On a warm spring evening in 2018, I board a bus in New York City headed for the foothills of Pennsylvania. I’ve signed up for Camp Meets Bagel—a three-day sleep-away camp for single adults. The plan is simple: spend a long weekend with 150 strangers and relive the camp experience I never had as a teenager: bunk beds, crushes, dodgeball games, and all.
Despite growing up on Vancouver Island, where babies exit the womb with a kayak and a membership to MEC, I rarely set foot in the woods. I was raised by non-campers, and the isolation and vastness of the woods terrify me. I’m also a life-long germaphobe who’s abysmal at team sports involving a ball and hand-eye coordination.
We’ll be housed in unheated, co-ed cabins with 20 people we’ve never met. Even before COVID, the weekend sounds like the plot of a reality show and my worst nightmare rolled into one. But I’m burnt out from online dating and willing to push myself outside my comfort zone if I might experience some campfire sparks.
I’m what you might call an introverted extrovert. I love meeting new people and can work the room like nobody’s business, but I’ve always preferred deep, intimate conversations with one or two people over small talk with many. Socially, I like an exit plan. It’s the reason my parents had to pick me up early from sleepovers and why I still fear events I can’t easily Uber home from.
It’s also the reason I have a love-hate relationship with online dating. On one hand, I can control how much I interact with people, but there’s always a tipping point where my excitement turns to feeling overwhelmed, and within a month I usually delete whatever app I’m using. Will a similar impulse take over once I get to camp?
As we weave through the streets of Manhattan, a camp counsellor makes her way down the aisle, passing out beer. Barely audible over Ariana Grande blasting from the speakers above, she shouts, “Y’all ready for camp?” My fellow campers cheer, and I slide down in my seat. Later, as a drunken singalong breaks out to Hanson’s “MMMBop,” I start to wonder if I’ve made a terrible mistake.
My fears are not unfounded. After a booze-and-pizza-filled campfire meet-and-greet, I retire to my top bunk wearing a parka over my pajamas to ward off the bone-chilling early-spring mountain air. In the middle of the night, I wake to yelling from the shared bathroom. With my eyes still closed, I recognize the male voice as belonging to one of the campers in my bunkhouse I met earlier that night—a mid-twenty-something who spent the entire weekend in a Batman onesie.
“Ugh, there’s no paper towels! This is terrible. Girls don’t like me! This is horrible! I don’t know why I came here!”
At first, I think I might be dreaming. When I open my eyes, I see my cabin mate pointing at the bunk beds lining the room.
“You suck! You suck! You’re okay. You suck!” He adds, “Well, good night, gentlemen,” before collapsing into his own bunk. Silence.
Shaken, I feel this outburst is as ridiculous as it is familiar. A veteran online dater, I’ve been on the receiving end of many unhinged rants from men I’ve rejected. Here it is happening live. This is the first time I feel this acute sense of dating déjàvu, but it will not be the last.
The next morning, I stumble down the ladder of my bunk and make my way to the bathroom. I am in the midst of putting in a contact lens when a shirtless guy takes the spot at the sink next to mine and cheerfully introduces himself. “So, where are you from?” he asks, his mouth full of toothpaste. That’s when it hits me: I am living in a dating app brought to life—shirtlessness, bathroom selfies, and rejection-fuelled rants included—and I can’t swipe left. I have to acknowledge the human being standing next to me and engage. Although it’s jarring, I soon discover that learning to overcome these moments of discomfort is one of the best parts of the weekend.
When one of my bunk mates suggests I climb the rope course, I reluctantly strap on safety gear and approach the 50-foot structure made of wood and metal grips. My biceps ache, but when I reach the top, something clicks. As I rappel to the ground, I hear people clapping. I have the sudden urge to hug each one of them.
According to relationship expert Terri Orbuch, author of 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage From Good to Great, this reaction is common. When you complete a challenging activity with others, “the process of trust and intimacy is accelerated because you don’t typically do such an activity with someone early in the dating process,” she says.
The endorphins don’t hurt, either. As Orbuch explains, “Doing exciting, risky, new activities together (for example, archery, rock climbing, jumping out of an airplane, riding a roller coaster) can produce the chemicals in your body that are related to passionate love.! Passionate love is the love of arousal and excitement.”
I don’t know if it’s the feel-good neurochemicals coursing through my body, but when I see my camp crush later in the evening, I initiate a conversation—something I might not do if I weren’t completely present in the moment, still high on the rush of my rope course victory.
Although a weekend in the great outdoors does any city dweller good, it’s the in-between moments I revel in. The cozy, late-night fireside conversations. Making friendship bracelets in the mess hall with new friends as we wait out a rainstorm. Talking to the other campers, I learn most are there for the same reason. We are all searching for an alternative to online dating.
Four years later, while I have no desire to repeat the experience—turns out watching strange men put on deodorant every morning doesn’t exactly stoke the flames of desire—I think often about camp. As I once again navigate online dating (this time, with vaccination statuses and Zoom dates thrown into the mix), I long for the unexpected freedom. What I thought I’d find most frustrating about camp (being stuck in the woods with no way out) turned out to be the selling point.
“When it comes to dating, having hundreds of options a click away only heightens the anxiety we already had about picking the wrong partner. And the anxiety doesn’t end when you pick and start dating someone,” says Avrum Nadigel, a Toronto therapist and co-author of Love Starts Here: Becoming Your Best Self to Find Your Best Match. I always thought my dislike of online dating stemmed from lack of choices, but maybe the problem was too many.
That said, even though the world is opening up again, we can’t all run off to a camp in the woods every weekend. Besides, as Nadigel points out, simply limiting our choices isn’t the answer to finding the right partner. We need a solid understanding of who we are first. This can help eliminate most of the people on a dating site, he says. A willingness to foster meaningful communication will take you the rest of the way.
This can happen when you let yourself be temporarily uncomfortable and challenge long-held beliefs about yourself. In my case, I learned that what once provided me with a sense of safety and control (online dating) actually feeds into my worst impulse—the urge to avoid and retreat from people when faced with potential discomfort.
In the meantime, I’m looking for new and safe ways to foster more in-person connections in Vancouver and beyond, whether that means purchasing a membership to a local climbing gym to get my rope course fix, volunteering for a cause I’m passionate about, or simply making a point to talk to people at my local coffee shop.I’m still figuring it out. After venturing into the woods to find a date, I know hiding behind a screen is no longer where I belong.