I woke in the dark that morning, the thermometer saying 28 degrees. In two pairs of tights, woolen socks, and two sweaters I’d been snug all night under three thick blankets. Quickly I turned on the heat and in five minutes the little Scamp was warm. I put the kettle on and that made it warmer still.
I opened the curtains and in the dark outside saw the vague outlines of the aspen trees around me, the trees whose famously fluttery leaves had turned from delicate green to bright yellow in the five weeks I’d lived amongst them. The field was white with frost, the tops of the mountains with snow. When the water boiled I added tea bags, and squatted and stretched while they steeped. When I pulled the cream from the fridge it was frozen solid. I took a knife from the drawer and chipped off enough ice shards to splash into the steaming cup. Cradling it, I turned slowly to throw a grateful “goodbye” out each window and then got down to work. It was time to move on to warmer climes.
This time there’d never been any doubt about where I’d go next. I’d finally had my fill of the high mountains, I longed for the desert. In less than an hour I’d secured everything and cooked a pot of oatmeal. I’d backed up the car to exactly the right spot so that the hitch cup fell down perfectly on the hitch ball. By 7 am I was on my way, a bowl of that cereal on the seat next to me.
As I drove through Aspen one last time, and then through the nearby towns, I smiled at all the houses in which lived people over 90 years old that I’d interviewed. So many! So healthy! So articulate! So welcoming!
Just as I finished the last bit of oatmeal, I turned onto I-70 going west, and had to pick up speed. There I was, rolling along the highway, complete and self-contained in my car and my Scamp. I had everything I needed, an entire house, even a pantry and a library. I took up very little space, and relatively little fuel. For a few moments I enjoyed the wave of contentment washing over me, and then I remembered the question I’d been asked, yet again, by a fellow camper the evening before: Why in the world do you go camping for so long and all by yourself?
By the time I stopped for gas, the answer to that question seemed easy. I moved to Arizona from back east when I retired, and I wanted to see the West, all of it. Distances are vast, I now had plenty of time, I dislike motels, I love camping. Traveling alone is just a continuation of living alone, and I’m fine with that. It all seemed obvious and straightforward.
But of course I am an oddity in campgrounds, almost everyone travels in pairs. People do notice the lone woman, and when they learn that I go for months at a time, of course they’re curious. I’ve also become curious, because it clearly fills some important need in me, it’s not only a fun way to spend my summers, though it is that too. What is that need?
I was now clear of the mountains and on a wide plain filled with little towns and isolated ranches and houses, plus Grand Junction. I’d begun to fret about finding a campsite near Moab. I’d read that this was the time of year it was most crowded, and I wondered what in the world I’d do if there was no place for me. In all my years had I ever approached a new campground without this worry? Probably not, despite the fact that I’ve always found a place, every single time. But maybe today would be different. No use giving it a moment’s thought until I got there.
I think that need has something to do with getting away from the irresistible pull of the internet. I’ve tried to do it at home, once even going so far as to lock my computer in a room so that getting to it took considerable effort. It didn’t work. I would interrupt myself in the middle of reading something, even something compelling, to google a question the reading had raised, or to compulsively check my email, or, most humiliating of all, to play solitaire. I was ashamed of this behavior, even as I was standing on a chair to reach the key to that room. The internet holds me absolutely captive in its mighty gale-force winds.
There’s no wi-fi in campgrounds and it usually takes a couple of weeks to become aware that my brain is changing. It’s quieting down, relaxing. It’s thinking longer thoughts and taking bigger leaps to make interesting connections. It’s able to stay on one subject for long periods, I can read or write for hours at a time without distraction. It feels like my own brain again, I’m in charge of it, it’s part of me and nobody else. It’s the way it used to feel before computers. When I’m camping I become my true self again.
Now I was turning off the highway onto a bumpy little two lane road. I was the only car on that road for the first twenty minutes, as it wound through little canyons and over straggly desert land. The earth got redder, and then there were red stones, and then I came to the start of huge red rock formations along the strangely olive-greenish Colorado River. My heart soared, and I knew that whatever else was going on, this is why I travel, I don’t need any other reasons. Within five hours I had gone from probably the most beautiful mountain spot in the entire world, decorated everywhere by those little fluttering aspen leaves, and arrived here at this other-worldly place where enormous silent impassive rock giants crouch by the river.
I would think about all the other reasons for my camping alone another time.
My long narrow campground was squeezed into a canyon formed by towering red cliffs. And there was one site left, only one, and it was right next to the river, tucked into a bower of tall oak trees, the only shady spot around.
When I had backed the Scamp into a perfect place and was setting up my kitchen on the picnic table, a car slowed and the driver leaned out the window and asked, full of hope, “Are you leaving?”
“Never!” I laughed.