Camping Alone

At the campgrounds I would see people setting up their sites. They would string clotheslines between the trees. They would make a place for food and a place for supplies. Vehicles were parked specifically and purposely. There were special items, too. A table cloth for the picnic table and a cooler for the beer. A camp stove to heat meals, or a pan to put over the fire.

2013-06-03 17.43.09A lot of family camping seems to be about creating a new space to live in. It brings with it all the fun and challenge of moving into a new home, without a lot of the expensive downsides. You get to rearrange your limited furniture in the most pleasing way. You get to discover the best way to cook in your new kitchen, assign chores to family members for taking out the trash and doing the dishes. You get to make yourself a comfortable bed from scratch.

Unlike a typical home or apartment that is filled with walls and floors and pipes that you can’t fully see or understand, your campground home is one you build yourself. You take a rolled up collection of tent fabric and make it into a bedroom. You find a path to the outhouse and make it into your hallway. An ordinary wooden picnic table transforms into a kitchen. A piles of logs and matches becomes a stove. Setting up a campsite is like being your own fairy godmother, taking a pumpkin and making a carriage.

There is accomplishment clearly, but there is also control.

Every piece of your camp-home is something you created, and is therefore something you can remove. At home you may not like your kitchen sink, but a replacement is costly and time-consuming and requires a professional. At the campsite your sink is a rubber tub. If you don’t like your rubber tub, you can go to the home department of any number of stores and pick up a different one. Problem solved. The sink has been replaced.

But it’s not like that when you’re camping alone and camping for convenience. When I was camping on the road, I was never trying to build a home. I was barely building a hotel room. I didn’t want to set out a clothes line or table cloth. I wanted to do as little as was required to have a comfortable evening, then pack it all up again as fast as possible in the morning. Camping wasn’t an adventure, it was a nuisance.

Fire - postedI didn’t have the typical social aspect to my camping either. There were plenty of times when I was alone or mostly alone in a campground. I didn’t sit around a campfire with a group of friends trading stories. When I did bother to make a fire I was always trying to time it to burn out around sunset anyway, since I would much rather get into my tent early than stay up late waiting for the coals to die down.

I’m sure it would have been different had I planned to stay in any one spot for longer. Perhaps I would have set up shop and made more friends. But almost all of my camping stops were one night only. And when I really stop to think about it, I didn’t want to set up a home because I already had one. My car had become my home. That’s where I kept my things and spent my time. It’s what stayed the same whether I was camping or couchsurfing. My vehicle was the one unchanging part of my journey. The campsite was just some dirt to pitch a tent on.

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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.

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.

Wandering in the Desert

A few years ago I became interested in the biblical concept of “wandering through the desert.” While there are many instances of people in the Bible being lost in the wilderness, this phrase is most often used in reference to the people of Israel after they escaped slavery in Egypt. (A side note for those who are inclined to treat any biblical reference with extra scrutiny, I would ask that at least for now, if not always, you look at Exodus for its merits as a story, fable, or myth. Like Hamlet or Toy Story.) My interest in this was the idea that perhaps we all must go through times of wandering in the desert. The aimless years right after high school or college, for example. Or maybe the months after a breakup or divorce. We’ve all experienced that feeling of undirected lateral movement. And more often than not, it’s good to take that time to live without purpose, goal, or intent. This is what I call wandering through the desert. The Israelites did it for forty years. I chose to do it for four days.

Watering Down the TracksI dropped my big sister off at the train station in Flagstaff, did some much needed laundry, then headed off into the Painted Desert. My route was loosely based on a National Geographic Road Trip, and to really cement the wandering feeling I was planning to camp each night. I spent most of my time on Navajo reservation land, and my first stop was to see some dinosaur tracks. Now, when there’s a hand painted sign on the highway that just says “Dinosaurs Tracks,” and it points to a dirt road where you are immediately met with a couple of trucks, some makeshift wooden shelters, and a woman offering to be your guide, a certain amount of suspicion stirs in you. Is this a trick? Are they going to try to swindle me? Are these even real fossils?

