Solo Camping

I think I might be a grown-up. I know how this sounds. Of course by all standards, I am a grown-up. I live apart from my parents and pay my bills and brush my teeth and get dressed in the morning unassisted. I don’t know that these are qualifiers for grown-up-hood actually because five year olds too know how to get dressed and brush their teeth, but they can’t buy whiskey and move cross country whenever they feel like it, so I stand by my declaration.

Anyway, this occurred to me last night as I was walking to the bathroom at the campground I was staying at. By myself. I kept giggling like I was a kid who had in fact snuck out of my parents house to do something illicit. I did do this once as a youngster, with my best friend Katee Peach—that really was my childhood best friend’s name, isn’t that perfect?—this is what Bad Mary Janes we were. We snuck out around midnight, drove to Meijer—a nicer version of Wal-Mart, but not as classy as Target, for those not in the know—bought bulk candy and sat in the furniture section feeling smug, rocking on faux leather office chairs until our eyes got heavy and we inevitably just drove home.

I told myself when I moved to yet another new place by myself, that I was going to attempt to do things alone, things that I would have previously never considered doing alone. One of those things was go camping. In my mind going camping alone, seemed rather lame. Who would I chat with and snuggle and eat s’mores with? Turns out the s’mores thing was hardly a problem. I made it my mission to eat enough s’mores to account for two people being there. I know, I had to take one for the team on that one.

I had decided to ease into camping by myself, I wouldn’t venture into the Wyoming wilds alone, alone. First I would start with a campground and I opted for Buffalo Bill State Park on the reservoir. Not too shabby canyon and water views, accompanied by the secure feeling of collective campers, and a distinct lack of grizzlies seemed wise.

I brought my childhood stuffed giraffe that I still cart around the country when I am in between snuggle partners as she makes a good fill in. Lula didn’t disappoint. She didn’t fight me when I put her worn orange cotton ears tightly underneath my neck. She also didn’t object to my constant position switching in the night to get comfortable on my stack of about 9 folded blankets.

I can’t say I deserved a high-five for setting up my tent because it is new technology and basically idiot-proof. I am pretty sure I could have Mary Poppins’d that shit, and sang a song to my tent and it would’ve risen. Also God love a Coleman, because the beaut held up to insane and persistent Wyoming winds all. night. long. I kept checking the corners which I had weighed down with rocks, because my campsite was pure rubble and I could not get the stakes in.

But the tent and Lula held through the onslaught.

I had made a fire, no prob, because duh I was a Girl Scout. Although, okay I love to throw that out there, but I think I actually was a Brownie and never graduated past Brownie. But I did sew something once, so, I am pretty sure I still get the honor.

I drank peach beers and smiled dreamily at my blazing fire, the sun dipping down behind Cody canyons and felt like I was figuring it out. At least I hoped I was. I wanted to start in on my laundry list of worries because that is my usual pastime, but I refused. I told myself I would simply enjoy the pure pleasure of being alive and able to camp on my own in the West. Turns out this wasn’t a hard feat.

I kept laughing and it wasn’t from the peach beers, though to be fair, two did make me tingle a bit. I sincerely felt in awe of doing an activity that seems like it should be a two person activity, and making it fit one. My bed, happily high from the obscene amounts of stacked and folded blankets only took up a small space in my five-person tent. But I liked my miniature living room, with dimly lit lantern, Wall Drug cowboy satchel filled with books, my styrofoam cooler brought purely to protect the chocolate and brews, and then there was me and Lula.

I always say that I have the worst night’s sleep on record when I go camping, and I surely did. I was up every half hour it seemed with howling winds that shook every seam in my tent relentlessly. I wondered if the wind would pick us all up: me, the tent and Lula and cart us off to Oz. I dreamt about packing up the tent multiple times, but each time I woke up and heard the wind and rain, I snuggled deeper into my blankets and prayed. I didn’t pray for protection against a wayward tree crushing me, but for God to not let my new Coleman get destroyed after only one use.

