You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.Mary Oliver in Wild Geese
A few years before I retired I added a pop-up camper to my outdoor gear, which makes its home on the back of my pickup truck. Since my truck’s name is Rosy, the only possible name for this new system of travel adventure was “Rosy’s Backpack.” And yes, I always name my vehicles. Since I spend a lot of time in them, it seems only reasonable to give them names. So Rosy has her own backpack, substantially larger than my own, and affording me an early escape from the long Wyoming winters, since the camper provided a comfortable bed and a small kitchen. Neither rain nor snow nor sleet could keep me from my adventures in the spring.
On my first trip with Rosy’s backpack I left work on a Friday afternoon and drove over Dead Indian Pass to a campground in Sunlight Basin in the Beartooth Mountains of northern Wyoming, a wild and rugged place that was not far from my home in the Bighorn Basin. Only wild and rugged had somehow taken on new meaning for me. I was in a camper with a comfortable queen-size bed and a gas stove for cooking. Outside there were picnic tables, fire pits, and outhouses. I fixed a gourmet dinner that night and had a glass of wine in a plastic glass with a screw on stem, sitting by the fire, savoring the gentle evening, my dog Willie curled up by my feet. I was in the lap of luxury, and I was liking it. Wild and rugged be damned.
I had of course enjoyed car camping with my family as a child. Campgrounds were much less crowded in those days. There were no campground reservations, no hosts, just a lovely site with a picnic table and often the elegant fire places that had been built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s. There was a history to these places, a degree of authenticity that I later found lacking in crowded campgrounds.
It was easy then to abandon these campgrounds, and spend my nights on the trail in a small tent. I even felt rather smug about it. I would take a look at the crowded campgrounds, the giant RV’s that had replaced the popular umbrella tents of my childhood, and leave it all behind as I set foot on another backcountry adventure. I would most often be camped alone, a small fire circle instead of the concrete structures with their movable grates. There would be no gourmet meal, certainly no glass of wine, but such luxuries were easily left behind without regret when one has the luxury of solitude on the trail.
As backpacking became more popular, this solitude became increasingly difficult to find. My backpack and I were ever on the lookout for it, and we went to great lengths to explore backcountry trails that were seldom used. This often means trails that are no longer maintained, and in some cases completely abandoned by the Forest Service, as funding cuts have impacted trail maintenance over several decades now. While there is most definitely a feeling of satisfaction in making one’s way over such a rugged route, as I have aged I have found this style of backpacking is simply no longer fun. Climbing over ten foot high piles of logs that came down in last winter’s storm has lost its appeal and resulted in some minor injuries from falls, as well as greatly slowing down progress on the trail.
So it was that I sat in a fold-up chair next to the fire, enjoying the calmness of the evening, the satisfaction of a fine meal, and looking forward to a comfortable bed in which to spend the night on my first trip with Rosy’s backpack. I felt an uncomfortable feeling that I came to recognize as guilt. I had not carried a heavy pack that day. I had not climbed over piles of logs. I had instead worked for half the day and driven to a nice campsite. This was not difficult. And except for that strange niggling guilt, I was enjoying myself. How could this be? It seems I had to reinvent myself, redefine who I am in the world and how hard I have to work in order to have a good time.
Over the years Rosy’s backpack and I have had many good times together, and the guilt has slowly dissipated as I have achieved some success in reinventing myself as an old woman, someone who is comfortable asking for help when needed and enjoys the luxuries of a comfortable bed and a glass of wine. I still backpack of course, and with luck I will continue to do so for many years to come. But I have also found that solitude can be found in other places than on the trail and with a degree of luxury that I have come to enjoy.
The photo above was taken on BLM land not far from Natural Bridges National Monument in southern Utah. I simply turned onto a red dirt road and drove a few miles until I turned up a wash and made my home for the night, no one nearby, the red rock absorbing the sounds of the evening. I had my usual cup of tea, picked up a good book, and then retreated to my comfortable bed with the down comforter. The following morning I was on my way to search for another red dirt road to follow. Rosy has taught me a few things. It is not necessary to scramble over logs or make my way through a dense thicket of salal to have a good time. The stars still shine in a clear sky wherever I make my home for the night.