Given my childhood, I wasn’t a stranger to camping, but the first time I actually camped alone, just alone and out there, in a tent, I had to because I’d been hired as one of the first women wilderness rangers by the U.S. Forest Service. Granted, I’d already spent two summers living on a forest-fire watchtower, but the 100-foot tower with a 6-by-6-foot perch at the top (day duty) had covered up my alone by surrounding me with wood and metal. The cabin at the base of my tower (night duty) was a structural home also, an enclosure. I certainly had no idea how much my looking out from the inside limited my outlook on outside.
I was dropped off at a trailhead with a backpack that was close to half my weight. It was 1974, and the only backpack I could find to buy was a man’s large Kelty. The size had fooled me into taking too much.
I walked until dusk and then some, unable to find the right spot. As it got darker, I knew I needed to get my tent set up while there was still a bit of light left. I was in a meadow of sorts, but I could barely see my hands by then. I quickly put my tent up and crawled inside. After about a four-hour deep sleep, I woke up, fairly out of sorts. Having grown up camping, I had no idea that waking up nine miles from another human being would trigger a panic, some sort of primal yearning for companionship (or whatever it was that was gripping me).
I scanned the dial of my small, battery-powered transistor radio looking for a station, just to hear another voice. Nothing.
I thought about walking back out the nine miles to the trailhead in the dark. Bad idea. I didn’t have a car there. The thought of unzipping my tent flap and stepping out into the dark made me realize that I was also afraid. As panic tried to gobble up all the logic I could muster (How did I imagine a layer of thin, nylon fabric could protect me from anything?), I hung on.
When dawn arrived and I finally unzipped the door of my tent, I stepped out into a meadow full of wildflowers; alone next to a small, steaming brook (its temperature warmer than the morning air); alone with dew-wet everything; alone with quiet. Alone with me. That morning, I realized I was onto something; I’d found what my heart was longing for.
All alone meant I didn’t have to think about, talk to, or worry about a hiking partner. Alone meant breakfast whenever I wanted it. It meant I could dawdle, wash my feet in the brook, brush my hair for as long as I wanted, or decide to stay another day before moving on. It meant I could sing out loud. Nap. Fish for hours. I could do anything I wanted.
The meadow was green and lush, but dotted with mounds of soft dirt, the tailings of gophers who were tunneling underground. Without shoes, I hopped from mound to mound, finding soft, sun-warmed dirt for each leap.
“If the sight of the blue skies fills you with joy,
If a blade of grass springing up in the fields has the power to move you,
If the simple things of nature have a message that you understand,
Rejoice, for your soul is alive.”
Alone “out there” is dramatically different from alone in a city, alone at home. Like adequate calcium at a young age for adequate bone mass later on, out-there-alone time builds umbel mass. (Umbel is the flowering center of a plant.) Without it, I think women, in particular, are more susceptible to abuse and subjugation. When bad stuff starts to happen in your life and you have umbel mass, you know you have you. The world gets less scary. Wanting to be with people is much better than having to be with people.