Camping Alone

At the campgrounds I would see people setting up their sites. They would string clotheslines between the trees. They would make a place for food and a place for supplies. Vehicles were parked specifically and purposely. There were special items, too. A table cloth for the picnic table and a cooler for the beer. A camp stove to heat meals, or a pan to put over the fire.

2013-06-03 17.43.09A lot of family camping seems to be about creating a new space to live in. It brings with it all the fun and challenge of moving into a new home, without a lot of the expensive downsides. You get to rearrange your limited furniture in the most pleasing way. You get to discover the best way to cook in your new kitchen, assign chores to family members for taking out the trash and doing the dishes. You get to make yourself a comfortable bed from scratch.

Unlike a typical home or apartment that is filled with walls and floors and pipes that you can’t fully see or understand, your campground home is one you build yourself. You take a rolled up collection of tent fabric and make it into a bedroom. You find a path to the outhouse and make it into your hallway. An ordinary wooden picnic table transforms into a kitchen. A piles of logs and matches becomes a stove. Setting up a campsite is like being your own fairy godmother, taking a pumpkin and making a carriage.

There is accomplishment clearly, but there is also control.

Every piece of your camp-home is something you created, and is therefore something you can remove. At home you may not like your kitchen sink, but a replacement is costly and time-consuming and requires a professional. At the campsite your sink is a rubber tub. If you don’t like your rubber tub, you can go to the home department of any number of stores and pick up a different one. Problem solved. The sink has been replaced.

But it’s not like that when you’re camping alone and camping for convenience. When I was camping on the road, I was never trying to build a home. I was barely building a hotel room. I didn’t want to set out a clothes line or table cloth. I wanted to do as little as was required to have a comfortable evening, then pack it all up again as fast as possible in the morning. Camping wasn’t an adventure, it was a nuisance.

Fire - postedI didn’t have the typical social aspect to my camping either. There were plenty of times when I was alone or mostly alone in a campground. I didn’t sit around a campfire with a group of friends trading stories. When I did bother to make a fire I was always trying to time it to burn out around sunset anyway, since I would much rather get into my tent early than stay up late waiting for the coals to die down.

I’m sure it would have been different had I planned to stay in any one spot for longer. Perhaps I would have set up shop and made more friends. But almost all of my camping stops were one night only. And when I really stop to think about it, I didn’t want to set up a home because I already had one. My car had become my home. That’s where I kept my things and spent my time. It’s what stayed the same whether I was camping or couchsurfing. My vehicle was the one unchanging part of my journey. The campsite was just some dirt to pitch a tent on.


Call Your Mother: Safety Advice for the Solo Traveler

Be easy to follow but hard to track.

If you intend to make your travels public, consider making them tardy. During my trip I never published any post about a city I was still in. When I did post things immediately relevant, I kept the details purposely vague. The whole world doesn’t need to know where you are when you’re traveling alone with several thousand dollars worth of camping gear and electronics in your car.

Train yourself to be startled correctly.

The vast majority of pickpocketing and street theft relies on the victim being too distracted to notice what’s happening. The most choreographed of these crimes often involve startling the victim, since it tends to draw focus from even the most diligent of travelers. This is why I’ve trained myself to put a gentle hand on my bag whenever something happens. And I mean anything. Subway finally arrived? Hand on bag. Ticket taker is here? Hand on bag. Tourists need their picture taken? Hand on bag. Any time there’s a change in my surroundings I confirm that everything is where it ought to be. This alone is enough to ward off most potential thieves. Pickpockets aren’t usually in it for the challenge. Don’t be an easy mark.

Hide everything so it looks like you’ve got nothing to hide.

My car was a thing of beauty by Trunkthe end. I had managed to fit almost all of my stuff into my trunk, which meant the cab looked like it could belong to anyone. I made the vehicle as pedestrian-looking as possible. I never left valuables in the cab unless I could conceal them under something innocuous. I also did my best to never open the trunk at the a location I intended to park it. I didn’t want anyone to see me walk away from a car full of goodies.

Make sure someone will come looking for you.

