By Tamim Ansary
I did quite a bit of camping during my early years in America. I was sixteen when I arrived, and the high school I went to for two years took us on week-long trips in the fall and spring, to amazing places like Mesa Verde and Canyonlands. We didn’t have tents. We were given a poncho and some string and told to find a spot and improvise a shelter. It was supposed to be a learning experience, I guess.
The soggy nights felt miserable and made for great reminiscences.
Later, as an adult, I got better equipment: a down sleeping bag, a lightweight backpack, a SVEA stove. But I never had a tent in those days, my main camping days, the late sixties and early to mid-seventies. What’s the point of camping if you can’t feel the weather biting your face? Such was my romantic philosophy.
From time to time, I went camping by myself. I didn’t do it because I liked it. Truth to tell, I didn’t like it. Not all that much. It was uncomfortable and lonesome and grinding to get to the places I went and often a little scary being out there in the middle of God-damn nowhere by myself. And I won’t pretend I did it because I was a rugged outdoorsman. Never was, never have been. All too often I went camping unprepared and ill-equipped and blundered through comic mishaps the comedy of which would only be apparent to me in retrospect. Some of those blunders would have made great fodder for hey-remember-that-time reminiscences except, I had no one to reminisce with, since no one else had been there.
No, when I went seeking solitude in the wilds, I did it because I thought it might be spiritually uplifting. Becoming one with nature and all that. I remember my first solo, for example, into a wilderness area in Washington State. I had maps, and I had a destination marked out, but I got to the parking lot late (comic blunders; don’t ask) so I had to abandon my original plan, which had been to hike 12 miles to a big lake althea rugged outdoorsmen talked about. So I pored over my maps and spotted a much smaller lake. It was only three miles away, but at least I now had a destination. The sun would be setting soon, but how long does it take to hike three miles?
One thing the map didn’t tell me, however; or maybe it did but I was not paying attention: the three miles would be steeply, relentless uphill. Since I was hiking up the east side of a really tall, heavily forested mountain, the light dimmed long before the sun actually set. I huffed and chuffed for a couple of hard, sweaty hours in the deepening shade, but when I stopped and looked around, I saw nothing to set this part of the forest apart from any other. The dim trail twisted away behind me, and the dim trail twisted away ahead of me. The trees were huge here; they’d been huge all along. The ground was steeply tilted, and the forest floor was maybe three feet deep in loam, exactly as it had been since I left the parking lot. It was as if I had gone nowhere. I had no idea how far I had come or how far I had yet to go.
Then I realized the real sunset was about to happen. I couldn’t afford to keep going till I found a suitable spot to camp. I would have to make camp right where I was. I stumbled away from the trail a few dozen feet, just far enough so that I could not be seen from the path, in case anyone came by. Also, I was hoping to find some level ground, but there was none. I had to wedge up against a tree so I wouldn’t roll downhill after I fell asleep. The thick bed of decaying humus provided a soft enough bed, but the damp came seeping up through the sleeping bag. Once the last of the light leaked away, I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face.
I was doing this for the spiritual rewards as I said: solo camping—it had such a nice ring to it. But now I was wondering what those rewards would turn out to be. In the darkness, unidentifiable sounds began to rise–scritch scritch — peep peep — rustle rustle. It hit me that Bigfoots were supposed to live in places just like this. Or was it Bigfeet? What’s the plural of Bigfoot? Sasquatch? Whatever.
And what if, unbeknownst to all authorities, a family of psychopaths with a taste for human flesh had holed up in these deep woods right at this spot? Unlikely, sure. But what if?
I had seen the movies.
The whole night passed anxiously, and when I woke up I couldn’t remember an experience so utterly devoid of spiritual rewards. And yet…
The memory of that solitude remains so vivid that it still stirs an emotional tremble in me, a sense of wonder. The night was so riddled with sound and yet, what I remember is the awesome stillness of it all.
In the morning, I explored around a little, from the spot where I had lodged. Only a hundred feet further, I stumbled onto a pond. It wasn’t the lake I had seen on the map. It was just a pretty puddle about twice the size of a swimming pool. But if I had only kept going the night before, I could have rolled my bag out on the level strip of grassland surrounding this water.
Then I realized something else. I had left the path at a random spot, simply bulling into the brush until I reached a spot no one could see from the path. This pond was maybe another 100 feet further still. How would anyone know it existed? There was no reason for anyone to leave the path exactly where I did, no reason for anyone to hike into the featureless woods at just that spot.
It occurred to me to wonder: had anyone ever been here before? Maybe I was the first person to see this little pond. Maybe I would be the last. One thing I know: I could never find that spot again, even if I wanted to.
Tamim Ansary is the author West of Kabul, East of New York. His new memoir Road Trips will be available from Numina Press in August of 2016.
Copyright 2016. All Rights Reserved.