I turned into the parking lot for the camp, exhausted. This trip up the mountain had taken about two hours longer than it would have taken in good weather. A few feet of snow blanketed the ground, but the parking lot had been plowed, and it was no longer snowing. Much of the snow from the parking lot had been piled in one spot, a little ways away from the entrance to the lodge. I found that somewhat odd, but I thought nothing of it since I had not had much experience with snow in my lifetime. I parked and went inside.
A student named Samantha Willis was the first one to see me. “Greg!” she said. “Where have you been all day?”
“I just got here,” I said. “I had to take a test.”
“On a Saturday?”
“Yes. It’s the test to get into the teacher training program. It’s given all over the state, but the testing dates are always Saturdays so it doesn’t conflict with anyone’s classes.”
“Greg!” I heard Taylor’s voice from the next room. He walked to where I was and continued, “Glad you made it.”
“It was crazy getting up here! I guess they were only letting one car up the mountain at a time. Is that so there aren’t as many cars on the road in the snow?”
“I think so. Erica and the other kids who stayed back are outside, playing in the snow. Or you can hang out here inside. You can put your bags over there.”
“I’m gonna go outside for a bit, then I’ll come back in later.” I put my bags where Taylor pointed, then walked outside. About ten kids were out there with Erica Foster, who was helping a girl onto a sled as her younger brother Danny, one of the students, playfully dumped snow on her head. Erica pushed the girl down a gently sloping hill as the others built snowmen and threw snowballs. Around thirty kids came to this camp; today was the day for skiing and snowboarding, and the rest of the kids and leaders were doing that at a resort about twenty miles away.
I would have enjoyed coming to something like this when I was of middle school age. This camp was part of The Edge, the youth group at Jeromeville Covenant Church, and I knew that not all of the kids who came to youth events came from families at the church. Some came from small churches with no youth groups, and some got invited by friends at school. For some of these students, this youth group is the first they really hear about Jesus.
One of the snowballs flying across the grounds came right at me, and I jumped aside just in time. “Hey!” I shouted at Shawna Foreman; I could tell from her arm position, and the way she was giggling, that she had thrown it.
“Did you just get here or something?” Shawna asked.
“Yes,” I said, explaining to her about the test.
I wandered over to the hill and tried sledding a few times. Each time, the same thing happened: about halfway down the hill, the combination of my large size and the sled’s small size caused me to fall off the sled on my back. I was not going fast enough to be hurt, though. It was fun.
About an hour after I arrived, I had returned to the lodge to dry off, and I heard cars outside, then voices and footsteps. The skiing and snowboarding group had returned. My brain was wrapping around the significance of the numbers for the first time. The majority of these students knew how to either ski or ride a snowboard, and most of those were experienced enough, and from wealthy enough families, that they brought their own equipment. This was very different from where I grew up; Plumdale was a much more blue-collar community than Jeromeville, and a bit farther from anywhere with snow in the winter.
“What did they do?” Martin Rhodes asked as he walked in with the students. “They plowed the parking lot while we were gone, and they piled all the snow on top of my car!”
“Wait!” I said, remembering what I had seen in the parking lot when I arrived. “That pile of snow in the parking lot? That’s your car under there?”
“Yes!” Martin replied. “How am I supposed to get out? Oh, hey, Greg. You made it.”
“Yes. But it took forever. They were only letting one car up the mountain at a time, so we all had to take the off-ramp at Apple Canyon, stop at the stop sign, and get back on. It took almost two hours to get from Blue Oaks to Apple Canyon.”
“Two hours?” Adam White, the youth pastor, said; he had walked up as I was talking to Martin. “That’s only eight miles! So you averaged four miles per hour?”
“Pretty much,” I said. I noted in my mind that that was such a typical Adam comment. Although he had a degree in psychology, I heard someone else at the church once describe Adam as a math guy who just didn’t study math, and as a mathematics major myself, I would definitely agree that Adam had a mathematical brain.
