“And you’re by yourself?”
I look at the park ranger.
“Yes,” I say. “I’m by myself.”
This is the third time she’s asked in, oh, five minutes. I see her raise her eyebrows, shake her head.
“It’s going to be a cold night,” she says.
“I know,” I say.
She hands me a parking pass. Is it incredulity I see on her face? Or am I simply projecting my own self doubt? Do I really believe I can make it a night alone in the woods?
I foresee all the ways this night could go wrong. I’ve read my fair share of Stephen King: The convict watched as the girl unzipped her tent, all the while sharpening his blade against a rough stone. And I’ve read those news stories (actually, I’ve written a few): Police and community volunteers continue searching the woods for the girl who went missing last night. They discovered her campsite, but no remains…
How the hell am I going to make it through a night alone in the woods with thoughts like these?
But the parking pass is in my hand and the ranger has turned back to her computer. She doesn’t look so worried, so skeptical anymore. She just looks bored. So, I pocket the pass and head outside to the car.
The idea for a solo camping trip began last fall, when I went camping out west with one of my dearest friends. I love camping and, introvert that I am, I enjoy being alone. A solo camping trip sounded like a great combo. But I didn’t have anything planned until last week. That’s when I realized I needed to get out of the city, needed to breathe the crisp woody air, needed to watch the sun sparkle over cold water.
It was a need for beauty.
It was a need for solitude.
Over the last two years, I’ve looked at my life and seen a lot of metaphorical death. I moved to Dallas for the dream of a job that didn’t happen the way I hoped. I watched a relationship crumble from the inside, realizing too late how desperately I wanted it to work. I grieved over the lost community and natural beauty I left behind in Southern California.
One of my friends once told me that solitary retreats allow space for thoughts hidden deep within us to sprout, to bubble forth, to surprise and overwhelm us. I have found this to be true. I’ve set aside long weekends for silent retreats before, and have found myself weeping uncontrollably one minute and overwhelmed by a sense of peace the next. This is what I went looking for on my solo camping trip. Perhaps a lot to ask of a 24-hour excursion, but if you don’t ask, you’ll never receive — or something like that.
The park ranger gives me a site by the lake, a lovely spot to read and think and otherwise do absolutely nothing. It is a late Sunday afternoon, and I’m the only one in a campground of over a hundred sites.
That afternoon, I’m only scared once.
A hiker decides to use a nearby picnic table for his post-hike snack. It shocks me to look over after setting up my tent and find him sitting so close. There’s nothing Stephen-Kingy about him, though.
But then again, there usually isn’t until it’s dark…
After a dinner of cold sandwich halves, sweet blueberries, and an avocado eaten with a plastic spoon, I go for a walk. The sun has begun to set, and my side of the lake is already deep in shadow. But when I turn a corner my breath catches in my throat, my heart leaps into my mouth.
The light! It’s everywhere! Golden light. Dazzling, resplendent sunlight shattering thin green leaves, throwing golden warmth over everything; over tree bark, over scraggly brush, over pools of water, over my wan skin. The world is shot through with glory, and I’m standing in the middle of a sunbeam.
I cross a wooden bridge, the planks split open by the sun. As I walk, tiny birds rush out ahead of me, flying seemingly from nowhere. A squirrel hunts for nuts in the hardened mud below the bridge, his normally dull fur turned luminous by the falling light.
I could stay here forever, transfixed by nothing more than the flickering shadows dancing across a single slice of sunlit bark. I do stay here for a long time, watching, listening, hidden away in an illuminated wood.
But eventually, the sun sets. Eventually, I walk back to my side of the lake, where the woods are chilled and growing darker.
The park ranger is right: it’s a cold night. Luckily, I brought a trusty below-zero sleeping bag. It’s like a heater, keeping me toasty as the temperature drops.
And who would believe it: I fall asleep. I curl up with the sleeping bag snug around my head, I read for a little while, and then am fast asleep. Not once do I consider the imagined and real horrors outside my sheer shelter. I don’t wake until morning, when hundreds of birds outside my tent explode into song.
Here’s something I didn’t know: birds chirp loudest just before sunrise.
Which means, when I unzip my tent, I step outside to a frigid morning — a “cold-as-a-bullfrog morning”, as my grandmother might say — fog rolling in shivery sheets off the quiet water and the first lavender light smearing the sky.
This Texas beauty is subtle. It’s the kind of beauty that sneaks up on you, catching you by surprise.
It’s unzipping a tent in the morning to find a world awash in creamy blues.
It’s watching a flock of ducks stream noiselessly across glassy water.
It’s staring absently at a log only to realize it’s actually a knobby turtle.
This is the gift I receive in the morning. This is the gift of facing my fear.
And this is what I’m learning: I’m learning to peer closer, to realize the fecundity of life right before me, to live with eyes open wide. I’m learning to face the fear of sleeping alone in a wooded forest, fully expecting to wake up astonished, and ever more alive.
For any interested campers, I stayed at Tyler State Park, a lovely spot with pine trees and a small lake just an hour and a half from Dallas.