Some Version of Camping

Musings

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About a week ago, after a six day work week of ten hour days spent hustling between tables and scraping leftover bites of pancake into the trash, it was imperative that Kirst and I escaped the lodge for a bit. And truly escaped, meaning no day spent off catching up on cleaning, or paying bills or driving two hours down the mountain to go linger in coffee houses. No, none of that. We were going to instead be one with Mother Nature. We were going camping. Or as my good friend Francis would say, campin’.

We left our trailer in the early afternoon as I wanted to spend an unhurried morning lazily flipping through one of the 12 books on Hemingway I picked up from the library. As I readied the car and looked at the directions drawn out for me by a forest ranger for our designated nature adventure, I spotted Kirst coming in and out of our laundry room—which really doubles as one giant dressing room—with multiple bags. The route we needed to take was what the term “off-road” was coined for. We would need to cross a river that had washed out the road and then go straight up into the mountain, over various rocks and potholes big enough to be considered small gorges. I watched as Kirst loaded clothing piece after clothing piece and bag after bag into the living room.

“Do you want me to pack body wash?” she asked in passing.

“Why on earth would we need body wash for one night of camping?” I asked.

“I don’t know…” she said as she stuffed more clothes into her already heaping bag.

“Kirst, where do you think we’re going? Paris? Why are you packing so many outfits? We are coming back tomorrow.”

She disregarded me as she loaded up another bag with paints and books.

“You do realize we have to carry all this stuff across the river if my car can’t make it across.”

“Oh really?” she looked surprised that any work would be involved in this camping trip.

“We also have to carry the tent, the air mattress, the cooler, the food bag, the fire wood, the blankets, the pillows, the hammocks…”

“Oh…” she seemed contemplative over this information but still unwilling to downsize on any of her “essentials.”

We were going to have to cross the river in the car. Or camp elsewhere. Or I would simply have to accept that camping with Kirst meant some version of glamping where she put on her white wedge sandals for the ride to look the part of fashionable summer gal.

At this point I should note that my tire had all but disintegrated a few nights prior and my good pals had to put the spare on… which was still on. I meant it when I said no errands and no runs to town on my day off, even for tire repair. Which left us with the question of do we ford a river in a somewhat sissy SUV with a spare on to get to Calvin Lake to camp?

Well ya know that joke, Why did the chicken cross the road… To get to the other side. I think the chicken must have worked a whole bunch of overtime, waiting tables at a mountain lodge and had this one beautiful coveted day off a week and he had heard of this pristine lake on the other side of a road that had been flooded and so naturally he was getting to that other side. My only confusion is why this is considered a joke. This is no joke, man. I totally get why that chicken was willing to get plowed down by a vehicle to see what was over yonder. I was willing to risk getting stuck in a river, on a mountain, with no cell service, just for a glimmer of what I knew was tucked into the Big Horns.

When we arrived at said river and the sign that said Road Closed, I hesitated for a moment staring at the water. It didn’t look too deep or fast flowing. Though my SUV is a baby brat, she does have one thing going for her and that is height. I asked Kirst her thoughts and she told me to just gun it. And so I did. I fucking forded a river. In my girly SUV. With the spare on. That’s exactly how Lewis and Clark would’ve handled that slight dilemma too.

Okay, so for making it across the river, my vehicle could not make it up the next road which was straight incline combined with jagged grooves of dirt and rock. I tried going up anyway and made it about halfway before having to reverse all the way back down.

Kirst and I decided to find a camping spot in the nearby woods and mountaintops and then hike up to the lake instead. While setting up our hammocks I went to retrieve rope from the car and felt a presence near me. I lifted my eyes to see a moose staring back at me from about 100 yards away where the grass dipped into a creek.

My heart stopped and I quickly ducked down so he wouldn’t see me. Kirst who was off to my left, tucked into the forest was oblivious. I loudly whispered, “Kirst!” several times until she looked at me and I motioned her over while pointing with big eyes at our visitor who now had dipped his head into the creek. Kirst came over and together we stood on the inside ledge of the car leaning over for a good look.

From time to time the moose lifted his head up, met our eyes, and then dipped back down to munch on grass and gulp water. We were giddy as we repeatedly looked at each other, then looked at him. Well as long as he stayed where he was and we had a ton of steel between the two of us as protection in case he decided to charge.

