Lesser Known Curses of the Solo Traveler

I still had most of the day ahead of me when I settled in at my campsite at Little Sand Point. The campground is one of many surrounding Piseco Lake in the Adirondack Mountains. With plenty of time to spare, I asked the man working the ranger booth about nearby hiking. He recommended Panther Mountain as the go-to destination, since the trial head was just down the road from camp. I went back to my car and started to put together my hiking pack. It was almost lunch time so I made myself a sandwich to eat at the top, and added a few extra snacks and two bottles of water (one for the hike and one for the sandwich). And of course my usual hiking gear: binoculars, sweater, pocket knife, first aid, etc.

I parked at the trailhead and saw a pair of elementary schools kids pulling up with their grandparents. Their group would end up passing me on the trail, as would a man with a baby carrier on his back. When faced with the prospect of being passed by a four-year-old who was insisting on climbing the whole thing by herself, I started to wonder when hiking became so hard. I made it up and down the Grand Canyon, what had changed? Was it because there was too much in my pack? Had I been spending too much time in my car this week? Why was it suddenly so hard?

Families on a HikeI decided to take the difficulty as a sign, and an opportunity. I’ve always had trouble being too focused in hiking, looking at my feet instead of the scenery. I sat down on a nearby rock and let the four-year-old and her parents pass me. I took a sip of water and admired my surroundings. After a bit of time I started up the mountain again, but when I saw the little girl, I stopped. I had decided I would go no faster than the four-year-old. She would be my pace car.

When I finally made it to the top, an area known as Echo Cliffs, I was the only one without children and/or a baby. I took a seat on one of the large, warm, flat rocks and ate my lunch while taking in the view of Piseco Lake. It was clear from the conversations the young boys were having that this was not their first time to the top. I started to wonder if I had psyched myself up for a hike, while everyone else saw it as a fun walk. Perhaps I should have taken fewer things with me. At the same time, I was hiking alone. That freedom comes with certain responsibilities. I can’t afford to be unprepared. I had no way of knowing how crowded the trail was, or how close assistance would be.

View of PisecoPerhaps the real lesson is the futility of comparing yourself to others. Had I been alone on the trail, I probably would have felt nothing but accomplishment upon reaching the top. I wouldn’t have wondered if other people would be able to do it faster, or if knowing the area would have changed my preparations. I would have just gone on a hike, as I’ve done so many times before. I shouldn’t let other people’s hikes damage my own. Perhaps that’s the curse of the solo traveler: you’re always alone, and you’re never alone.

I drove back to the campground and decided against renting a canoe. The day before, looking out upon the quiet beauty of Brown Tract Pond, a solo canoe ride sounded heavenly. But at Piseco the lake was too big, the waves too large, the wind too cold. This is yet another curse of traveling alone: your standards for enjoyment shift. Had I been with other people at Piseco Lake and got invited to jump in a kayak with them, I probably would have done it. Paddling around with friends will be fun almost anywhere. But by myself, Piseco didn’t look fun. Brown Tract would have been fun. It was peaceful and still and nestled far away from boaters and skidoos. I suppose it seemed like a lake worth paddling alone specifically because there was no one around. But there were so many people at Piseco, a solo canoe ride just sounded like work.

I considered going for a swim but opted to stay on the dock due to the previously mentioned wind, waves, and cold. No one else was swimming anyway. After a nice chunk of time sitting around doing nothing I decided that tonight was a good night for s’mores. I had been engaging in a complicated relationship with s’mores on this trip. Every time I started a campfire I wished I could have had a s’more. It’s a Pavlovian response to campfires I’ve spent years building up. But I had limited space in my car and no other use for marshmallows. Graham crackers make for a good road snack and I can make any number of chocolate bars disappear, but marshmallows only ever come in one size of bag, and it’s always too many to eat by myself. However we all have our breaking point, and by the time I hit Piseco Lake I was sure I didn’t want to watch another campfire go by without roasting a marshmallow or two.

Piseco LakeI went to the tiny nearby store and picked up my supplies: a box of graham crackers, two chocolate bars, and a bag of too many marshmallows. I looked around to see if I needed anything else and a woman asked where I had found the s’mores fixings. I pointed to the bottom shelf in the corner and she discovered that I had grabbed the last bag of marshmallows. The clerk told the woman and her family there was another store about ten miles to the north that would probably have some in stock. I bought my groceries and walked out to my car. I looked at my big bag of marshmallows.