We had dinner about half an hour after everyone returned from the ski resort, then we gathered in the main room for Bible study. The Bible study was led by a guy named Jonathan, not someone from our church; he was a youth pastor from a church in a different part of the state who had this side gig speaking at youth camps. The theme for this camp was “Where Are You Going?”; a large banner with this title on it hung on the wall behind where Jonathan stood to teach. That evening’s session was about Jesus calling the first disciples; they were fishermen, but Jesus said he would make them fishers of men. He gave their lives a new direction.
Adam got up in front of everyone after Jonathan finished. “Today is Valentine’s Day, as you know, and you might have noticed, on the walls here, there are hearts with each of your names on it. For the next fifteen minutes, we are going to go around and write Valentines to each other. Sign as many people’s hearts as you can. Write encouraging notes to each other. Say something nice. Tell people what you like about them. But keep it appropriate.”
This kind of activity made me both excited and nervous. I was very interested in what others would say to me, but I was nervous to be honest with others, because I did not want anything I said to be taken the wrong way. I wrote to several of the kids I knew well how much I enjoyed seeing them at youth group every week. I added slightly more personal messages for a few of them, like the ones who helped me with my Dog Crap and Vince movie a few months ago. I also wrote to all of the leaders: Adam, Noah, Taylor, Martin, Erica, Courtney, Brody, Marlene, and Robert A. Silver III, who went by the nickname 3. To each of them, I wrote something along the lines of how I enjoyed having gotten to know them over the last year. For Taylor, I added something about having been friends since Day 1 of freshman year, and about having gone to In-N-Out Burger on the day it opened.
“Okay, now,” Adam announced after a while. “You can go look at your own Valentine and see what people wrote to you.” I walked over to mine, half expecting it to be mostly empty, and was pleasantly surprised to see that it was not. About twenty kids had written messages to me, some of them just saying things like “hi,” but a few of them meaningfully expressing appreciation for my presence on the youth leadership, and reminiscing some of the fun memories of the last year. All of the leaders had also written on my Valentine. Abby, whom I had known since sophomore year and who was engaged to my housemate Josh, wrote:
Greg – I’m so glad you’ve gotten involved with The Edge! You’re great around these kids. God has really given you a heart for youth, and it’s been good to see you discover that. You’ll make a great teacher too! Your sister in Christ, Abby
In a corner of the Valentine was an unsigned message in Josh’s handwriting. He had drawn a small dog with a speech bubble next to it, as if the dog were speaking, and inside the speech bubble he had written a quote from a well-known television commercial that I often laughed at and quoted around the house:
“Yo quiero Taco Bell”
I laughed at this. It was silly, but having an inside joke of sorts is a way to know that someone really knows me and pays attention to me. I really did feel appreciated tonight.
“Hey,” I said walking up to Abby and Josh. “‘Yo quiero Taco Bell.’ That was funny. And, Abby, thank you for your kind words.”
“I meant it. You really are going to be a great teacher.”
“You are,” agreed Josh, who was currently in the teacher training program, to teach science.
“Thanks,” I said.
We sang worship songs and had another Bible study with Jonathan on Sunday morning. He spoke about John 14, where Jesus tells Thomas, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Thomas did not know where he was going, but following Jesus was the way, just as it is for us.
After lunch, we had the afternoon to play in the snow, or hang out in the lodge. I hung out in the lodge for a while, then went outside. Danny Foster, Zac Santoro, and two other boys appeared to be making a snowman, but as I walked closer to them, I realized that the object they were shaping out of snow was not a snowman.
“Hey, Greg,” Zac said.
“Wait,” I replied. “Is that–”
“A snow toilet!” Danny exclaimed.
“I have to remember this,” I said. I pulled out my camera and took a picture of the snow toilet, with the boys posed around it. A couple minutes later, Danny tried to sit on the snow toilet, and it collapsed.
“Oh, no,” Zac said.
“Can you rebuild it?” I asked.
“Let’s go!” Danny exclaimed, attempting to repair the snow toilet.
