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going way, way back to my summers at camp willoway

As I was laughing and crying watching The Way, Way Back last week, it dawned on me that the most authentic coming-of-age movies – the ones that bring us right back to our own awkward years of growing up – always seem to take place during the summer. In fact, when I really think about it, my whole adolescence can be defined by the summers I spent at Camp Willoway.

In the movie (which opens in select theaters on July 5 and is a must-see, by the way), 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) is forced to spend his vacation in a beach town with his mom (Toni Collette) and her jerk of a boyfriend (Steve Carell). Shy and totally out of place, Duncan feels lonely and like an outcast until he is taken under the wing of Owen (Sam Rockwell), the wacky but warm manager of the local water park. There, he finds people who care about him – and, in turn, he finds himself.

Willoway was my Water Wizz. It’s not that I needed somewhere to escape to – I had a loving family and great friends – but, thanks to the people I met there and the fact that I could be with them for weeks on end without having any other responsibilities, it felt like an oasis. It was the place where I became me.

Back then, New York City kids headed to sleepaway camps to get away from skyscrapers, concrete and crowds, and many of those camps were luxurious and filled with high-brow activities.

Willoway was not one of those camps.

I was 12 my first summer there, and I felt at home the minute I arrived and heard Box of Rain playing from a cassette player in the kitchen. I didn’t care that our bunks were tents that would never be posted on Pinterest as examples of “glamping,” that we basically lived on “bug juice” and that there was nothing like horseback riding on the schedule. I don’t even remember there being a schedule. If there was one, we certainly didn’t follow it.

Instead, we spent our days hanging out, talking endlessly, playing guitar and listening to music. The soundtrack to those summers was provided by the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers and the Band. To this day, if Friend of the Devil, Blue Sky or Up on Cripple Creek comes on the radio, I’m immediately transported back 40 years to those magical days in the chairs in front of the main house.

Our nights were spent sneaking into the boys’ tents or entertaining them in ours. Summer love was exciting, probably because it was short-lived and passionate. It was a dramatic time filled with firsts, and no matter what happened, we knew we were okay because we were all there to support each other.

We became so close because we were literally together 24/7 and had the luxury of time to get past what was on the surface. We accepted and celebrated our differences, and got to know the staff as well as our fellow campers. At the end of my last summer there, we gathered around a TV to watch Nixon resign. It was the 1970’s and we were young, liberal and idealistic. Thanks to the camp experiences that shaped my views, I’m still that girl.

There’s a scene at the end of The Way, Way Back where Duncan tells Owen, “I wish I could stay here forever.” That’s exactly how I felt about camp.

My friends and I sobbed at the end of every summer, clutching on to each other and gushing “I love you,” even though we wrote letters, spent hours on the phone and continued to see each other throughout the year. I still have the pillowcases everyone autographed each summer, along with the memory logs we printed up and the treasured photos of long-haired teens frozen together in time.

All these years later, Duncan may find it reassuring to know that, although most of us now have children who have already outgrown camp themselves, we still stay in touch through our Willoway Facebook group. I’m happy to see that Water Wizz has a Facebook page, too. This will make it easy for Duncan to connect with his pals years from now – when he’s setting out on the journey of his life, confidently sitting in the driver’s seat rather than merely watching the world pass by him from the way, way back.

This post was sponsored by Fox Searchlight Pictures. All opinions are, as always, my own.

This post originally appeared on my former blog, StyleSubstanceSoul.com.


  1. Melinda Burgard says:

    Well-written and well-said. Thank-you..for everything <3
    With Willoway Love,

  2. Lois: Willoway forever!!! Thank you for this beautiful post, I feel like I’ve won the summer camp Academy Award being included in these photos.
    My husband grew up in Northern Cal, never heard of sleepaway. I would try and describe Willoway, he just didn’t get it. We were fortunate enough to find a camp that, while not as ‘bare bones’ as Willoway, is definitely unglamorous and down to earth. Both our boys (now 15 and 17) have been going for years. I recently heard my husband say, “I get it now.” I am so truly grateful for my/our Willoway memories, for my boys getting a slice of it, and now I will take my husband to this movie based on your review.

  3. a native San Diegan, I never had the camp sleepaway experience…neither did my kids because they were in year-round school, which started right after the 4th of July. Thank you for sharing your wonderful summers with us, Lois. I hope our granddaughters will have a chance to spend their summers this way!

