Loading up my tiny but ferocious new Fiat, I realized this would be my first camping trip without the Mini Cooper and my second solo trip ever. I’d cut my teeth on the practice in South Dakota when I stayed at the beautiful Plenty Star Ranch during my driving move from California to Maine last summer, but there my host’s house was a mere 100 ft. away. There was great wifi, a hot shower, wonderful morning coffee, and all kinds of alternative shelter in the event of bad weather. OK, so maybe that didn’t count as solo camping. In fact, I guess it could be considered glamping, really, but it was my first effort on my own since Cisco’s dad and I split up in 2010. He’s a master outdoorsman, and we had some wonderful backpacking trips in the Sierras and elsewhere.
But now here I was, pulling up to the wide red cattle gate of a huge property right on the vast Androscoggin River in central Maine. Pat, the wife of the husband-and-wife team that runs the place, was there to greet me and lead me to my campsite. After a friendly exchange, we trundled off, she in her sensible truck, down a long meadow on mowed paths through the local flora. I guessed this was the Fiat’s first time going off road after an anxiety-producing high-center moment. I mentally marked the spot to avoid later. Good thing I haven’t lowered the car yet!
I meet the Androscoggin
Coming upon my camp site down at the river’s edge, I heard myself say, “Whoa.” It looked uncannily like a magazine photo I have in my bathroom of my (current) ideal home: a simple, beautiful cottage sitting just back from some water in the summer woods, sparkling green light filtering down through the trees. The cottage wasn’t there, but everything else was remarkably the same. (An aside: Putting pictures up of things, experiences, and goals you want to achieve is incredibly effective! As a kid, I broke a longstanding 400-meter high school record by posting the time I wanted to run all over my room on sticky notes and picturing that time on the field clock before I went to bed. Much to my amazement, I got that exact time weeks later! Shit’s crazy.)
Surrounded by pines, maples, and birches, the immaculate, pine needle-carpeted site occupied a small hill that sloped down to the river, shining green and brown in the sun. Several islands lay downriver a bit, and I noticed an Old Town canoe pulled up on the shore. This particular point of the river is a lake-like space, and although you can see across, the far shore seems far indeed. But my private little beach was sunny, with a sandy bottom leading out a few feet into the slow current.
Pat showed me around a bit as we talked and then she headed back to the couple’s farmhouse on another part of the property. The silence settled around me as I surveyed my domain. I sat on the sturdy wooden picnic table and looked out at the water for what could have been minutes or hours. Funny thing, when I’m out in nature by myself, whatever “time” is takes on entirely new and strange characteristics.
I set up my fort and encounter no diamondbacks at all
Eventually, I set up my tent right next to the water on a big ledge, noticing the spot sloped a bit. “It’ll be fine,” I thought, feeling brave and strong. “How bad could it be?” I wondered cavalierly.
Shelter established–my jaunty, electric-blue hydraulic tent looking smart and capable in the lowering sun–I ventured out to explore some of the mowed paths that led to the other two campsites and to distant points around the property. I was the only one out there as the late-afternoon breeze off the river started to sway in the trees.
One thing that’s different here in Maine from California is how comparatively gentle the environment is. I wandered around barefoot through the fields, the grass and earth feeling good and welcoming. There were no scorpions, black widows, rattlesnakes, sharp and spiny leaves, and things that could kill me with one misstep. At least, I didn’t see them. The second most poisonous snake in the world, a pit viper known as the eastern diamondback (Crotalus adamanteus), lives around here, but none of them threatened on my short walk and I proceeded unmolested and alive back toward camp.
Ray & Ginger
Suddenly an ATV appeared, winding its way down through the meadow. As it got closer, I saw it had a little milk crate strapped in front of its handlebars, and that in the milk crate was a tiny white dog of some sort. The man driving the vehicle rolled up to me and cut the engine. “Hello,” I said. “Hello,” he answered, “this here’s Ginger and I’m Ray. I’m gettin’ this old girl out for her daily constitutional.” I said it was nice to meet them both and how lucky Ginger was to have her own ATV to ride around in luxury. The crate was lined with fleece and a tiny red harness attached the ancient poodle to the structure. “Yep, we nearly lost her twice last year,” Ray announced. “Still don’t know what got to her, but she pulled through, thank God.” Ginger peered rheumily up at me from her milk crate as I scratched under her chin.”Whelp, we better get goin,’ got to get her dinner ready, ayuh,” Ray said as he performed a neat K-turn and headed back up the meadow the way he’d come, Ginger’s little ears bobbing gently. She looked back at me and I waved.
