May 9, 2012 / Creative Writing
In “O For a Thousand Tongues to Mutter,” Jennifer Strange tracks traces of corruption—a fallen soldier’s body, a swarm of ravenous ants—in the “pale business” of our passage “in and out of life.”
March 5, 2015
The national park ranger referred to the elk’s mating call as a bugle. I thought of a small boy with a toy and then also of a soldier blowing a horn to wake the troops. A bugle requires an instrument. The elk provides his own instrument. Cree Indians call elk wapiti, which translates to white rump. The white rumps’ mating season in Yellowstone takes place over a six-week period in the fall. The larger male elk bugles to let the females know of his willingness. The low guttural vibration seems somehow muted, not unlike the attachment on a horn used to diffuse sound. But the cry leaves the elk’s diaphragm with enough force to alert animals and humans within a hundred yards. I wonder, as I listen, if the elk is emanating his satisfaction or frustration.
Drawing a cold breath in, I exhale. My lips volunteer a smile. From the comfort of my two sleeping bags and the protective walls of my nylon tent, the bugle of the elk makes me laugh. Perhaps the laughter is a nervous reaction as I wonder how close the elk stands. Or is it euphoria I feel as a shiver sweeps through my bones? I laugh again and announce to the air: I am really doing this. I am really camping my way across the United States.
My trip began several months before I ever considered packing up a tent and buying fuel for a camp stove. The journey began with a declaration, a simple promise to myself: to be open. This deliberate shift meant consciously living with possibility. To see prospects, not limitations. The shift required me to see anything set upon my path as nothing short of magnificent.
Thus, when a friend asked me to house-sit for her and teach her yoga classes for a month in the East Bay of California, I quickly said yes. As a regular visitor to the Bay Area, I knew the yoga classes were stellar. I knew the chance to work with other teachers as well as students was a grand opportunity for both my personal yoga development and my professional experience. Rather than dispute the improbabilities of leaving my home and my work schedule, I abided by my declaration to welcome offerings laid out before me. Then I crossed my fingers.
The simplest route would have been a one-connection flight to San Francisco International Airport. The next plausible move would have been to travel the super slabs—or the main highway arteries that cross the United States—keeping pace with trucks, stopping to refuel at chain restaurants, and resting at prefabricated hotels. Instead I embraced the opportunity. I bought a tent and a sleeping bag, and I gathered equipment and advice from friends for an extended camping trip. The idea sounds reasonable if you are a camper, but the curious reality was that I was not a camper. I had not spent a single night in a tent, and the last sleeping bag I owned was the one with rainbows weaved into its cotton fabric that I used for my grade-school sleepovers.
My nostrils sting with the cool air. My head shakes as if to clear an idea or a question. I sigh, a quiet sigh, not like that of the bugling elk. In the same moment that I smile, satisfied with my camper status, a question floats to the surface: What am I doing here?
Here is somewhere past middle age and the conveniences of a home, past the responsibilities of work. Here comprises campsites across the country where routine is replaced with remote exploration. More than a collection of pitched tents and hiked trails, I desire that my camping and peripatetic traversing would introduce me to the America I do not know. I want to learn about communities; to hear political opinions; to understand what draws someone to a place, or pulls them away.
My plans developed with excitement, but not abandon. I prepared with equipment and supplies, maps and books, advice and insights, but I was unsure how to accept the uncertainty that I would face. This was not uncertainty due to fear. I was not afraid for my personal safety. This was not about worry, because I consciously gave up worry years ago. Instead, this was a desire to accept the uncertainty that may reveal something about myself and about others. I steered my car west to the Black Hills, the Wind River Valley, and the southern Utah range and wondered whether my uncertainty was a manifestation of doubts or a force driving me on and keeping my curiosity climbing in order to reach the next summit and perhaps to reach a clarity yet unknown to me.
Lake Macbride State Park is north of the University of Iowa. On an afternoon in September, my tent was spread out like a large deflated balloon atop my tarp. My poles fought me as I slowly weaved the aluminum through the clips. I heard a man from the neighboring campsite call to offer assistance.
