Have finally gone and camped by myself. Twice. The first time was a tent cabin in Big Basin. I chose a tent cabin because it seemed the least scary and therefore most likely to lead to a successful venture. It’s good to have early successes! When I first pulled up, I was like, whoa, this is more secluded than I intended. Tall brush and even taller Redwood trees surrounded the campsite. My husband helped me schlep my stuff into the cabin, and we sat down at the lopsided picnic table out front.
It was a nice cool day; there were a lot of chirping and scurrying critters under the brush. I was more anxious than I cared to share. “This is gonna be great,” I told my husband, “No problem.” Right at that moment a giant branch snapped off from a senior Sequoia and crashed into the tent cabin, clattering to the ground. The boom echoed through the trees, startling every critter nearby. I went over there and pulled the branch off of the cabin. We inspected the cloth roof for holes or tears. Everything seemed fine. Everything except my nerves. I pushed my husband toward the car, encouraging him to leave before I changed my mind.
45 minutes later I was calm and feeling more upbeat about the whole thing. I sat still and listened to the Redwoods creak and moan like grumpy old men. I watched a small bird rummage through some fallen leaves. My senses were heightened and tuned in. My fears were melting away. I was looking forward to the rest of the evening, ready to see what being out here alone at night would be like.
Then, two giant pick-up trucks pulled into the tent cabin next to mine. My sense of wilderness and seclusion and inter-connectedness are instantly dissipated.
“Oh my God, Tanya. Seriously?” A grown man boomed from one pick up. I couldn’t see them, but I could hear more than a half-dozen bodies jump out of the trucks and start clanging things around.
“That’s your Dad’s ball, Nicole, and if you don’t put it down right now, I’m gonna beat you,” a shrill voice admonished.
“Jenna, seriously! Don’t you DARE go hiking in those boots. They are BRAND new!” another voice exclaimed.
The people in the cabin next to me truly did not like each other -or camping- and made it very clear all night long. They also, in spite of two pick-up trucks filled with things, somehow managed to come ill-equipped. I listened to them stumble around like crazy zombies once it was dark because none of them had brought a flashlight. Even later that night, I awoke from a fitful sleep as 2 of the men came around my cabin in an attempt to poach it for themselves. After that, I just couldn’t sleep. Instead, I listened to them fight, I listened to them get harassed by Raccoons, I listened to them get complaints from other campers, and then I listened to them blame each other for the fights, the Raccoons, and the complaints from the other campers.
The next morning, when I heard the sound of my husband’s car pull into the camp parking space, I ran out there and flung myself into his arms. “Get me out of here!” I cried, and threw my hastily packed gear into the trunk. He assumed that I had a bad wilderness experience, and I was like, “No, I’ve had a bad people experience!”
For my second go at camping solo, I picked Henry Coe. People go there to backpack, but it has about 14 car camping spots, so it seemed I had come upon a good compromise between my need to expose myself to the wilderness and my fear of letting go of the sense of security that staying in an established campsite brings.The weather had cooled since my first dismal camping debacle, and I was not looking forward to freezing my ass off all night while my husband and cats sat snugly under our copious couch blankets and watched an embarrassing amount of Dr. Who episodes. I kinda moped around all afternoon, being vague and wishy-washy, waiting until the very last moment to take off.
It was evening by the time we rounded the last curve of that windy road to Coe. As we turned into the one-way road that circled through the campsites, I instantly saw that I had, yet again, made an error in judgment. The campsites were small and designed so poorly that they were practically stacked on top of each other. Aaron pulled into my spot, and it was so close to the next site that I was convinced we were in the wrong place. But it was getting dark, and Aaron had a long ride home, so I jumped out of the car to make the best of things. The only spot that even remotely looked liked a tent had been there before ended up being about 15 feet from my neighbor’s fire pit. There were a woman and two girls tending the fire and preparing for dinner and we all avoided each other’s eyes as I quickly set my tent up.
Aaron left and there wasn’t much to do. I was grumpy and didn’t feel like exploring. Plus, even though there was a shrub separating my picnic table from their fire pit, I still felt like an interloper. I crawled into my tent and began the arduous task of inflating my pad and bundling up in the copious amounts of cold weather clothing I brought. When I was finally situated, I commenced my evening of playing puzzles on my phone and listening to the people next door.
By this time the menfolk had come back from fishing at Frog Lake, and dinner was being served. They had burritos. I knew this because the guy who sounded like the father of the family kept going, ” Mmmmm…..burritos……mmmmmmmm……..mmmmmmmmm….this is goooooood burritos…..mmmmmmm.” He then waxed nostalgic about his many years of being anti-avocado, until one day in his thirties, he had an Avocado Epiphany and was now enjoying an Avocado Renaissance. He had a lot of opinions about food. Later in the evening, I would hear him proclaim, ” Oh yuck, I ate an onion! What a disappointing thing to do!”
The campsites were all full, and I could hear people standing around their respective fires and telling tales. I fell asleep to two teenage boys nearby whispering with bravado about their ‘weenises’ as they pissed into the shrubbery. Later, I was awakened by something, or some things snuffling outside my tent. My heart leaped into my chest, and I froze with fear. They circled around and around and began pawing the ground by the vestibule. Dizzy and anxious, I could only think of one thing to do- the thing that works with my cats when they are causing trouble. I threw my makeshift pillow at the side of my tent and hissed, “SSSSSSSSSSSSSSTTTTTTTT!” There was a snarl and then the sound of many paws scurrying away. Then I curled up into a ball in the center of the tent, staying as far away from the sides as space allowed, just in case something decided to swipe while I slept. My dreams were full of bears and big hulking things.
I awoke early and my adoptive family next door were already awake, cooking breakfast and planning the day. I climbed out of my tent and sat on the picnic table, eating a bag of Doritos while the smell of scrambled eggs and bacon wafted in the air. I swear it felt like every fricking campsite was cooking bacon that morning. Soon enough the Dad was mmmmmmm’ing his way through a pile of pork, and I heard a little boy say, “Mommy! Where’s that very special place we go to every time we finish camping?”
I suddenly felt the Mom’s very intense awareness of me as she said, “Um, er…..that’s In-N-Out, Josh.”
“Ooooooh, I can’t wait to go to In-N-Out!”
My neighbors on this camping trip had been loud, but not at all like that other family. For one, they all seemed to like each other and enjoyed camping. Also, they didn’t try to steal my site, so there’s that. And I felt a silly pride for surviving the “critter attack” in the middle of the night. But I still was kicking myself for not taking a bigger chance and ditching the car camping shenanigans for some real wilderness.
My husband pulled up, and I threw everything into the car. “Quick!” I said, “Take me to my very special place- Starbucks!”
(Note: This was written in 2012, and originally posted on my hiking blog when I was training to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail. I have since then backpacked hundred of miles and slept under millions of stars all by myself. It was fun to find this account of my “first time” and see how far I’ve come.)