Silence again fell over the hill, punctuated by the evening calls of chickadees, mourning doves, and what Edward Abbey used to call “LGBs” (little gray birds). Some Canada geese flew by in a V overhead, honking their pre-migratory plans to each other. Their forlorn calls always remind me of that phrase “whistling in the dark.” Those birds have heavy work ahead of them.
The underwater town
As the sun made its way to the horizon across the river, I decided to take a swim. Tip-toeing out into the surprisingly warm water, checking for gross weeds and possibly even grosser, undefined other things, I felt some tall grasses skim my belly as I (finally, after much procrastination and mental preparation) launched myself as flatly as I could out into the river. I’ve never gotten over the time one of our summer vacation neighbors on a long-forgotten lake happily yelled out at me from the dock (it was cocktail hour for the grown-ups), “You know, there’s a whole town underwater out there! If you open your eyes in the middle, you can almost touch the church steeple!” Aghast at this revelation, I managed to tread water for a minute before making my way to the safety of a big rock my little sister and I called “home base.” It was so big, even in the depths of the lake, you could stand up and be halfway out of the water. And I’ve never opened my eyes in a lake since. (He may have been talking about the drowned town of Neversink, in upstate New York.)
Striking out down the shore, I watched as my blue tent receded into the distance. The water was like warm velvet, and smelled like rich, humid loam, of our primordial origins. I put my head down and swam just for the sheer joy of moving through water, testing my long-earthbound arms and legs against its yielding heaviness.
A loon inspects me
Eventually, realizing I’d be swimming back against the river’s gentle but discernible current, I reluctantly turned around and swam underneath for a lungful’s worth of time. I re-emerged into the deepening sunset to see a loon watching me closely, about 6 feet away. I started treading water, and we regarded each other for a minute or so. (Loons are extremely territorial and can make their displeasure known with strong wings and a sharp beak.) I figured, though, that the bird had come to check me out, since with their infrared vision they can see better underwater than in the air. Finally, she reared up onto her feet with a great flapping of intricately marked wings, stretching her face and throat to the sky before diving silently, without a sound or a trace, beneath the river again.
I floated on my back for a bit, smiling, watching cumulonimbus clouds build toward the stratosphere off in the amber west. A golden eagle passed by low, looking for a quick fish dinner before nightfall.
I don’t blow up my face (or anything else)
I awoke in the morning wadded up at the bottom of my tent, along with all my gear. I slid myself back up toward the top, rearranged some things, and got up. Now to try out my nifty little Rocket Fuel camp stove and make some coffee! I always feel somewhat circumspect around pressurized containers of fuel, and introducing combustion into the situation makes me decidedly cringe-y. But no one was going to make the coffee for me, so I sat to down to determine the steps involved. (My kid’s dad always did this part.) According to the instructions, it didn’t seem so hard, but when I turned the valve on the stove and gas started to hiss, I chickened out and turned it off. Deep breath. Finally, wanting coffee more than I wanted to avoid a catastrophic explosion of some kind, I turned the valve back on. Fumbling a bit (explosion, etc.), I managed to hit the tiny spark-maker on the stove and the gas went, roughly, “ffffwAAAP!” as it burst into a pretty orange and blue flame hovering over the pressurized can of fuel. Somehow, nothing exploded and my face was still where it belonged, eyebrows included. I put a pot of water on to boil and watched, happy with myself, as steam began to rise.
An hour later, still sipping my hard-won, hot coffee and looking out at the river, the breeze was quickly turning into a steady, cold wind. The undersides of leaves began to show, which my mom long ago taught me means it’s going to rain pretty soon. And indeed, looking up the river, last night’s towering clouds appeared to have multiplied and solidified into an ominous, leaden front headed right in my direction.