“Can I lend you hand there, sweetie?”
Behind a tight smile, I tried to hide my uncomfortable feelings of having an audience and conceal my bristling at the machismo use of sweetie.
“I think I have it,” I said, “but thanks.”
“Chris is my name. Here for the week to do some fishing.”
“Seems you picked a good weather week,” I said over my shoulder, as one foot held down an edge of the tent and my arm navigated a pole into a corner eyelet. The air was cool enough, but my body temperature rose as I struggled with the tent. Without turning, I knew he watched me. I knew his appraisal should not matter, but still it did.
“Looks like a nice little tent,” Chris said. “It’s fun to see what folks come out here with. You see everything—even folks living in their cars.”
I shrugged with a more sincere smile. “I think it’s safe to say that I am almost one of those people.” I nodded my head toward my tightly packed station wagon.
“Well, everyone travels their own way, I suppose.” Without much more than a short breath, Chris went on. “I like coming out here to get away from it all. But I love to meet people. Everyone has a story. That’s what I think.”
With my tent poles finally secured, I attached the fly cover and started to hammer the stakes. I looked up to see Chris still watching.
“So what’s your story, Chris?”
“Oh,” he seemed to consider something in the distance. He looked down at his thick fingers and ran those same fingers through his full head of solid grey hair. His generous gut pushed out his faded cotton T-shirt. Before the sun had set, I learned Chris was retired from the military. A career guy, he called himself. He had seen a lot—a lot good and a lot bad—he told me. Chris has been married some thirty-odd years and talked more about his son than his daughter.
I wondered whether going to the woods was a rehearsed practice for Chris, a repetition that he fell into every year, or whether he returned to the solitude of the outdoors regularly as a conscious choice. Perhaps he came not just to fish but also to find resolve from lingering memories of war and lost friends. The woods and the lake may provide a grounding for Chris. Even if his purpose—or my purpose—was not always certain or at certain times changed, a declaration of some kind appeared necessary to the human conscience. With purpose, no matter the realm or clarity, we keep to a path and move forward.
“It’s Sunday, so I usually fix pancakes for dinner. They’re good. I can put one on for you if you want.”
The box mix of pancake flour lacked flavor, but the stories Chris told did not. He shared surface details about serving in Vietnam and more personal thoughts on how a buddy he takes fishing every winter has only one leg. A casualty of the jungle was how Chris put it. For himself, he said, he was reconciled with the war, and it was of no use to sit around and complain about the government, which he did not trust, or the environment, which he thinks is being destroyed, or equal rights for marriage, which he believes is a bunch of boloney.
I easily disagreed with Chris on many of his viewpoints, but it is more in my nature to take in another’s opinion rather than argue it on the spot. Perhaps I do not want to evoke controversy, which I could have done by telling Chris that I love our president and that I just sent a wedding card to my neighbors who were the first gay couple allowed to marry in our county back home. I would have agreed with Chris about the environment, but I could have pointed to his use of disposable cutlery and his big SUV as contradictions to his stance. I kept my rebuttals in my head and pondered them on my own as I hiked other trails and met other people, preferring to listen and gather their stories and opinions rather than shape them with my own influence.
The wood from the fire cracked and sent up sparks. My thoughts followed the sparks.
“There’s Orion up there,” he said, pointing to the glittering sky. “I could always find that guy, even in Nam. Reminds me that we’re all in the same world even if we think and act different.”
I smiled softly in Chris’s direction and understood, perhaps for the first time, that I was connecting to other people even though I knew I was not entirely like them. As the days passed, the camping became more comfortable. My tent felt familiar and welcoming after the fourth or fifth set up. I looked forward to making my temporary home every few nights in a new place, where I would learn the best route to the washhouse and determine the need for trees to protect me from the rain or clearings to offer more warmth on the cooling fall days.
I found my purpose evolving as solitude became an ally. Being on my own allowed me to reflect and understand that I was connected to others on the path—that we are all connected in this universe. My purpose was to keep myself open to the experiences—one campsite, one hike, one person at a time.
