in which I do nothing

I’m happy to announce that Cactus Camp is over and even happier to say that, for the second year in a row, there were no fatalities.

What’s that? You don’t know what Cactus Camp is?

No, I suppose you wouldn’t, although it’s hard for me to recall a time when I was that innocent. I will attempt to elucidate.

Cactus Camp, to the best of my recollection and understanding—both of which have been called into question recently—started last year when my sister Angela brought her children to visit us during their April break. At the time, the girls were 7 and 10 and they’d been here a couple times before. Our house isn’t very interesting to most adults, and has even less to recommend it to people below the legal drinking age. (Those above that limit might be mildly pleased by the prospect of sipping grapefruit margaritas on the back patio in late afternoon sun.) Anyway, I was concerned that the kids might get bored. More than that, I was concerned that I might then be required to take them to the zoo.

I loathe the zoo.

As it happened, we did end up at the zoo last year, but it wasn’t out of boredom. It was because Cactus Camp sent us there. Cactus Camp sends us a lot of places. It sends us into the desert and into rivers and even into museums. Cactus Camp runs us all over the state of Arizona.

But we don’t know who runs Cactus Camp.

We’ve never met anybody who claimed to work for Cactus Camp. We’ve never seen so much as a stray lanyard lying about or caught a polo-shirted counselor out of the corner of our eyes. Things just appear. Challenges, clues, riddles, and vague warnings, all printed on large index cards that seem to manifest out of nowhere. The first signs of Cactus Camp—the very first appearance—were found on top of the inflatable mattress that the kids share when they come to visit. It’s a queen size airbed that I borrow from a friend and it takes up most of the floor space in my office. When the two sleepy girls tumbled into it one night in April 2013 after a long plane trip from Vermont, they snapped awake and started giggling like…well, like little girls.

There was a card on each pillow. They were identical and they said:

New Cactus Scouts
Cactus Camp is seeking new scouts.
(Don’t ask what happened to the last ones.)
If you like exploring deserts,
having daring adventures,
accepting dangerous challenges,
meeting wild creatures,
and baking chocolate chip cookies,
then, you too, can be a Cactus Scout.

Are you brave enough to try?

The mysterious (and somewhat sinister-sounding) camp challenged willing participants to find an adventure log, which turned out to be a simple booklet made of a posterboard cover bound with ring clips. Later challenge cards came pre-punched with holes to enable the eager campers to add them to their books. And those campers were eager. Despite recurring allusions to former campers and unsolved disappearances, they pounced on every challenge. Angela and Ryan and I scrambled to drive them to and fro and accompany them on hikes and swims and various outings and also keep everyone fed. By the end of the week, they went home with log books filled with drawings and lists of things they’d seen and done and a printed record of their adventures. Apparently this is considered a Cactus Camp success, because when they got home, I hear they got packages in the mail with souvenir t-shirts and certificates of survival.

And apparently, Cactus Camp was a success with the girls as well, because as soon as their mother and I had confirmed the dates for this year’s visit, I heard that they wanted “to do Cactus Camp again.”

I have precious little influence in this world, but I tried to get word to the appropriate authorities. That’s no easy task when you don’t know who or where they are. But it must have worked, because the day before the girls were to leave Vermont, I heard that they received letters in the mail. No, not letters: cards.

Camp Registration
And Liability Waiver

I, __________________________,
(print your name)

want to attend Cactus Camp 2014.
I promise to be brave
and not to scream too loud
and also to brush my teeth.

Both girls signed up, which means that we adults did, too. By the time the visitors arrived, welcome notes had again appeared on their bed—although the fact that their flight arrived 45 minutes early might have thrown off the Cactus Camp log book assemblers, which I noted didn’t show up until the next morning.

However, the morning had a surprise that raised our eyebrows far higher than a mere log book could do. On Sunday night, when the Vermont contingent arrived, Angela told us  she had forgotten to pack sun hats. She had confessed the oversight to her kids while they were waiting out the layover in Dulles. Now this was a serious issue, Arizona being a land of brutal sun. We figured we’d have to go shopping in the morning.

But come morning, things got weird. Or weirder, if you would have already found it weird that someone had left notes lying around your house while you were at the airport. After last year, we were prepared for that. But we weren’t prepared for the series of challenges on Monday morning that led the girls throughout my house and yard, stringing together hidden clues that culminated in the discovery of two Western-style hats hanging in trees. The hats fit perfectly, but at no point did we learn who was measuring heads and monitoring packing lists. The mystery deepened.

After that start, we didn’t fret as much about the cryptic instructions that appeared throughout each day. We just helped to parse the riddles and we chauffeured the kids wherever they needed to go to meet the day’s challenges. On Monday, we learned about saguaros at the botanical garden and then freshened up at a desert oasis—which, to a cynical eye, might look a bit like a splash park. On Tuesday, we were charged to see as much of the Sonoran Desert as possible in one day. We tackled that with a road trip to Tucson to visit the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum.

As we were leaving the botanical garden on Monday, two docents had approached the girls and given them new Cactus Camp cards. The campers’ faces registered a mix of shock and delight. But when I asked the docents about Cactus Camp, they denied any involvement, saying only that someone had asked them to give the cards to the girls. Said the younger camper: “Okay, this is getting really random.”

So when the same randomness occurred at the Desert Museum, our eyes got very large and round, but nobody had much to say. By then, Cactus Camp was omnipresent. We’d get back to the car after one adventure only to find cards in the back seat, proposing a new destination. Cards appeared in the girls’ shoes, under their pillows, tucked into the bathroom mirror. Some arrived in the mail with no return address. Nobody ever knew how the cards got there, just as no one ever found out what had happened to the ill-fated former campers. No one ever heard a door open in the night or saw anybody sneaking around, not a person or a rabbit or an elf. The cards just kept coming, so we kept going.

On Wednesday we rode horses through the Verde River and through so many of the surrounding desert canyons that without having met them, I can assure you that the Cactus Camp organizers have cushier posteriors than I do. On Thursday, I packed a picnic and we went swimming at Canyon Lake, then explored a spooky ghost town. A spooky ghost town with a very-much-alive general store that sells prickly pear fudge. Why thank you Cactus Camp, this almost makes up for the saddle sores. And thanks also for Friday’s assignment to visit the Musical Instrument Museum, which aside from being just plain cool, was also a pleasantly air-conditioned reprieve from the hottest temperatures of the week.

I believe there were other challenges, too, although it’s beginning to blur in my mind. By the time the final riddles led the campers to their completion prizes, they had completed 20 challenges and collected a few incidental notes and bonuses. When they left on Saturday, their new log books looked at least as full as the old ones. I didn’t get one. Nor did I get a snappy t-shirt with glittery saguaros or a Cactus Camp survivor certificate, although I did feel as if I had survived something.

I mentioned that feeling when we were in the car on the way to the airport. Angela concurred. But her daughter, my now eleven-year-old niece, set us straight:

“Why should the adults get one? You hardly had to do anything for Cactus Camp.”

Maybe not, kid. But I have an idea about what happened to the last campers.

cactus kids

They survived. For now.