Before I left, I gave my boyfriend the passwords to my email and CouchSurfing accounts. If he couldn’t get a hold of me and was worried something had happened, he could easily look up who I had been communicating with most recently. I tracked where I slept every night in a spreadsheet, and I shared this with both him and my parents. I updated it regularly, and at any point they could pull it up at home and see where I was staying that evening. I’ll admit I wasn’t very good at calling my mother specifically (I don’t like talking on the phone), but I made a point to stay in contact with people back home on a daily basis, if only through facebook.

Befriending strangers isn’t a bad idea either. If you’re going on a hike, talk to a ranger first (the park may even have a check-in program for solo hikers). Ask the hotel manager where the best attractions are in town, and make it clear which ones you’re leaning towards. More than actual safety, there’s real piece of mind in this. If I were to be injured or abducted, there are eye witnesses who can say when they saw me last and what I said I was about to do.

Be like NASA and assume the worst.

I recently heard an interview that Commander Chris Hadfield did on Fresh Air. Terry Gross asked him about being scared in space, in light of all the danger. Commander Hadfield explained that no matter how scary the situation gets, no problem surprises you in space. As an astronaut you spend months beforehand working with the ground teams to think of ways you might die. You go over every disastrous situation from every angle to determine the best solution. Then you assume the first and second solutions fail and you come up with a third. No matter what happens to an astronaut in space, there’s a good chance he or she planned for it some 12 months back.

DangerWhile I don’t think you need to pour over every possible danger, planning your reactions is a great way to guarantee you’re prepared. Let’s say you’re worried about getting a flat tire in the middle of no where. First you’d probably try to fix it yourself – do you have all the supplies you need in your vehicle? Maybe you’re worried you won’t remember how – could you watch a video on youtube to refresh your memory? Perhaps your tools will break – could you bring extras of anything? Maybe the spare is flat too – do you know who you’ll call to get roadside help? Perhaps your phone battery is dead – could you get a car charger? Maybe you don’t have service – do you have shoes that could handle a long walk?

The list could go on forever, and mine often did. But once you know you’re prepared to do things like walk by yourself for miles, recover copies of everything in your wallet, and palm-heel an attacker until he deciders you’re not worth it, a lot of problems aren’t so bad. You don’t have to be a safety nut to be a safety guru. Just live your life, pay attention, and every once in a while, call your mother.

Were You Ever Scared? Part One

I like to think of myself as a fairly intelligent person. I like to think I’m the sort of person who makes good choices. The kind of person who thinks ahead.

Most of the time.

Beach and RocksAfter a beautiful hike along Twelvemile Beach, I decided to see the namesake of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The park literature was quite clear that the best way to see the rocks was by boat. However the boat rides were inconvenient and time-consuming, and I asked the ranger at Miners Castle if there was a good hiking trail I could take to see the pictured rocks. She pointed to the Lakeshore-North Country Trail that runs the length of the park. The trail clearly stretched for miles, but she assured me that the best view was within the first two miles. “You’ll know it when you see it,” she explained.

The trail took awhile to get going, but before long I could tell I was walking parallel to the lakeshore and high on the cliffs above the Pictured Rocks. I saw a small side trail that led out towards the edge, and I got my first look at the rocky shore. It was beautiful. The little trail could barely reach out far enough to see the view, but it was there. I went back to the main trail and encountered another side trail only a few minutes later. It had solid footing and a nicer view. I started taking pictures. By the third trail I visited, I had a completely unobstructed view. I admired the gorgeous painted rocks and began to wrestle with another problem.

“Well this seems like a great way to accidentally kill yourself,” I said out loud to no one in particular.

The sand was loose and sloped off the cliff edge. This was not an official trail stop, which meant there was no safety railing. There wasn’t even a ranger planning to stroll by, and I hadn’t seen another hiker the entire time. What I could see was a long hard fall into the water below.

Red WallIt wouldn’t take much. I little loose gravel and a poor choice in footing and I’d be on my side. A little more gravel and I’d be sliding towards the cliff edge. I’d be picking up speed, so it wouldn’t be so surprising when I failed to stop myself. Dying upon impact was certainly a possibility, but it wasn’t a certainty. A clean drop into a deep patch of water and I might not even be injured. Of course there was no beach down there, only rocks. Perhaps I’d be better off swimming away from shore and hoping the adrenaline would keep me going until I reached a real beach. If I swam towards the rocks I risked being slammed up against them. Even if I was only injured, the blood loss might be enough. If I were extraordinarily lucky another hiker might be stupid enough to walk out far enough on the same ledge and see me on the rocks. Assuming that happened in the first two hours, and it only took them 30 minutes to get back to civilization, and it only took an hour to get the boat out to me, and 30 minutes to get to shore, and another 30 to reach the hospital, I was looking at a good four hours of bleeding on a rock being pounded by waves.

