when we should have been sleeping.
Middle school gave way to high school, but our patterns stayed the same. Our friendship developed a solidity, becoming reliable and stable through hours of time spent together. We were the kind of friends who could tell each other anything, the confidants of the dark and hard places in each other’s lives. No matter what was going on, I knew I could always rely on Al to be there.
And she was still there, even as aspirations of fame faded and responsibilities of life slowly swallowed up our endless summers. It was a freedom that couldn’t last, an era that could never be reclaimed, but our time navigating the ups and downs and hopes and fears that come with early teenage years gave us a shared history that proved to be unshakeable.
The campground is still there. Al’s trailer isn’t.
The days of landlines and cartoons and running free are long past. Al works in tech support; I spend my days writing content for brands. As we grew through our 26 years of friendship, jobs and cars and rent payments overtook long campground afternoons and midnight sleepover conversations. In the adulthood that once seemed so distant, time is no longer the endless resource we once believed it to be.
But sometimes we capture a few hours over a cup of coffee to settle into our comfortable rhythms and let nostalgia carry us back to those iconic summers, reliving a time of tentative teenage freedom that, despite its troubles, always felt like home.