After hiking up our appetite on the way to see Calvin Lake, we discussed food on the way back down and how I forgot to pack the marshmallows while Kirst was busy packing multiple outfit changes.

“Is there anything else we could roast?” she asked as she navigated her way back down the trail. I followed behind taking photos.

“No,” I said.

“Well I am going to roast your fingers then,” she quipped. I smiled, delighted by her response. “Or we could roast some ants or cockroaches. You know some people do that… Actually I couldn’t be one of those wilderness survival people. I love the wilderness but if I was in that situation, I’d just let wilderness take me down.” I laughed as I watched her touch tree branches and observe Mother Nature.

We got nestled back in our tent just as it began to rain. We devoured our snacks. Now this is where maybe I didn’t get the memo on appropriate camping snacks as instead of buying some ballpark franks and mallows, I had packed proscuitto, goat cheese, hummus, pita crackers, veggies and dark chocolates. Errrr and maybe some mint oreos for extra chocolate measure. Oh and Leinenkugels. Lots and lots o’ Leinenkugels.

We lounged and read and napped and hammocked in the breezy Wyoming high country. We awoke to a clear sky and snorts from a nearby animal. I froze thinking the moose was back and surely would trample the tent with us in it. I peaked out and saw a deer meandering past.

I unzipped the tent and went to make the fire.

We sat beside it basking til dusk and then went back into the warmth of the tent to play Scrabble and await the midnight sky and the star show that would ensue. When we unzipped again, the sight before us was nothing short of Godly in its overwhelming perfection. We oohed and ahhed and shivered and took turns peeing one last time behind the car.

As soon as we were back in the tent we heard nearby snorts again and froze, looking at each other in girlish irrational fear. We each located the large and imposing knives Francis had sent with us. We told ourselves it was just deer and put one knife on either side of the bed and hunkered down in cozy abandon.

I awoke several times in the night shivering in the frigid mountain air, clinging to Kirst for warmth and more warmth, twining my legs around her, to acquire all of her body heat. I borderline wanted her to just lie on top of me, maybe even my head so I could get some relief from the chill, but I dozed in and out clinging to her, breathing hot huffs on myself to perhaps warm my nose.

Even though every time I camp, it ends up being the worst nights sleep of my life: I wake up on a rock, with a dewy tent on my face, my back is stiff, or I am chilled to my very marrow, it seems entirely worth it for the endless stretches in nature, free from Facebook or work concerns and then those happy run-ins with moose and abandoned fishing poles on mountain lakes.

Honestly, if you haven’t camped, or glamped as Kirst and I would do it—with tall wedge sandals and prosciutto—well then, you are missing something truly grand. Even if you have to sleep with a knife under your bed and your sister on top of you.

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Just Like Summer Camp

Musings

I have been perched in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming for just shy of two months now. I have had the good fortune to land a waitressing gig at a mountain lodge which is en route to Yellowstone National Park. For being someone who embraces change in a variety of ways and does somewhat ludicrous things all the time, like buying one way tickets to New York City or selling all my belongings to move Westward, one would surmise that I’d be well versed in how to handle overwhelming newness when it’s upon me.

I do handle it. However, I will be perfectly honest in saying that every time I land somewhere new, I ultimately have a smallish panic attack, question my sanity and immediately want to go back home due to frazzled nerves. But because this isn’t my first rodeo (honestly if I had a dime for every time I worked that into conversation in the West…) I stick it out, knowing that adventure will find me and I will be okay.

Sure enough, after my initial misgivings about being cut off from the world atop a mountain, in a rugged lodge with animal heads staring at me from every corner and a noose hanging from the ceiling of the bar—I kid you not—I embraced life in the cowboy state. And with that acceptance came a variety of wholly new experiences accompanied by feelings of staggering awe.

Besides the mountains, moose and men which I have prattled on enough about, there are some other things I have yet to mention. For instance, the fact that my new employers provide housing and food for their employees. We are somewhat mountain-locked up at the lodge, so unless I wanted to go hunt down a bear, errr and a crossbow for said hunting, or drive thirty miles down switchbacks to the nearest grocery store, which is in fact half a gas station, I would probably starve if they didn’t kindly offer me meals.