Outline of a footI parked my car and followed the woman out onto the basin. Within a few feet, she stopped and pointed her water bottle at the ground. there was a small hole poked into the cap, making it the perfect, tiny squirt gun. She sprayed the foot-shaped impression on the ground, explaining that the water makes it easier to see. She was right, the indent changed color as it was sprayed, and for a minute or so the shape was very clear. The desert sun would dry it back out in minutes, but we were already moving on by then. Sometimes small rocks had been moved to outline an object, sometimes fossils previously spread out were brought back together. She sprayed various places on the ground, explaining that this track was made by this type of dinosaur and this was the bone outline of another. Everything was very close together, and demostrated a seemingly wide variety of species. I tried to keep my skepticism in check, and at one point my guide even made a joke about people accusing her of making up fake tracks. “You think I have time to come out here with a hammer and chisel at the rocks?” she laughed. I talked with my guide about her eight kids and two marriages, and about how her oldest daughter called her in a panic last week, “But you know it’s just about a boy.”

Jewelry StandsShe explained how the fossils had been found in the early part of the 20th Century, and how for awhile people would come and carve up sections of tracks to sell to museums. The Navajo people didn’t understand the significance of the tracks, so they didn’t bother stopping them. “Now the museums refer to them as donations,” she said. She told me they’ve had offers from the government to make it a national park, but the structured fee system didn’t sit well with the Navajo tradition of humility. Instead, they’re raising money to make their own site, complete with fences to keep out the vandals.

When the tour was over my guide showed me the handmade jewelry she had for sale, and I asked if I could make a donation instead of buying anything. She gladly accepted and I went along my way. My internet research later indicated that indeed the tracks themselves are real and the Navajo Nation is trying to set up an official site, though the particulars given about each fossil might not be accurate. I was pretty sure of that one already. I mean, how does a dilophosaurus track end up next to a tyrannosaurus print? They lived 100 million years apart.

Anasazi InnI continued my long and beautiful drive through the desert, stopping by the Navajo National Monument to see an ancient native pueblo settlement nestled into a canyon wall. It was getting late, and I drove to the nearest town in an attempt to get cell reception and/or find a campground. After some frustratingly futile attempts to talk to Siri, I employed the tried and try method of asking a gas station attendant. She said there were no campgrounds within 30 miles. All the land is privately owned, and people get upset if you try to camp on their land without permission. With camping out of the question, I checked into the Anasazi Inn, where I had to sit in the doorway of my room to get the internet signal from the router in the main office. Sitting out there gave me a chance to cool off my room with the slightly more comfortable night air, as well as catch snippets of conversation from a group of men a few doors down.

They had pulled a pickup truck up to the door, and one shirtless man sat in the tailgate drinking a beer, while the others leaned on walls or sat in the doorframe. From what I could gather, these men worked for one of the highway construction crews. They talked about posts for 30 minutes. That is in no way an exaggeration. The conversation about posts, more specifically about certain men being incapable of correct post placement, went on for half an hour. Eventually they went to sleep and so did I.

Black ArrowThe next morning I drove out to Canyon de Chelly, a national monument featuring a beautiful system on canyons and many ancient ruins. From far away the ruins look like tiny dollhouses. They were all built by the Anasazi, the name given to the ancient people who once inhabited the land. I couldn’t help but think of The X-Files the whole time, as they had a pretty extensive storyline involving the Navajo desert and the ancient Anasazi people. I drove to the various lookout points, each time being greeted by a member of the Navajo nation with art or jewelry to sell. I appreciated the way the park trails were laid out. Because the ground is often a smooth, hard, rock surface, there is little paving. Instead, they mark the path with a series of unobtrusive arrows painted on rocks, or painted footprints not the ground. When necessary they carve out steps and slopes, but they are so well integrated I often couldn’t figure out what was natural and what was man-made. I kept driving along the desert, thinking about the little ways in which a reservation really is its own country. I drove past mobile homes and model homes, stuck out in the desert as tiny signs of progress. They are poor masks for poverty, and I was filled with a sense of White Guilt as I considered the how we all ended up in this duel-country state, and how all possible ways out seem fraught with problems.

