Men and Bears in the Dark

“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.

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Alone

Is it better to travel alone or to travel with someone?    I feel I’m particularly well qualified in one sense to speak to this question, since I’ve done a lot of traveling in both conditions.  On the other hand, I’m particularly not well qualified to do so since I’ve spent a great deal of my life alone, very alone, beginning when I was a toddler.   My childhood provided me with extraordinary training in aloneness and I’m very very good at it.   I was well prepared for camping by myself.   Some of you may never have been alone for an extended time before, so it might take you some practice to get used to it.

There’s no question that it’s easier to have someone share the everyday chores so that you don’t have to do them all yourself, things like cooking and cleaning.  On the other hand, I’ve never once found myself these past years of camping alone muttering under my breath “why the hell hasn’t he filled those water jugs yet?”   When things break or need some kind of repair it’s so nice to have a man around the tent.  On the other hand, I would have missed all the moments of triumph I felt, figuring out how to do all those things myself.  I’ve finally become comfortable asking neighbors for help when I need it, it has taken me much too long to learn that and to see what fine encounters can result from the asking.  My favorite helping moment came this summer when my neighbor Norman offered to fix the cigarette lighter in my car so I could charge my computer through it, instead of making my long daily trips to the nearby Lodge to use their electricity.  It still makes me laugh to picture what happened as soon as he opened the hood and propped it up:  suddenly there were five other men standing around with him, looking in at the motor, each stroking their chin and coming up with a different idea of how to approach the problem.   Man magnet:  stand at open hood of car, peering in.

If you’re not used to doing everything yourself then it will take a while to get used to it, but you will, I promise.  After Mike left, when we’d decided to go our separate ways, that was one of the biggest adjustments for me.  It came at little moments, like not being able to open a jar, and for a while it would send waves of loneliness over me.  But very soon I just looked through the drawer and found the opener without even thinking about it.

Decision-making is different too.  Most of the time not having to consider anyone else is pure joy:  I can do anything I damn please!   However, when it’s a difficult decision – like when there’s a storm starting up, should I take down the canopy?  should I pack up and leave and move inland?  Or when the car is acting up, should I just keep driving?  should I pull over in this god-forsaken spot and call AAA?  – that’s when it’s really hard not to have someone there by my side.   Those are the moments I’m acutely aware of how alone I am, and sometimes I even cry.

Of course the hardest part is the loneliness factor, and it’s a particular kind of loneliness that I feel when I’m off having a grand time looking at the world, having all sorts of new experiences.   Having fun all alone is very different from having fun with someone.  It’s like what I experienced raising my daughters all by myself.  Sure, it was really hard not to have someone else contributing equal time and money and parenting to the task, but for me the absolutely hardest part of being a single parent was having no-one to share the wonders of my daughters with.  There was no-one to sit with in the evenings and to tell all the amazing things they had said and done during that day.

It’s the same when I’m camping, and I feel it most strongly as the evening comes on.  That’s when I sometimes long for a loved one to be with me.  We could maybe open a bottle of wine to enjoy while I cook us up a meal, then we could sit by the fire together and talk over all the things we’d done and seen that day.  We would feel deeply connected, we would be looking into each other’s eyes, the world would consist of just the two of us.  What I’ve found over the years is that it’s possible to do it alone, it’s just different.   I stand at the picnic table cooking my supper, watching the light change, listening to the birds ready themselves for the night, watching my fellow campers cooking and eating their meals.  I think my breathing changes, slows down, I become very relaxed and my focus is on all that’s going on around me.  I’m almost not aware of myself,  I’m almost invisible to myself. Only the world around me exists.  It’s such a pleasurable state to be in that I often continue after I’ve cleared away the supper dishes.  I just sit in my little camping chair, sometimes for a few hours, just sitting, very relaxed, very passive, just being.   It’s only when I’m camping alone that I fully achieve this state, and it’s the closest I ever come to fully experiencing Be Here Now.

That’s not to say that some evenings aren’t difficult for me.  My longing for connection, for a soul mate, sometimes takes over and I go to bed feeling sad and alone.  That happens when I’m at home, too, it can happen anywhere and any time, even when I’m with a loved one.  I figure it’s part of the human condition.

Kitchen

There’s just nothing like standing under a tree, looking off into miles of fields or woods or a river or an ocean, stirring a savory pot of something bubbling on the Coleman stove in front of me.  Partly it’s the convergence of wild nature with the aromas of perhaps a curry or a marinara sauce;   partly it’s the triumph of making something that smells so very good from my tiny camping larder;  partly it’s that excitement that many of us have felt since childhood about eating outdoors.  Whatever it is, it’s where I most love to cook.  Yes, the constraints are many, compared to my well-stocked kitchen at home, and maybe that’s part of it too.