Now here is the fun part about the lodge—and truth be told there are loads of fun parts—for breakfast we can order off of the menu. So having a cook prepare me a Belgian Waffle with strawberries any time I feel like, basically makes me feel like a Little Princess. And I mean like the movie, A Little Princess, where she is shut off in that horrible attic, but then one morning she wakes up to silks and sausages. That’s me, up here. Sure there are antlers everywhere and my bed definitely has multiple fleece blankets because the mountains can get a real chill about them, even in July, but no matter, I still feel like a Little Princess almost daily. Even if I am shoving said Belgian waffle into my mouth in a frenzied hurry in between waiting tables as I am usually too busy for leisure waffle time.

Besides having a cook prepare my breakfast (and lunch and dinner but breakfast is my favorite), I also live amidst tall, tall pines and log cabins galore. Before I got situated in my cozy trailer, I was living out of one of the hotel rooms. The ceiling in my room went up in the shape of a roof and was made of wooden beams. My favorite way to fall asleep was staring up at those rustic wooden beams in happy gratitude until dozing off. Then there was the laundry area, which is located in a cabin nearby. It was stocked full of novels and old Reader’s Digests. And as someone who hates doing her laundry, I loved doing it in this cabin. It sincerely reminded me of the movie The Parent Trap. As a gal who always longed to go to summer camp, this is truly what my experience of living at a mountain lodge has felt like: summer camp.

Except I work almost 60 hours a week, which really means I repeatedly tell customers my life story and spill caramel pie topping, coffee or tea all over myself, because I am both verbose and non-graceful like that, but besides that whole earn your keep business, every day walking amidst the pines, having bonfires and game nights with slews of boys—as if they were from the boys camp next door, but really they are my ultra cool coworkers—and hiking mountain-top after mountain-top makes me feel like I got the summer camp experience I always wanted after all. The only real difference is that now I get to drink all the beer I fancy because I am a grown-up lady. And so this is better in fact.

Isn’t it grand how life rewards you like that?

What the Au Train Taught Me

Musings

Friday was my sister Alexa’s 20th Birthday. As much as I love and rejoice in my birthday is exactly as much as Alexa dislikes and avoids her own birthday fanfare. It’s completely puzzling to me as it’s a birthday—your one day in 365 that celebrates your entrance into this fine world. So color me perplexed as to people who don’t bask in this gift. 

While my birthday this year was surely magical and full of fanfare in its own right, like fireworks going off in the distance right around 10:30 p.m.—which is the time I was actually born, well 10:13-ish specifically—it was as if the very universe was reveling with me in turning another year older, celebrating my existence and impact on this world. How else could I explain fireworks going off in my line of vision on my birthday? Coincidence?

There are no coincidences.

As usual, I digress, this is about Alexa’s birthday, but more specifically, what happened on her birthday which might have affected me most of all—a surprise three hour canoe trip down the Au Train River in Northern Michigan’s pristine forests. It would be my sisters Savannah and Alexa in one canoe, and my sister Kirstie and I in the other canoe.

Kirst and I had a bit of a rough start as she was in the back, doing the steering and right from the get-go we were zigging and zagging to and fro in no way going straight or steady as we kept hitting the river bank. My anxiety promptly startled to prickle as I tried yelling directives back to Kirstie about where to put her paddle and when, but still our boat drunkenly lunged this way and that in a haphazard fashion. After running over a log in the river and nearly capsizing while mosquitoes buzzed rapid fire near my head, I lost all patience with Kirst who was giggling in the back while I screeched like a deranged captain. We made our way to a shallow river bank so we could switch positions: Kirstie bow, myself manning the stern.

Immediately we were on course, as I navigated from the back, calling out orders for when Kirst could lift her paddle out of the water and let me steer us or when we could power the canoe together. My anxiety frissons started to melt away as I took in the surrounding landscape while paddling. Sandy ridges dipped down into the clear water. After initially passing a few cottages on the river we were immersed in what seemed to be deep forest. I scrutinized the tree line trying to spot a bear or more specifically a moose. Deep lines of trees, pines and otherwise lined both river banks, immersing us in their powerful scents. After the switch a group of kayakers had overtaken us and we were now right on their tails, so we decided to pull off to the river bank and enjoy one of our celebratory brews that we put in a cooler.