As I considered the situation, the temperature suddenly dropped about 10 degrees and the wind got stronger. Down at the river, my tent was blowing heavily and I had to grab some napkins as they flew by. Realizing I had very little time before the rain started, I ran down to the tent and dragged it and its contents over to a level spot behind the shelter of some saplings. It was still right on the river, but somewhat sheltered from the brunt of the wind. As I ran back up to close the Fiat and get my supplies under cover, lightning struck somewhere behind me, insanely flashing all the hills, trees, and fields in my view. Thunder followed instantly, before I could even count One Mississippi. Jesus.
Looking around a last time to make sure my things were stowed under the picnic table, I scrambled into the tent as huge, summer raindrops started to hit the rain fly and foliage around me with hard, pelting noises, like bullets shot into the air at a tequila joint and coming straight back down at terminal velocity. I zipped up my tent just as the deluge hit, peeking out the top to see what was happening downriver. The rain turned to hail briefly, and the trees tossed deliriously in the wind. The glassy river surface turned white as the hail and heavy rain hammered its surface, obscuring the islands beyond. The birds were silent. Ripping thunder rolled forever, over and over, on the water.
I spend the day with Edward Abbey
Discerning that I wasn’t in imminent danger, I settled into my blankets to read one of the books I’d brought along. A friend had recently reminded me of the author Edward Abbey, an early environmentalist and anarchist committed to preserving the wild remains of the great American West. Author of the infamous and influential Monkey Wrench Gang (1975), Abbey is a hero of mine for his cantankerous, no-holds-barred defense of human freedom and the earth from the “greedy bastards” always looking to make a buck from both. I’d brought another book of his, Desert Solitaire (1968), because it resonates with my own experiences during 30 years out West and my general attitude about settling down and settling in general. Abbey’s disgust with “Industrial Tourism” and the ubiquitous nature of Sloblivious americanus–his scientific term for the average American tourist-consumer–seems prescient today as our natural parks are being plundered, sectioned off, and sold to the highest bidders. Staples and Costco billboards on El Capitan, anyone?
I spent a few cozy hours in my tent reading, dozing, listening, and daydreaming. The great storm eventually lumbered off to the east and the sun came out, leaving shiny, winking leaves and a double rainbow with one end solidly planted in the upper meadow. A loon (my loon?) cried in the distance.
Pat & John stop by
Sometime later, Pat and her husband John, a strapping man in his 60s or 70s, arrived at my camp in their SUV. I was down at the beach clearing wood, mountains of pine needles, and plants that had been ripped from their roots by the storm. “How you gettin’ on, they’ah?” John asked. “Oh,” I replied, “you know, no big deal.” I laughed at myself and they joined in. “Well, hey, look,” John said, “stay as long as you like tomorrow. No need to be headin’ back by noon like the website says. No one’s comin’ in after ya.” I thanked them for their generosity and we talked a bit.
Turns out their barn had burned down not two weeks earlier, and while no one was hurt, they lost a ton of machinery and a bunch of motorcycles. Pat said, glancing up at John, “Yeah, well, we didn’t need all those bikes anyway, but the tractor hurt quite a bit.” The tractor, I took it, was what John used to mow all the beautiful paths for us campers and do much of the maintenance work around the farm. John agreed that was the case, but went on to say that he and Pat had been quite the adventurers in their day–in fact, until pretty recently. “We once rode 7 straight days in the rain in the Pacific Northwest,” he announced. Pat’s eyebrows lifted, but she made no comment. After a few more minutes talking about the land and how they’d started their Hipcamp.com side business (“It’s a daughter project,” Pat declared, smiling and shaking her head), John announced, “Well, OK, we’ll be gettin’ outta your hair now.” And off they went, leaving me to my second night alone on a tree-sheltered promontory over the Androscoggin.