  4. Barbara Cargill says:

    What a wonderful article! Willoway is part of me….like breathing. Our camp memories are deep and true and define us…I learned to love and be free and be me, for nine weeks a summer. For five years. Time stood still there. Thank you Lois, for posting these beautiful pictures, and writing this wonderful story!

  5. Deb Schwartz Fein says:

    The girl int he first picture – next to Melinda is Carol M? I remember her.

    • Carol Markowitz Rodriguez says:

      I went to Camp Willoway, too, in Hancock, NY! 1964 -’68 and would love to see the pix. I am no longer on Facebook (ever since finding out my childhood best friend passed away just a few years prior), so no way of seeing them, but could I be that “Carol M.”? My maiden name is Markowitz. Even if I am not, I would really be appreciative if there was some way, maybe via email?

  6. Sharon Stanley says:

    You really pegged it, Lois! The music, the feelings, the support; there was nothing like it. I especially loved it when you said, “…it was the place where I became me.” Beautiful!

  7. My grandson Ryan age almost 9 is going to sleep away camp for a month in Wisconsin this summer. He is very excited. His twin brother said absolutely not for him. He will go away for 3 days to a baseball camp closer to home. My DIL went to sleep away camp when she was young and lived in Chicago and swears it was the best years of her younger life. She still has friends from those camp days. Living in SOCAl we never needed sleep away because we had everything close by. Ryan is now living in SoCal but really wants to go away to camp for archery, kayaking for two days on an adventure and every other activity the camp offers. I am sure he will come back with great stories just like yours Lois.

  8. The joy of “being”; in a time and place where relationship and exploration could flourish. A cherished space of freedom before embarking on adulthood world where in our society almost everything seems to be “transactional”. Willoway was certainly one of those empowering places. Thanks for a great article, Lois!

  9. My Willoway was Camp Marydell, in Nyack, NY. I spent a month every summer there from the time I was 11 years old right on through my first year in college as a counselor. It was a beautiful property on acres of rolling hills overlooking the Hudson River. Sr. Michael was the matriarch, a tough old broad in nun’s clothing with a heart of gold. I think about the girls I spent so much of my childhood with and wonder how they are today. I have completely lost track – in fact, can’t even remember their last names! – but I would to see Dawn, Susan, Roe and the rest. Sweet memories.

    • Kristina Iulo says:

      Hello Lynn,

      I just did a search for Camp Marydell and found your post. I am 44 and was at the camp between the ages of 7 through 11. It was an amazing experience. When were you there?


      • Victoria McElwaine says:

        I’m desperate for a summer sleepseay camp for my twin boys, just turned 12. Circumstances have left them super-attached and with no idea of the joys of life away from home. I wonder if they are too old to start? Any recommendations for a great camp near Notheast PA?

  10. I saw the ads for this last night; now I’m sure to put it on my list.

  11. Ellen Zlotnick says:

    Perfect, Lois.
    Our oasis, our cocoon. Where we learned to blossom.
    And formed our views about the world, music…everything.
    Willoway is always with us.

  12. Helene Cohen Bludman says:

    I love this because I can totally relate. I went to summer camp for 6 years and the experience was priceless. My camp, even though it no longer exists, also has a FB page. It is wonderful to share photos and memories with many former campers!

  13. Anne @GenFabulous says:

    Great pictures!
    Things were different when and where I grew up. Camps were either single-sex or religious. No romantic tent sneaking!
    I tell you the 80s weren’t half the fun of the 70s.

    This movie looks good! Loved Toni Collette since Muriel’s Wedding.

  14. Boy, that sure takes me back. Willoway was the best time ever. Such a great and well-written piece. I too am transported back whenever I hear “Friend of the Devil” or “Up on Cripple Creek.”

    I was recently telling a friend about how great my experiences at Camp were and how we had a schedule but never followed it, which was one of the reasons we loved it so. But looking back we must’ve followed it sometimes because I remember arts & crafts (my stuff blew up in the kiln), soccer matches, sailing a sunfish on our little lake, and hanging out with my friends on the side of the lake when we were supposed to be swimming.

    I’ll never forget either all the talks we used to have sitting in the adirondack chairs under the big tree next to the main house. There were so many good times and conversations with laughing that seemed to go on forever. There are so many times I just wish I could go back to those free-spirited days again but I have to say its nice to have indoor plumbing without spiders now.

