A few days ago I got this Great Idea that I should go do a quickie free camping night on the first full moon of the year. I’d figured out a great spot for it, less than ten miles from my front door. It would be perfect for a one-off night of camping, just to get myself out the door and out of my comfort zone. How better to start the new year!
The spot I found is on park land. It may technically be off-limits but the print on that sign was so small, I could barely read it! Anyway, no one was around to go asking, so I just pretended it was a yes. I had to push my bike through an icy stream and then I tucked in behind a very quaint old barn, near the old outhouse.
It was already close to nightfall when I arrived. Funny how much slower the bike rides when it’s loaded with camping equipment. I changed out of my bike shorts into long underwear and threw up my tent as fast as I could. The temperature was already frosty so I got into my sleeping bag. It was barely 6 pm. I listened to a long story podcast and ate my burrito. The moon hadn’t risen yet and it was pitch black. Of course, the cute fantasy story I was listening to turned scary. It was all about creepy monsters that crawl out of holes in the ground. Not at all what I needed to hear just then!
I tried to tell myself that the possibility of monsters, or even just plain axe murderers, was pretty darn low. The chances of meeting an axe murderer out here are probably lower than the chances that George Clooney will call me up and ask if I can housesit his Italian villa for a month or so. Still, once I start thinking about monsters and murderers, it’s pretty hard to not see the image of a scary man with an axe forming in the shadows around the light from my headlamp. Especially when I’m defenselessly sitting in a tent, miles from the nearest house, without cell phone reception. I jumped at every noise, and there were plenty of noises. Scratches and skitters, rustles and scrapes. I flicked on my headlamp and shined it into the black night, scanning for boogeymen. The most threatening thing I saw was a little skunk exploring the barn. I decided to focus on my fear, tried to really feel it, where it came from and what it felt like. It seemed to center along my spine, between my shoulder blades, and spread out like warm pee.
After an hour or so, I was done scaring myself and a little bored. It was barely 8pm, not anywhere near my usual bedtime. Life without electricity and chairs and warm houses is limited! I read the book I’d brought and wrote in my journal and tried to keep warm. The full moon was up, shining off icy patches on the ground. I drank wine from my bota bag trying to make myself sleepy. It just made me have to pee. Peeing would require leaving my cocoon, which was not going to happen. I had two sleeping mats, a warm bag stuffed inside my down sleeping bag, and multiple layers of wool and fleece. With the tent fly closed, I had a tiny womb of warmness built up. I must have slept because I had plenty of dreams, but it felt like I tossed and turned all night.
I thought about Pam Houston’s short story about camping in a snow cave. At least she had two dogs to keep her warm. Pam Houston is probably too grown-up to be scared of axe murderers in the wilderness, much less monsters. She has other demons though. In that collection, all her stories were about her terrible relationships with shitty men. At least I’m not running from one of those, I thought, smug in my newly renewed singleness. My last ex would not have appreciated this chilly night, but the one before that would have dug it. He loved camping and could warm up a sleeping bag like a big fuzzy bear. I have never felt completely secure sleeping by myself in a tent in the wilderness. Like that one part in Wild, where Reese Witherspoon is flicking on her flashlight over and over in her tent, alone in the desert. A dog might be okay, but I don’t think I could deal with that much commitment.
The sun came up and it was sort of miraculous. I was grateful for the old outhouse, grateful for the sunshine that warmed me up. Not so excited to break camp and pack the bike and walk back through the icy stream to get to the road. I have always been lazy about repacking in the morning. I do love that moment though, when the bike is packed and ready and you’re all set to ride down the road into the next town, to the next spot on the map. The route back to my house is only 8 miles, with one fun downhill ride, a short jog on a busy highway, and a two last pretty miles on a road between the farms and the river. Much too soon, I was pulling into my backyard and telling my parents about my big night of adventure. “Yeah, I was really cold and scared! It was great!”
By the way, George Clooney, if you’re ever looking for a house sitter, let me know.