A Solo YOLO
While I often wax poetic about how nature has the power to spur enlightenment, the one time in my adult life that I wandered off alone on a camping and hiking trip to “figure things out” in the wilderness, the only epiphany I had was a frightening run in with an alien.
Wait wait. Let me rewind.
A little over a year and a half ago I was sitting around another campfire, at Crescent Lake on the Olympic Peninsula, with friends. The suggestion was made that we tell stories. Everyone in the circle was to tell a quick story for entertainment before we went to bed. Mind you, the suggester is an awesome, awe-inspiring storyteller. That’s one thing I love and envy about him: he has the BEST stories, personal and second-hand.
My friend has punched a tiger shark in the nose, broken into a park in the Everglades to bicycle around an alligator covered path under a full moon, saved a kid’s life, lit a piano on fire and threw it off his roof into the pool during a party, witnessed an epic police run-in that started and ended with a dildo, and rescued an entire pack of boatshop guard dogs. He free-dives up to 80 feet in the ocean to spearfish Florida lobster for dinner. He once got pissed off at Elon Musk and purposefully farted upwind of him. He once chopped off the tip of his finger with a table saw and had it surgically repaired with skin from his ass, so that he can flip people off with his ass, of course. And don’t even get me started about Burning Man.
Anyways, I digress, but you can see how his suggestion that we all tell stories was really self-serving and annoying for those of us with less fantastic lives. Namely, me. People often think that writers must also be great story-tellers, but not all of us are as great as we’d like to be.
Let it be known that I’d had too much beer to drink. And of course, my friend’s story was hilarious. Indeed, multiple hilarious stories ensued, and a few scary ones – all of them pretty good.
There I was, one of the last to speak at the end of the campfire, tipsy and nervous at the prospect of performing on the spot. I desperately racked my brain for a good story, scary story, life-lessons story, story about camping, any story… and then suddenly, all the pieces came together. A-hah! I hit on the perfect late-night camping story. And then I opened my mouth, and I mangled it.
It was such a good story, but nerves + beer = bad storytelling. Embarrassment galore.
This is my redemption.
Several years ago, in 2014 or 2015, I decided to take a solo yolo. For those harkening from the pre-millennial generation, this means a trip or adventure that you go off on by yourself because, well, YOLO. But in this case, I was also searching for answers.
I was in a transition period in my life, struggling to figure out how to get where I wanted to go next in my career and life. I thought I’d figured out where I wanted my career to go but I’d hit a dead end. What was the right next step? Was the path I’d chosen doomed to failure? I didn’t want to live in Miami, but where should I go? Why was I so dissatisfied!?
I travelled around quite a bit seeking answers to these questions while I explored new cities and new outdoor spaces as much as I could. I’ve always found peace and clarity in the woods. The sight and the sounds of trees as I walk along a trail, their leaves whispering in the wind, their trunks creaking and chattering in woody tongues, brings me into balance and fills me with calm joy. Over time, I’d come to expect that a hike or camping trip would heal me in some ways.
For my solo yolo, I decided I would go on a hiking, biking, and camping trip in a loop starting and ending in Boston, Massachusetts. The bike was a last minute add on. To be honest, I intended the trip to be a group trip, but I couldn’t convince any friends to join me, so I resolved to spend the time with myself and to make it as productive as possible. I would use the opportunity to walk alone in contemplation of my life. I was sure that by meditating peacefully in nature for a time, and thinking carefully about my options, the true path of my life would reveal itself to me.
I planned about a two-week long trip including a visit with family on Cape Cod followed by about 9 days on my own. I would roadtrip from Boston to Maine, then across the border into New Brunswick, Canada, then to Prince Edward Island, Cape Breton Highlands National Park – the crown of Nova Scotia – then all the way down Nova Scotia to Halifax. I’d take a ferry back across the Bay of Fundy to Portland Maine, stop and hike along the Green and White Mountains in Vermont and New Hampshire – where I hiked Mount Washington - and then drive back down along the Appalachian Mountains again via a different route that would take me to Western Massachusetts.
In Shelburne Falls, Mass, my last planned stop was a visit with an old friend from highschool who has since become a professional weaver – her preferred craft, American folk-art tapestries. There I would drop off my remaining camping gear, uneaten ramen noodles, and a recycled bicycle.