I had fallen asleep wearing pants, a long sleeve shirt, doubled with a thick sweater and wool socks. I awoke sweaty and to the sounds of squawking birds. The tent was now still and my body ached as I wearily peeled off socks and multiple layers of my clothes. I whipped off the mounds of blankets and unzipped the tent flap to a cool breeze and bright morning sun. I gulped in the fresh air and wondered about coffee. I also wondered if I could shoot the squawking birds without incident.

Camping is slightly like heartache following love. You wonder why you bother, yet secretly are up for all the thrills all over again.

I debated whether I had the energy to pack up without caffeine first, but I swallowed some stale water from my Nalgene bottle and ate three squares of a Hershey’s bar and determined that would have to suffice.

As I tried to stuff the tent back in the bag that never seems big enough to hold what came out so easily, I thought, hey, I did it. I camped alone.

The Camp Hosts from Georgia who were making their morning rounds around the campground called out, “leaving already?”

“Yeah I was just here for one night. Now I am going hiking.”

“Be safe,” the man said.

I nodded, feeling sweaty from the effort of shoving the tent into its too small bag.

And just like that I was off in search of the largest coffee I could find and a hike that would quench my never-ending thirst for more adventure. Alone or otherwise.

The Avoidance Trip

If someone had told me as a child that I would one day have a real compulsion to not only know ranchers but to potentially be one… well I probably wouldn’t have laughed it off as I have always been wildly imaginative and I might’ve seen the merit, even then, but I may not have entirely believed it.

So when an opportunity came about for me to potentially apprentice with some real Wyoming ranchers, I threw my bags in my car—having been hunkering in Colorado Springs until just such an occurrence gave me reason to leave— and put the petal to the metal.

I had a brief pit stop in Fort Collins to see my beloved lil sis Kirst who now resides there. She made me laugh until I cried and plied me with craft brews, whiskey and homemade tacos. Then bought me coffee and one extra large donut the following morning after too much whiskey and tacos, while generally confirming my suspicion that my sisters are my soul mates and always will be. There’s no love like that.

Anyhow, even though Kirst and her new beau wanted me to stay another night I was anxious to get on the road and only lingered until about 10:30 in the morn, knowing I had a 6.5 hour drive ahead of me and not wanting to travel after dark.

I had already looked at my GPS and even talked about what route I would take with Kirstie’s man, having settled on coming up through Thermopolis to my new destination. This route would take me through some areas I hadn’t seen before which was promising, however, going through Thermopolis and the Wind River Canyon had me less than thrilled. You see the ex-cowboy took me on my favorite date of all time there and I already had a pit of doom about driving through it and thinking of him and all the ways in which he used to make me laugh.

But obviously I wasn’t going to let the ex-cowboy ruin any of my plans or my love for the Wind River Canyon just because he told me inappropriate pirate jokes there and held my hand and smiled at me in a way that made me forget about what wind and rivers and canyons even were.

That was until I double-checked my GPS and saw that there was a third route that wasn’t an option before. And it shaved off half an hour. It didn’t go through Buffalo or Thermopolis. Hmmm, I thought, that’s a new way too, and no uncomfortable ex-boyfriend memories. We have a winner. I happily cruised along on the sunshiney day listening to podcasts and planning my future as a rancher.

When I got to Casper I noted that gas was $1.42 a gallon, which was good but I was at half a tank and didn’t feel like stopping yet. I left the city of Casper and passed another gas station touting gas for $1.53. I kind of regretted not getting gas at the $1.42 place but still didn’t want to worry about it at the moment, though I suspected it would only get more expensive from there.

I also had to go to the bathroom, but not terribly bad so I kept on. Now this is when my GPS had me turn down a road off of the main highway. The road was in disrepair, looked rather desolate and seemed an odd road to take, if I were going to listen to my intuition, which I did not.

If my life were a horror movie this is where the eerie music would pick up signaling the heroine was about to head into serial killer country while you the viewer clench your midsection knowing that she’s an idiot and should have never turned down that road, but you watch on anyway to see what ghastly scenario she finds herself in.

When I crested a hill and saw not a hundred sheep in the road, not five hundred, but a gaggle of sheep so thick and dense that I could only surmise thousands, I began to wonder further about this road choice of Google’s. But I chose to be charmed instead, eyeing up the sheep blocking the road as if I were in Scotland. I slowly inched my car toward the sheep and a farmer nearby on a four-wheeler. I rolled down my window and said hello.