We linked our legs over the sides of the canoes to hold tight to both canoes, having paddled our way over to an area of mostly fallen down and floating logs. We bobbed on the placid river smiling and sipping. My post break-up sadness that had been nearly taking me down for days was far from my mind as I stared at each one of my radiant and incredibly different sisters in the canoes. Kirst had her platinum blonde hair in pin-up girl curls, wearing her “fancy” sandals, mini overalls and a white tank-top, while Alexa wore a pink polka dot skirt and Savannah had on leggings and a long black floral shirt. Every one of us had sunglasses donned.

After a few minutes of sipping and sitting we decided to press on, letting go of the other canoe. I was already seated but Kirst had shifted to the middle of the canoe and stood up to make her way back to the front. As she started walking, I realized she absolutely didn’t have her sea legs yet as she marched down the middle of the canoe as if she were on dry land, with no sense of balance or idea that we were floating precariously in a small vessel. As I felt the boat begin to lurch I opened my mouth to yell for her to balance herself and before I could form a single word I was flying overboard and sinking into dark cool river water.

As I burst back up to the surface still too shocked that I was no longer dry in a canoe, but drenched in the Au Train, I grasped the side of the canoe realizing I still had my beer in hand. I felt frantic, but when I saw that the canoe was indeed still upright and all our possessions including my car keys weren’t lost at the bottom of the river but were still intact in the boat, my mind eased for a moment until I looked at my surroundings. The river had been rather shallow but where I was at currently, I could not feel the bottom, but was kicking my legs to stay afloat in dark brown water and could see lots of algae covered logs nearby. Instantly I started to flail and flip out, for as adventuresome as I may be, murky water that may or may not be filled with leeches and God knows what had my body convulsing in fear. Savannah and Alexa who I hadn’t spotted yet were around the bend a little ways and were laughing and yelling for me to swim to them where it was sandy.

Kirstie who was as dry as chapped lips was looking at me as if I’d inconvenienced her and like she couldn’t understand why I was in the water. I gave her a murderous glower as I dropped the can of beer into the bottom of the canoe which now had a thin later of water floating on the bottom and quickly kicked my legs and pumped my arms across the river to where my other sisters were. I stood up on the sandy shore and once I knew I was safe and my sisters were done snapping photos of me, I began to laugh.

Okay. I was safe. No leeches had gotten me. I hadn’t been sucked under by a mysterious undertow. And best of all no seaweed had touched or even been close to touching me as that would’ve been the worst case scenario when unexpectedly flying out of a canoe.

Savannah and Alexa went ahead while I realized my paddle was caught in a floating bunch of logs that Kirstie was wildly unsuccessful at obtaining, so I mustered up my courage and swam back up river to fetch it, then back down to the sandy bank to wait for Kirst to pick me up in the canoe. We made it around the bend to see a snarl of trees blocking a lot of the river and heard Savannah and Alexa making quite a ruckus on the other side.

It seemed that Savannah had tipped in as well, trying to make it across the tangle of tree branches and shallow bottom. Kirst and I decided it wasn’t worth trying to paddle through ourselves, so we got out to pull our canoe through the mess as it was only ankle deep. Once we had transferred almost all our sopping things from one canoe to the other in order to dump out the excess water in both canoes, we were back on our way.

At this point I realized my favorite pair of large round D&G sunglasses that DC had bought for me had been on my head when I went overboard. Instantly I was sick over the loss. Losing a pair of sunglasses would mean not all that much to me normally, losing a favorite pair would probably rattle me, but because they were from DC it felt symbolically sad that the sunglasses were now at the bottom of a deep and murky part of the Au Train. I tried not to let it bother me as we paddled on, but my heart hurt for awhile feeling the loss as more than just fashionable plastic shades for my eyes, it felt like over-ness, real over-ness and I hated it. Oh how I wanted those glasses back, if only to hold onto something that could no longer be held, which in essence was DC.

