It was the Friday after Thanksgiving this year that I decided to head out to Enchanted Rock, for my first truly solo backpacking trip. I’d been wanting to do solo trips for a very long time, but only recently have I come into the adequate means, time, and transit necessary to go it alone. It had also been a long time since I’d gone out into the wilderness at all.
I arrived at the park as the sun was setting. The docile entry areas of the park with developed campgrounds were abuzz with families and groups, barbecues, portable stereos, and laughter. Some of them fiddled aimlessly with enormous 6-man tents from Academy, or lit huge white gas lanterns that cast shadows 50 feet away, or unrolled massive zero-degree flannel sleeping bags for the evening. I saw the light fading, and my skin heard rumors of the temperature dropping, and I felt an apprehension that I hadn’t known for a long time. Outbound into the backcountry of the park, I knew that I’d only be carrying what I needed. If the weather got messy, I wouldn’t be able to bail from the tent and dive into my car 40 feet away. I wouldn’t have a change of clothes, a bathroom, a hot shower, or even a friend to comfort me. I’d have my wits, and the 10 lbs of gear I decided to pack, and I’d have prayer.
And so, knowing all that, the fading light and dropping temperature sparked this old apprehension. Without the usual urban insurance of climate control, walls, roofs, electric light, and entertainment, nightfall is subtly threatening to the city dweller. This feeling used to be more familiar to me, but like I said, it had been a long time.
I left the crowds of front-country campers behind me and headed out toward the back side of the park. At first, every stray sound amid the chill demanded my attention, because I wasn’t used to wild darkness anymore. But, soon I established a cadence, and a confidence in the benign intentions of the wind, quieted my headlamp, and hiked by moonlight. Enchanted Rock is a small park, so I arrived at my campsite after a short time. To my surprise, I would hardly be alone out here. Boy scout troops and noisy headlamp’d children scampered among a network of slightly-smaller dome tents, and I wondered how soon I’d be able to sleep. I scouted out a clear patch of grass far from the main bunch, and began to set up my site in darkness. My ‘house’ for the night would be a star tarp — basically just a fabric roof akin to a tiny circus tent, with open walls, and a found 5-foot oak branch for the single center pole.
I took my time fine-tuning my shelter and munching on some snacks for dinner, but there was an odd fitfulness in the air that precluded me from really enjoying the night beyond that. Whenever I’m in the wilderness, it’s as though my body knows that when the sun goes down, it’s time to move toward sleep. Daytime is for activity, night is for shelter and rest. Out there without any truly comfortable way to lounge around, entertain oneself, or see for that matter, natural body rhythms seem to emerge from one’s very bones, accidentally revealing our evolutionary heritage, or the primordial cadences that our God has sewn into our souls. At the very least, it brings to light the truly odd pace of life that city luxuries have afforded us.
Or maybe it’s not like that for everyone. Maybe it’s just that it was unfamiliar out there, and I wanted to take refuge in the unconsciousness of sleep. Suffice it to say, I made my way into my sleeping bag, and drifted into an uneasy doze that was punctuated by teenagers laughing, or the creak of branches, or unfamiliar creature calls, off in the distance.
And then later, the rain started.
It began as a nimble cluster of pin pricks on the taut nylon fabric above me — resounding much louder, of course, than a sprinkle of rain should. This trickled on for an hour, and then led into a true drizzle, which saturated the ground around the tarp and trickled underneath toward my gear and sleeping bag. Then, the front moved in, and the rain picked up, and it became a real thunderstorm, deafening and murderous. My tarp shifted and flapped, straining against the thin stakes anchoring it to moist earth. The oak branch holding everything up creaked in protest against the wind load on the whole shelter. Spray came in through the open edges, lightning shook the trees, and the roar of the rain on my tarp was malevolent.
My mind was filled with projections of what might happen if my shelter managed to fail in this weather. If my center pole broke, or one of the anchor stakes pulled out, or a large branch fell and damaged my tarp. I and all my precious gear would get soaked. I’d need to get protected fast, or start hiking back to the car — but either way, I’d need to attend to my body temperature, because these were hypothermia conditions.
And then suddenly, amidst this frenzy of hypothetical worry, I realized I was trembling inside my sleeping bag. I noticed this, and curiously searched myself, and determined that it was not because I was cold. The weather truly wasn’t that bad. And the gear that I had brought was up to this challenge. My sleeping bag and tarp performed admirably. My mind did not. I realized I was shaking with pure, unbridled fear, and perhaps this was the first time in my life to feel such a thing. I was alone in an angry rainstorm, and there were no friends there to comfort me, to help me attend to the endless worrisome hypotheticals, or to laugh with me in the midst of this discomfort. There was simply nothing that I could do but shift around under my tarp, look out through the storm with my headlamp, hope my shelter held together … and wait it out. And to be honest, this helplessness terrified me.