The Retreat of Simplicity
By Nicole Wallace
Faith, Love, Humility, Honesty, and Courage: When I was a child, these were nothing more than rocks to me. They were gigantic climbing rocks, each with its name engraved somewhere on its surface, and together serving as a natural playground to all of us who accompanied our parents to Shelter Island for our church’s annual family retreat at Camp Quinipet. Sure, Disney World was a fun place, and Christmas was a great holiday, but there was nothing as exciting as driving our car onto the North Ferry and looking across the water to the tree-lined hills and cliffs that made up the perimeter of the enchanting island.
Two words best describe what Quinipet represented to me in those days: fun and freedom. There must have been some supervision, though I don’t recall it well. Our parents had a separate schedule that I knew little about and cared about even less. Teenage members of the church were given the responsibility of watching us, but apparently they just wanted to have fun, too. The memories that mean the most are the ones that linger, and so I remember being as free as Tom, Huck, and Jim on their island in theMississippi.
The camp was alive with sites to explore. Aside from the climbing rocks, there were rolling hills, shadowy woods, a beach with a gazebo that sat precariously on a giant rock over the water’s edge, and of course the historical guesthouses where we slept. Our imaginations were alive with the thrill of what we would discover next. And who were “we”? I can now only name two or three boys and girls I played with at these retreats over the years. Every year the cast of characters changed, but the camaraderie was always the same. The sense of exploration and discovery we all shared was almost magical. We climbed over the railing of the gazebo onto the rock and looked out over the water, feeling especially daring since there was a warning sign about rip currents, and since we had heard an urban legend about someone who had drowned there. In the kitchen of the guesthouse named Jesse Lee, we found a secret door that led to a hidden staircase and then spent hours looking for similar hidden passageways in the other old buildings. We played Capture the Flag during the daylight and Ghost in the Graveyard at night on the grassy, rolling grounds that led down to the water. We chased a dark figure through the woods, then ducked and hid and ran to safety when we thought the figure was coming after us.
I particularly recall the shuttered building that we convinced ourselves was haunted. It sat at the top of a grass-covered hill whose base was next to the climbing rocks. The building had several narrow sets of French doors that ran the length of the red shingled walls. When we peered through the doors, we could make out furniture and other unknown objects covered with white sheets. The interior was dark, dusty, and creepy—the perfect setting for ghosts. Since we couldn’t (or wouldn’t) go inside, we swore there was movement from within.
“I just saw something move!” one boy would say.
“Aaaaah!” another girl would scream as she turned and started running down the hill. We would all start screaming and follow her, some running, some rolling, and all of us stopping at the bottom next to the rock named Courage.
“Let’s go check it out again!”
And so we continued to see the ghost, scream, and roll down the hill until the bell outside the dining hall started clanging, “Time for lunch!”
A lot of time was spent climbing or hanging out on the rocks for which the camp was named. In spite of my curious nature, I was a cautious child, afraid to get injured in any way. That is probably why I avoided Love. Love was the most challenging rock to climb; I stayed away and watched as more daring children like my brother scaled its steep sides. Many of them used a large evergreen tree that stood beside it. At least two children fell from that rock over the years. I remember one boy spending the rest of the weekend wearing a sling on his right arm.