Abbey would be (kind of) proud
Although everything was soaked from the storms, including the split wood John had kindly left for me under a tree, I determined to make a good fire. In Desert Solitaire, Abbey had been making fun of tourists who couldn’t make a fire with wet wood, so I decided to see if I could be not one of them. I’d kept my wooden matches dry during the maelstrom, and now set about finding some reasonably dry tinder to get things started. Six matches later (he would have laughed, yes), I had a nice little tee-pee of small sticks and notepaper crackling away in the fire pit. It reminded me of the fires my dad taught me to make in the fireplaces of our house as I grew up out in the New Jersey woods. I’d made really good, long-burning paper knots with the day’s newspaper and spent hours watching and tending those fires in the long winters. Adding some bigger pieces of wood now, I settled back to watch this one as a full moon rose over the river.
I encounter a large creature
Around 10:30 or so it seemed like a good idea to go for a walk. The temperature was still damn low from the storms, probably around 50F, so I’d wrapped up in a Mexican blanket I picked up going through Arizona. With the moon out, I could see fine as I wandered up one of John’s mowed trails. As I came to a fork in the path, something primitive in my brain brought me to a halt just before my eyes registered a large creature on the ground about 10 feet away. We both took in a sharp breath. There was a long pause. “Um, I’m sorry,” I announced as the animal–“porcupine” came to me although I’ve never seen one in person–aggressively straightened its front legs and pointed itself at me. I slowly backed up several steps. It sniffed and hissed, but gradually lowered itself back down, and after some time slowly waddled across the path into the tall grass, still muttering. Making a huge amount of noise, he pushed through the meadow toward a nearby maple and slowly climbed into the lower branches. I walked the few steps back to camp and my fire, satisfied with my moonlight adventure.
More & worse weather happens
The next day dawned windy and cold. I’d had dreams of trees falling over and giant waves, and woke to a steady 20 knot wind pressing in the windward wall of my tent. I tentatively poked my head out, hair ruffling over my eyes, to see what the sky was doing. Although the sun was out in places, the clouds were piling up again to the west and the river showed flickering white caps as far as I could see. There was no one on the water or anyone to be seen.
I thought I’d go into the tiny store out on the main road to get some coffee and breakfast, so I bundled up and got the Fiat extricated from under a crab apple, where I’d parked it in case of heavy weather. Looking back at the camp to see if I’d forgotten anything, I noticed a dark wall of roiling cloud approaching that hadn’t been there 5 minutes earlier. “Oh, no,” I pronounced, jogging quicker to the car.
Breakfast bought and stowed, I raced the storm back only for the thing to let loose just as I pulled up to the cattle gate. I watched in awe from the driver’s seat as pea-sized hail pelted everything in sight, tearing leaves from trees and forming piles in the ruts of the dirt road. I waited 5 minutes. It kept going. I turned the Fiat off. It kept going. I sipped my coffee. Finally, realizing no one was coming to my rescue, I bolted out of the car and ran to swing the gate open. It’s a reeeeallly wide gate and it opens reeeeally slowly before bumping against its post. Ran back to the car and drove it through. Ran back out to close the gate, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon!
Winding down through the meadow toward the river, I could see a twisted-up, collapsed pile of blue material near the water’s edge. It was still raining hard and I was soaked anyway, so I went down to see how bad it was.
Yeah, it was bad. Total failure. The whole tent looked like a wind tunnel experiment gone awry. I thought about the best way to pack up my stuff and head home.
But wait! As I looked closer, I thought perhaps if I just straightened out some of the hydraulic poles… Et voila! The tent shook itself like a wet dog and cheerfully stood right back up, with all its contents safe and dry. Hot damn.
I encounter myself
I spent the rest of the day under my blankets reading and listening to the wind in the trees. When the wind died down in the afternoon, I wandered down to the beach and sat in the sun for long enough to make a swim seem like a good idea. I ventured further out toward the center of the river this time, where the current felt a little stronger. If I stopped and floated, I could watch trees seeming to pass by at a not-intimidating-but-noticeable rate. I angled my way back to camp and walked out feeling new–wilder and braver. Much more like my real self than before.
Can’t wait to go again. It’s true what Abbey said: we need the wilderness to be free.