I chose a five-night solo camping trip for a chance to write as much as possible and to reflect on the past year. 2016 was full of drastic ups and downs, as most years in life are, but the most recent rollercoaster always feels the craziest. My camping trip didn’t go exactly as planned, mainly due to extreme weather, but overall it was a great, productive adventure. Our little camper made a cozy home– sometimes too cozy– although it leaked pretty bad in a storm. For the most part it did its job, and luckily, what happens in the popup, stays in the popup.
I hadn’t run in fifteen days because I fell really bad before Christmas. I’d been sprinting in a park on a morning when my back was acting up and my right leg wasn’t quite obeying commands on cue. I’ve dealt with back and neck problems long enough to keep doing my thing regardless of pain, but I should’ve known better than to sprint with a sluggish leg. One second, I was rounding the bases on an empty softball field. The next second, I was face-down in the red dirt and in a fairly shocking amount of pain. My return to running on my camping trip was incredibly freeing. In the late afternoon, as the sky began to turn pink and the clouds took on fantastic color and dimension, I knew I was in for something awesome.
I got a ton of writing done within my first hours of camping, then realized that (duh) I didn’t have access to any sort of online backup because I had no wifi. I got paranoid about the camper blowing up or catching fire while I was away from it, knowing that all the thousands of new words I’d written would be lost. I backed up to a USB drive that I carried in my pocket everywhere I went, even running. The USB drive would only die if I did, I reasoned— and if I died, I wouldn’t be around to care if my books never made it to the publisher. I feasted on canned vegan chili and wrote by the light of the ghost lamp that Rhonda gave me for my birthday.
The third morning, I awoke to rain pinging against the metal roof. A short time later, the rain stopped for a couple of hours and I was able to hike the Florida Trail under heavy cloud cover. Then, around 11:30 a.m., the sky broke open. It was ok at first, a great reason to stay inside and write. But the hours wore on, and the walls seemed to get closer together in the tiny camper. For nine solid hours, sideways rain pounded the park. I read an entire book that I didn’t even like because it was the only distraction I could find after reading all the camper appliances’ owners’ manuals. I would not do well with incarceration. I don’t have the patience or temperament to survive confinement.
A major cold front blew in with the rain, and the temperature plummeted by nightfall. When a break finally came near 10 p.m., I sprung from the camper like I’d been caged. Swaddled in three jackets, hiking pants, and a hideous pair of clearance rack Crocs (seriously, they’re bright blue and have watermelon-people on them), I stood in the harsh outdoor lights of the popup and did air squats while singing a mashup of Presbyterian hymns and Amy Winehouse songs. I squatted and sang, nearly maniacal, then did two quick laps around the campground followed by something akin to Richard Simmons’ “big monkey” routine. Icy rain pelted my face and forced me back inside again. Early the next morning, all the standing stormwater was frozen solid.
When I got back from my hike, I turned on the radio and heard a pop song that I wouldn’t normally choose to listen to, but it was exactly what my Jack Torrance-like brain needed. I turned up the volume and danced around the tiny floorspace, elbows dangerously flailing near my coffee pot and space heater. I’m a stiff, awkward dancer, and have never figured out how to improve upon this fact. I’m sure I looked like a tranquilized bear right before it hits the ground. The camper rocked on its jacks until the song ended and I sat down, shivering by the space heater while trying to reawaken feeling in my hands and feet. I willed circulation to return, explaining to my body that I couldn’t type if my fingers were numb, and if I couldn’t type, I couldn’t meet my book deadline. I finished up my speech with a string of expletives and threats until my hands finally cooperated and feeling returned.
I’d gotten a ton of work done in a few days—upwards of 10,000 words written toward two books, plus a few thousand more toward articles— and was so grateful for the solitude and beautiful backdrop. I was also beginning to grow very, very tired of the ill-chosen food I’d packed. I just couldn’t get excited about one more packet of rice or can of tuna.
On my last full day at the campground, I rode my bike fourteen miles roundtrip in the horrendous wind to get a massive basket of fried food, a salad, and a Coke. It was twenty-six degrees when I woke up, and I put on two shirts, two jackets, and a vest before binding my gear-side pants leg to my body with giant twist ties. At 11 a.m., the ice began to break on the campground puddles, and I considered it go-time. I downed a soy shake and hopped on my bike and within two minutes wondered what the hell I was doing.
I have a grandma bike, maybe worse than that, because I had the handlebars customized to accommodate my inability to hunch over because of neck problems. I sit so tall on my bicycle that I look like I’m trying to ace a nun’s posture test. It’s comfortable for my neck, but it makes a headwind almost impossible to combat. Fourteen miles in mostly sub-freezing temperatures with coastal blasts pushing me backward was a hell of a workout. By the time I reached the the exit of the national seashore, I was talking out loud, kind of singing, kind of yelling. I told a signpost what a slog I’d had. I got so involved with my conversation with it that I quit concentrating and the wind blew me off the road. I crashed into the soft sand but stayed on my feet, trying to look like I’d planned it all along, going so far as to rifle through my panniers to pretend I’d stopped to get something from them.
Peg Leg Pete’s rose like a God on the horizon. I pedaled harder and passed an old man walking with a dozen eggs and a cigarette. I could smell french fries and beer from the restaurant parking lot. The ride suddenly felt worth it.
The woman who waited on me was exceptionally attentive and professional despite what I’m sure was my odd appearance and unpleasant odor. I drank a Coke and a half, my first soda in many months. I ordered a Caesar salad plus a grouper nugget basket and ate everything in sight except the decorative kale and lemon.
The ride back was much better. The temperature was significantly warmer, maybe pushing 40, and the wind died to a bearable force. I don’t know if it was the Coke or the fried food— both things way out of my normal diet— or maybe it was the fifth day of relative solitude. Whatever the cause, as I reentered the park, I sang until I was breathless. It was more like off-key screaming, but no one was there to judge. My watch showed I’d been on grandma’s steed for an hour and thirty-four minutes— the bulk of which had been an almost standstill ride to the restaurant. On the return trip, I stopped a few times to appreciate the scenery.
My fifth and final night in the camper was very productive, although a bit lonely. I was ready to go home to my family and to a real shower. I made the most of what was left of my trip and stayed up very late to edit and type some handwritten work, but only after one last walk under a stunning sky. In a few short, overnight hours I’d meet Rhonda for a hike, then hitch up and pull the camper home. I reflected on my trip as I tried to get some sleep and was beyond grateful for my life.