The river swept this way and that and the beauty kept striking me despite my melancholy. When we came around another bend I spotted a rope swing with knots hanging high from a tall and skinny pine. My heart leapt away from the sadness of the sunken sunglasses and landed on the rope. I had always, always wanted to swing off of a rope into water and had yet to do it. I felt a little tug of nerves again as the river in this part obviously was dark and deep for there to be a swing into it and I wasn’t sure if I could find the bravery on my own to hurl into the river again. Doing it once without my knowing was one thing, but on purpose? I felt like quite the chicken.

But when the birthday girl, Alexa Belle saw the swing she yelled to Savannah to pull the canoe over so she could jump. Her confidence impressed me. We all pulled the canoes to the bank near the rope swing and Alexa climbed out, climbed up and swung out into the river in a brilliant splash. She just did it.

She did it once more for good measure. This prompted Savannah to try. Savannah went twice as well and then my courage found me.

I stepped out into the water, scrambled up the steep and rocky bank where the rope hung and grasped it. It suddenly seemed so far down and so daunting. I hung out for awhile trying to do countdowns and then go and not being able to. But finally I hurtled myself forward and let go.

I went again and this time, climbed higher and sat on one of the knots of the rope which was even more exhilarating when dropping into the brisk and refreshing river.

Kirstie didn’t want to get wet, though we tried to convince her it’d be worth it. She shook her bouncy blonde curls, no. Savvy, Alexa and I clambered back into the canoes and were off once again, another unpredicted adventure under our belts. Having let go whilst hanging from the rope swing, I decided to let go of the sunglasses too. I had no need to hold onto that anchor of sadness on this glorious river that was teaching me to be fearless and what rewards my soul reaped from my small brave acts.

I thought falling in the river and surviving a would-be leech or seaweed attack, letting go of the D&G’s which also felt like letting go of DC and flying into the air off a rope swing were ample lessons from the Au Train that day, but still the river would teach me more.

After paddling for over two hours, Kirstie and I had hit our stride and now were navigating each fallen tree branch, narrow bend in the river and rock outcropping with Lewis and Clark-like expertise, until we came upon an enormous pine tree the size of a two-story house that was lying down in the river straight ahead. The pine looked as if it had simply given up and snapped right off the side of the cliff it was living on and fell dramatically across the river, like a tired woman on a fainting chair. Its long branches snarled this way and that with mounds of green needles still stuck on.

Savvy and Alexa were ahead and canoed up to where the trunk still stuck to the edge of the tall river bank. I supposed we could just canoe right under the trunk but the girls looked back at us shaking their heads. When we came closer, I too saw that going under the trunk would not happen as there were numerous scratchy branches in every direction blocking any entrance to the other side of the river. Kirst and I backed our canoe up while Savvy and Alexa untangled themselves from some of the pine branches as they had gotten too close and Alexa had been ensnared while their canoe rocked from the jolt.

“How are we going to get around this?” I asked Kirst, not feeling frightened so much as stumped that the river was still surprising me with its obstacles.

The other side looked just as hopeless with tree branches reaching wide into shallow seaweed filled water. The seaweed alone gave me pause. I could not fall in again there. Seaweed was definitely my achilles heel. But there seemed no other way. This route, though it looked too shallow and narrow had less branches. Kirst and I slowly paddled around the fallen pine and through the thick green seaweed.

Coming out on the other side, it seemed so simple. Oh, that was all it took? It seemed another glaringly obvious metaphor for life. When there is a tree 100 times the size of me laying languidly across the river I am on, blocking what seems to be the only way to the end, what is there to be done? Stop and set up camp on the river bank admitting defeat? Turn and go back two hours upstream? Of course not. Find another way. Get around it somehow and keep going.

Huh? Interesting. Very, very interesting. I hear ya God and I am listening.

The Au Train though hardly a rapids, or even what I would deem a level 5 on a scale of 1 to 10, still was not effortless. It required much attention, navigation and fluidity from all of us. There were still times we had to push our paddles down hard into the water to slow down our speed so we wouldn’t careen into a fallen log, times when we had to tread slowly and surely through passages full of branches and rocks and more times still that the river split and we simply had to go with our intuition on which split felt like the right one to lead us home.

And through all of this my mind awakened with not only the healing powers of nature, but what a river could stand to teach me about being fearless in the face of adversity, not just in the present moments but in what surely might be troubling times ahead.