Yes, it’s a pretty morbid set of thoughts for a young woman to have while walking in a park. However these thoughts are fairly typical for me. And this wasn’t even the worst instance. That would be the next day, in the Porcupine Mountains.


Lesser Known Curses of the Solo Traveler

I still had most of the day ahead of me when I settled in at my campsite at Little Sand Point. The campground is one of many surrounding Piseco Lake in the Adirondack Mountains. With plenty of time to spare, I asked the man working the ranger booth about nearby hiking. He recommended Panther Mountain as the go-to destination, since the trial head was just down the road from camp. I went back to my car and started to put together my hiking pack. It was almost lunch time so I made myself a sandwich to eat at the top, and added a few extra snacks and two bottles of water (one for the hike and one for the sandwich). And of course my usual hiking gear: binoculars, sweater, pocket knife, first aid, etc.

I parked at the trailhead and saw a pair of elementary schools kids pulling up with their grandparents. Their group would end up passing me on the trail, as would a man with a baby carrier on his back. When faced with the prospect of being passed by a four-year-old who was insisting on climbing the whole thing by herself, I started to wonder when hiking became so hard. I made it up and down the Grand Canyon, what had changed? Was it because there was too much in my pack? Had I been spending too much time in my car this week? Why was it suddenly so hard?

Families on a HikeI decided to take the difficulty as a sign, and an opportunity. I’ve always had trouble being too focused in hiking, looking at my feet instead of the scenery. I sat down on a nearby rock and let the four-year-old and her parents pass me. I took a sip of water and admired my surroundings. After a bit of time I started up the mountain again, but when I saw the little girl, I stopped. I had decided I would go no faster than the four-year-old. She would be my pace car.

When I finally made it to the top, an area known as Echo Cliffs, I was the only one without children and/or a baby. I took a seat on one of the large, warm, flat rocks and ate my lunch while taking in the view of Piseco Lake. It was clear from the conversations the young boys were having that this was not their first time to the top. I started to wonder if I had psyched myself up for a hike, while everyone else saw it as a fun walk. Perhaps I should have taken fewer things with me. At the same time, I was hiking alone. That freedom comes with certain responsibilities. I can’t afford to be unprepared. I had no way of knowing how crowded the trail was, or how close assistance would be.

View of PisecoPerhaps the real lesson is the futility of comparing yourself to others. Had I been alone on the trail, I probably would have felt nothing but accomplishment upon reaching the top. I wouldn’t have wondered if other people would be able to do it faster, or if knowing the area would have changed my preparations. I would have just gone on a hike, as I’ve done so many times before. I shouldn’t let other people’s hikes damage my own. Perhaps that’s the curse of the solo traveler: you’re always alone, and you’re never alone.

I drove back to the campground and decided against renting a canoe. The day before, looking out upon the quiet beauty of Brown Tract Pond, a solo canoe ride sounded heavenly. But at Piseco the lake was too big, the waves too large, the wind too cold. This is yet another curse of traveling alone: your standards for enjoyment shift. Had I been with other people at Piseco Lake and got invited to jump in a kayak with them, I probably would have done it. Paddling around with friends will be fun almost anywhere. But by myself, Piseco didn’t look fun. Brown Tract would have been fun. It was peaceful and still and nestled far away from boaters and skidoos. I suppose it seemed like a lake worth paddling alone specifically because there was no one around. But there were so many people at Piseco, a solo canoe ride just sounded like work.