It was July. New England in July is quaint and comfortable – usually not too hot during the day (at least, not too hot for a Miami girl) - and cool in the evenings. After visiting with my family, I packed up my camping gear, lashed my $35 red mountain bike to the back of my rental car, and took off for Maine.
Driving along the coast up to Maine was stunning. 95 North crosses many bridges along the coast where there are little islands dotting the way, visible from the highway but not, apparently, accessible, other than by boat. The highway passes through forests, small towns with white houses with green gables and grey houses with white gables, then reedy wetlands and marshes, and then more forests again as it weaves north.
In the summer, everything above is emerald and parakeet and pickle with leafy oaks and maples and pines, while below is bright shamrock green grass, or else more earthy toned marshlands, or else the steel and navy and sapphire of the Atlantic Ocean, its waves crusted with whitecaps rolling and breaking over cookie colored sand strewn with seaweed and mussels and clamshells.
Bar Harbor, Maine
I hiked a short trail while en route to my first overnight at Seawall campground at Acadia National Park. The trail wound up gently through the woods along a well worn path over lots of reaching, gnarled roots. It was tamped down with horizontal wooden posts like stairs and dotted with bright blue blazes every 10 feet or so to keep hikers on the path. It was a delightfully clear day, the sun speckled down on me from above, freckled and dancing around through the leaves above. I was refreshingly alone and full of wonder, and I kept thinking, “this is it! This is what I’ve needed. I’m going to figure everything out soon.”
Though I wanted to keep hiking, I preferred to get on to the Park and pitch my campsite before dark, so I moved on. I made it to Acadia and set up camp as night was falling.
Draping a tarp over my trusty purple Wenzel tent in the unlikely event of rain, it started to set in that I was alone. I was in a National Park, yes. There were lots of families around, but I had no cell service to reach my own, and I would soon be travelling farther off the familiar beaten paths up through Canada.
After unpacking the remaining essentials I needed for the night, I taught myself how to get a campfire started (I’d never done that alone before), and set up a little propane stove and cooked soup for dinner. After dinner, I sat down at the picnic bench at my site to read a bit and drink a beer under the light of my headlamp until I got drowsy.
I was somewhat close to the bathrooms at the campground, and as I read, I started to be wary of campers blundering their way to the toilets past my site now and again. Every so often there was a distracting WHOOSH of a flush. So much for the peace and quiet of nature. There were also children screaming and stomping around at campsites farther away, as there always are at paid facilities in National Parks. I felt myself withdrawing into a shell as I read, mentally closing myself off from my surroundings and from the other campers.
In time the cold of the night set in and my fingers didn’t want to turn the pages anymore. The fire was dying down. I packed up my pot and utensils along with my food in the cooler, tamped out the last burning embers by stirring around the ashes, and zipped myself up in the tent.
Sleep didn’t come.
I lay alone, thinking about my aloneness. I started to think about the Adirondack killer, Robert Garrow. He’d murdered some campers back in the 60’s or 70’s. He tied a few kids – young adults, really, in college - to a tree while he stabbed the others one by one with a hunting knife.
Being alone out in the dark in the woods, wrapped in quiet darkness, started to make my skin crawl a little. I felt small and cold. I wished that I’d brought my hatchet, or better yet, my taser, but I’d left them at home, fearing they’d be confiscated by security at the airport.
I wondered about how long my food would last, and whether I’d meet the owners of any of the distant voices that were chatting less and less as the night bore down around their own, isolated campfires.
In time there were no more voices. My eyes closed and I drifted off uneasily into the blackness.
I woke a few hours into the night in a strange half-light bathing the front part of my tent with a luminescent glow. It seemed to be fluorescent, a soft eerie light coming from behind the pines that were between my tent and the bathroom. Maybe it was a light from the bathroom.
The light cast a tall, sinewy, treelike shadow on the front wall of my tent to my right. My heart pounded a little faster. I blinked, sat up, and groggily rubbed my eyes, figuring, the light must be coming from the bathroom. The light must be on a motion sensor, which is why I hadn’t seen it at all before going to bed. Although, plenty of folks had been going in and out of the bathroom while I was still up outside at the picnic table, and I hadn’t noticed any light before. I squinted.
