“Alone had always felt like an actual place to me, as if it weren’t a state of being, but rather, a room where I could retreat to who I really was.”
– Cheryl Strayed
Being alone is essential to me. Besides the fact that I’m socially awkward, overly earnest, usually serious, and generally not great company, I simply prefer to be able to hear myself think. My batteries wear down faster than an old iPhone in roaming mode, and they need long stretches of silence to recharge. I rarely pass up the chance to go to that place, that room.
As a woman, however, there are circumstances in which it seems impossible for me to feel comfortable alone. Anywhere at night, for example. Even if I’m in my own house (say my boyfriend went on his own weekend trip), I am hypervigilant, attuned to every tiny noise or flutter of light outside, real or imagined.
So why the hell would I want to go camp by myself, out of cell range in Gifford Pinchot National Forest — for two whole days? My dad, who’s spent many a night alone in the woods, always says “there’s nothing in the woods at night that isn’t there during the day.” Which may be true (though I did recently come across this article in the Atlantic), but it’s what isn’t there at night, namely, sunlight with which to see.
I admit, if I’d really thought it through, I may have chickened out. But as it was, the decision wasn’t about me, which was perfect. Our group had procrastinated getting a weekend campsite at Lewis River (a no-no pretty much anywhere within a hundred miles of Seattle) and our only chance at snagging one was to reserve a walk-in site earlier in the week. As the only person with an open schedule, it fell to me to reserve the site.
We’d been camping a bazillion times, so I had plenty of equipment and knew the drill. I didn’t read any “solo camping tips for women” articles (although there are hundreds, even ones written by men). I didn’t ask social media for advice. I’d been camping, and I was a woman. I knew what I was doing. I was going to camp like a girl.
My boyfriend was more anxious than me — double-checking all the stuff, triple-checking my knowledge of the location of the spare tire/jack/etc, and hovering around that morning, not wanting to leave for work. I think he was just anxious about my driving his van out in the middle of nowhere, ha.
And I did. I filled up the tank and blasted Chris Thile music all the way to Lewis River. It actually felt great to go out of cell range, like the weight of the world lifted off my shoulders. It was not possible to keep up with current events or reply to (or even get) messages, so I didn’t feel obliged to.
I made it to the campground sans incident. Before I even unpacked the car, I wandered down the trails and took in “the woods.” I wasn’t entirely alone — there were a few occupied campsites around, but I chose the most isolated one. Many of those advice articles (some of which I have since read) say you should reach out to people nearby to establish a rapport with them, in case you do need help, others say maybe it’s not such a great idea to broadcast the fact that you are alone. I don’t even know my next-door neighbors, so I’m not the type to “establish rapport” for a weekend camping trip anyway — that would have defeated the solitude.
I set up the stove and kitchen area, made up the bed in the back, and lit a fire in the pit. Here I was, camping by myself, like it was nothing. At dusk, I put up the battery-powered LED lights in the van and read until it was time to sleep.
But sleep didn’t come. Even though I was in a locked minivan, I still felt like anything could happen. My brain kept building up scenarios, and I kept knocking them down.
Brain: There could be bears — was that a bear? Was THAT a bear? Or rapists. It could be murderers. You can’t see anything, a murdering rapist could have his face right outside the window and you wouldn’t know. Or BIGFOOT–”
Me: “Oh, give it a rest already! There are no bear-proof garbage cans here, just normal ones with actually rather loose-fitting lids, so the campground clearly isn’t too worried about them, and really?? Someone’s going to print out paper directions and come out here on that god-awful washed out road, pay an exorbitant amount of money for a campsite just so he can break into my car and attack me? As for the other idea, I’ll at least turn on the flash on my camera so that if Bigfoot shows up I can get hard evidence.”
Right about the time my brain quieted down, my bladder piped up. Unfortunately, bladders are not really susceptible to reason.
“Not a bloody chance,” I told it. (When you are alone, you are allowed to talk to yourself. I, for one, use this time to practice my British accents.) As for my bladder, there was no way I was going to acquiesce to its demands. The bathroom was through a small patch of woods and across the road, pitch-black inside, and had no lock.
I didn’t have to go THAT bad.
But I couldn’t sleep, either. So I stayed up, wiggling around in bed (practicing my accents) until it was light enough to see. Then I sprinted (gently) to the bathroom.
I finally got to sleep around 5am. When I woke up again, it was perfect outside. There’s nothing quite like that first burst of forest air after you’ve been breathing your own C02 in a van all night.
All anxiety that had accompanied the previous day had vanished. I made coffee on the camp stove and took a thermos and my camera down to the falls. I sat by the river above the falls for a solid two hours, drinking coffee and thinking.
Eventually I drove back out to where I could get a few bars of cell service so I could text my boyfriend the site number, and proof of my survival.
The second night was completely different. I was bloody tired from lack of sleep, so after a few short pages of a novel, I was out. It wasn’t that my brain had fewer scenarios to lay out for me (there were some new ones involving mountain lions), it was that I didn’t care. I was where I wanted to be, with exactly the number of people I needed at that moment: just me (and the Brits – righto). Nothing could put a damper on that this time. I had made my peace with the night.
The second day — how to describe this? Have you ever had a day, a whole day, that you were able to devote to one inane task? A day where you could just pick something simple that made you content and satisfied some need, and obsessed over that task as long as you wanted to? I think of this as a kind of Montessori principle, of which we as adults don’t practice enough.
I spent nearly the whole day keeping the fire up. I was trying to conserve the wood I’d bought for when my companions arrived, so I traipsed around the whole campground, scrounging up any branches and sticks and logs I could feasibly drag back to camp to break up and put in the fire. I made coffee, I wrote, I painted watercolors, I read, I made sandwiches, I took photos — but all the while, even when it started raining, I kept the fire going. I didn’t have anyone to entertain or impress, nor anyone to check up on. I didn’t have anywhere I needed to be, or anything to do except make myself content.
And it was glorious.
So, I’m not here to tell you what kind of camping gear you might need, as a woman. I’m not here to tell you to make sure to have mace with you at all times, or to seek people out or avoid them. I’m here to tell you that solo camping is marvelous, refreshing, and as safe as anything else you can do by yourself. If you are a woman, and know how to camp, you too can camp like a girl.