Monday, October 03, 2011

Grit, Glory, Invitation

by Zinta Aistars
Something in my core goes wobbly when I don’t commune with Nature for too long a period of time. I was feeling wobbly. Summer is my least favorite time to camp—too many people, too much noise, too much heat. But October? Perfect.
My son had issued an invitation for us to go camping last spring; we’d waited until now. While I have pitched a tent many, many times, my son has come along with me only once—a couple summers ago in July. I wouldn’t have gone in July if the invitation had been from anyone else, but my heart thrills to spend some extra time with my adult boy.
When he was a smidgen of a boy, cute little thing, we had taken a cross-country trip from our then home in Kentucky, across Canada to Alaska, where we stayed for several months before heading down the west coast of the country to California. We were traveling in a 27-foot RV camper. He was 8, his sister was 10. It was a great adventure, one we had planned to continue for perhaps even a couple of years, exploring the United States up close and personal—but our dream trip was cut short when someone stole the RV and took it for a joy ride, leaving us stranded with nothing but the clothes on our backs, our money and belongings (and my cat) all left behind in the RV.
But that’s another story. And I know many people consider traveling and living out of an RV as camping. Not me. It’s a house on wheels. All the comforts of home still attached to you.
To me, camping means getting out there, in the fresh air, in the woods, on the trail, pitching a tent and dealing with the elements. It means using survival skills. It means grit under my nails, picking leaves out of my hair, and several layers of clothing for those nights under a chilly moon. The freedom not to be pretty. Nothing more useless in the woods.
One of the reasons I avoid state and national parks when camping in season is because I can’t stand the crowded conditions, site by site by site, so that you can’t see the woods for the forest of motor vehicles. I wince when I see the RVs roll up, equipped with every imaginable luxury, antennas up for televisions, paper lanterns hung out on their patios, carpet laid down so that, God forbid, their feet might actually touch grass.
An RV made sense when we were a family of four planning to be on the road for years at a time. It wasn’t just an occasional night or weekend out; it was our home on the road. I even homeschooled the kids out of that vehicle. And it makes sense to me when I see elderly couples living that way as they travel for long months where their interests lead them. I rather envy them …
Yet when I pull into a campground, I steer clear. Big, noisy, gaseous.There should be another word for traveling that way—it’s not “camping.” It’s a rolling motel.
When I camp, I want to feel the grass—or snow—beneath my feet (I enjoy winter camping, too). I want to see sky. I want to hear wind whistling in the trees, see them sway in the passing breeze. I want to see a night sky without light pollution, far away from the civilized world. I want to get gritty, leave the good clothes behind, my face clean of makeup, my hair pulled into a ponytail, my feet in my best walking shoes.
I want to know that I can still make myself at home in the wilderness—that I can figure out how to accomplish what I need to do if I have forgotten to bring along some tool, that I can build and start a good fire, cook a meal over it, and spend a reasonably comfortable night with no more cover than thin canvas.
Something about that, nesting in the wilderness, makes me feel better about myself. Brings me back to center. Reminds me just how very little I really need to be happy. In fact, free of all the STUFF of civilization, I inevitably feel my happiest.
I certainly enjoy sitting in a warm house, electricity melting a golden circle of light over the book in my lap, by a crackling fireplace, a good meal simmering on the stove. I enjoy luxuries like most people. Long ago, I enjoyed wearing a long silken gown, too, doing up my hair, slipping into elegant high heels, and dancing away the night in a ballroom of chandeliers and a string orchestra.
I’ve done all that, I have enjoyed all that, and that style of living encompasses its own pleasures. But the older I get, the more I seem drawn to simplicity, to the basics, to what feels timeless and true. Less truly has become more.
I love silence. I love solitude. Time to think, feel, just be. The ballrooms have steadily lost their allure; the woods have become my cathedral.
While I love to pitch a tent and create a comfortable campsite, I don’t plan to live my life that way, either—I long for that small, cozy cabin in the woods for my golden years. Just enough. No more, no less, but every true need met and the others left behind. The longest I have lived out of a tent is for a span of three months, crossing 10 states. By end of it, I longed for hard walls and a solid ceiling over my head.
Life, I think, is enriched when we live it more than one way. In between, I like to test myself to be sure I haven’t lost my edge. That I know how to sleep beneath the stars. That I can be tossed out most anywhere and not be lost.
Every time I go camping, I learn a little more about how to do it better. I have camping friends who are true experts, and I love watching them build their campsites and complete their tasks with utmost ease. I have learned that the right equipment can make all the difference. When I tried to camp in snow the first time, I thought I could get by with my summer sleeping bag and a few extra blankets. No. Nothing like sleeping on frozen ground in a blizzard to teach me the value of a sleeping bag made for winter.
By now, I’m reasonably good at this. I can pitch my tent quickly, I can build the fire fast, get my site set up so that I can sit back and feel the stress of every day peel away, layer after layer. But I can also enjoy having my big, strapping, strong son around to do some of the heavy lifting. Between the two of us, we have our site in good shape for the night in no time.
In fact, what was that he was doing? As I was puttering around getting dinner together, I realized he’d been gone for a while, only now I heard some heavy thudding from just beyond the trees. There he was, rolling an immense log over a thick chain dragging from the back of his car. Log locked in, he got back in the car and slowly drove into our site, the log rolling along behind him.
“Forgot our camp chairs,” he said, getting out again to unchain the log and roll it closer to the fire. “Thought this might do for a bench.”
That’s what I mean. Making do in the woods when you forget something is what I like about these ventures. Nature makes you think harder about how to solve problems creatively.
“That’ll get you a burger!”
His eyes lit up with appetite as the two large patties sizzled on the grill. I wrapped potatoes in aluminum and tossed them into the flames, burying them in embers with a stick. My nod to luxury was a miniature bottle of red wine, just right for a toast to the autumn evening, and somehow tasting that much better in my blue tin cup.
I let him build the evening’s campfire, something he enjoyed doing. Overmuch, apparently. Gathering dead wood from the surrounding forest, he made a stack so high that when it had properly caught, was more a bonfire than a campfire. We watched sparks soar toward the stars in the darkening sky. My son’s face glowed red from the reflection of fire. The old chow pup sat not far away, tongue lolling, watching. His eyes followed my son’s every move—the love of his dog life.
We didn’t talk much. My son spares few words. I didn’t mind. I enjoyed his presence, watching him, his youthful strength, gathering firewood, snapping thick limbs into smaller pieces. The dog disappeared into the brush behind us, only the yellow rope leading us to him. He’d found a favorite spot, hidden, where he could watch the forest come to a different kind of life as the night deepened.
The darker the sky, the more chill the air. From 50s Fahrenheit during the day, now it was dropping toward 30. As time ticked by, I added more layers—another flannel shirt over my denim one, then a sweatshirt over that, then a zippered hoodie, then a jacket. My son stayed as he was.
“Not cold?”
“I’m good.”
“More sweaters and jackets in the car if you need them,” I said, then let him be. He stoked the fire, knocking his head back to watch the rising dance of sparks.