“Well this is stupid,” I muffled to myself, and went back inside. The father of the family was standing near the door. “Do you need a whole bag of marshmallows,” I asked him, “or would half a bag work?”

“Half a bag would be plenty,” he said with hope in his voice.

We went out to my car and I portioned out half the bag into a ziplock . He gave me a dollar for his half of the marshmallows and thanked me. I couldn’t have imagined a more elegant solution to my excessive marshmallow problem.

I had more logs than usual so I started the fire early. I found a nice, solid stick and used my pocket knife to whittle it down into a high quality s’mores utensil. I ate my dinner. I waited. Something that we don’t often consider is that sitting around and watching a campfire is only fun in a group. Watching a fire by yourself produces a finite quantity of enjoyment. As the coals of my fire finally began to make themselves known, I started on my s’mores. I ate four of them, which is more s’mores than I ever recall eating in one sitting while growing up. I would have eaten more if I could have. But maybe that’s the other curse of the solo-traveler: it’s easy to overeat when you don’t have to share.

I should have bought more chocolate.

Advertisements

Anger in the Adirondacks

I didn’t have much of a plan for the Adirondacks other than camping. A campground near Rollins Pond had been recommended, and I bought some wood at the local grocery store in anticipation of building a fire. By the time I got to Rollins the rain was coming down hard. I figured as long as it was too wet to camp I might as well keep driving and get a few more miles in. Ninety minutes later the rain had stopped and I found myself at a secluded campground on Brown Tract Pond. I managed to snag the last open site next to the water, and had plenty of time left in the day to enjoy it. Unfortunately, right after the ranger ran my credit card the rain began to pour so bad I could barely make it the four feet from the ranger booth to my car without getting soaked. I pulled into my spot and looked out onto the pond. It was beautiful. Or rather, it would have been.

Brown Tract PondI sat in my car and wrote for awhile. When the rain finally stopped I took a look at the sky. It was clear. And it was daylight. I still had time to make that campfire. I pulled the logs out of my car and got the flames going. I’d been practicing using a flint and steel to start a fire, but I wasn’t about to bother this time. Just as the fire was almost going strong the rain returned and the flames died. There were still coals burning so I couldn’t put the logs back in my car. If I left them out they were sure to get soaked and become unusable.  I shoved the wood towards the corner of the cement pit. I had recently realized the umbrella I brought was on the verge of worthlessness, and I made the executive decision that I would not feel bad if I accidentally set it on fire. I propped the umbrella up over the wood, but the sorry little bumbershoot wasn’t going to be enough. I grabbed the map of Portland, Maine from my back seat. The paper was a bit glossy and I figured water would be more inclined to bead off of it rather than soak through. I covered the whole pile with the map, repositioned the umbrella, and hopped back in my car.

I blasted the hot air to dry off, then got back to writing. More time passed – maybe a half hour – and the rain stopped again. I got out and looked at the sky. It seemed clearer than before, like this time it was really over. It was like those times in dreams when you start to question if the place you’re in is real, but then convince yourself it is. Only when you wake up do you realize how foolish you were before. That was a dream. NOW the world is real.

That was just a break. NOW the sky was clear.

I pulled the umbrella and map off of the wood and tried my fire again. It lit up instantly – much faster than I’d gotten a fire going all summer. By covering the hot coals I had inadvertently smoked the wood for 30 minutes. The logs were hot and dry on the inside even if the ground and bark were wet. I enjoyed my little fire, cooked my dinner, and started getting ready for bed. The rain never came back.

Once the fire was low enough to leave unattended I walked to the nearby bathroom to brush my teeth. When I returned, a large fifth wheel RV was pulled in directly behind me, and two people were pointing flashlights into my car.

“Can I help you?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said a woman, “You can you move your car, you’re in our spot.”

I was flustered, not sure what to say. “I’m sorry,” I finally managed, “but I paid for this spot.”

“So did we,” said a gruff man’s voice, “We reserved it months ago.”

