Alone is a luxury item most women can't afford

At the age of 42, I’m a woman taking my first solo camping trip. It’s just an overnight, but it feels a little momentous. I wish I weren’t so fixated on the fact that it’s also an occasion on which one would prefer to have ongoing access to a cell phone, a luxury I do not currently have.

In a compulsive but self-defeating effort to conserve my phone’s battery power, I keep turning it on and off. Off, because I totally forgot to pack the right converter cable for in-car charging, which means my already tired phone battery is screwed. On, because my phone is also my camera, and there are pictures to take to help the memories I plan to save. I also keep thinking of things that feel imperative to google, like the hike I’ll take tomorrow, or how the hell I can convince this seemingly nonfunctional solar-powered speaker to play my damn iPod already.

What I keep reminding myself – and frankly, the other, quieter, gentler motivation behind the repeated powering down – is that I’m not screwed at all. People have existed successfully for a gazillion years without the help of cell phones. Surely, I can go without for a night.

So I turn off my phone yet again. Of course, as I do so, I have a nearly irrepressible urge to take a picture of my campfire. It’s a lovely fire; I made it. But the phone’s screen is already back to black. Instead of giving into the urge, I assure myself: Seeing the fire is enough. I may not exactly remember its log configuration, flame pattern, and rock environs, but anyway those aren’t the most important parts of the memory. The important thing is to remember being here, period, on my first solo camping trip, my fire keeping me company and dusk starting its stately descent.

I resolve: no more googling or photos tonight. Where I am now, there’s no real need for google’s riches, immense though they may be. For the moment, what I know is enough. Where I am is enough.

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Till just about an hour ago, the hills beyond the campground had been a bright spring green. Now they’re turning a purplish dark blue against a lavender horizon. The dark outlines of the trees are nearing black, but the contours and crevasses of their bark are still distinguishable in muted greys and slivers of silver. I can’t help feeling the trees are standing guard over me. The feeling is welcome.

In the few days since I decided to undertake my inaugural solo camping overnight, I’ve been unable to shake a nagging feeling that I wouldn’t feel entirely safe doing so. Sitting here by my fire, a glass of wine in my hand, watching the world slowly turn, I feel wonderfully safe. The feeling is magnificent.

Of course, I’ve made a few special accommodations – things I may not have considered had someone else come along. Most notably, I plan to sleep inside our Honda Element. I’ve brought a sheet to cover the windshield from inside, and the Element’s rear seats can be raised to the vehicle’s sides to cover the majority of the side windows. I can crack the windows for ventilation. There’s even a sunroof, so I can still see the stars.

As I’d made the plan, I felt more than a little sad the precaution was even necessary. But, if I'm honest, that was the part of the plan that convinced me I could do it at all. 

As yet another solo-overnight precaution, I’ve introduced myself to the lovely, utterly un-worrisome people camping 100 yards off from me. Jessica, James, 18-month-old Azalea, and Abby the dog are quite possibly the most reassuring neighbors I could’ve hoped for. I felt zero hesitation as I let them know I was here on my own and inquired if they might take occasional note of whether I stayed that way.

After I walked back to my own campsite, beautiful, big-eyed Azalea had insisted on following me there. She wanted to sit in my lap, and I was happy at the honor. After a time, her dad, James, dutifully distracted her and lured her back to their campsite, where Jessica awaited with Azalea’s dinner. I felt oddly blessed by the interaction.

 Yes, I totally took a photo of the dinner I made. 

Yes, I totally took a photo of the dinner I made. 

None of this is anything huge. I drove out here today, to Meridian Campground in Bailey, Colorado. I stopped to buy some lemon eucalyptus bug spray on the way. I picked out a nice campsite. I made myself dinner on the camp stove (mac and cheese with broccoli and bacon), as well as a truly excellent campfire. I washed and dried my dishes, and I’ve already blown up my Big Bertha backpacking air mattress, settling it among all the blankets in the back of the Element. I’m sitting by my fire watching the sunset, my only companions the fire, my thoughts, and these splendid trees. It doesn’t feel like a revolution, and yet it is. I have tonight enacted a tiny self-revolution wherein I took myself camping for the very first time. In doing so, I’ve insisted to myself – and by extension the world around me – that it’s safe to do so.  

Now the dome of sky has gone totally lavender. My fire crackles purple and orange, licking ever higher. (My campsite predecessors left me a generous pile of wood. It feels another blessing.) From elsewhere in the campground, I hear the jangle of a dog’s leash, and hear the unseen dog bark an observation about who knows what.

I also hear that Azalea doesn’t want to go to bed. She’s saying so quite loudly. She is an independent one, that’s for sure, toddling herself over here to sit on my lap. Male or female, that’s where we all begin – unafraid of anything, open to all. It’s the world that teaches us to be otherwise.

