During the course of two decades, an annual boys’ trip for members of Phi Delta Theta transforms into a family affair
By Brian Lynn ’98
Eastern Washington University provided all of us with a foundation for the future. Our time in Cheney gave us an education, experiences and relationships that helped create our worldview and provided friendships that served as a support system as we discovered what it meant to become an adult.
But time changes all.
Worldviews shift with changing circumstances and perspectives, while relationships morph or slowly fall by the wayside as we continue to move forward in life.
For the men of EWU’s chapter of Phi Delta Theta Fraternity, however, an annual Memorial Day weekend camping trip has helped keep those relationships intact, despite the rigors and distractions of life throughout the rest of the year.
And what was once a boys’ weekend for a few alumni has, as happens with all circumstances and relationships, transformed, into a family affair that is planned for each year for everyone from toddlers to those founding alumni who were on the first camping trips.
The Early Years (When we were young, single and poor)
In the mid-to-late ’90s, Founding Fathers of Phi Delta Theta at EWU had recently graduated and wanted to reconnect over the long Memorial Day weekend. A camping trip was decided upon and a boys’ weekend was born.
It was a typical affair for men in their early 20s. Hiking, mountain biking and fishing during the day. Talk of new jobs, blossoming careers and impending relationships over beers around a campfire at night. College friendships renewed for another year over laughter as each alumnus began to find his way in the real world.
And then it happened. A jolting change to the brotherly dynamic.
Girlfriends began to tag along on the boys’ weekend. In the opinion of some, it was perfectly fine (coincidently, those holding this opinion often had a hard time securing a hall pass for the weekend). In the opinion of others, this was tantamount to treason, and banishment was the appropriate punishment (or at least unrelenting heckling).
As is natural, women won out, and the traditional weekend set aside for manly adventure became known simply as the Memorial Day Camping Trip, and girlfriends were welcome. Harmony was restored, and all was well.
And then it got worse.
Those girlfriends became wives!
And, as is natural, those wives began to birth offspring. As everyone knows, children present an entirely different set of circumstances. If the boys’ weekend wasn’t dead with the presence of girlfriends and wives, it surely perished with the arrival of diapers, formula and Baby Bjorn carriers.
But the men of Phi Delta Theta persevered. Girlfriends, wives and the ensuing broods they produced were dragged into the Cascade Mountains every Memorial Day weekend, tents were pitched on the cold, hard, wet ground, and coolers of food, beer and baby formula were set up.
Balance was once again found.
However, not all was harmonious. Camping has a way of bringing out different stresses than those found in the rat race of the city while climbing the corporate ladder.
Friends, brothers even, don’t always see eye to eye. Spouses, especially those new to a group, don’t always appreciate a tradition – especially when it involves roughing it. More than once, the growing group of EWU alumni faced conflict head-on.
There was the infamous Marshmallow Incident of ’98, when two brothers, who shall remain nameless, took the tossing of marshmallows too far and ended up wrestling in the mud one dark and stormy night while everyone else took shelter, watching from under tarps strung between trees. Nearly 20 years later, the two must maintain an equitable distance from each other during s’mores assemblage.
A couple of wives, sick of the weather and sleeping on the hard ground, have taken advantage of the limited time the brothers did find to sneak away in an attempt to fit in manly adventure. While off shooting each other with paint balls at as close of range as possible, sliding face first down a mountain after being ejected from the seat of their bikes and other somewhat responsible activities, more than one brother has returned from battle to find his tent, food and all weekend survival gear packed and an angry wife waiting in a running car.
Those now ex-wives just never got it, and many a brother that has followed has learned a marriage-counseling lesson on the cheap and quick: if she doesn’t like your friends, it’s probably not going to work.
But in reality, much like a family outgrows their first home, the small campground that housed the dozen or so campers in the early years just didn’t work for all the new alumni that wanted to join in the weekend. A bigger place with warmer, drier weather was needed.
The Mid-Life Years (Married with children and aging)
Those early camping years were enjoyable in the same way that college was – nobody knew any different.
Now, more than 20 year later, what was once known as Boys’ Weekend, and then the Memorial Day Camping Trip, is now known as Phi Camp. And like those who have been around since the inception, a certain stability and level of comfort has come with middle age.
Like aging snowbirds, the camp has moved to a secret spot on the east side of the Cascade Mountains so as to increase the chance of sunny, warm weather. Where tents once littered campgrounds, now fewer do, as wives have put their feet down and brothers in their 40s find less enjoyment as they did in their 20s upon waking on the hard ground; an armada of trailers, RVs and fifth wheels the size of some of our college apartments now stand.
And then there’s the children. So. Many. Children.
Apparently, Phi Delts are a productive lot, as children now outnumber adults, and those babies holstered to their father’s chests during competitive games of beer pong in the early years are now readying to graduate from high school (with several attending Eastern).
Phi Camp has taken on a middle-aged consistency. Brothers and wives from the 1990s to the 2010s congregate, laugh and share. Children from newborns to high schoolers do the same, each age group of kids finding their own way and entertainment for what’s become a four-day weekend. Trailers, grills and coolers are shared. If a stray child shows up at a picnic table or trailer, it gets fed and then scurries off with a group of peers until the next meal.
Annual traditions continue to evolve: games for young and old(er) alike; a potluck-dinner night; a bouncy castle, big-screen movie night and piñata for the kids; karaoke night at a brother’s trailer; a water fight instigated by children against unsuspecting parents; s’mores around the campfire (with proper supervision of children and adults); the yearly kickball game that the youngest to oldest camper plays in. There’s even Phi Camp apparel each year.
One ritual, a throwback to chapter members’ active days at Eastern, takes place on Saturday night. A long walk by the brothers in which they take turns sharing with one another what’s going on in their lives – success or hardship, it matters not as everyone listens quietly, offering support or congratulations later.
It’s a bit of an ode to the Boys Weekend from which this family tradition has sprung. Those brotherly bonds have now connected families and different generations of Eastern alumni. What started with a few guys escaping for the weekend has turned into a camping clan of 100 or more brothers, wives and children gathering to celebrate the foundation and relationships they built at Eastern Washington University and continue to nurture today.
EWU Phi Delts Give Back
For the past five years, the active brothers and alumni of Phi Delta Theta have participated in and supported another type of tradition – giving back.
The EWU Phi Delts have competed in the Iron Horse Challenge as part of their support of the fraternity’s Iron Phi philanthropic endeavors, which support research for a cure for Lou Gehrig’s disease, as well as funding scholarships for graduate and undergraduate members of the fraternity.
The Iron Horse Challenge is a 150-mile relay run from Cheney to the iconic Wild Horse Monument overlooking the Columbia River at Vantage. To date, the chapter has racked up an impressive streak of accomplishments, including three straight years of raising more than $10,000, being named the Clack Jackson Award winners as the top fundraising chapter in the nation in 2016-17, having 31 Iron Phis (those members and alumni contributing more than $1,000 to the goal) and raising a cumulative total of more than $70,000!
About the author: Brian Lynn ’98 was an active member of EWU’s Phi Delts in the 1990s and now serves as chairman of the Chapter Advisory Board. He missed a decade of Phi Camps while living throughout the country but has introduced his son, and even his nephew, to the tradition since returning to Washington.