He smiled and asked how I was doing, I said good and asked him how he was doing.

“Couldn’t be better,” he beamed, looking at his sheep. This charmed me further and so I disregarded that this was a bad road and thought, this is a Wyoming road with a lovely sheep farmer that’s welcoming me back to my state that I love so much. Where the traffic jams involve sheep and happy farmers instead of road-raging idiots and blaring horns. 

He asked if I was heading on up the road and I nodded, though I hesitated wondering if I should ask him about this particular road and if it was okay… and my now half a tank was at about 100 miles until empty. Would I make it 100 miles on this road before another gas station, I almost asked and then didn’t, but just watched mesmerized while he parted the sea of sheep like Moses parting the Red Sea.

But soon after exiting my sheep jam, the decrepit paved road turned to dirt. I again wondered about this and wondered why my GPS surmised that this was faster, but kept going, against my now better judgement which was pointing out there was a gas station back the way I came, where I could pee, and fill my tank, and also this couldn’t be right.

But now I felt sort of stubborn and adamant about where this road could be leading me, so I kept following the cues provided by Google Maps. I went deeper into what seemed pretty wild Wyoming territory, passing a historical sign about the Sand Creek Massacre. If that wasn’t some pretty intent foreboding, I don’t know what else could have been. I was also listening to a sermon at the time about not letting your negative thoughts become words and instead having faith in God’s favor.

At this point, every new road that I turned on was another dirt road, leading me further into deep canyons and gorges and further and further from civilization—or gas stations—of any kind. The sheer magnitude of my surroundings began to frighten me, because though my GPS claimed I would reach a highway of sorts before my now 88 miles til empty, the sprawling, mountainous wilderness before me looked as though there couldn’t be a gas station for some several hundred miles.

Plus the road was getting worse. It seemed the only vehicle that should be back there was an all terrain vehicle or a four-wheeler. This is when the road wound down the side of a canyon, covered in sheer ice. My fingers white-knuckled the wheel while I stayed as close to the canyon wall as possible while reminding myself not to think negative thoughts and instead have faith.

I could no longer listen to the sermon as I was too tense and now very negative-minded about what I had gotten myself into. I waited to see if the next turn was perhaps pavement or had a neon glow sign for gas and vodka, because I now needed all of the above. Instead I saw a sign for a town with an arrow. It said the town was 26 miles away. Instead of immediately turning toward the town, I listened to my GPS one more time thinking maybe just over this last hill I would be homefree.

Except just over the hill was a nightmare of a road that was all tore up, had enormous rocks everywhere and soon was completely covered in snow. At this point, I had 71 miles left til empty and so I naturally hit the panic button and called my mom as I had two bars of service—I had had no signal for almost the entirety of this “joyride.”

“Mom,” I practically screamed, “I am on a mountaintop in the middle of nowhere Wyoming; It’s like a farm road or something; I am lost; I have 71 miles until I run out of gas; This is the only spot with cell reception and I passed a sign for a town a ways back and I need you to find out if Armington has a gas station!”

“What?” she said patiently, “I am only getting every other word. How do you spell Armington? A-R-M-Y?” she started spelling.

I tried not to reach hysteria as I yelled, “no like an arm, an ARM! A-R-M-I. Armington! Mom I am going to lose you, or fall off a mountainside. These roads are really scary and I don’t have time to dawdle. I have hardly any gas left!”

“Armington is in Montana,” she informed me while I made the executive decision to precariously turn myself around on the mountaintop. “Are you in Montana?”

“I don’t see how I could be… but maybe I am really lost and Montana is now close…”

And this is when the call failed and I could not get my mom back.

I gingerly maneuvered my car back down the mountainside while trying to force my negative thoughts that were now circling about me like goons about to do some knuckle-breaking, out of my head and instead focus on my faith.

I got back to the sign and it did not say Armington-26 miles, it said Arminto-26 miles. The sign also said Kaycee- 31 miles. I felt sort of happy about that because I knew of Kaycee, however the arrow pointed back the way I had come from before and I had seen no signs for Kaycee and I was driving on that road for a long, long while.

