Around the age of 10, I convinced two of my girlfriends to join the local Scouts group with me. A boy I had met at sports camp over the previous summer was part of the troop, and he had suggested that I join so we could hang out on a Friday evening. Generally, Scout troops are solely male; but, my local one happened to be the first co-ed one in England. What began as a way for me to hang out with my first crush, ended up instilling in me a love of the outdoors — something that shocks the majority of people who continuously see me in a dress.
What can I say? I hate to be in a box.
During my time in the Scouts, I went on numerous camping trips, overnight hikes, and weekend-long kayaking expeditions. I loved it all. During my Gap Year, I opted to camp around 22 countries of Europe for 47 days on Contiki’s “Big Chill,” and I went on numerous road trips during university that involved camping in some of the US’s most beautiful national parks. So, I wouldn’t have considered myself a camping novice but, up until last weekend, I had never done it on my own.
The concept scared me, which only made my desire to do it even stronger. A couple of days before departure, when my brain started to suggest that I “just sleep in my car,” I immediately drove myself to Target to buy a tent, sleeping bag, and torch, so that I would have no option but to commit. My first spot was Sequoia National Park, and I was scared shitless about not being able to find a camping spot, not remembering how to pitch a tent, not feeling comfortable in the middle of the forest, and the bears.
Oh, the bears! I was petrified of being eaten alive by the bears (of which there are a significant amount) after they scoured through my Trader Joe’s snack-bag and concluded that gluten-free granola, tiny apples, and rice cakes were not going to keep them from starving during the winter months.
At the Visitor’s Center, the park ranger informed me that all camping spots were taken and that my only option was to do “dispersed camping” in the National Forest – outside the boundaries of the National Park. “You can camp anywhere in this area,” he told me, haphazardly drawing a circle on a map. “There are no facilities, and it isn’t patrolled, but it is free. Just read this paper, and you should be good to go.”
It sounded easy enough.
Departing the Visitor’s Center, I spend the rest of the afternoon in Sequoia National Park taking the shuttles to see the main sights in the Giant Forest — General Sherman Tree and Moro Rock. Around 6 pm, I hopped back into my car and headed in the general direction of the circle, with the intent of making it to a site before darkness fell. Although, I had minimal self-control when it came to stopping myself from pulling over at every outlook to catch another glimpse of the natural wonders, each glowing their shades of red and orange as the sun continued to set.
After driving for at least 10 miles through the windy roads of the “dispersed camping circle,” I still hadn’t seen another car pulled over. I am fully aware of the meaning behind the phrase “you can camp anywhere” – but I still was nervous that the ranger’s definition of “anywhere” might be different to my version of “anywhere.” My imagination raced with the idea of being woken at 3 am by the National Forest police and taken to a prison for solo campers who had no idea what the hell they were doing. Not in the right area, I wound up at another Visitors Center in the north-west corner of the park, and so took the opportunity to restudy my three maps — none of which were entirely identical. Retracing my steps, I opted to make a left, where I had previously taken a right and started down a “10-Mile Road”. Still no cars.
A few miles into what I presume is an actual 10-mile road; I noticed a dirt path veering off to the right with a gate open. Turning into it, I prayed that Ford’s “Go Further” motto meant that my Ford Escape could handle whatever was beyond the gate. Half-way down the path, I recognized that my atheism meant that I had no control over whether or not the Ford Escape could make it, so I parked up and went to check out the scene by foot. A tent poked out from beyond the trees. I had found a spot. Step one was complete.
Step two was to set up my humble abode, so I took it out of the back seat of my car, opened the box, and laid out the contents on the floor. With the instructions in constant eyeshot, I set out to construct the poles, threading them through the appropriate slots and then “carefully arching them” and “clicking in the J-Clips.”
Thirty minutes later, it still wasn’t done. The instructions made sense to me, I knew what needed to transpire, but I couldn’t physically keep the poles arched while also poking them into the ground. My wingspan wasn’t even close to being long enough. One side would be poked in, as the other popped out; around and around I went. Noticing the sun setting rapidly, I became distracted by intense belly-filled laughter that was coming from the other tent. Running out of time, I accepted that I had no choice but to go and interrupt and ask for some help. I felt awful intruding but figured I would claim “disheveled, first-timer” if they were annoyed, otherwise I wouldn’t be sleeping in a tent that night.
Fifty steps away, I mildly shouted “Excuse me!” in my most proper English accent to potentially lessen any alarm. After a couple of shouts and small steps that edged me closer to their tent door, a woman sat up and peered out of the tent window. “Hi! Sorry! Sorry! It is my first-time solo-camping, and I need some help with my tent. Could you possibly help?” I quickly set the scene. There were enough moments of silence that anyone would consider the interaction as awkward.
“Tent? You?” she responded.
“Si! Necesito ayudar!” What I recognized was the appropriate reply.
She and her male companion made their way out of the tent and set out to help me. She had some basic English; he had none, so we relied on my university-level Spanish (which should be very good but doesn’t get enough use). Within a few minutes, the three of us had the tent up. I thanked them profusely, we bid each other good night, and I got ready for bed. By 9:30 pm I was prepared to close my eyes, and the returned sounds of their moving laughter swayed me to sleep.
Twelve hours later, I emerged from my tent.
Generally, I have no problem sleeping anywhere. And, despite the fact I had forgotten a pillow, this tent was no different. Wanting to take in the beauty that surrounded me, I gathered up my granola, apple, and coconut strips and made my way to a rock to fuel my body for the day while also looking out at the stream below. Next, I changed out of my pajamas and was searching for my toothbrush when I heard a bellowing “TACOS!” and saw beckoning hands from my tent neighbors. My stomach always has space for tacos, so I crossed the small stream that separated us and prepared myself for a second breakfast. Their massive smiles were once again there to greet me, and we picked up where our Spanglish conversation had left off the night before.
The two of them must have been in their 50s, although they both looked far older. Over the next hour, I came to learn that Jesus spoke no English because he had never had time to receive an education since he moved to California from Mexico to work on fruit farms. He arrived in the States at the age of 15 and since then had been sending the majority of his paycheck back to his lady and three children who live across the border and don’t want to join him here.
Maria also has four children, the first of which she had at age 20, one year after she was married and brought to California by her late husband. The entire family tree was explained to me, although the only vivid detail I received was that Maria’s third daughter had married a white man and had “the most beautiful of all the grandchildren.” Maria and Jesus had found each other because they still wanted to have fun. Now was the time for them to live their lives.
“Look what he surprised me with this morning!” she suddenly exclaimed.
I couldn’t help but notice the proud and beaming look on his face as she reached across the table and picked up a minute vase filled with fresh flowers. It was so simple, yet so touching, that I practically forgot to respond.
“Wow! That is so lovely!” I said while genuinely patting my right hand on my heart.
Their soothing laughs began to bellow again.
After three breakfast tacos and many jumps into the depths of my brain for a Spanish word or conjugation, I told them I must get going. The three of us hugged, I thanked them again for all their help and companionship, and they wished me a safe journey to Ohio. I didn’t tell them how much their laugh had soothed me, how it had calmed me in the peak of my nervousness, and how I intended to take those sounds and spread them the whole way across the country.
Originally posted on July 30th, 2018