Despite my overall happiness right now, I can’t help entertaining the thought that someday, brazen Azalea will probably be like me, for 40-plus years vaguely afraid of the idea of camping on her own. Then again, maybe things can change? Or maybe she too will just figure out that she can camp in her car, make friends with the normal-looking family in the campsite next-door, and thereby enjoy her very own campfire along with her very own slowly dimming Colorado mountain horizon line. And a damn good fire it is. It’s roaring.

In the 360-degree view from my position next to the campfire, here’s what I record: At 1 o’clock on the dial, my much-discussed campfire, backed only with forest. At 3:30, my lovely neighbors, and at 4, the Element, my snug, safe little home for the night. From 4:30-7 is the rest of the campground, darkness dotted with other orange campfires, late arrivals setting up, someone walking past toward the porta-pottie, orange-dot lantern in hand, and the vintage camper that proves the existence of my other camp neighbor. And then from 7:30 all the way over to 3, it’s just forest, mountains, and sky. There’s a good mile of nothing but forest beyond. It’s inexpressibly beautiful.

The sky is now a dark velvet turquoise. Jessica and James have put Azalea to bed and are back outside the tent, stoking their dimming fire. They will keep vigil while beautiful Azalea sleeps and grows.

I can’t help flashing back to last Saturday night. Only a week ago, I’d been trailer camping with John and Oren at Lake Pueblo’s Arkansas Peaks Campground. John, Oren, and I had just gotten back from across the lake where we’d been hanging with John’s sister Robin, his nephew Nick, Nick’s wife Jess, and their kids. It was late – well past midnight. After grumblingly taking an obligatory baby-wipe shower in all his crevices, ten-year-old Oren had passed out utterly. I was in our tiny trailer bathroom, washing my face and brushing my teeth. John was reading on his bunk.

After a spell, John said, “Do you hear that?” I paused to listen. I heard something, but not clearly. He said, “It’s a little kid wailing. Can you hear that? I keep hearing it. It’s been going on awhile now.” I moved toward the window. Sure enough, it was a tiny voice becoming as big as it could be, wailing, screaming, probably a little girl. We listened, and we started to make out some words. The words we heard were horrifying and heartbreaking.

The voice wailed, “I’m scared. I want my mommy. I’m scaaaaaared. I want my mommy. Moommmmmmmyyy! I’m scared.”

I looked at John. “We have to do something.” John didn’t say anything right away. We listened as the wailing continued. “We have to do something,” I repeated. After listening a moment longer, I kneeled to find my shoes. John rose to put on his pants.

As we opened the door to the trailer, it was clear that the voice was coming from the pop-up camper just across the way. It was hard to believe that the rest of the campground was oblivious to this girl’s sorry keening. We walked over, and I shivered. It wasn’t very cold out, and I was wearing a sweatshirt over my t-shirt. But I started shivering right then and I didn’t stop till much later, when it was all over.

As we approached the camper, we both faltered, unsure how to proceed. Then John said, gently, “Hey are there any adults in there? Are there any adults inside?” The little girl wailed a long nooooooooo.

I immediately kicked into mom mode. I wanted her to hear a female voice. It needed to be mine. “Sweetie, we heard you crying. You sound so sad. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry you’re feeling scared. Don’t worry. I’m sure your parents are just fine.” She wailed again. I wasn’t at all sure that her parents were fine. I had no idea if “fine” could appropriately be applied to someone who’d leave their young child fully unattended at a public campsite. Her voice sounded so small and so large at the same time.

I looked at John. He looked cold in his Cheech & Chong tank top (don’t ask). “What should we do?” One of us asked it first, but it was a simultaneous question. Finally John said, “I’ll go wake up the camp host. You stay here and talk to her.”

For the next 10 or 15 minutes, I tried to figure out what this invisible little girl needed to be able to feel better. I told her about my wholly un-scary self. I told her about how beautiful the night sky was, and how many stars were out. I explained that her parents loved her, and that if they knew she was awake and scared they’d be sad. I told her that she was surrounded only by nice people.

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It eventually got to the point where she could form sentences that I could understand. Her name was Lily. She was five years old, going into first grade. When I asked her if she’d done anything fun that day, she sounded noncommittal. (The pink, kid-sized ATV parked behind the trailer at least made me assume she had options.) Every once in a while she’d revert to the wail. But I’d speak quietly and tell her it was okay and that I didn’t want her to feel scared; that I’d stay right there and stand guard till we figured out how we could find her parents.

Eventually John returned. He’d ended up bypassing the camp host’s dark trailer to get the local sheriff’s number off the informational placard by the restrooms. He’d already called, and a park ranger would shortly be on his way. John was now shivering, both Cheech & Chong looking ill-used in the Colorado mountain environs. “I’m really cold – I’m going to grab my jacket,” he said. I said okay and kept talking in soft tones to Lily. Now, however, I couldn’t help being afraid for how she would feel about what was going to happen next.