I considered going for a swim but opted to stay on the dock due to the previously mentioned wind, waves, and cold. No one else was swimming anyway. After a nice chunk of time sitting around doing nothing I decided that tonight was a good night for s’mores. I had been engaging in a complicated relationship with s’mores on this trip. Every time I started a campfire I wished I could have had a s’more. It’s a Pavlovian response to campfires I’ve spent years building up. But I had limited space in my car and no other use for marshmallows. Graham crackers make for a good road snack and I can make any number of chocolate bars disappear, but marshmallows only ever come in one size of bag, and it’s always too many to eat by myself. However we all have our breaking point, and by the time I hit Piseco Lake I was sure I didn’t want to watch another campfire go by without roasting a marshmallow or two.

Piseco LakeI went to the tiny nearby store and picked up my supplies: a box of graham crackers, two chocolate bars, and a bag of too many marshmallows. I looked around to see if I needed anything else and a woman asked where I had found the s’mores fixings. I pointed to the bottom shelf in the corner and she discovered that I had grabbed the last bag of marshmallows. The clerk told the woman and her family there was another store about ten miles to the north that would probably have some in stock. I bought my groceries and walked out to my car. I looked at my big bag of marshmallows.

“Well this is stupid,” I muffled to myself, and went back inside. The father of the family was standing near the door. “Do you need a whole bag of marshmallows,” I asked him, “or would half a bag work?”

“Half a bag would be plenty,” he said with hope in his voice.

We went out to my car and I portioned out half the bag into a ziplock . He gave me a dollar for his half of the marshmallows and thanked me. I couldn’t have imagined a more elegant solution to my excessive marshmallow problem.

I had more logs than usual so I started the fire early. I found a nice, solid stick and used my pocket knife to whittle it down into a high quality s’mores utensil. I ate my dinner. I waited. Something that we don’t often consider is that sitting around and watching a campfire is only fun in a group. Watching a fire by yourself produces a finite quantity of enjoyment. As the coals of my fire finally began to make themselves known, I started on my s’mores. I ate four of them, which is more s’mores than I ever recall eating in one sitting while growing up. I would have eaten more if I could have. But maybe that’s the other curse of the solo-traveler: it’s easy to overeat when you don’t have to share.

I should have bought more chocolate.

The Best Laid Plans

Motel ViewYorktown is unabashedly small. I went there with a might-as-well-while-I’m-here attitude after my day at Colonial Williamsburg. I booked a room in a motel overlooking the water, and asked the clerk at the front desk where I could get some dinner. She recommended two places, and I went to the latter of the two. I left my car in the motel lot and started along the road by the water. I wasn’t quite ready for dinner, so I took my time and walked along the boardwalk and out onto the pier to see the boats go by. The music was just starting on the final night of “Shagging on the Riverwalk,” a summer concert series. The sign explained that I could expect local bands playing beach favorites, oldies, and Motown, and that I should bring both my lawn chair and my dancing shoes. The dancing had already begun as I walked by. I watched a selection of baby boomers doing their own slow, shuffling, partner dances. The tune wasn’t anything in particular, which is why one group was doing a West Coast Swing while another seemed to be mid-Foxtrot and a third was giving their own interpretation of what seemed to be a ChaCha.

The General and the AdmiralI walked past the dancers to a statue of General George Washington and Admiral Francois de Grasse greeting each other to make final preparations for the battle at Yorktown. I felt like the statue was deserving of a caption contest, as both men seemed to be on the verge of saying something while simultaneously having something to hide.

I found the restaurant the clerk had recommended and asked the hostess for a table for one. She sat me at a tiny and awkwardly placed table behind the host’s desk and I waited. The hostess hadn’t given me a menu, but I expected to get one from my server when he or she came to fill my water glass. But the server never came. I sat there, first catching up on some reading on my phone, then staring expectedly around in hopes of catching someone’s eye. The two women at the front were busy adjusting things at the host station, and the other servers seemed focused on their own tables. I kept waiting. It was already clear that no one had been alerted to my presence, but that was no big deal. I figured before long the hostess would glimpse over and realize her mistake, or the server who should be taking care of my section would ask if I’d been helped. But nothing happened. I just sat there. No menu. No water. No server.

Sailboat in Yorktown

I looked to the center of the room where tall stools circled the central bar. It’s strange the power that social conventions can have on you. A part of me felt like I couldn’t get up, even though it was clear I had been forgotten. After all, there was a system. The host tells you where to sit, and you follow directions. If I were to just get up and walk away, I would be going outside the system. It’s amazing that such an action still seems wrong even when the system has broken down.

