Solo camping the first time
In August of 2016, at 43 years young, I went solo camping for the very first time. I had long been intrigued by stories of women who braved the woods alone, but something held me back from doing it myself. I had done a bit of solo hiking, but solo camping felt so intimidating. Instead, I begged my boyfriend for months on end to go with me (he did – once). I asked around my girlfriends too, but none were keen on the idea.
The call of the wild grew louder and stronger. It felt like a restlessness, an itching to trek through beauty, a yearning for spaciousness, a relentless aching to see and feel and know the untamed places in the earth – and in myself.
I would love to tell you that I finally got up the nerve and went for it, but what really happened was far more disastrous – and healing – than I could have ever imagined. I called it “divine disorder”, which is a polite way of saying my life got royally twisted up, and I had some big decisions to make. Big decisions that would have even bigger consequences. I was in such dire straits, such emotional turmoil, that I didn’t trust myself to make good choices. The only good option I could see my way to was to get away and clear my head.
What happened next changed the trajectory of my entire life.
Feeling the fear
I am shaking as I pull out of my driveway. While trying to keep my head about me, but I can hardly believe I am doing this. I have no idea what to expect, even though I’ve read a detailed description of the campground. The words of that description are in English, but I have no frame of reference for them. What the heck is a vault toilet? What is a pull thru? I have only been camping twice in my adult life. I might as well be driving into a foreign country. My mind is playing games with me, telling me that I won’t know what to do and I won’t know how to take care of myself.
Arriving Douglas Falls
There is ample signage at the entrance to the campground, which puts me a little more at ease. I read every word to be sure I am following all the rules. I can stay up to seven days. Quiet hours are between 10 pm and 6 am. Dogs are to be kept on a leash. Caution: Rattlesnakes. Great.
I drive around the entire grounds twice, inspecting each site and carefully weighing my options. Would I rather be close to the water or to the restrooms? Do I want to see my neighbors, or do I want to feel more secluded? How would I know? It is so hard to decide. It feels like the first time in my life I have only my own opinion to consider.
After circling around, I choose a site that has a short stack of wood already piled next to the fire ring. I hadn’t thought about a fire, but that would be nice. I whisper a thank you in my heart to the previous tenant for leaving it behind. Pulling into the site, I relax and put the car in park. I turn off the engine and sit bewildered for a moment. What do I do now? I walk the dog.
Not so alone while solo camping
I put Justice on her leash and take her for a walk. The sun is hot on my skin and the dirt is loose in my sandals. We walk by the RV parked at the site next to mine, and dogs bark from inside. There are two towels strung over a line and two camp chairs seated next to the fire ring. We continue around the dirt loop. The remaining five campsites are vacant.
I breathe deeply and try to quiet my mind. I still can’t believe I am here. What the hell are you doing here, Sonya? Guilt and shame and fear wash over me. Tears well up in my eyes. What have I done?…What am I going to do? I am going to pitch my tent.
Pitching the tent is part of solo camping
Raising a family-sized tent by yourself is no easy task. I don’t even know how to describe it, other than to have you imagine a fishing pole bowing under the pull of a mighty swordfish. My tent body is looped onto that bowing fishing pole. Now imagine two more fishing poles, bowing. These three fishing poles are crossing each other from opposing sides of a triangle. Three swordfish are hooked and pulling at the same time. And you have to raise them all simultaneously. It takes me a solid hour in the heat of the day.
I take a step back and take a little pride in my work. I did it. Zipping open the door, I load in my sleeping bags and the long clothes I will wear for pajamas. I remember some detail from a meditation book I once read, and I position my bag with the head pointing north. I lay my gratitude rock next to the head. This is where I am sleeping tonight.
Okay, now what? Waterfall. I read about the waterfall in the campground description, but I haven’t seen it yet. I reckon it’s time to find it and cool down from my work.
Off to the waterfall
Justice and I trace the dirt loop again and turn off on a trail leading into the trees. The temperature dips under the canopy of branches and leaves. Twigs snap under my sandals as we make our way down the path. I hear birds somewhere overhead.
I haven’t seen any trail maps posted, and I’m nervous about getting too far into the woods with no clue as to the distance of this trail or whether it has any spurs I could get turned around chasing. But I have nowhere else to be. I have no schedule; no demands on me or my time. Inhaling a deep breath and telling myself it will be okay. I am just following my feet and watching the little tail wag ahead of me.
I hear the laughter of children and the splashing of water in the distance. Continuing to put one foot in front of the other until we reach the falls. A clear pool stretches out in front of it and then narrows into a stream that continues deeper into the forest. A fallen tree offers me respite here. A small cairn sits atop the fallen tree, a sign from the universe that I am on the right path. I let that sink in. All of this feels terribly wrong and perfectly right all at the same time, but I choose to trust. I sit for a long, long time, and I breathe.
