Monday, August 1, 2016

For the youth of America,
camp has an undeniable allure (the lack of parental supervision looming
large). But why spend your whole summer in one bunk when you can stay at four
hotels in California, three campsites in Montana and Utah, and a cruise ship
in Alaska? This is the lure of teen tours—the 4-to-6-week luxury trips
out West taken every summer by hundreds of kids around the country. While
nowhere nearly as popular as summer camps, these kinds of teen trips have been
around since the mid-1960s. Early teen-tour operators out of Long Island and
New Jersey first conceived of these trips as an alternative to sleep-away
camps, marketed toward kids who had a thirst for adventure but a distaste for
bunk life and athletic activity. American Trails West and Musiker Teen Tours,
the first two companies to offer these tours, sent out supervised groups of
three-dozen 14-year-olds on coach buses across the country, stopping at the
major national parks—from Yellowstone to Arches—and the major resort
destinations—from Las Vegas to Palm Springs.   More from Atlas
Obscura: Object of Intrigue: Martha, the Last Passenger Pigeon This was not
your family's rustic road trip. Equal in price to the most exclusive
sleep-away camps, the tours provided only the best amenities. The trips that
did offer camping stays showcased the "five-star" camping experience:
giant, 12-person tents filled with double-decker cots. With this set-up, no
camper would ever actually have to touch the ground. Accompanying the coach
bus with the kids was a food truck, driven and serviced by a cook who prepared
all the meals at the campsites.   Compared to today's cell
phone-connected world, these trips operated with a huge amount of freedom.
"They gave me a dozen maps of the West and $40,000 worth of Traveler's
Cheques that I carried in a back-pack my father carried in World War II,"
says Faith Baron, who guided tours in the 1970s with American Trails West.
"The bus rides were fun but endless. Whenever any of the kids asked us how
much longer until we got to the next place, we had the same answer: 1,000
miles. No one actually knew. Then we'd stop the bus at a highway stop and
buy them ice cream. It was all chaos and we had a blast," she says.
More from Atlas Obscura: Photos of Majestic Theaters Turned To Ruin Forty
years later, a small handful of teen-tour operators continue to run annual
summer trips out of the New York tri-state area. While Musiker Teen Tours has
re-invented itself as Summer Discovery, offering pre-college study abroad
programs instead of cross-country trips, originator American Trails West, and
a few other almost-as-old companies are still in the teen tour business.
They've expanded their offerings to now include month-long tours around
Europe and combination Alaska-Hawaii trips, but the formula remains the same:
take 40 kids to as many places as they can stand in 42 days.
Lake Tahoe, another tour offering for teens.
Lara Farhadi/Flickr Although variations on the teen tour arose
throughout the country in the 1980s and 1990s—shorter, less extravagant
trips run by religious and service-oriented organizations—the teen tour, in
its original, outsized and deluxe form has remained a tiny industry, with
fewer than six or seven operators running trips at a time. For this
reason, the story of the American teen tour is a well-kept secret limited to
only the circles of the lucky kids—like myself—who have experienced them.
Images and representations of sleep-away camp abound in the collective
imagination, a cultural lexicon that includes everything from Meatballs to
Salute Your Shorts to an entire genre of 80s slasher films. Where is the Wet
Hot American Summer of teen tours? It's a myth fifty years in the making,
waiting to be told. More from Atlas Obscura: Fleeting Wonders: Witness A
Rare Waterspout Off The Florida Coast Just as sleep-away camps don't seem
to change much over the years, neither do teen tour buses. Listening to Baron
recount her trips from the 1970s felt a lot like re-living my own summers as a
teen-tour traveler in the early 2000s. She described the same food trucks,
the same double-decker cots, the same amusement-park buddy system, the same
all-quiet-in-the-morning bus policy I remembered from my trips. On the open
road, few things change. The cast of characters, too, is nearly identical.
"We had the kids who wanted to shop and the kids who wanted to hike,"
Baron says. The same divide marked all three of my teen tours. With the
National Park Passport Book I made sure I had stamped at every park we
visited, I was one of the kids who wanted to hike.
Yellowstone National Park. Karthikc123
"On every trip I went on, we had to send at least one kid home," Baron
says. I remember vividly the delinquents from my own trips. On my first
trip, it was the boy who threw water balloons off a hotel balcony in Seattle.
On my second trip, it was the girl who got caught smoking something you
can't buy at a road-stop convenience store. Maybe the author of the 1988
guide, Summer Camps and Teen Tours: Everything Parents and Kids Should
Know,was onto something: "If your child has difficulty following
instructions, if he has a long history of spending his school days in the
principal's office, if you know that he has been abusing drugs, a teen tour
is not the place for him. " More from Atlas Obscura: Glorious Photos of
TWA Terminal from the Golden Age of Air Travel What would the Meatballs of
teen tours look like? Take all those uncomfortable, charming, weird
mid-adolescents of Wet Hot American Summer and put them on an air-conditioned
bus to a rodeo in Cody, Wyoming or a ski resort in Whistler. It's not so
much a camp experience as it as a family vacation with no one you're
actually related to. There are all the emotional milestones of sleep-away
camp—it's fun when you're there, sad when it's over, melancholy and
strange when you think about it years later—but there's something else,
too. It's that combination of wanderlust and boredom you can only find on a
teen tour bus. This article originally appeared on Atlas Obscura.
Did you enjoy this article? Share it.
For the youth of America, camp has an undeniable allure (the lack of parental
supervision looming large). But why spend your whole summer in one bunk when
you can stay at four hotels in California, three campsites in Montana and
Utah, and a cruise ship in Alaska? This is the lure of teen tours—the
4-to-6-week luxury trips out West taken every summer by hundreds of kids
around the country.

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