Eventually I had had enough. I walked up to the bartender to confirm that they had full food service at the bar, and I sat down. I didn’t mention the table I had been at or suggest that anyone do anything different, I just asked for a menu. She took my order right away and my food was out in minutes. I left her a generous tip and walked out, having no particular inclination to complain and certain that no one was aware of the mistake.

DancersAs I made my way back to the motel I passed by the dancers, still in full figurative swing. I stayed for awhile to enjoy the scene, until the singer stopped in between songs to make an announcement. He explained that it looked like the weather might turn soon, and that they would have to pack it up if it started to rain. As I walked up the small hill to my motel I turned back to see the clouds had covered up the sun and the scene had turned dark. I walked up to my room. From the balcony I watched as the rain started, and I could hear the announcement that the musicians would have to stop for the night. The summer music series was finished. Over the next hour the sky went completely black and the rain pounded down on Yorktown.

BridgeMy short visit to Yorktown got me thinking a lot about agency. Sometimes during this trip I show up at recommended restaurants only to find them closed. Occasionally I’ll plan to see a national park, only to have the weather turn on me. Sometimes I get lost. Sometimes I make bad estimates. Sometimes things don’t go according to plan. And none of it really bothers me, because there is no plan. All of it, in fact, is the plan. When your only travel goal is experience, it becomes almost impossible for things to go truly wrong. And in fact, having things go wrong makes for better storytelling. I haven’t told many people about the times I showed up at a museum and everything was fine, or instances when the food at a restaurant was pretty good. I might mention in passing that the weather was perfect at a particular location, but I’ll go into detail about how I had to pull over on the gulf coast because the rain was so bad.

While conflict is always the key to a good story, I think the reason we don’t normally see the good in such small misfortunes is that we were planning on things to go well. I doubt the people at “Shagging on the Riverwalk” enjoyed getting rained on. I’ve watched many an unhappy vacationer storm off upon seeing a particular attraction is closed. But on this trip I’m not planning nearly as much as I might on a typical vacation. So when the restaurant is closed I think, “Well, I could have looked up the hours before I got here. That was my choice.” And I start to realize that everything is my choice, even when things are without a doubt not my fault. I didn’t want to sit alone and ignored at a rickety table when I went to get dinner. And had I continued to do so I imagine I would have been pretty upset by the time someone noticed me. But because I made the decision to get up and sit at the bar, my evening changed. I wasn’t waiting for someone else to acknowledge me, I was making myself known.

Woman on the Beach

And so it goes. I get worn out from hikes and I eat bad food and sometimes I’m just bored. But I chose all of it. Every minute of my trip feels proactive because I took the initiative to go in the first place. Nothing merely happens to me anymore. I am not regular Katrina going through her everyday life, hoping nothing will go wrong. I am a Katrina full of agency, who sees each misfortune as the wages of chance, paid out in exchange for adventure and a story worth telling.

Alone in Water Canyon

I asked the woman at the Magdalena Visitors Center if there were any campgrounds nearby. She said the closet one was Water Canyon. She mentioned that it was quite nice – a favorite among campers. It was only a few miles out of town, and in the direction I was already going. I had some time to kill so I asked her about the signs I saw for Kelly Ghost Town, the former mining boom town. She gave me a brochure and told me where to go, though under her breath she said, “there’s not much up there, but, if you want to go…”

I followed her directions for the turn off to Kelly Street, a long and slow road dotted with mobile homes. I turned left at the fork as instructed, and started up a single lane gravel road with neither signage nor signs of life. I drive extra slow on these types of roads. I encountered a few up in Oregon north of Crater Lake. They’re always long, always rough, and they never give any indication of how long you’ve been driving or how long you’ve left to go. They make me nervous. I started to wonder if anyone else ever went to see the Kelly Ghost Town. That’s when the Check Coolant light went on.

For those who have never been, New Mexico is a land without shade. Trees are few and far between. Clouds, when present, are mostly decorative. Which means despite my desires and better judgement, I had to stop and check my engine in the middle of the 95 degree sun.