I decided to take my chances with Arminto, though something ominous inside of me now suspected that Arminto could be anything: an old wagon post, a historical marker, a factory… who the F knew? I sure didn’t.

But I went ahead and started driving toward Arminto while nervously eyeballing my gas mileage that was dwindling with my hopes of ever seeing another life form again.

Eventually I passed cows, which seemed a good indicator. Cows meant people. People meant maybe I would have help if I did run out of gas. I passed some guest ranches but was too nervous to stop in case they were seasonal ranches and no one was there. With every bend in the road I prayed Arminto was around the corner and I would be saved, but still it was more vast open nothingness, with some red rocks and mountain ranges far, far in the distance. At this point my gas light came on and my mileage disappeared as it does when I am 30 miles until empty. I rounded a corner and saw a rather large animal skeleton stuck on a barbed wire fence.

You’re going to die out here, I thought miserably. This is where things go to die.

But I tried insisting on my faith instead of my rampant fear that this was some sort of sicko plot by Google maps to lead me to my death. As I rounded yet another bend and saw only more emptiness I wanted to bawl while considering whether to turn around and go back to one of the ranches.

But that is when I saw something faint and black and square-ish in the far distance. Could that be Arminto? Was it a truck? Or a house? Or a sweet, and beloved gas station? I decided to take my chances that it was Arminto and that I was saved.

But as I came into what was indeed Arminto, I again felt absolutely sickened. It looked like nothing more than a ghost town. As I crept through I looked around and saw a teepee in the distance and then to my right a sort of tin looking house with an old car graveyard, but also some new cars in the driveway.

I wondered if I was on a reservation. Now normally this would not have scared me as I love Native Americans. However, I was already in a wild state. And I also would like to throw a lot of blame on the ex-cowboy here for getting me in a tizzy of worry over reservations anyway with his advice of “you stay away from the reservations. You’ll get thrown in Indian jail and never get out.”

I had no choice though. I couldn’t go a moment further if there was indeed no gas station in my foreseeable future. I had to ask the residents of the tin house where in God’s name I was and if I could make it to a gas station, otherwise they were driving me. Or murdering me. Or throwing me in Indian jail. But I had to take my chances.

I parked my car in their driveway. I clutched my keys and nervously walked up to the door, when it swung open and an old man walked out and said point blank, “you must be lost.”

“Uh, yes, very,” I said relieved that he wasn’t cuffing me and dragging me to a teepee for disturbing his land. “Do you happen to know if there is a gas station within 30 miles of here?”

“Well…” he didn’t look convinced that there was. My stomach began to drop thinking about what a flaming idiot I was for choosing to take the so-called shorter route to avoid painful ex-cowboy memories, when in reality this route had added almost three hours to my trip, caused me considerable more grief than simply recounting a Wind River Canyon date, and would surely cost me ample more in gas money. “Yeah I think you can make it. There’s a gas station in Highland, about 18 miles from here. Stay on the pavement. Don’t get off it. And at the stop sign turn right.”

As if I was ever going off the pavement again, I thought as I thanked him profusely, got back into my car and gunned it to Highland. It was a dilapidated motel/gas station combo, with gas pumps so old I could hardly read the prices, which had me slightly relieved, because I didn’t want to know what this was costing me.

I got a paper map and went over the directions to Hyattville with the gas station attendant.

I had to go through the Wind River Canyon and Thermopolis anyway. And yes I thought about the date with the ex-cowboy and his silly pirate joke, and his smiling and hand holding and how much I still adore the kid though I hate that I do. But I also thought how happy I was not to be stranded somewhere in the deep wilds outside of Casper. And how my mom being the super sleuth that she is, deduced I wasn’t in Armington, Montana from that brief phone call, and that I was near Arminto—population 5, she later informed me—and that had I run out of gas back there, Mama Sturos would’ve sent a helicopter for me before letting my bones rot in a canyon.

And so my so called shorter 6 hour trip in fact took me 9.5 hours.

But guess what? This story would be the story I told to the ranchers the next morning over coffee, while they laughed and shook their heads, but seemed delighted I was there. But more on that later.