Soon we saw a pickup approaching, red lights silently spinning, and my heart panged at the sight. A male park ranger stepped out. My next thought was that he had a nice, trustworthy face. I felt immediately relieved.

It took a while before he fully understood what was going on – that we had no idea who or where this girl’s parents were, and no relation to the situation whatsoever beyond having been the ones awake to hear her sorry appeal. I explained, “We think she was screaming for at least a half-hour before we came over. We had to come over.” The ranger said it had been a crazy night already – he made a reference to people beating each other up, and I tried not to think about the who or the why, or the fact that I’d just been telling Lily that she was surrounded “only by nice people” here at Lake Pueblo.

He said he was going to go talk to her. I stepped in front of him. “Can I come with you? I mean, she’s sort of comfortable with me now and I think it might help.” He nodded and we approached. “Sweetie,” I said, “do you know what a park ranger is?” I heard a meek yes. “Well there’s a very nice park ranger here. He’s here to help us. His name is Mike.” Mike quietly said hello. “But in order to help you, he needs you to talk to him. Can you do that?” Incoherent mumble. “You’ll have to come outside though. But don’t be afraid. I’m right here too. Are you okay with that?” She said yes. I heard movement inside the trailer. “Put on a jacket okay? It’s kinda cold out,” I couldn’t help but add. I imagined John smiling slightly in the darkness – me, eternally telling everyone to bring a coat, put on the sunscreen, drink some water. Lily said she’d find a jacket.

At this moment we saw a figure approaching from the rear of the campsite – not along the road, but through the campground. The figure was carrying something heavy (I caught myself thinking: bottles of booze?). I addressed the shadow: “Hey, is this your trailer?” No response. I tried again, louder this time: “Is this your trailer?” I waited, and then repeated my question once again.

Finally, the shadow answered: “Yeah that’s my trailer. What’s going on?” He’d clearly seen the lights/fracas and decided he’d better investigate.

Lily deserved an answer first. I told Lily, “Honey, your daddy’s back. Everything’s going to be okay.” As I said it, I wasn't sure I believed it.

In the darkness, I could hardly see his face. We explained the situation. “She sounded so scared. We couldn’t let her keep going on like that. She was screaming.”

He wasn’t listening. He leaned in the trailer, saying, “Lily? Are you okay?” I heard her small, sad voice respond, though I didn’t hear her words.

Park Ranger Mike was saying, “I’m going to need to ask you a few questions, sir…”

John and I walked back to the trailer. I had the weirdest, saddest thought of Lily’s dad coming back later in the night with a handgun to shoot one of us.

* * *

We all just want to feel safe in the world. That shouldn’t be nearly as much to ask as it is.

How many things have I not-done because I was worried about my safety? To be clear, worrying about one’s safety is far and away from lacking confidence, ambition, or imagination. I want to be Wonder Woman. I want to be She-Ra, a Female Master of the Universe. But, as a woman, I can’t help thinking about the bad things that might be or come. Just like five-year-old Lily, I’ve learned that the world isn’t entirely good, and there are things to be afraid of when you’re a woman alone within it.

I believe the best about people. It’s who I am, and it reflects the world I want to live in. I believe the best, until I’m alone in an alone place and maybe there’s nobody around to help. So much of my peacefulness is based on the assumed proximity of other people who aren’t assholes.

My campfire is now a superhot oven of orange-glowing-coal perfection. Ideally I’d be roasting something over it right now, but I’m good with my locally made faux Mr. Goodbar from Natural Grocer, my red wine, and my fire-poking stick here at the ready. And my phone? Still off.

This is a night where I’m permitting no proximal assholes, and I’m no longer even worrying about the possibility of one showing up. I feel safe, and it feels like a small victory. It would be bliss, if I didn’t know in the same moment that – for women who are alone – safety is often fleeting, and largely dependent upon having taken the right precautions. Did I tell you yet that I also packed along my tiny pink can of mace?

* * *

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My fire has finally started to fade. At 10:45pm, the campground has gone quiet, aside from a few far-off campfires presided over by other quiet campers. I start the camp stove again so that I can heat some water to wash my face. I brush my teeth, spitting into the campfire, listening to the sizzle. I douse the fire and head toward my night-time sanctuary, the Element. I slide into my sleeping bag and pull an extra blanket over my feet. Under the cool white of my clip-on book light, I open the big blue volume of F. Scott Fitzgerald short stories I’ve brought along as my bedtime reading. (Another bit of self-soothing foresight, as these stories are like warm, well-worn slippers that I’ve slid myself into time and again.)

Though I’m often an insomniac, I hardly make it through “Winter Dreams,” blinking sleepily through its last two pages. I turn off the book light and close my eyes. I don’t wake up till past 9am. It’s the longest night of sleep I’ve had in ages, and I slept solidly through it. My phone still has about 26% battery. Everything is going to be okay.