Darkness settles in
I sit in my camp chair and stare into the fire as the sun sets behind the trees. Justice is in my lap, and I rake my fingers up and down in the scruff under her neck. The flames fight off the cool night air creeping in on us, and the darkness deepens beyond the circle cast by their dancing. I can’t see more than 20 feet beyond. I listen to the crackle and the crickets, lost in it all, until all that is left is ruby ember.
There is no cell service and no Internet connection. I am completely out of touch with anyone who knows and loves me. There is no electronic entertainment to occupy or distract me. I am alone with my thoughts, and they start to play games with me.
I reach for the flashlight at my feet and click the power button. A faint circle shines briefly then dims to nothing. I click the button off and click it back on again. Nothing. I shake the flashlight, and the faint circle shines briefly before dimming back to nothing. So much for having a flashlight.
Adjusting to the night
I peer into the dark in the direction of my tent, which is a good 20 feet away. I can make out the silhouette as my eyes adjust to the night. With the fire having gone out, it feels suddenly dangerous out here. Do rattlesnakes come out at night? I shudder at the thought. I shake the flashlight again and point the faint circle along the ground between me and my tent. It dims back to nothing.
“C’mon, Justice.” The sound of my voice is stiff in the still night air. She jumps down from my lap, and I realize I haven’t walked her tonight. I look around the dark campsite. It feels eerily quiet. There is no way I am walking her now. I decide she will just have to hit the bushes on our way to the tent, and I walk slowly enough to give her the chance. I decide I will have to hit the bushes too. She would bark if something was out there, right? Yes, right. Nothing is out there, Sonya.
I zip open the tent door, and it sounds disturbing and shrill in my ears. Justice hops inside ahead of me, and I zip us back in with a quickness. My heart is pounding. I feel utterly vulnerable. I need something to offer a sense of security in the gaping blackness. Sleeping bag. I unzip the bag and start to wiggle into the comforting cocoon when my mind calls, Snake! Yanking my feet back out, I break out in goosebumps from head to toe. I poke at the bag. Nothing. I push around the bag, feeling for any kind of anomaly. Nothing. I start to wiggle back in again. Spider! OMG, seriously?!
I know my mind is playing games with me, and I know I can choose not to play. Taking a deep breath, I feel along the head of the bag, looking for my gratitude rock. I have been developing a serious gratitude practice for several weeks, ever since my DUI. My fingers reach the familiar stone and wrap themselves around it, bringing it to my heart. Justice is nesting at my feet, pawing at the fabric of the sleeping bag, spinning herself into heavy satisfaction.
The ground is hard and unforgiving beneath me, and I shift around to find a marginally comfortable position. I long for my pillow. I long for the streetlamp shining in my bedroom window. How I long for Mom snoring in the room next to me. I long for the strong arms and cold feet that mean Edward is near. My aloneness presses in on me. I am grateful for the RV near enough to call a neighbor. I take another deep breath.
Gratitude for the wild
I look up into the mesh between me and the night. I squeeze my rock and begin giving thanks for all the good things that happened today. My mind calls them one by one, and I use this practice to calm my fear. My heart slows, but I can still feel its pulse in my temples and in my palm against the cold stone. I take another deep breath.
It would be hours before I finally fall asleep. In the still of the night, I can hear every sound of the forest. I fight the alarm in my heart by telling myself that Justice is sleeping soundly, and therefore all is well. A howl pierces the dark and sends shivers down my spine. It sounds very far away, Sonya. And then I wonder how a wolf howl might differ from that of a coyote. Some instinct tells me this one is coyote. I shiver again. Closing my eyes, I repeat the message that all is well. I am one with this world out here. I, too, am a child of the Wild.
NOTE FROM STACEY: A mutual friend introduced me to Sonya after learning about my adventures with my vintage Airstream and dreams of seeing the USA. Sonya and I instantly connected as we both have a similar attitude towards adventure! Often we need inspiration of the first step taken that leads to shifting one’s life. Sonya has been happy to share with us an excerpt, the story above, from GO: Sacred Solo Travel for Women Check out her book – maybe it will be the inspiration you need!
That is a brave adventure!
When I was first divorced, I took my young children camping alone at Bread and puppet heater in VT. We were surrounded by lots of campers but it still felt BIG.
I love how Sonya represents the brave we all have inside! Bread & Puppet Theater! I LOVED THEM!! Camping alone with kids is courageous, especially that first time. I bet it is a precious memory for all