I walked a little farther from the lodge. Courtney, Brody, Marlene, and 3 had engaged several students in a playful snowball fight. Others were riding sleds and innertubes down the hill. Playing in the snow was so much fun. This was only the fourth time in my life that I had ever touched snow, since I grew up somewhere where it did not snow, and my family had no concept of fun family vacations or outdoor recreation. Almost all of our family vacations consisted of driving long distances to visit relatives, where my brother and I had to sit still as the adults talked about boring adult things. Although I sometimes lamented all of the experiences I missed out on in childhood, it was kind of nice to still be able to enjoy simple things that were new to me, like playing in the snow.
After dinner, and another Bible message from Jonathan, someone suggested playing a giant game of Mafia. I had learned this game recently from one of the other Edge leaders, and we had taught it to some of the kids. Mafia was a social deduction game that inspired many other similar games over the years, including the 21st-century Ultimate Werewolf card games and Among Us smartphone game. A master of ceremonies would secretly give each player a role by drawing cards. Two players were the Mafia. Each round, all the players would close their eyes, and the two Mafia would open their eyes and silently decide on someone to eliminate. Another player, the Doctor, had to guess whom the Mafia would eliminate, and if correct, the player would be revived and not leave the game. A fourth player, the Detective, made one guess each round as to who the Mafia was, and the master of ceremonies would silently answer yes or no. Then, everyone would open their eyes and discuss the results, eventually voting on one suspect to eliminate. If both Mafia members were eliminated, the citizens would win; otherwise the Mafia would win.
Almost everyone from our group decided to play. I had never played with a crowd this big; the game could take a while if the Mafia were not flushed out quickly. Brody was the MC; he dealt cards to determine roles, and I was the detective. “Close your eyes,” I heard Brody say. While my eyes were closed, I heard him ask the Mafia to open their eyes and choose a victim, then he asked the Doctor for a player to revive. Continuing, he said, “Detective, open your eyes.” I looked up at Brody, and he said, “Point to a player to find out if they are Mafia.” I pointed at Erica Foster, just because it would be hilarious if the sweet, innocent leader was Mafia. Brody’s eyes widened, and he shook his head yes. Perfect. I guessed one right on the first try. I did not want to be too obvious during the discussion, though, because that would put a target on myself.
“Wake up,” Brody announced. “Adam. You mysteriously crashed into a tree while snowboarding. They did a good job of making it look like an accident.”
“Aww, come on, really? First one out?” Adam said. I mostly kept quiet during the ensuing discussion. The group voted to eliminate Zac Santoro.
“Zac was not Mafia,” Brody announced. “Everyone close your eyes.”
I waited until it was my turn to open my eyes as the Detective. I pointed at Shawna Foreman, still remembering the afternoon before when she threw the snowball at me. Brody nodded in the affirmative, with an even more surprised look on his face. Thirty-five people were playing, not including myself, and I had picked out the two Mafia on my first two guesses. After I closed my eyes, I was distracted from the discussion because I was trying to work out the probability that I would choose correctly on my first two guesses. The number of combinations of 2 out of a group of 35, that would be 35 times 34, divided by 2… which simplified to 35 times 17. I knew 35 times 10 was 350. Then add 35 times 7, which would be, umm, 5 times 7 and 30 times 7. So, 35 plus 210, or 245, and 350 plus 245 was 595. So the probability of picking out the Mafia on the first two tries was 1 in 595, or less than 0.2 percent. As I was doing the math, not paying attention to the discussion, I heard that Erica Foster was eliminated. Perfect. One of the Mafia gone already, without me having to look suspicious as the Detective. Maybe this would be a quick game after all.
It was not a quick game.
On the next round, when it was my turn to guess, I did not need to do anything, since I already knew who the two Mafia were. Brody had to ask for my guess, though, because the other players did not know that I knew. I pointed at Brody; he silently laughed while shaking his head no. On the fourth round, I pointed at myself, also obviously not Mafia.
Brody began telling more and more gruesome stories about how the people died. “Samantha, you were found decapitated in the town square. 3, you were ripped apart by wild dogs.” Danny Foster started a campaign to get me eliminated after the Mafia took out 3, and just like that, I was out. I had information as the detective, and I never got a chance to use it.