  15. Lovely post. Summer camp was such a fun time. (And the movie website is fun, too!)

  16. Lois, you know how much I loved summer camp too! I can’t wait to see The Way Way Back…it looks like the perfect movie for a July weekend!

  17. My daughter just returned from her first summer camp (5 days, 4 nights). I swear she’s taller. I love Toni Collette. I saw her years ago in Muriel’s Wedding (an indie film), and I try to catch everything she’s in. Looks like a fun-painful-insightful film — lifelike.

  18. What a fantastic American experience. Growing up in Australia, summer camps just don’t exist. I really missed out! So glad my kids are getting to have these experiences now. Adding this movie to my must-see list!

  19. Lois, I always wished my parents would send me away to summer camp, but it never happened. I feel like I really missed out. Even today when I watch movies about summer camp I become wistful and nostalgic for an experience I truly wish I’d had.

    Camp Willoway sounds wonderful. And any movie with Steve Carroll is likely a good one.

  20. I was able to attend a free screening of the movie last week and admit I was a little disappointed – the acting was great, but there just seemed to be gaps, stretches, and a lack of development in some areas. But I still laughed, hated Steve Carell’s character, and felt good at the end.
    On the other hand, I love and envy your memories of Camp Willoway! The closest I came were annual family camping trips to Camp Garner, where there were dances every night under the stars and days were spent in the cold Frio River. But our families were with us…just not the same!

  21. I love this story. I did not have to good fortune to go to sleep away camp, but still your story resonates. I also want to see this movie – just saw a preview of it in the theater when I sent to see The Bling Ring. It looks marvelous. – Pam

  22. First of all, I saw previews for this movie and cannot wait to see it! Second, you are so fortunate to have gone to sleepaway camp. I never wanted to go – too afraid I’d be homesick – but I know from others what a special experience it is/was.
    And lastly, if you haven’t read The Interestings, you must. It’s about a group of friends who meet at sleepaway camp.

  23. Love this post. It brought back so many memories. Am putting this movie on my must see list this summer.

  24. Oh love the throwback camp pictures! So many memories and all that hair! Just saw the trailer to this movie yesterday. Looks like fun. Great that you all keep in touch!

  25. I wish I had your experience at summer camp….loved reading this!

  26. Linda Lichtman says:

    Honestly? Oy! I was a terror in sleepaway camp – started at age 10, loved all the sports, learned to swim, excelled in volleyball – found out I was a leader – and discovered I was an angry kid who forced my bunk mates into doing crazy things…like sneaking out of our bunk in the middle of the night and walking everyone down a main road in the Catskills (Camp Mayfair anyone) and forcing them to ditch into the woods every time we saw headlights…we were caught and I was punished by being forced into sleeping in the Camp owner’s “old lady” apartment. It is right here that I apologize to everyone whoever was a bunkmate that I pushed around and tortured. I have grown into a loving, caring friend, wife and stepmother – with lots of therapy! Love to Lois and the girls.

  27. Claudia says:

    You should read the novel The Interestings. The story parallels your camp experiences.

  28. Elaine Plummer says:

    I never went to camp, but if I had I would have wanted your experience. However, I did send my daughter to a wonderful camp in Cleveland where my Dad went when he was a boy and my sister went too. My daughter loved it every year and looked forward to each summer when she could go back, which she did for 5 years. Nice read and I liked the photos too.

  29. Jane Robinson friedman says:

    So sad we never knew about reunion. We started in bear mt then moved to Hancock which was fancy by comparison flush toilets and electricity. We went to reunion in NYC but I guess we never were in touch with anyone. We started at 8’and went forever and then got married.
    We later worked at a fancy sports camp while husband in law school. Best years of our lives.
    Still friendly with some of the campers. My husband lived in mt Vernon so the guys were all his friends

  30. Besokool says:

    I was there – same summer I think. My counselor was Dave Doctorow. The property was owned by the Mead family. We watched Nixon resign on the black and white tv that the Mead’s put outside their house. Also playing that summer was Bob Dylan’s Hurricane, The Dead’s Uncle John’s Band, and for me and my best friend, Michael Gorlin – we discovered Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. There was another staff guy, maybe 17 year’s old, named Peter Cobner. He had a bunk with a full “Quadrophonic” set up. He played ELP’s masterpiece “Brain Salad Surgery” till our 12 year old minds were completely blown. I remember the canteen – the staff performing Grease….God knows what else. Thanks for reminding me of that summer.

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