I’m writing this in the middle of a campground 2.5 hours from the nearest major city. My stomach is full of s’mores and my campsite full of the steam of a properly killed fire. I’m camping alone for the second time in two months and loving it.
I grew up camping in large groups. Camping was a metronomic part of my pre-high school education. Each year my class planned and executed a camping trip, starting with an overnight in 1st grade and finishing with an 8 day trip in 8th grade. But those trips—wonderful though they were—were about teams, about building them, maintaining them, surviving them when they fell apart. A few nights of eating off of frisbees taught Devon why he should remember to pack a plate; sleeping in a puddle taught Cole why sleeping in a hollow of land had consequences.
I earned my first and only second degree sunburn in 6th grade. I had just barely made some friends, all of whom were boys, and I was too shy to ask them to help me put sunscreen on. But I desperately wanted to hang out with them in the lake, so I put on my swimsuit with a flower-cut-out in the back, and sat in inter tubes for hours getting to know each other.
The immediate consequence was a back covered in blisters and several nights of sleeping in one of those friends’ mom’s shirts, since all of mine were too hard on my skin. In the medium term, I had a deep brown flower on my back for 6 months. Long term, I decided personal shame was not worth that kind of pain and learned to ask people for help.
(As I write I have a sunburn on my neck, but that one is 100% on me. I forgot to put on sunscreen. Good thing it’s turtleneck weather in San Francisco.)
A lot of my life and my work is in building and maintaining Margaret Mead’s “small group[s] of committed people” working to change the world. Cooperation is a learned skill, just like independence, courage, and resilience. I find a lot of joy in that work, which is why I do it. But sometimes, I want to make choices where I am the sole beneficiary and the only person who is harmed, I want to do exactly what I want to do and have no one to discuss it with.
Right now, that is what camping is to me. I set off on Saturday, taking a Lyft to a train to a Lyft to a friend’s house where my car was staying. Because I wasn’t beholden to anyone but myself, when she offered to have breakfast with me, I went in and we made crepes with syrup and lemon juice on top. They tasted amazing.
I was only on the road for a half hour when I hit traffic and could indulge in a bad mood without worry it would hurt anyone with me. When it got clear, I listened to the books I wanted to, laughed and smiled, got orange juice, bought apples and grapes and bananas, a meaty cheddar cheese and a baguette that have been most of my meals this weekend. I bought two gallons of water, and then picked up a third at the next gas station I hit. Carrying too much water is part of growing up camping and in a series of droughts.
I got to Lassen National Park in the evening, my trip made longer by traffic. I had made the decision not to book a campground ahead of time. I plan thoroughly for most of my life, but know that kind of Type A-ness can make me brittle, unable to handle sudden changes. I value both adaptability in myself and serendipity in my life, so I have let my last few camping trips go mostly unplanned.
The consequences this time were not great, but I managed fine. It turns out all of the campgrounds in the park were full by the time I got in at 6:30. I spent the next few hours driving further and further out, finding every campsite and motel within an hour of the park booked. Finally, I found a rest area and decided to test out the full recline of my car’s front seat (one of her main selling features on the lot).
I tweeted some of it, but I enjoyed the experience. I can now say I’ve slept overnight in DC’s Union Station, the Amman airport, and the rest stop outside of Montgomery Creek, CA. The stars were incredible and seeing the rhythm of the highway over the course of an evening was fascinating.
Even better, I got to do this:
Like getting a bad sunburn, this was a camping experience with a lesson—perhaps look for serendipity in things other than where I am going to sleep at night. But when I woke up in time to see the sun fade the stars, the sky regain its color, and the trees turn from silhouettes to beings flushed with green, my overwhelming emotion was pride. Pride that I had figured out a solution to a problem that was scary and hard and that I was fine.
I have heard that our generation is known to the college admissions officers of the world as crispy critters and tea cups. Crispy critters because we show up to college so burnt out we can’t learn; tea cups because we crack under the slightest pressure. Camping helps me not feel burnt out, helps me bring more water and bigness into my life. And camping reminds me of the resilience that I learned on those middle school camping trips. That life continues after a bad sunburn; that the sun rises even on rest stops outside of Montgomery Creek, CA.
Sunday morning I drove back into the park and got a spot, which is where I am wrote this piece. I took myself on a five hour hike, letting a novel and some short stories read aloud keep me company. I luxuriated in the frothing weirdness of the mudpots, got light-headed trying to make a video in the middle of the cloud of sulfur smoke, and went on a hike down a mountain and—crucially—got myself back up the same mountain afterwards. Then I came to camp, ate food, read my book on Yemeni politics, made s’mores, and wrote my daily 1000 words. It has been a weekend where my choices, good/bad/indifferent, hurt and helped me almost to the exclusion of anyone else. On Tuesday I will go back to the unsingable glory of working in coalitions, of building relationships and trust, of the kind of hard work that makes up a life trying to change the world with small groups of committed people. But for this weekend, I got to test my independence and did not find myself wanting.
“If people have any kind of orientation toward people-pleasing, you wind up being totally liberated,” she says. “You rigorously protect other people’s privacy, but there’s no other kind of taking care. Anne [Washburn] and I have noticed that on the first day, everyone scatters, everyone goes into the field. But over time, people drift together, because we aren’t a threat to each other. People write next to each other on the couch; they’re there, but they’re not in your mental space. In silence, people are with you in a way that they can’t be in normal life.” — Helen Shaw