One by one, Shawna, as the Mafia, continued eliminating all of the players, drawing no suspicion to herself. And one by one, the townspeople continued eliminating everyone but Shawna, drawing a collective gasp every time Brody announced that the eliminated suspect was not Mafia. Finally, the game was down to just one leader and two students: Taylor, Shawna, and Stanley Houston, one of the boys who had built the snow toilet. Shawna was trying to convince Stanley that Taylor was the Mafia. In desperation, Taylor said, “This is our last chance to get this right. If we pick the wrong person this time, then the Mafia will win, because the last townsperson will be dead after the next round. So here goes: I’m the detective. And Shawna is Mafia.”
“He’s lying!” Shawna replied. “I’m the detective, and Taylor is Mafia!” I knew they were both lying, but it was interesting to see how desperation had inspired this bold move. When it came time to vote, everyone held their breath and looked at Stanley, since they knew Shawna and Taylor would be voting for each other. Stanley pointed at Shawna.
“Shawna is Mafia!” Brody exclaimed. Everyone except Erica and Shawna erupted into cheers. The townspeople finally won the game, after the Mafia had taken out all of them except two. We won at the last possible chance.
We had one last “Where Are You Going?” Bible study on Monday morning. We chose this weekend for Winter Camp because today was Presidents’ Day, a federal holiday, so there was no school even though it was Monday. The Bible study was about the beginning of Acts, when Jesus appeared to his disciples forty days after his resurrection. He told them, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Now they knew where they were going: far away to carry the Gospel to other lands.
After this, we packed up and headed home. Since I had arrived late, no one was assigned to my car, but Zac and Danny asked if they could ride home with me. I was fine with it; those two were a lot of fun.
In addition to our Valentines, we each got to keep two other things from the weekend. One was an annual tradition for Winter Camp with The Edge: a mixtape with ninety minutes of Christian music of all different genres. There were songs from some bands I was familiar with, like Jars of Clay, Five Iron Frenzy, DC Talk, and the children’s video series VeggieTales, of which I had seen two episodes. Many artists on Edge Mix ‘98 were new to me. Track 3 was called “What Would Jesus Do,” by a band called Big Tent Revival.
“What would Jesus do?” I said as the singer sang the same phrase, holding up my left wrist. The other gift we all received that weekend was around my wrist, an embroidered bracelet with the letters “W.W.J.D.?,” which stood for this phrase. These bracelets had recently become trendy among Christians, especially in youth and young adult groups, but some Christian celebrities and athletes had been seen wearing the bracelets too.
Zac and Danny fell asleep within the first half hour of the trip home, but I kept the music playing. Several tracks deep into side 2 of the mixtape, a song came on that kept asking in the chorus, “What’s your direction?” This song seemed appropriate for a weekend with the “Where are you going?” theme. I did not recognize the voice, so when it was safe to do so, I looked at the liner notes. There was no song called “What’s Your Direction,” or any other phrase repeated in the song, but I analyzed the song list and discovered that this song was the oddly-titled “Ode to Chin,” by a band called Switchfoot.
In addition to being only my fourth time seeing snow, that weekend also held the distinction of being the first time I had ever heard Switchfoot. They had another good song on Edge Mix 2001, but their major turning point in my consciousness would come in 2003, when they released the album The Beautiful Letdown. This album was a crossover hit, one of the most successful Christian albums of all time, eventually going on to sell three million copies and spawn two mainstream top twenty hits. Switchfoot’s music stayed true to Christian principles, but they presented these principles lyrically in a philosophical manner, without sounding preachy, gaining them fans outside the church as well. They have been one of my favorite bands since my late 20s.
I would learn years later that Ode to Chin, as well as the album it came from, The Legend of Chin, were named after a childhood friend of the two brothers who founded Switchfoot. I liked that song. It made me think. What was my direction? Where was my life going? I was going to be a teacher, I had that at least, but life still had many unanswered questions, and I would probably spend the rest of my life seeking the will and heart of God to figure those things out.
Readers: Does it snow where you live? Have you ever been to a winter camp? Tell me about it!
If you like what you read, don’t forget to like this post and follow this blog. Also follow Don’t Let The Days Go By on Facebook and Instagram.