All three walls of my tent were dark: behind me, to my right, and to my left. Only the front of the tent, where the entrance was zipped up, was glowing. My contacts were still in their case. My glasses were buried somewhere beside me, maybe wrapped up in the sheet I had lined the inside of my sleeping bag with. With my vision being so poor, I couldn’t really make out much in the dark.
But then I saw the girl coming towards my tent.
I watched nervously as a small shadow bloomed on the front wall of my tent, like a skinny little girl walking towards the entrance of my tent. She must be trying to find her way back from the bathroom, I wondered. I realized, then, that I also had neglected to put my tent lock on the zipper. My heart fluttered.
Just a tiny little lock. Like a toy, almost, but a lock nonetheless, with a little key. I think it was a luggage lock. It could secure the two zippers on my tent door together so that you couldn’t open the tent, because as the one zipper pulled the door open the other followed less than an inch after it, zipping the door immediately back up, keeping it closed. I’d used the lock before at music festivals to successfully prevent drunk, wandering festival-goers from climbing inside my tent in the night. But I hadn’t locked the tent tonight.
I glanced down at the wad of sheet and sleeping bag around my lap and started to fumble around for my glasses. Not finding them, I jerked back up.
The shadow grew to a very, oddly scrawny length and then paused. I sat there, breathing faster, waiting. Why should I be afraid of a little girl? Maybe I should actually get up, get out there, and ask her if she’s ok. You think YOU’RE freaked out in the dark, how do you think this little girl is feeling? She might need help finding her family’s campsite.
But despite my self-peptalk, gradually, oh so gradually, all the hairs – all over my body – were raising themselves. Perfectly erect, my skin was tight with goosebumps, and I thought: “is she going to try to get in my tent?”
Who is this girl?
And then: is it a girl?
As I continued to watch the girl creature for an eternity, my breathing grew faster and shallower, and the shape seemed to slowly, ever so slowly, become more and more elongated. It was definitely not a girl. And yet, it couldn’t be a tree, either – because no tree was that close to the front of my tent. And trees don’t just appear out of nowhere, no sir – they sit there and stay put.
And that weird light!
My ribcage began to squeeze my chest cavity tight like a fist, and when I realized – it must be an alien - my heart, like a bird in a cage that was getting smaller and smaller, started flitting and skipping around inside faster and faster.
This is it, I thought. It wants me to come outside. It’s trying to trick me into thinking it’s a little girl that needs help, so that I go outside and then that’s it, I’m done for. It’ll beam me up… or worse. I can’t go outside! And oh my god what if it opens the tent door?
I cowered back on my pillow, slowly shrinking down until I was laying again, with the sheet and my sleeping bag cocooned around me up to my chin. My heart continued to beat away like a drum as I lay prostrate, terrified, my eyes glued to the shadow on the wall of the tent.
The alien didn’t come in, and I didn’t leave the tent. At some point, I drifted back off into a restless sleep. When I woke the next morning in the daylight, I couldn’t remember having dreams – but I remembered the alien/girl. I got up and got out of my tent. I looked around the campsite for awhile, but surprisingly, I couldn’t identify any trees that might have cast the “alien” shadow.
I stayed at Seawall for two more nights. I saw the alien creature again the second night, but not on the third. I still to this day don’t know what it was – if not a monster of my own making.
I went on my solo yolo expecting to figure out my path in life. I wanted to return from the trip with a clear mind and firm strategy for where I wanted to move and the type of job I wanted to pursue next. Nothing of the sort happened. In fact, no “answers” came to me while I was out camping and hiking in the woods, though I learned a LOT of life lessons along the way.
Sometimes we expect that visiting a specific place, space, or taking a vacation will heal all of our troubles and make our problems magically disappear. We build up extremely high expectations – almost demands – of the universe. But we bring our troubles with us. Under this pressure, we are bound to disappoint ourselves, because ultimately, true insight comes from within. It can’t be forced out from under the weight of our worries.
I found my solo yolo to be fun at times, challenging at times, but lonely. I found my experience with the alien creature to be nerve-wracking, but the remainder of the trip was uneventful. Though I saw a black bear for the first time, hiked through bogs, ate fresh mussels on Prince Edward Island, solo hiked Mount Washington, and made a fun new friend in St. John New Brunswick who showed me the city and it’s Reversing Falls: the alien, probably conjured up from my own anxiety about figuring out my life, now makes for the most vivid story I can tell about my trip.