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.

Alone in Water Canyon

I asked the woman at the Magdalena Visitors Center if there were any campgrounds nearby. She said the closet one was Water Canyon. She mentioned that it was quite nice – a favorite among campers. It was only a few miles out of town, and in the direction I was already going. I had some time to kill so I asked her about the signs I saw for Kelly Ghost Town, the former mining boom town. She gave me a brochure and told me where to go, though under her breath she said, “there’s not much up there, but, if you want to go…”

I followed her directions for the turn off to Kelly Street, a long and slow road dotted with mobile homes. I turned left at the fork as instructed, and started up a single lane gravel road with neither signage nor signs of life. I drive extra slow on these types of roads. I encountered a few up in Oregon north of Crater Lake. They’re always long, always rough, and they never give any indication of how long you’ve been driving or how long you’ve left to go. They make me nervous. I started to wonder if anyone else ever went to see the Kelly Ghost Town. That’s when the Check Coolant light went on.

For those who have never been, New Mexico is a land without shade. Trees are few and far between. Clouds, when present, are mostly decorative. Which means despite my desires and better judgement, I had to stop and check my engine in the middle of the 95 degree sun.

Looking at the coolant tank, I confirmed it was at the top of the minimum amount line. My car likes to warn me of things in plenty of time, so there was still a fair amount left. I also knew that in a pinch a person could use water as coolant, and I had just refilled all my water stores at the VLA. I looked up and down the road, wondering if it was worth the risk. I had no idea how far the ghost town was. If it was only a little farther, it might be better to go there, let the engine cool a bit while I explored, and then head back into town. Or it could be a considerable distance, my coolant tank could be leaking fast, and I could find myself walking back to town alone on the road where heat was invented. I remembered how uninterested the woman in town was when I mentioned Kelly, and decided to turn back.

Before I left for this trip I had my car checked, and I mentioned that I suspected I might have a small coolant leak. They confirmed I was correct, and fixed it for a pretty penny. I wasn’t sure if this meant there was still a leak, or if driving in the desert sun for three days was just a bit much for my little Jetta. I called my dad to discuss possible courses of action, and he agreed that for now I should just fill up the tank and keep an eye on it. If I noticed it slipping away more I could take it in for service.

In town I found an auto repair shop and picked up some coolant. The woman behind the counter confirmed that Water Canyon, the suggested camping destination, was a lovely place. I filled up the coolant tank in the parking lot and ended up spilling some on myself. I went back in to ask if they had anywhere I could wash my hands, and she looked at me hesitantly. “The best I can offer you is some wipes. Our town is out of water.” Apparently water is being trucked into Magdalena and rationed, and as a result the restroom was closed. Such are the problems you don’t realize some people have.

2013-06-20 17.37.24I drove out to the turnoff for Water Canyon, noting the distance listed to the campground so at least I would know how far I’d gone if the paved road turned to gravel. I drove for awhile, past a couple houses nestled together, and reached the campground sign. It gave an arrow pointing off towards, as expected, a long gravel road. I’d already reached the distance listed on the highway sign, which meant I was back to guessing. I drove up slowly, eventually making it the the campsites. There was a board labeled “Information Center” that had some nice signs about littering and rabies, but no information about payment. I circled the campground to be sure. This place was free. It was also empty. There was no drinking water – not even the sound of a distant stream. I was two miles from the houses, six miles from the road, and 16 miles from a town with no water. I was completely alone in the desert.

I picked out the shadiest looking site, which happened to be right next to the entrance. I suppose I also wanted to know if anyone happened to join me. Solitude and reflection is one thing, but sitting at the picnic table swatting away flies I suddenly felt so isolated and vulnerable. It’s the same feeling I get on those gravel roads. The creeping realization that if something goes wrong, it will be fully up to me to determine and execute a solution. There is no one to help. And here I am, protected only by the faith that this big metal box I’m driving will keep functioning as usual, because if anything goes wrong I have neither the skills nor the tools to fix it.

