Volunteer: Texas Style
YEEEEE HAAAAA or words to that effect... the only way to describe the Gap Year Travel Guide’s Alice Murray’s time in Texas as a horse riding instructor with Camp America. Buckle up and read on cow boys and girls.
Undoubtedly the best day of my life was skipping home from the Camp America fair at Holyrood in Edinburgh to my first year halls after I found out I was to teach horse riding in Texas. I could barely hold in my excitement. My face was sore from smiling by the time I burst in on my flatmates, and then of course we did what any first years would do to celebrate, we got drunk.
I hadn’t completely fallen into my ideal summer; there had been a lengthy Camp America online application which included me making a cringe worthy mini film about myself – now consigned to the trash can on my laptop. This followed by an interview and then a three hour wait at the fair where I eventually got placed at a camp. ‘Heart O’ the Hills Camp for Girls’ in Hunt, Texas was where I would be teaching girls to ride ponies all day – could it be any more southern belle?
After the fair there was a lot to organise — medical and insurance forms to be filled in, cowboy hats to buy. I even had a quick trip to London to get my visa approved. Through all the paper work, Heart of the Hills and Camp America were there every step of the way, and with each passing month my excitement grew. Leaving uni and Edinburgh for the summer was hard, but it was time for a new adventure to begin.
The first two weeks of the camp we had orientation, no kids just training, which for me meant horse course — a gruelling week of intensive horse riding lessons taught by two cowboys. Those first two weeks were the hardest; it rained most days so when we weren’t at horse course we cleaned the barn. They kept telling us not to judge camp on the first two weeks. I desperately missed home and my friends, but ‘it’ll be different when the kids arrive’ they kept saying and boy were they right.
Once the first term of kids arrived, camp came alive. The weather picked up and it soon became my favourite place in the world. My typical day started at 6AM with getting the horses in from the field and tacking them up. We had breakfast at 8AM and then lessons started at 9AM. They continued until 6PM with a short break for lunch. One of my favourite things was taking the kids on trail rides over the mountains and across the Guadalupe River which ran right through camp. The scenery was breath taking.
On our nights off we went into town to meet the counsellors from other camps. At a local bar we watched granddads clad in cowboy attire twirling their grand daughters around the dance floor. It summed up everything I’d grown to love about Texas — the family spirit, the outstanding hospitality and how it always felt like a home away from home.
We were given a few days off for the 4th of July so we decided to head to Austin. It’s famous for being a bit eccentric, with ‘Keep Austin weird’ tie-dyed shirts being the main souvenir for sale. To me, Austin presented a nice mix of the traditional rural Texas with a cosmopolitan twist.
The last month of camp flew in even quicker than the first and before we knew it we were having the final gymkhana and the closing down ceremonies. Camp had seen me through homesickness, heartbreak, bug bites and sleepless nights, but had given me so much more in return. I had amazing memories, new skills, renewed self-confidence and friends that would last a lifetime.