It’s challenging to make the kinds of meals I’m used to with just two burners to cook on, and no oven, and a limited supply of propane. But I’ve come to think of these restrictions with relief, since I’m often overwhelmed in my home kitchen by the number of available choices.  I don’t cook anything that takes more than 15 or 20 minutes, so that if I’ve got something like a sweet potato or a winter squash I cut it up small, usually into a soup or a sauce.   While traveling I eat a lot of quinoa, pasta, potatoes, couscous and tabouli, which makes it an event to get home and eat all the varieties of rice and other grains again.  My meals consist mainly of whatever veggies are offered in the local farmers’ markets, and I try to keep a good supply of onions, garlic, carrots and perhaps a cabbage on hand at all times in the pantry at the back of my car;  that way, I can always put together something good to eat, no matter what.

Since I’m not eating meat or dairy or eggs these days I make sure I always have on hand plenty of nuts and seeds in various forms.  I load up on them at breakfast each morning with a big bowl of hot cereal and have a handful of them every now and then throughout the day.  I add a can of beans to almost every soup, and often make a killer pungent chili.  Once every week or so I eat fish, sometimes in a restaurant, sometimes right out of a can (I can make my mouth water simply by imagining a can of kippered herring).

I’m self-conscious discussing all these details of my curtailed eating habits, I feel as though I’m making my digestive tract public, but two of the questions that I’m most often asked are what do I eat when camping?  and what do I eat as a vegan?  It makes me a bit defensive, that word “vegan” sounds so fussy and fanatic, and I don’t think I’m either one of those things.  I don’t know whether or not this is the “right” way for people to eat, I just know that right now, these days, it’s working for me and solving some minor health problems.  So there.

THE PICNIC TABLE

It takes only two items to turn any picnic table into my kitchen, and they both lift easily out of the car when I’m setting up:  the Coleman stove and a small Sterilite three-drawer plastic box.  I don’t see how anyone goes camping without one of those boxes, but I’ve never seen one on anyone else’s picnic table.  Here’s what’s in mine:

Top drawer:  flatware, cutlery, small containers of spices and herbs, chocolate bar, jar of sugar for tea, tea bags.

Middle drawer: can opener, pot holders, tea towel, long wooden spoons, spatula, wine bottle opener, plastic sandwich bags, chocolate bar, plastic one-gallon bags, wax paper, aluminum foil, extra stove lighter wand, plastic shopping bags for garbage.

Bottom drawer:   string, duct tape, pliers, small hammer, scissors, matches, a candle, batteries, all the little things there’s no other place for.

My pots and pans consist of a medium sauce pan with lid, a small tea kettle, and a medium sauté pan with lid.  I’ve never felt the need for more.

As soon as that box and the stove, along with the cooking pots, are sitting on the checkered plastic table cloth, my kitchen is ready for action.

THE PANTRY

With my car backed in as close as possible to the table, and the hatchback open, my pantry is close at hand.  Here’s what’s in it:

A plastic box, about 18 by 24 inches, holds:

peanut butter, almond butter, catsup, olive oil, cooking oil, mustard, wasabi, tabasco sauce, chocolate bars, salt, soy sauce, sugar, small bags of seeds and nuts, a bottle of wine, cocoa, tea – all the things that creatures great and small wish they could get their noses into.  Tucked in and around these things are a couple of bowls and plates, and a large plastic bowl for washing veggies or mixing salads.

A heavy cloth tote-bag is filled with:

– cans of diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, tomato paste,
beans of all kinds;  cans of fruit; ;  chocolate bars;
– cans of kippered herring.
– a few bags of dried mushrooms;
– boxes of quinoa, pastas, couscous, tabouli.

A low-sided box is where I keep all the fresh fruit and veggies.

THE WATER JUGS

These are incredibly important items to have just right.  Sometimes the water spigot is a good hike away from my camp site so they have got to be easy to fill and to carry.  Over the years I’ve auditioned many different ones and the first eight or nine varieties that I tried all had imperfections:  they leaked, they had uncomfortable handles, their opening was too small for easy filling.   And then, by pure chance, I found them!  A few years ago I had my every-ten-years colonoscopy, and while I was spending an entire day beforehand preparing for it, I suddenly saw with new eyes the large plastic jug from which I was pouring all the vile liquid I had to drink.  It holds two gallons and everything about it is well made and perfect.  The Rolls Royce of water jugs!  I have two because a friend gave me hers, and two are exactly what I can carry easily for any distance.  Yes, Pollyanna, you’re right:  there really is an upside to everything, even a colonoscopy.