Generations of families have gathered yearly at camp on Grand Mesa
Some come to escape the harried city lifestyle, and some come to connect with friends. Some come to explore their beliefs and some to reaffirm their faith. Some come because they’ve always come, and their mothers or fathers before them have come. Many come for all these reasons together.
Whatever drives them, generations of families from Grand Junction and the surrounding communities gather yearly 10,150 feet above the Grand Valley on the tranquil mesa top, at the end of a narrow road lined with marmot sentinels and browsing deer, and there, they all share a little-known but enormously significant experience.
They call it summer camp — and it has the typical trappings of crafts, hiking, fishing, talent shows and discussions — but it’s a lot more than merely that to most of the people who participate.
“We’re a family,” said Dawn Currier, who’s been partaking in the camp summer after summer since 1986, when she moved to the Western Slope and became a counselor. “People grow up generation after generation and return and continue to serve here.”
This particular camp, overseen by the Grand Mesa Christian Association and shared by area Baptists, who run camp sessions for school-aged children and families in June, and Methodists, who run sessions in July, held an open house on camp grounds on Saturday to celebrate its 100th anniversary — a legacy few organizations in the Grand Valley can match.
And over those decades, people like Currier have invested their lives in the camp and in return had their lives shaped by it. Currier met her future husband, fellow Baptist counselor Carlyle Currier, her first year there. After they married, they served nine years together as deans of the camp. Now they are both members of the board of trustees managing the camp—a position Carlyle Currier’s father held in the 1950s, ‘60s and most of the ‘70s.
Literal family ties—as well as symbolic ones—are common to the camp. Anna Marie Gorman, who is the current registrar for the Methodist camp, started at the camp in the 1960s as a camper. Her mom was a counselor, and all of Gorman’s brothers and sisters also attended.
“Camp was a huge part of my life all the way from sixth grade through high school,” Gorman, now 62, said. “I would save my money all year, because I had to pay for half of my tuition—and at that time, tuition was only $30.”
After her final year as a camper, Gorman became a counselor, while her mom moved on to become a camp director. Gorman counseled for 12 years, all the way through her 20s. After she had her own daughters, she sent them both up to camp as campers.
Her daughter, Emily Kempton, is now the senior director of the camp for high schoolers, and Kempton’s eldest son is about to spend his first days on the Grand Mesa as a camper.
“My grandson will get to go this year, first time,” Gorman said. “That’ll be the fourth generation of my family.”
So what draws community members to the camp decade after decade, fostering this sense of family belonging? To start with, a little peace and quiet.
“For five or six days, you’re in an environment that’s completely isolated from the outside world,” Gorman said. This isolation creates special bonds among campers. “It’s a different way of getting to know people.”
Gorman still reconnects with some of the friends she made as a camper in the 1960s and remembers many of her old cabin-mates by name.
“The memories that are there are just tremendous,” Gorman said of the camp.
Gorman’s daughter, Kempton, finds that the camp offers an important respite where youths can gain perspective on the stressors they often deal with at home.
“I think young people today need a healthy outlet away from their home lives and away from the business of every day life,” Kempton said. The camp offers a “safe space” where kids can reflect on their lives and their faith, she added.
The camp was a refuge for Kempton herself when she was a youngster. At 9 years old, shortly after her first summer as a camper, she lost her father after he suddenly fell ill from a serious disease. Kempton remembers having a powerful religious experience the following summer at camp while sitting at the campfire.
“After that, faith became a very strong part of my life,” Kempton said.
Even when she rebelled against her mother as a teenager, refusing to go to church with her, Kempton continued to go to camp. “It kept me connected with my faith,” Kempton said.
It’s been 100 years since Christians first held a camp on the spot on Grand Mesa where the roughly 27 acres of Baptist and Methodist camp land — leased from the U.S. Forest Service — sit today. At that time, camp members pitched tents during the sessions. Cabins began to dot the scene in the 1920s — a chapel, a dining hall and a girls’ dormitory were among the first.
At that time, the camp was operated by Methodists and rented out for a few weeks each summer by Baptists, but in the 1940s the groups decided they’d be stronger if they banded together to oversee the camp. They chartered the Grand Mesa Christian Association in 1950.
Harry Talbott, a board of trustrees member and generational Grand Valley peach farmer, began attending the camp just before then, in 1947. He met his wife at the camp when he was 16. The two got married a few years later and celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary at the camp earlier this summer.
Though Talbott, now 82, and his wife didn’t tie the knot on camp grounds, he said it’s a very nice place to do so. “Nine sets of my relatives have gotten married up there,” Talbott said.
Changes in the world have abounded in the 70 years since Talbott’s first summer at Baptist camp, but camp life has remained comparatively constant. Some buildings have come down, a few new ones have been built, but the rustic, peaceful nature of the place stays steady.
The camp is still fueled simply by minimal camper fees, camp rentals and donations. The grounds and buildings are maintained by volunteers, and no camper who’d like to attend is ever turned away.
“I think it’s about as wholesome a thing as we have in this community,” Talbott said.
Perhaps the most significant change to camp has been a decline in numbers of campers.
The prominent thought among camp leaders on why fewer kids are coming to camp is that young people are busier than they used to be.
“I think nowadays kids just have a lot more competition for their time,” Dawn Currier said. There are clubs and events, sports teams and vacations, and the school years have been getting longer, cutting in on summer.
Currier counts about 115 campers split among the three sessions for elementary school, middle school and high school kids this summer at Baptist camp, while at one time the camp would be full-up, with more than 100 kids attending each of the three sessions.
But those involved with the camp believe deeply in its value and its future, regardless of the numbers.
“It’s a unique piece of ground. I don’t know of anything else like it,” Talbott said. “We hope to be around another hundred years.”