I cannot know how many downed tree branches are ahead in my river—my story. I can’t know if they are enormous—seemingly blocking my entire path. Or if they are easily bypassed. Or how much stamina I may need to get around them. Or if I will get wet or lose things, even a part of myself in the process. But I do know that God created rivers so that only so much is visible at any one time. If I knew everything that lay ahead for me on the Au Train, I may not have even gotten in the canoe, but because I saw each winding bend—obstacles and all—a moment at a time, everything felt manageable.

And I get it. I get it all. I fell in the water and I didn’t drown. I lost something and that something really was someone that wasn’t just important to me, but was a part of me, still I press on. I flew and I didn’t get hurt. I saw no way around. But yet…

Three hours from where we started we pulled our canoes out of the Au Train where my car was parked, which was really only a few miles away. We had a package of soaked cookies, cans of beer that were mostly filled with river water, were missing two pairs of sunglasses that now rested at various sandy bottoms of the Au Train, we smelled like Off bug spray and sun-tan lotion and river and we were all still mostly wet with patches of dry (aside from Kirstie).

And just like that we made it to the other side.

The Winds Are Changing

Musings

Winds in the east / Mist coming in / Like something is brewing / About to begin / Can’t put me finger / On what lies in store / But I feel what’s to happen / All happened before.
-Bert, a la Mary Poppins

Lately I have been giving a lot of thought to being lost. While there have been many times in my life that I have felt lost, usually it has mattered little to me as I have always felt a bit un-tethered. Once while on a road trip with a past love, I groused to him that I had tried braiding my hair to tame it, but that it had exploded upon itself anyway.

He replied, “I guess that means you can’t be tamed.”

Even though I had used the word tame in regards to my wild curls, I loved that he threw it back to me in describing my wild spirit. I found it to be a high compliment and nodded to myself that it was so. I certainly could not be tamed.

I realized, however, with my epiphany in the bathroom the other day, staring at my body and not feeling shame, that I feel a little less lost in myself. The importance of this didn’t occur to me until today. Well last night really. I couldn’t sleep because the rain was splattering so furiously on my windows that it kept jarring me from sleep.

Though I checked my phone multiple times to find it was still the middle of the night I started to feel awake and with my alertness, I began to feel a little lost. A few years ago when I lived in Wisconsin I used to feel so lost that I would wake up in the middle of the night, look across the room into the mirror, catch my reflection and not know who I was looking at. I felt like a displaced person inside of myself and it happened all the time. It was unsettling to say the least, but I couldn’t put my finger on why it happened so frequently.

Now I suspect it had something to do with my vast unhappiness in my own skin.

But when I woke up last night it wasn’t the kind of lost I used to feel in Wisconsin, instead this felt like a directional sort of lost. This one I was more familiar with and could identify as part of my gypsy spirit, the part of me that needs something more … somewhere … but I am not yet sure what.

When I left New York City I had the same feeling. At first I knew I needed the flat farmlands of my hometown of Fowlerville, Michigan, to soothe me, but that didn’t satiate me long—it never does—and shortly after abandoning New York I knew I needed the mountains. That’s all I could think was mountains, I need the mountains and their vastness. And their “good tidings,” as John Muir says. I felt claustrophobic after leaving New York City and the mountains seemed the perfect antidote to that.

Now, all I knew was I needed the North. I needed Lake Superior. I needed to be on the lookout for moose and the moving green mists of the Northern Lights. I needed dense forests and zero traffic. I needed my sisters. After that I didn’t know what I needed or where to go to get it but first and foremost the Great Up North seemed to be beckoning in her most alluring way.

I often feel that a lot of people couldn’t or wouldn’t comfortably understand my need for abrupt change, but the best way I can describe it is this:

“Not all who wander are lost.”
-J.R.R Tolkien

So while I feel a bit like Mary Poppins noting that the wind has changed and there is nothing to be done but follow it, I don’t feel internally lost. I feel ready for a good wander. Internally, I have never felt more secure.*

 

***
I wrote this post before I moved yet still wanted to post it, but my secure-ness has shaken a little—err a lot—and my lost-ness has intensified. But alas at one point I felt certainty in the wind change. Now… well now I am just finding comfort in myself, deep down where God resides.