What effect would it have on a person – well, on me – to travel alone for months at a time, moving from campground to campground, interacting only with strangers? Would changes occur in that person – well, in me – and if so, what would they be?
I’m aware of some of the changes, and they are some of the reasons why I love this life, at least for a while each year. Of course, my main reason for traveling this way is to live out in nature, to see as much as possible of this amazing country, to be outdoors under the sky most of the day surrounded by beauty. But it turns out that this life offers even more than that.
There’s something about not being involved in any close way with people that is relaxing, easy, and it feels like I’m getting a vacation from my Self. In campgrounds, I meet lots of people, but it’s always brief, time-limited. In some campgrounds I talk to almost no-one, sometimes for days at a time. Those are usually the campgrounds where each site is private because of bushes and trees, so we campers don’t see each other. The most social ones are those where visibility is high, and it’s in those that much more visiting back and forth goes on. I like them best. I like meeting people this way, with no preconceived notions on either side. When I travel like this I am without most of my identity, all those markers that define me: my personal history, my professional history. I’m just whoever I am right there right at that very moment.
I think my months of camping are like my evenings of playing quartets (I’m a cellist), back when I spent my long days as a psychotherapist, intensely involved with people. They are both, camping alone and playing quartets, ways of unhooking from the complexities of human interactions, ways of entering very different worlds. After a few weeks on the road I find I’m less and less aware of myself, I’m focussed on just what’s around me, almost without myself in the picture. I wander in the wide open spaces and gradually spaces open wide within me, all the incessant internal clutter and chatter drifting away. I like this state very much. Until I don’t, and that’s when I go back home to take part in regular life again.
Recently, an unexpected opportunity came to me to learn more about the effect on me of being so alone for so long. One evening I found myself sitting in a friend-of-a-friend’s house in Bozeman, Montana, listening to a concert of robust piano-trumpet jazz. It was then that it hit me, and I almost gasped out loud with surprise: I have not been inside a house for almost three months. And I have not been with family or with friends or with anyone I know or with anyone who knows me, for almost three months.
I sat there in that Bozeman living room with about twenty other people, all strangers, but every one of whom I had found interesting in the milling-around time before the music began. It was a remarkable house, designed by the owner: lots of immense rock faces and soaring windows and twenty-five foot ceilings. Many of the huge paintings on the wall and the enormous sculptures outside on the lawns were made by some of the people sitting there with me. The house alone would have been sufficient entertainment for the evening.
Afterwards, when I got back up in the canyon where my little trailer stood all alone, waiting for me, I made a cup of tea and sat in the dark under the stars. The piano and trumpet still cavorted together in my ears, the excitement of being with all those people still electrified my racing mind. I was so jazzed up by the whole occasion that it took two cups of tea before I could even begin to calm down. All evening I had felt like a child, so excited and happy that I could hardly contain myself, and I found that I was spurting out whatever came to mind to say, also just like a child. My social editor had gone to sleep! I don’t think I embarrassed myself, or anyone else, and I enjoyed it all, in the way a child enjoys Christmas and birthdays. I can’t think when I last had anything like that experience.
It was even more noticeable to me a few days later. I had moved camp to a little town called Three Forks, named for the confluence of three rivers: the Jefferson, Gallatin and Madison. Together, right there in Three Forks, they all become the Missouri River, which, after flowing north for 2,565 miles, becomes the Mississippi River. It wasn’t the visual extravaganza I had expected to see, but the thought of what that wet encounter generates was thrilling to contemplate.
The town is sad, too many boarded-up storefronts, the valiant businesses that are still open waging what looks like a losing battle. But out of this rises the Sacajawea Hotel, shining white and proud and flawless. It was there I met friends for lunch, people I know, people who know me. We ate on the wide porch, and afterwards sank back into the couches behind us to recuperate. Again, I was surprised at how like a child I felt, so excited to be with them, so full of chatter I could hardly stop.
And then I learned that this child-like openness also has a down side. Somehow that protective wisdom that we gain over the years had also gone to sleep and I was left vulnerable in ways that I wasn’t prepared for, ways in which I’m not vulnerable in my usual adult life.
It was in Helena – Helena of the beautiful old homes, lovingly restored and maintained, the streets lined by tall arches of trees – Helena of the capitol building with the breathtaking rotunda, in which one has immediate access to all government officials at all times, including the governor himself – Helena where every Wednesday evening in a different outdoor park or empty lot or quarry a band plays and the community comes together to talk and laugh and dance – it was in that Helena that it happened. I was again with friends and when I interrupted one of them during a conversation we were having he lashed out at me in a way I’d never seen before. He did it more than once before the visit ended. He shouted, shook his fist in my face, his own face red with fury, shouting and shouting. For a split second my vision contracted, I saw only his mouth, wide, a gaping maw, lips twisted in anger. It was only that split second, then I became my adult self again, going about my business, making a mental note to avoid conversation with this man in future. But I was left shaken.
And that night in my dreams I was visited by all the people in my entire life, from toddlerhood on to ex-husband, who have treated me in this way. I don’t think I would have had these dreams if I had been in my usual life at home. It was as though that man’s anger was a laser beam cutting through years and years of protective coating, hitting the innermost core of all that trauma. I responded as I had as a child, almost immobilized by shame and self-loathing. It has taken me days to recover.
But I have recovered. And I’ve had the opportunity once again to feel love and admiration for that little girl who suffered so, that little girl who is now me, that little girl who has been able to grow up and make such a fine life for herself. And to take such long amazing solo camping trips every summer.