"Getting Away From It All to Come Back to Ourselves"
I drove for four and a half hours from Maine to bucolic and beautiful Cornwall, Connecticut to meet up with two dear old friends who were visiting and touring the east coast. I found a campsite in a nearby state park which I had located online, where I would stay for the first two nights, then would follow them to Mystic, where we’d stay another two nights in the same hotel.
It’s amazing the amount of work that goes into both the prep and the return of a camping trip. Getting away from it all sometimes seems like Bringing it All With You. I grew up in the tradition of old school camping: off the beaten path, cooking over a self-made fire, sleeping out under the stars. My parents eyed parks suspiciously (as not being rustic enough, with too many people) and accepted outhouses as true luxuries when it came to camping. Camping in the 60’s and 70’s meant stowing the heavy green canvas military-style tent in the back of our Volkswagen van and heading out in a general direction. We'd pass other similarly loaded VW vans going in the opposite direction on the highway. Our two disparate groups, privy to the secret life of camping, waved wildly at each other across the wide median strip, as if we knew each other. No longer strangers by virtue of our rustic, nomadic, VW lifestyle. It felt like we were all part of a larger family. I loved that.
Today, I embrace that minimalist style of “true camping,” as I like to call it. No electricity or technology. Period. So I was thrilled to discover a campground close enough to the rendezvous point with my friends. It was the official first day of my summer vacation and I couldn’t wait to get away from it all. With the exception of surfing, a few days alone in the woods always breathes new life into my spirit, more than any other experiences in life seem capable of doing. It grounds me. I can’t breathe in deep enough all the scents of pine and balsam and pure forested air. It had been too long since my last camping trip. I couldn’t wait to get there and get my camp set up.
When I arrived though, I quickly discovered a city park-like setting with closely mown grass and numbered picnic tables designating lot sites that were laid out suburban style, clustered around a loop. My heart sank. In looking at the online map, I had chosen an isolated site “in full shade,” meaning to me lots of trees. What I didn’t realize was the site sat on a little knoll, about 50 feet from the highway! I looked at the map again. Yep. There was a tiny line designating the highway. I saw what I wanted to see. It never dawned on me that I would be in full view of all passing motorists with not a tree or bush for privacy. Ahead of me, across the loop and through the woods, I could hear the gurgling flow of the Housatonic’s fish-laden waters rushing between the ebb and flow of speeding summer traffic below me.
So here's the thing. I wasn’t happy. My expectations of what a campsite should be and what was, did not match. I was hot and sweaty and tired from driving in interstate traffic for almost five mind-numbing hours. I was angry and hurt and let down. I drove back to the check-in office to express my disappointment.
Now, I know, in the past, in my 30’s and 40’s, I would have probably “made a scene,” openly expressing my anger to the two hapless summer hires that were manning the booth. I would have vented my frustration and anger, not specifically toward them, but they would have received the brunt of it. I would have been outraged by the situation, demanded a refund, and probably driven off in some self-righteous huff, most probably sleeping in the back of my car somewhere that evening, or worse, ending up in some hotel room - the antithesis of my desired camping experience.
What is it about our 50’s that we begin to forgive more easily? Or maybe, we’ve had the benefit of a lifetime of wonderful experiences, and are therefore emotionally better equipped to take the misfortunes in stride. Or, for some, like me, maybe it’s just taken me this long to accept all that comes my way as simple gifts in disguise. I've always held to that belief, but rarely gave it a chance to prove itself. I found myself explaining to these two strangers my surprise at how close my site was situated to the main road. “How unfortunate” the situation was. Were there possibly any available sites still open? Graciously, they clicked away at the computer, fingers paused as they scanned the monitor, both inhaling quietly together. I knew there weren’t other open sites, but this was me accepting a situation in which I didn’t get my way. And this was me not throwing a tantrum. How grown-up I’ve suddenly become in my 50’s.
I returned to the site to think it over. I was still upset, still pouting, still fighting with my old self about packing it all in and moving on somewhere else. Still wanting to feel victimized. Oh, that subtle nemesis. I drove my four-wheel drive up onto the site, parking it so that it blocked the roadside below. I stood there, looking at the fire ring and the weathered picnic table, imagining my tent set up across, creating that familiar triad. I toyed with the idea of staying but not setting up the tent, but that mothering voice of mine soothed the pouty, tired part of me by laying out a stepped plan. “Don’t worry about starting the fire, or unpacking the food. Just lay out the tent. Get the tent up. You can decide from there.”
So my maturity kicked in. My tired self was still grumpy. God, I thought. If anyone else had been with me, guaranteed there would have been a fight. Maybe this is why I enjoy the quietude of this solo experience. It’s less social than introspective. One of the attendants I had spoken with earlier walked up, explained that he had talked with the manager, and suggested that I could stay at their one overflow sight if that was more to my liking. I thanked him and he left. I took a walk to locate the new site number, which sat right beside the restroom/bathhouse. Some folks may have liked the convenience. To my mind, it's the most public of all sites, so I returned to my original site, with the car blocking out the road behind it, and half-heartedly put up my tent.
Before I knew it, my beach chair was out, the log fire was crackling with a steak sizzling over the grill and a pocket of aluminum foil filled with wild rice and broccoli steaming on the side. I started a pot of cowboy coffee. It would be ready to enjoy after dinner around the warmth of the campfire.
By now, other sites began filling up and in the early twilight, fireflies whimsically lit up between the trees. Kids pumping out the last bit of pent-up energy whizzing by on their bikes (which at first was also irritating me), became less noticeable as the fire, the circle of camp, the aroma of food, and the twinkle of fireflies hypnotically drew me into its fold. I quietly exhaled and sat back. I became aware of the quiet community that had sprung up around me. Like early pioneers, there was a singular focus: to create habitation. Each site had a rhythm of sounds and movement, from the clinking of tent poles to the crackle of a fire, to the hoots and hollers of kids chasing one another through camp.
Campers walked by on their way to the bathhouse or just out for a stroll. They nodded or waved, that silent acknowledgement of the larger family. When was the last time a stranger nodded or waved at me? The traffic tripping by below thinned as the evening lengthened. The fire’s warmth embraced my weary soul while fireflies gave off their own light to the world. The humidity of the day had left and had taken my anger with it. A refreshing coolness descended and I wrapped myself in the warmth of an old red and yellow plaid blanket in the same colors of the fire. A few stray campers pulled into their sites long after dark. Solemn silhouettes unfolded themselves tiredly from within their cramped vehicles, stretching, then each person quietly went about the routine of setting up camp. As I crawled into the womb of my tent, I felt at peace, and comforted. I looked up through the screen to watch the night sky and fireflies mingle as I fell asleep.
So here’s the thing. It’s not the situations or events that occur in our lives that truly define us. It’s the way in which we define them. It is what we do with what is that makes all the difference.