An Awfulizer Goes Camping…Alone

I was nervous as I passed the sign reading “Hazen’s Notch Camp 0.1mi” and turned off Vermont’s Long Trail toward the shelter. Tonight was an experiment. Along with the shelter, a man with very short or very receding (or maybe both) hair came into view. “Oh, well that’s good, I’m not alone,” I thought to myself then quickly realized, “Oh, no, I’m not alone.” The gentleman, likely in his 40’s, was getting himself settled in front of the shelter with his stove, a mug, and a pot for dinner preparations. We said brief hellos and he asked if I was “staying in here tonight?” I replied that I wasn’t sure yet (I was 99.9% sure that I would not be staying in the shelter with him that night) and went inside to check out the trail log. A variety of notes, illustrations, warnings, and gratitudes filled the white lined pages as I flipped through them. I was comforted by all the people who have been here before me. They had survived. I think. Most likely. Probably.

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My new camping companion asked me where I had come from and I informed him of my arrival from Route 58 just 1.6 miles from the shelter. Then I shared with him that “I’m doing an experiment. I’ve hiked and camped before but not really alone so I came out tonight to see if I could do it.” He seemed amused by this information, but offered a good-for-you smile, though I can’t remember what he actually said in response. Later, friends were surprised at my honesty here and counseled me that admitting to a stranger in the woods that you essentially have no idea what you are doing and are possibly freaked out of your mind already as a solo female traveler is likely not the wisest of ideas. He seemed harmless in his long underwear, a small hole at the edge of one knee, and although I wished he wasn’t present as he was indeed affecting my experiment, as an awfulizer, I was comforted.

He told me he was on his second night after having left from Journey’s End, the Long Trail’s Northernmost part, and he was heading South to Route 4 where the Long Trail meets the Appalachian Trail. I asked if there were official tent sites in the area but he didn’t know. “I’m going to go check it out,” I said, as I departed from the shelter. That was the last time I saw him.

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Being an awfulizer, I fill my head with admittedly unnecessary (but at the time so necessary) worry. I think of worst case scenarios. I always ask, “What if…?” On top of this, I am indecisive. It took me 40 minutes to decide where to put my tent.

I knew I wanted it to be on a bit of an incline, especially with rain expected that night. One spot looked good, maybe the rain would actually run away from me on both sides. But, no, I wanted to have one high side for my head. I wouldn’t want to end up with the blood rushing to my head somehow. Well, it would be nice to be near this stream here. And then the water would probably go towards the stream naturally, right? And the sound of the stream would block out other little noises that I would probably freak out about. But, I’m not supposed to be that close to water. Although it kind of looks like someone has camped here before. It’s better to go in an established site than to make another one. Is this established enough? Although maybe the stream would attract more animals. But if it’s going to be raining in the morning, having the stream relatively close would be a good landmark so that I would know how to get back to the shelter and then the trail as I’m off the trail right now. If I can’t see in the morning or it’s foggy what if I forget which way to start walking to reach the shelter? I’m supposed to be setting up my tent, but I’m exhausted from all this thinking.

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So I set up my tent. I got bitten by mosquitos. I should have been more decisive. I climbed into my abode and waited for my night alone-in-a-tent-sort-of-near-a-kind-of-balding-man-in-a-shelter-on-the-long-trail to begin. I started reading the copy of Real Simple I brought. It was 1.5 miles in, I felt like bringing a magazine. The skies got dark as I read advice on protecting your house from burglars, how to get your dog to stop eating dirt, and a better way to slice peppers. Luckily, I live in Vermont, my dogs don’t compulsively eat dirt, and I was already slicing peppers the better way. I skipped over the “Ultimate Jeans Buying Guide” as I know I’ve already seen the penultimate one and the twenty before that.

All of this fine literature couldn’t keep me from noticing the shuffle of leaves outside my tent. Or was it scurrying? Maybe it was mice. I know they are out there and they’ve certainly skimmed the sides of the tent on previous camping trips. But, it sounds so hoppy. It sounds so hop-  I lifted the magazine and smacked the side of the tent, frightened by whatever had just jumped toward me, the fine fabric folding in at me. Maybe this was too much. It wasn’t grizzly country, thank goodness. I wouldn’t be “experimenting” if it was. I don’t sleep when I camp in grizzly territory. At all. But maybe this was too much. No, no, it was fine. If something really happened, I bet I was still close enough that the kind-of-balding-man-in-a-shelter-on-the-long-trail would hear me scream. And then it started to pour. With the metal roof on that shelter, there was no way the kind-of-balding-man-in-a-shelter-on-the-long-trail would hear me scream.

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I listened to the rain all night. Drifting in and out of sleep. Waking, checking my watch, adjusting the headlamp that I still had on my head (not on, of course, just on my head), making sure I hadn’t crushed my glasses laying beside me yet. As the sky and the tent brightened, I was relieved. Now, I just needed a break in the rain to pack up. The rain slowed and then it would roar. And then it would slow. At a moment when I had decided it was just the wind and the water blowing off the trees, I went outside to survey the situation. “Good enough,” I thought, hopping back in the tent and stuffing my sleeping bag, rolling my pad, compressing my pillow, and cinching my pack. I had the tent stuff sack ready and then I heard a sheet of rain pass over, a small break, and some big thunder as a downpour began. Now what would I do? I sat on the floor of the tent, stretched out on my back on the floor of the tent, sat on the floor of the tent. I waited. I tried to remember that saying about thunderstorms – you count the number of seconds from a lightning strike until you hear thunder and that’s the number of miles away the storm is, right? This storm was close and given the flashes of light and reverberations of thunder, I wasn’t surprised. After more than a half hour of worrying and tapping my feet on the thin floor, I could only hear the waves of wind in the trees. The rush of rain on the tent above me had cleared. I unzipped the door, packed up, and went on my way.

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I had survived the night. Now I just had to make it through the river trail and back to the car.

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