Looking at the coolant tank, I confirmed it was at the top of the minimum amount line. My car likes to warn me of things in plenty of time, so there was still a fair amount left. I also knew that in a pinch a person could use water as coolant, and I had just refilled all my water stores at the VLA. I looked up and down the road, wondering if it was worth the risk. I had no idea how far the ghost town was. If it was only a little farther, it might be better to go there, let the engine cool a bit while I explored, and then head back into town. Or it could be a considerable distance, my coolant tank could be leaking fast, and I could find myself walking back to town alone on the road where heat was invented. I remembered how uninterested the woman in town was when I mentioned Kelly, and decided to turn back.

Before I left for this trip I had my car checked, and I mentioned that I suspected I might have a small coolant leak. They confirmed I was correct, and fixed it for a pretty penny. I wasn’t sure if this meant there was still a leak, or if driving in the desert sun for three days was just a bit much for my little Jetta. I called my dad to discuss possible courses of action, and he agreed that for now I should just fill up the tank and keep an eye on it. If I noticed it slipping away more I could take it in for service.

In town I found an auto repair shop and picked up some coolant. The woman behind the counter confirmed that Water Canyon, the suggested camping destination, was a lovely place. I filled up the coolant tank in the parking lot and ended up spilling some on myself. I went back in to ask if they had anywhere I could wash my hands, and she looked at me hesitantly. “The best I can offer you is some wipes. Our town is out of water.” Apparently water is being trucked into Magdalena and rationed, and as a result the restroom was closed. Such are the problems you don’t realize some people have.

2013-06-20 17.37.24I drove out to the turnoff for Water Canyon, noting the distance listed to the campground so at least I would know how far I’d gone if the paved road turned to gravel. I drove for awhile, past a couple houses nestled together, and reached the campground sign. It gave an arrow pointing off towards, as expected, a long gravel road. I’d already reached the distance listed on the highway sign, which meant I was back to guessing. I drove up slowly, eventually making it the the campsites. There was a board labeled “Information Center” that had some nice signs about littering and rabies, but no information about payment. I circled the campground to be sure. This place was free. It was also empty. There was no drinking water – not even the sound of a distant stream. I was two miles from the houses, six miles from the road, and 16 miles from a town with no water. I was completely alone in the desert.

I picked out the shadiest looking site, which happened to be right next to the entrance. I suppose I also wanted to know if anyone happened to join me. Solitude and reflection is one thing, but sitting at the picnic table swatting away flies I suddenly felt so isolated and vulnerable. It’s the same feeling I get on those gravel roads. The creeping realization that if something goes wrong, it will be fully up to me to determine and execute a solution. There is no one to help. And here I am, protected only by the faith that this big metal box I’m driving will keep functioning as usual, because if anything goes wrong I have neither the skills nor the tools to fix it.

I know that I am capable. I know that I am prepared. But part of being prepared for the worst is a deep fear and certainty that the worst will occur. That’s the kind of fear that sneaks up on you when you find yourself completely alone in the truly inaccurately named Water Canyon. That subtle panic that reminds you that characters in horror movies never suspect they’re in a horror movie until it’s too late. That useless knowledge that you could have a brain aneurysm at any moment, fall to the ground dead, and be slowly devoured by turkey vultures.

And so you get out your computer and start to write about how you feel. And you start to think about how nice it is to have a gentle breeze and a free place to stay for the night. About how the canyon really is lovely and the flies are dying down. About how you just climbed nine miles out of the Grand Canyon with the exact same supplies you have in your car, and a two or five mile walk to find help wouldn’t kill you if push came to shove.

Feeling a bit better about the situation, you get out a slice of bread and some Nutella. And just when you consider going over to the information bulletin board to learn about rabies, two Forest Service fire prevention trucks drive through the campground on patrol, and the six able-bodied men inside give you a nod. Even in Water Canyon, you are not alone.

Ann Friedman Understands Me

We interrupt your regularly scheduled blogging for this article from Ann Friedman, Traveling Solo: A Manifesto for the Modern Woman. My guess is I’ll touch on many (if not all) of these points myself as I go, but for now, read this. It covers a lot of the things I’ve had to face on my trip so far. Yes, I am alone. Yes, I am being careful. No, this isn’t for school. Yes, I have a boyfriend. Yes, I have a job.

Yes, I am alone.