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N.H. Summer Camp Devoted To 'Writing Up The Mountains'

When you think of summer camp, you might think of games, crafts, sing-alongs or maybe canoes. But NHPR’s Sean Hurley paid a visit to another kind of summer camp, one devoted to hiking and writing.

We've only just started up the trail to Indian Head, but already 16 year old Brandi is having trouble breathing.

"Tired.  Really tired.  I don't really like having asthma.  It weakens me.  I was down there and I almost threw up."

Brandi's 12 year old sister Evelyn checks to make sure Brandi has her inhaler.  At home, Evelyn gets to read her older sister's stories.

"She writes stories about cats and fairies.  I think they're actually really nice.  She's a good writer."

After we cross a stream and the trail flattens, hike leader Erin Sweeney calls for the first of four writing breaks. 

"We're gonna do a close observation of something in this area. And I'm gonna have you write a description of whatever you are looking at."

The 7 kids sit on rocks and logs, notebooks on knees. Maybe it's the lack of real tables but the longer they write the more they fall toward their words until they're so close it's like they're fixing their notebooks with the screwdrivers of their pens.

Credit Sean Hurley
Evelyn during a writing prompt. "So close it's like they're fixing their notebooks with the screwdrivers of their pens..."

After five minutes Sweeney asks them to pair up.  14 year old Rin shares what she wrote with Brandi.

"The scene of a trail. The autumn leaves left behind.  The twirling roots connected with the nearby trees. But what really fascinates me is the ground because everything starts from the ground.
That's really good.  I liked it."

Further up the trail the next writing prompt takes the form of a short reflection. This time some of the kids stand to write and hold their notebooks out like waiters taking down the dinner orders of the trees.  When they gather to read Brandi is still thinking about her lack of breath.

"I am that dead hanging branch bent and tired from extra weight, wishing to let go and give up.  But like it's original trunk I will stand proud and tall.
Oh I like that.
Mine's bad. 
It says, I am water, wet and cold, moving around, making history.
Oooh...I like that."

Logan is 15 and the only boy.  He loves to hike but not so much the writing.

"Well I'm here because I'm not that good at it and I should learn more about it. And I like nature and walking." 

14 year old Rin tilts the other way.

"It's like a really nice experience hiking, but it's still kind of annoying.  I'm all in this for the writing."

PSU professor Meg Petersen, who directs the National Writing Project in NH, pushed for the camp, and got the Center for Rural Partnerships to pay for it.

"We have summer camp programs all over the state and one of the areas that we haven't been doing very well is the North Country and part of that is because what we charge in order to run the camp is more than people in this area can pay.  So everything is free."

At the top of the mountain, hike leader Lori Innes says the week will culminate in a reading.

Credit Sean Hurley
Madeline on the mountain.

"The idea is that we wanted to invite their parents and have a celebration so each one of them will share the piece they want to have published."

On Wednesday the kids hike and write their way to Zealand Hut.  On Thursday, it's Lonesome Lake.  And on Friday, they meet in Bethlehem and the kids stand and read their favorite bit of writing to their gathered families.

"Dearest Diary.  The bellman saw me today.  And I saw him.  It was like opening my eyes for the first time.
Word travels fast and when the last person hears it the original story is no longer there.
I turned to see a large disc soaring through the air before me.
As I'm walking through the forest, I see a red squirrel darting under a bush. It looks so small compared to me."

Sean Hurley lives in Thornton with his wife Lois and his son Sam. An award-winning playwright and radio journalist, his fictional “Atoms, Motion & the Void” podcast has aired nationally on NPR and Sirius & XM Satellite radio. When he isn't writing stories or performing on stage, he likes to run in the White Mountains. He can be reached at shurley@nhpr.org.
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