I know that I am capable. I know that I am prepared. But part of being prepared for the worst is a deep fear and certainty that the worst will occur. That’s the kind of fear that sneaks up on you when you find yourself completely alone in the truly inaccurately named Water Canyon. That subtle panic that reminds you that characters in horror movies never suspect they’re in a horror movie until it’s too late. That useless knowledge that you could have a brain aneurysm at any moment, fall to the ground dead, and be slowly devoured by turkey vultures.

And so you get out your computer and start to write about how you feel. And you start to think about how nice it is to have a gentle breeze and a free place to stay for the night. About how the canyon really is lovely and the flies are dying down. About how you just climbed nine miles out of the Grand Canyon with the exact same supplies you have in your car, and a two or five mile walk to find help wouldn’t kill you if push came to shove.

Feeling a bit better about the situation, you get out a slice of bread and some Nutella. And just when you consider going over to the information bulletin board to learn about rabies, two Forest Service fire prevention trucks drive through the campground on patrol, and the six able-bodied men inside give you a nod. Even in Water Canyon, you are not alone.

Be Yourself, Camp Yourself

Depending on your measurement criteria, I have come close to solo-camping twice before. Once was a few weeks ago in preparation for this trip. However it was on my parents’ lawn, I had plenty of company (though by my request I had no help), and I didn’t have to start a fire. There was one other time when I went to Mt Rainier with my sister and her boyfriend, but they arrived much later than I did, so most of the camp setup and fire-starting fell to me. Still, I had other people eventually. So as far as I’m concerned my first true solo-camping experience was at Humbug Mountain State Park.

View From the Road

Humbug Mountain sits right on the edge of the Oregon coast. The campground for the park is in the shadow of the mountain, just a few minutes walk from the beach. As far as I could tell, the campground offered the only access to this particular beach. It was, of course, quite windy out by the water.

Being my first night camping, I was anxious to try my fire-starting skills. I have started and maintained my fair share of fires in the past of course, but usually not alone and usually using a match. A few years ago I started to get very interested in survival skills (though often more in thought than in practice), and I felt a summer full of solo-camping would be an excellent chance to practice starting a fire using a flint and steel.

I purchased some firewood from the camp host and took it back to my site. I was never officially taught or trained on how to start a fire. I learned by watching my father do it, and by observing how campfires work. I’d always heard the terms “tepee” and “log cabin” used to describe ways in which a person should start a fire, and generally understood the concepts. However I’d never used either setup. My method was more freeform, and usually based on the logs at hand, the purpose of the fire, and me treating it like an animate object with desires. “I want this log here now,” says the Fire. “I need more kindling,” it demands. Still, I felt like maybe it was time to try it the “right” way, so I began building my tepee.

FireNow, despite what most movies would have you believe, you can’t just strike a flint and steel above something reasonably flammable and have it burst into flames. You need your sparks to fall on something especially flammable. Newspaper, the most common campfire starting material, is reasonably flammable, but not especially flammable. That’s why I saved up the last several loads worth of dryer lint from home to bring with me on the trip. The sparks catch on the lint, which catches on the newspaper, which catches on the kindling, which catches on the logs. And you have a fire. In theory.

The flint & steel part wasn’t too difficult. It certainly takes some elbow grease, and my calves got tired of squatting down next to the fire ring for so long, but eventually the sparks caught and I was on my way. Sort of. My tepee wasn’t doing so great. The flames looked fine, but the logs just weren’t having it. After spending too much time waving away smoke and trying to get the thing going, I gave up on the traditional wisdom and went back to my old, haphazard style of arranging logs the way I think the Fire will find most appealing. It worked instantly, and the fire needed almost no maintenance the rest of the evening. In fact, it was a little too hardy, and I ended staying up late waiting for the fire to die.

Cooking DinnerIn the end, I did eventually start a successful fire using a flint and steel, and as a bonus I cooked my dinner over it. I suppose sometimes life is about trying new things, and sometimes new things are there to explain why you always did it the old way. As for me and my flint, we will stick with the old way.