Judgmental SheepI stopped by the Hubbell Trading Post, a testament to the old pioneer days. It’s been restored to include a lot of the old ranch equipment, and still functions as a trading post, though trading is mostly grocery items and rugs. They still keep a handful of animals on the ranch, though I imagine they are mostly for show. I tried to take a picture of the sheep and they looked up just long enough to give me a judgmental stare I thought only cats were capable of producing. They keep a turkey in with the chickens, and for reasons I wasn’t sure of, the large bird kept stopping its feet. I don’t know if you’ve ever been near a wild turkey stomping its feet, but I hadn’t. The first few times it happened I couldn’t believe it was comping from the turkey. The ground actually trembled, as though a large piece of farm equipment had fallen out of a barn loft. Do not mess with a turkey.

PetroglyphsI made it out of the reservation and camped at Lyman Lake State Park. My tent site was nothing but gravel and completely exposed, but I didn’t much care. I went on a short hike up to see some petroglyphs – pictures and symbols carved into stone by the Anasazi. In general, archeologists have no idea what they mean. But the are fascinating to look at, and apparently numerous enough that as a tourist you can just wander around at your leisure. I cooked up some dinner on my camp stove (I’d been traveling in fire-ban areas since northern California), and set up camp in the windy gravel. I would have one more night in the desert before I reached the great civilization of Albuquerque, but this would be my last night in Arizona.

Who Knew the Grand Canyon Was So Popular?

It has occurred to me from time to time that I can’t do this whole thing flying by the seat of my pants. While many who have come before me have encouraged me not to over-plan, even they will admit that sometimes reservations must be made. While different sources will tell you different things, most will agree that making concrete lodging plans about two weeks in advance is usually enough. My guess is that will be the case for most places I want to stay on my trip. Except of course, for the biggest one.

Not long after my blog was public, my sister emailed me asking when I was going to the Grand Canyon, and how important the “solo” part of my solo road trip was.  We quickly hatched a plan for her to take a few days off work to meet me as I pass through Vegas, drive to the Grand Canyon, and hike the length of it as a team. I knew hiking all the way to the bottom and back was no small feat, but I also knew that hundreds of amateur hikers do it every year. I figured as long as we were prepared, we’d be fine.

I asked my sister to look into lodging at the base of the canyon (you can’t go down and up in a single day, so you must either camp or get a room in the Phantom Ranch hostel at the bottom). Meanwhile, I was listening to ranger podcasts and reading up on the “must pack” lists to ensure we wouldn’t get heat stroke or lose all our salt by sweating. The more I navigated the national park’s website, the clearer it became: if you want to hike the full canyon this summer, you should have been planning last spring. Phantom Ranch makes a point of opening reservations no more than 13 months in advance, and tells people to expect the phones to be busy the first few days of every month due to the mass of reservation calls they get when next year’s beds are opening up. So of course, Phantom Ranch was full.

Though the thought of lugging a tent and sleeping bag up a vertical mile sounded abismal, I was willing to try for a camping permit. My sister sent in the request form, and I resigned myself to the thought that it would never happen. I started thinking of alternative plans. A week went by.

Then one day I’m at work and see that I’ve got a voicemail from my sister. I play it and the first thing I hear is her singing, to her own invented tune “We’re hiking the Grand Canyon!” Apparently even the man who booked it was shocked that they still had a spot open. Our camping permit allows us to pitch a tent at the base of the canyon, and now we’ll try to get a reservation for duffle service. Explained to us as “half a mule,” duffle service is a way to get a small amount of luggage down and back up the canyon without strapping it to your own back. If we can swing that as well as a few meal reservations at Phantom Ranch, this whole thing just might work out perfectly.

This may seem strange, but somehow I after hearing such fantastic news, I ended up with the song “Sixteen Bars” stuck in my head. In subject matter it’s from out of left field, but by the end of the song I feel like the sentiment of trying so hard to get something impossible is spot on to how I feel right now. We’re doing this.