Wilderness Camping

Laura - Arlington, Massachusetts
Entered on March 7, 2010

Themes: nature
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I believe in camping–but not the campground kind of camping, where RVs are hooked up to water supplies and campsites are numbered. I believe in the hike-all-day-sleep-under-the-stars-carry-everything-you-need-on-your-back camping; wilderness camping. In wilderness camping, the universe expands exponentially and I shrink to my humble place in it. It brings solitude that reminds me that I belong to nature’s rhythm, not the rhythm of society’s machine. Camping is my solace.

In the deep winter months like February (the month I sit and write this essay with my bare feet cold on the kitchen floor, my body itching to get out of this cooped up cabin), I miss living under the sky and remember why I believe in camping.

My first true, remote camping trip was outside the northern borders of Yosemite National Park in California. With 35 pounds of everything I would need for several days, I set out into the Sierras with my good friend, Mario. He was the expert; I was the novice. I followed his lead obediently and trudged up the mountain, panting and heaving with each breath, weaving through the thick, shady, fir forest, until several hours later we emerged above the tree line.

At that point dusk was not too far off, so we scouted the area for a place to unload. Mario cooled off in the pristine aqua water of a high altitude mountain lake, and I sat on a felled log watching. The pace of the evening was slow; it had to be. It took thirty minutes to boil a pot of water on the Whisperlite backpacking stove and another twenty minutes for pasta to cook; we spent a good fifteen minutes cleaning up as we were careful to wash the dishes 100 ft. away from the water source, using only a bit of Dr. Bonner’s pure Castille Soap when necessary. The stars faded in and we unrolled our sleeping mats on the flat slab of granite rock, not bothering to pitch the tent on a night unthreatened by rain or cold temperatures. Because of our strenuous hike that day, I fell into a deep sleep within minutes (another benefit to wilderness camping: a weary, well-spent body and a quiet mind).

“Laura. Laura.” I awoke to Mario’s voice, our surroundings still black as night. Before I could answer, his raspy voice started again. “Laura. I have an ear infection from swimming yesterday. I am going to hike out and drive to a hospital for antibiotics. I’ll be back by dark.” By dark? By dark? But it is still dark now – I was thinking inside my sleepy head. He told me he’d be back in 12 hours; sooner if he could run part of the trail. I’m 23 years old and have never done this backpacking thing before, and you are going to leave me here alone? The thoughts swirled in my head, but I was too groggy to say anything coherent or to voice my protest to his leaving me. Pitching the tent, he helped me move into my new shelter and took off. After the sound of his hiking boots faded off, reality hit me.

I was alone. All alone. In a remote wilderness.

I rustled around in my sleeping bag for a bit, nervous about what wild animal might eat me or what crazy hiker might kidnap me. But daybreak came quickly and not being able to sleep, I climbed out of the tent. What was I to do while I waited? I didn’t know. I had never in my life been truly alone and isolated from the world the way I was on that day.

For 12 hours I was alone; I was alone in a place void of human contact; I was alone in a place void of technology; I was alone in a place void of distractions and obligations and rushing around and, well, I felt peaceful. The world stopped spinning and I could breathe. Time slowed down and each minute became filled with the tiniest details.

I walked around the campsite, filtered drinking water from the lake, nibbled on peanuts and chocolate when I grew hungry, sat and thought about the world. Somewhere, people were rushing on the subway to get to a meeting. Somewhere, people were mindlessly wasting time surfing the Internet. Somewhere, people were pulling laundry from their washing machines. I, I was sitting on a rock, keenly aware of the vast sky above. I was surrounded by tiny sounds – twittering of birds in the pine trees as they jumped from one place to another, the rippling of soft wind across the water.

I noticed the sun as it changed position in the sky; I noticed the way a cloud would morph from fluffy white one hour to a thin threaded string another hour; I noticed the shadows of trees and rocks shifting positions on the ground. The distant mountains’ silhouette changed from gray to blue to brown as the day progressed.

I did not need to fill the time with reading or phone calls or chores or exercising or music or anything. All I needed to do was look at the sky. And I did. I stretched out my skinny, white body on one of the rocks and gazed straight up, in a trance, for hours. It was like meditating, the way I breathed and pondered the expanse of everything in existence. I was but a tiny speck in all of it. And yet, I was very much alive and made up of the same carbon atoms as all of the nature surrounding me. It was all so big, I so little, and yet I completely belonged – all alone and still a part of something. Who gets this chance to simultaneously find isolation and belonging? Who? I felt so lucky.

Mario did return by nightfall, and we continued for 5 days on our backpacking trek through the breathtaking Sierra Nevada Mountains, but it was that day of solitude that made, and continues to make me believe.

Camping makes me believe in being alone but not lonely; camping makes me believe in the vast and the tiny; camping makes me believe in the sky and my own body. I count the days until spring and the return of my time in the wilderness. This I believe.