One of the luxuries I did afford myself when camping, at least when it wasn’t a matter of hiking into a site, was to use a foldable cot for my sleeping bag. Sleeping once on frozen ground taught me it was no fun to lie on a block of ice. Living in a tent for a three-month stretch of traveling taught me that pumping up an air mattress night after night was no fun either. And the air in it could be icy cold. The cot, a matter of unfolding and adding a metal bar at either end to hold it taut, was perfect.
When it was time to retire for the night, I crept inside my winter bag, snug as a bug in a rug. The old chow pup lay on a bundle of blankets on a mat in the middle of the tent. On the opposite side my son was on his cot, in his bag, but I wondered that he didn’t bother to zip it …
… and the chattering of teeth and rolling about and the muttered curses told me during the night that it wasn’t working for him.
“You okay over there?”
“Damn cold!”
I turned on my lantern. His bag was unzipped. The extra blankets I’d brought for him had all slid to the floor. He’d taken his lined jacket off before going to bed. Just like home.
“Call the pup over to you. He’ll warm you up.”
The dog was only too happy to snuggle with him. I zipped the bag up around them both, put the blankets over them after telling him to put his jacket back on, hat, too. This is a different kind of sleeping. One doesn’t undress for sleeping on a chill autumn night in a tent.
.. and then felt guilty. I should have coached him better. I didn’t know much about this either when I first pitched a tent. When he was a kid, he’d lose himself in the wild, a wild boy, fearing nothing, and knew how to survive like one. Something lost over the years.
Zippered back in, extra layers on, dog snuggled against him, I soon heard his breathing deepen and slow. Ah good. My mama’s heart settled and I went to sleep, too, thinking how this was just why a person should camp now and then, do without, so as to learn how. To understand what a cold night means …
… and then the glory of a warming dawn. I blinked. Light seeped through the canvas. Morning already. The surrounding woods chirped and twittered and scurried and crackled with the sounds of waking wildlife.
I saw an eye peek out from the other sleeping bag. Dog’s, then son’s.
“Sleep,” I said. “I’ll get a fire going, make coffee.”
No argument from the bag.
The fire started easily. I didn’t even need a match. As I gathered small twigs and first fallen leaves for kindling, the still hot embers smoked, reddened, then caught flame. I whooshed a long breath over the embers and they sparked fully to life.
Another simple contraption I admired: a French press coffee pot. I had a sweet one, just right for one steaming mug. No electricity needed. Two scoops of fresh grounds, pour over the water I’d heated to boiling over the fire, slowly move the press down to filter grounds from water, and there, my coffee was ready. I made another mug for my son. It was luxury simplified.
Bacon sizzling in my cast iron pan set over the fire brought forth life from the tent. Both boy and dog emerged. Both received their share, and fresh eggs from a nearby farm, and bread slices toasted over the wood coals. How is it that even the simplest meal can taste so wonderful under an open sky?
I was in my glory, taking in the morning, but I could see my son was feeling stiff in the joints and sleepy. After another mug of coffee, he shook his head—this sleeping in the cold was not for him, but hey Mom, thanks for the adventure, heading home.
Old chow pup and I saw him off. I was pretty sure I would be camping alone again in the future. I would miss him, but I would also enjoy the solitude. Seems the older I get, the more such quiet times mean to me, the more I need them.