The Grand Tetons held me with a magical embrace. Each morning, sunrise lit the mountains and called me to join them. The canyons carved deep paths into the hard granite mountains. Animals moved without notice and the rivers slapped against rocks even when no one was there to listen.
A couple at a neighboring campsite invited me for coffee after our third morning of greeting one another. Their Pembroke and Cardigan corgies circled my legs, competing for my attention. The couple had made their way from Austin and now reside in Laramie.
“Wyoming is what America used to be, at least in some parts,” the woman said.
“We came here, as others have, looking for a real place to call home,” said the husband. “The openness and the untamed not just hold potential but a reassurance—” he paused and rubbed the ear of one of the dogs. “I guess you’d call it sincerity—that a sincerity still exists in this country. A place where people feel connected to the earth and even connected to others because they realize land—the natural world—is sacred.”
I absorbed his thoughts. I soaked up each new view, each grand overlook, and down to the core of my being, I felt saturated by the wondrous landscape. Perhaps the foreignness of it all affected my perception. The expanse of land offered clarity in the moments that I questioned myself about what I was doing on this solo camping adventure. I felt the natural world was opening a crevice deep within me to offer a pathway to my own soul. In those moments, I could raise my voice to answer my lingering doubts with conviction: Why would I not be out here in this sacred place?
In a used bookstore in the Northwest, I came across the writings of the Catholic priest and ecology advocate Thomas Berry. His words seemed written for me and my growing admiration for the natural world. He professed that our relationship with the earth must be respectful. We must look on the earth with deference and awe, compromise and compensation, understanding and bewilderment. To me, these parallel connections exist on the same plane as the relationships we require with ourselves and others. Berry wrote, “experiences [with nature] require only that we follow the deepest feelings of the human soul.”
Those deep feelings are found within me when I am a part of each footfall on the path, the deer that wanders across the trail, and the moon light over my tent. In those moments, I know I hold contentment in my strengthening relationship with the natural world and all living beings.
Light fades from the day. My tent is pitched on a long desert plane and surrounded with more tumbleweeds than trees, more RVs than tents, and more communal camping than seclusion. I busy myself around my campsite when my neighbors invite me to join their campfire. Sticks are served to roast marshmallows. I listen to my fellow campers recommend other parks and the best diner for pie. The family’s nine-year-old tells me about his discovery of a hiding place up in the cliffs. He points to the angled rocks above the campground. His face glows in the light from the fire and his words jumble as he jumps up and down to provide convoluted directions to the special spot tucked somewhere between the enormous boulders.
“If you tell me where it is then it isn’t a hiding place, is it?” I ask.
He rebukes my question. “No, it’s not that kind of hiding place. This is a hiding place to see out all over. It’s the best spot in the whole park, and if you want, you can come.”
A hiding place to see out and to be shared. That description sounds oxymoronic and yet, it tumbles around in my thoughts. Maybe reflection is best experienced in such a place—a place that offers solitude, while simultaneously meting out the possibility of connecting beyond myself.
On my own, I climb the rocks slowly and watch my foot placement. The noise of the campground recedes and each step takes me higher and higher. I recline on an angled rock and look up. I see Orion, the constellation that travels the world as Chris observed from Iowa. My eyes adjust to the darkness and the sky blankets me. The stars are so close I feel I can touch them. My chest expands and contracts. I release a long satisfied bugling sigh.
 Berry, Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 2006), 11.
Ann Fitzmaurice is a writer, adventurer, and professional yoga instructor. In other words, she is not afraid to stretch her way into foreign territory with a pen in hand. Currently, she is completing a memoir on her hike across England and on the ancestors who most influenced her life—her great grandmother, grandmother, and mother as well as one missing-in-action grandfather who Fitzmaurice later found. She keeps two blogs—one at www.think-yoga.com to ruminate about the workings of life and the universe and one at www.camperchickadventures.wordpress.com to capture her tales of living an adventuresome life.