“Aren’t you scared?” That’s the one I hear most from people who come over to my campsite, surprised to see a woman my age traveling alone. It’s a good question. And yes, sometimes I’m scared.
Men tend to laugh at my occasional fears of the dark, women rarely do. I’m always fine in the daytime, wherever I am. But nighttime! That’s a different matter.
The darkness of night is what for me most makes living in nature such a unique experience. It’s the main reason why I seek out primitive campgrounds that don’t have even a dim battery-run light anywhere. It’s extraordinary to be able to experience what nighttime was like up until ever so recently when it was electrified, to try to imagine all those centuries of nights without light. Even in the very small way I’m able to picture it, it’s staggering. Is there anything else that has changed the face of the world so radically as the invention of electric light?
But such darkness can be really scary, especially when I’m alone and away from home. Of course I’m never completely alone since I always set up my tent in campgrounds, but I sometimes feel very alone at night, mainly if the nearest other campers are some distance away from me. And if everyone’s asleep and I’m lying awake inside my tent and I hear rustling in the bushes, oh my! An enormous bear comes galumphing into my imagination. As far as I know, a bear and I have never actually occupied the same campground at the same time, but darkness plus rustling can leave me sleepless for hours. For some reason my imagination, so vivid with bears, lets me down completely when I try at those moments to picture another adult in the tent with me, even though that’s all it would take to let me fall into a deep relaxed sleep. At those times I’m unable to unzip myself from my sleeping bag and then from my tent and go see what’s really going on out there. When I’m tucked away behind all those zippers, I can become strangely immobilized. And no, I don’t have a dark abusive shadow in my past. Fortunately, in all the years of camping alone, these nights are few and far between. But always memorable.
On some frightened nights hearing that rustling brings to mind not a bear but an evil man. I’ve only one time had to deal with an actual such a man in a campground. I’m always so careful who I camp next to, but through a series of missteps and chance happenings, I came home one night to my tent in the wee hours, after a night out in the nearby little town, and discovered him. Everyone was gone who had been in the campground before I took off for the town (where did they go? why?), and instead that man had arrived and parked his beat-up truck right next to me. It was just him and me in the middle of the dark woods, no-one else for miles around.
When I hurried from my car and zipped myself up in my tent, I just hoped that he hadn’t seen through the bushes that I’m a woman. He spent the entire night zapping something with a chain saw or sharpening what sounded like a machete or beating on the side of his truck with what sounded like a cudgel. He accompanied these activities with loud angry shouts. The worst was when he was silent, that’s when I was sure he was creeping up on me. Of course it was the one night I had failed to bring my cell phone or wasp spray (shoots 23 feet!) or noise-makers into my tent, they were many feet away in my car. Yes, of course I should have gotten up and driven away, or at least called 911, but I was so scared I could hardly breathe, let alone move. It’s all so irrational – my tent puts just a thin piece of “nylon taffeta” between me and whatever lurks outside, yet in that state of terror I clung for dear life to its illusion of dim safety.
Morning finally came, the sun shone, the birds sang, and it became clear that he probably was not even aware of my presence in the night. I’ll never know what he had been doing. I packed up and moved on, tired but calm. I can’t think back on a single time in my life when I’ve been so incapacitated by fear for so many hours. What’s funny is that throughout my life when I’ve been actually confronted with dangerous out-of-control men, some even with guns, I’ve managed to handle it cooly and successfully, not falling apart until afterwards.
This was just one night. Imagine all the people in the world who live for weeks and months and years in something like my state of terror that night.
When people ask me about being scared I don’t think they have only men and bears and the dark in mind. Next time I’ll write about some of the other things that I think concern them – they concern me too. It’s an interesting time for me to be putting my mind to the frightening aspects of camping because right now I’m in New Zealand (yes! really!) visiting my youngest daughter Emily. She lives here with her husband and four very lively children, and I’m wallowing in the deep pleasures of being a part of this family. And what a part! Mother, grandmother, mother-in-law, all at once, all right here in one place. And what a place! It’s pure heaven. There’s not a single scary thing about it, no matter how dark it gets.