Dishes rinsed and put away, fire died down to embers again, I harnessed the dog and the two of us headed down the trail. Old pup had been watching that trail all evening, wondering, nose tingling with the seduction of strange scents.
Just around the bend of the trail—a lake. Azure and sparkling with glints of glittering sunlight, clear, lily pads floating, and along the opposite shore, tall grasses red golden. How beautiful. I drew in my breath, felt the medicine flow through my veins, the healing of spirit embraced by the beauty of the natural world. Harder to find now, but still here, still here, open to those who take the time to enjoy.
The morning air was sweet and fresh. Colors hadn’t yet started to turn, but for an occasional splash of red, or a spread of melting yellow. We had the trail to ourselves—until my dog’s ears popped up to listen. He stopped to sniff the air. Another coming our way, man and dog, and we stopped to let the dogs bump noses and circle each other, saying hello.
We made conversation while the dogs wagged tails and made friends, but I was eager to find my way back to silence, so that I could listen to the air, the trees, the lake. I cut it short and moved on, even as my dog’s ears flopped down and he tried to tug me back toward the man and dog, retreating in the distance.
We walked, walked all morning, through forest, occasionally down to the edge of the water. I would camp here again, I thought, and soon. Just me and dog. I would miss my son. Maybe I could convince him to give it another try on a warmer spring or summer evening …. but he would have to find his own way, and I mine. You have to develop a longing for this. Open yourself to the healing the earth offers when we are ready. I belonged here. In the woods. In the quiet. Feet planted firmly on the earth.


  1. Loved this Zinta. Wanted to go camping myself.

  2. Ah, I would love to really go camping like this. I haven't done it since I was a teenager. Our "camping" trip this summer to British Columbia was in a motorhome--with a bedroom and a kitchen. I didn't exactly feel the grass beneath me. Beautiful pictures!

  3. As my son will tell you, Christopher, rustic camping comes with its discomforts, but for me, that's part of the attraction. I can enjoy RV travel, too, but its the tenting that I find I need to return to on a regular basis.