There was some mumbling back and forth between the three of us. They had a big black dog who sniffed at me. I don’t like being around strange dogs. I couldn’t see much of the two of them, but I could tell she was a large woman with an imposing gait. Her and I shared a few more stunned words with each other before I quietly eked out, “Well, where am I supposed to go?” It had been dark for more than an hour. It was late. We were in the middle of the woods.
The man crossed around in front of their truck and walked back over to us. “I can’t move it anyway,” he told his wife. They were parked directly behind my car, blocking me in. Even if either party were willing to leave, neither of us could. I told them that I was heading out in the morning anyway. He noted that obviously there’d been a misunderstanding and we should all just go to sleep.

Brown Tract Change in Weather

I went to bed furious, especially at that confrontational woman with the oversized clothes. Rude New Yorkers, I thought. I had to listen to them bang around and watch them shine their flashlights as they got ready for bed. I was positive that in the morning they’d be just as surly and entitled and I’d demand a refund from the park. I had already been rained out, I didn’t want to be kicked out, too.

I woke up at 7AM to the sound of the man unloading the canoes from their truck. Not wanting to make what I was sure would be an awful situation worse, I started getting ready. The man went back inside the rig, but I decided to keep packing up. I wanted to be ready to move at the first available opportunity. I had been planning on a slow morning, and being forced to get up early angered me even more.

The couple finally emerged. They were very nice, very kind, and I realized that she was a rather petite woman. They were smiling and clearly not angry anymore. It was hard to keep up my own anger with nothing to fight against. I realized that they were probably not even from New York, since their accents didn’t seem local. They mentioned my Washington license plate and asked if I was on a cross-country trip. We were talking about my travels when their black lab ran out of the rig and pooped immediately.

“Poor baby,” said the woman, turning to her husband, “I told you she needed to go. I’ll get a plastic bag.”

Two young boys popped out of the rig, still in their pajamas. They looked at me curiously. The man and I talked some more. He was sad that I didn’t get to see more of the area because of the rain. He told me they came every year, and recommended I come back if ever I get the chance. When I mentioned I was ready to leave, he happily got in the truck to move the rig out of my way.

On the somewhat long drive out to the ranger station I went back and forth about what I was going to do. I wanted to demand a refund of at least half of my money. I was angry at the park for making me angry at those people. And I was mad on their behalf. After what was probably a long, late day of driving with two kids and a dog they had to deal with me rather than their perfect, empty campsite.

When I got to the booth no one was inside. There was a small cabin next to it and two old men were sitting on the porch. They told me the ranger wouldn’t be out for another 10 minutes. I explained what happened, and my frustration. I said that I’d like to know how I ended up in someone else’s site. I had no idea who these men were or what exactly their job was, but one of them said I was welcome to wait for the ranger. I asked him what he thought that would solve and he shrugged. “Maybe you’ll get your questions answered.”

I decided that holding onto this anger AND waiting around for another 10 minutes was too big an investment. I drove off, trying to figure out if I was still mad or not. I considered writing to the state parks department and demanding a refund. I thought for awhile about what I’d say and when I would do this. Eventually I realized I shouldn’t bother. The campsite was $20, and getting that money back wouldn’t be worth the cost in frustration. Ultimately, I knew the money wouldn’t make up for the real cost – how much longer I’d have to stay angry to get it. I realized that I could simply stop being angry at that moment. That all harm that could be done had already been done, and that the only possible benefit left would be a lousy twenty bucks, assuming I could even get that. And I’d have to keep up that frustration and pain for so long – certainly for the rest of the day until I could write up my letter, but probably much longer until I could get online and look up the contact info for the parks department. Realistically I would probably have too much to do in the next few days anyway, and would have to put it off until later, maybe even until after I got home.

The prospect of staying mad about something for the rest of my trip sickened me. The choice was easy. And turning it into a choice made me feel better instantly. Neither the situation nor the anger were ultimately out of my control. I still had the power to make a decision about how I wanted this event to affect my trip, my life. And I decided that it was in my own best interest to consider my $20 an investment in personal growth. It was the price I had to pay to realize that I always have the power to control my response. And in the end, the things that are outside of my control – the rain, the rangers – are insignificant in the face of the unending power of my response.