photo h/t Mark in AK
What I remember of those mornings camping under the wing was the smell of woodsmoke mixed in with the smell of aviation fuel.
Alaska, a river far up, towards the Brooks Range. A small float plane and darkness that only flirted with me, while stars as hard as flint sparked something in the sky.
I was never one for the organized camp, driving to some park where the Winnebago's were so close together as to resemble a subdivision. The smell of cigarette smoke mixing with propane, punctuated by the screech of a woman from three campers down, who's idea of roughing it was no room service. Kids, running wild, ghetto blasters on their shoulder as they whizzed around the camp site on skateboards being pulled by what was either a dog, or a small rat. Overweight and pale adults lumbered around like somnolent bears, their weary movements punctuated by an expenditure of breath that appeared to be far more work than any pleasure those moments gave them. Where's the beer, babe, and could you see if we can get Judge Judy up here?
Where's the exit please.
That is not my idea of camping, there with TV antennas and portable laptops and radios, campers moving like elephants on Ambien, bulky and blocking the view. The residents therein not seeing the outdoors, but still contemplating their lives back home, the fretful worry of urban homeowner association war fare.
Give me a spot for just myself or perhaps a friend, days sliding into sunset, marked by little more than the sum of breaths taken freely. It was hard to tell one day from another. Mornings would creep in on the breath of small creatures watching from the trees, days spent in reading or hiking, nights simply laying out like one single point of a compass star, feet pointed towards my future, pointing true. I didn't move quickly when I awoke, looking at the morning sun with the mild inscrutability of those animals awaking, functioning outside of a watch, having left time laying upon the slow and imponderable shore on which my small plane is moored.
I've found few people in my life that can be content with time alone like that, most preferring the excitement of crowds, the adulation of the unknown, look at me, watch me, head towards the lights and the noise. Not I. I can't find peace in that, though it haunts the edges of it, as if it almost knows what it is like, but can't give in to it. The peace isn't just the silence, it's not the trees or the animals or the water. It's all the senses wrapped up in one as you breathe it in deep from the musty confines of a sleeping bag as you lie under the starts. That smell that has a color, almost green, not the longing green of envy or the gray green of aromatic herbs, but the green of clarity, a smell that makes you weak for childhood, when every morning came with this sense of freedom and purity.Then rising, making sure the bears didn't make a snack of your food there downwind of you in the tree, making coffee that Starbucks would turn their nose up at, as you munch a biscuit with all the flakiness of Kevlar. It's small quiet moments there as the earth awakes. It's simply life, there, your life, what you make of it, and nothing more. It's the feeling of succumbing to something that laps away at you when in the confines of an office or a lab, at the same little spots in your life. It's falling in love with something that haunted your dreams before you could articulate desire.
I camped with my best friend back in our late teens and I think of those nights, telling stories in front of the fire trying to scare one another as off in the distant the stars flared against a background of ebony velvet. We'd sip a can of Coors (we were young, and knew no better) and talked into the wee hours. Adulthood was looming, both of us soon off to college, both of us still naive to the ways of the world and of men, but both aware of the redemptive power of the woods. We'd look to see if we could see the Northern lights. This far south it was unlikely, but it never stopped us, sharing stories and dreams, not realizing how far the years would take us from this place.
Years later, there on the banks of a small River in Alaska, I missed her company, but the time was still good. I set up camp, there, fifty miles away from another human, under the nervous branches, and downwind of anything that looked like a bear sushi bar. My shower? A gallon jug of cold river water poured over my head. Breakfast was made in a fire, or above it and like any good Cajun restaurant I could blacken anything on request, and usually without meaning to. After the world stilled, I would sleep, a small measure of whisky warming my belly, the splash of a trout just a few feet away, challenging me to a duel that would be breakfast. Why did I not do this sooner?
It was my first trip alone, after he was gone, running north to heal, and finding the bank of this river, as far away from another human being as I could find. I lay there in my sleeping bag, under the stealth of a small tent, wearing a worn night gown that smelled of the past, the movement of the tree branches shadowed on my tent walls, like hands waving goodbye.
Water rushes by, the sound of it ebbing and flowing, lapping at the corners of my sleep, there among the soft sighs of my dreams. This is my time, here, now. There will be time enough to get back to the city, to get back to life, but for now I need these small spots of concentrated life under the trees, the affirmation and promise of a wilderness that still, even years later, waits for me like a lover. Sleep came easily and deep.
Then morning, fried trout and a couple of potatoes, and the roar or a Lycoming engine starting back up. I'm off to another day under the open sky.
When was the last time you turned off the television, packed away the laptop and just went outside to yourself? The world will wait, but that peace you thought was beyond you, might not. Don't hesitate. I started writing years ago, then quit after my young husband burned my journal, not for the thoughts it contained, but the fact that he could not contain me. I didn't write again for 20 years, afraid that the words had disappeared. But they were there, just waiting for those quiet moments to be released.
Haven't you ever dreamed of soaring in a float plane over white-blue mountains untouched by man, to cast a line into pristine rivers for your dinner, the hush of a thousand acres enveloping you as the fire crackles outside your tent? No adventuresome adult with any of the juices of their youth in them has moved beyond that dream. Make the choice to follow it. What you gain for that choice will be more than a few photos and a empty bank account. The true harvest of your dream will always be as intangible and indescribable as the tints of a Northern sky. It will be a landscape of magic, a segment of the crystalline sky which you have reached out and held on to, if only for a moment in time.
If you take anything away from this blog, be it recipes, fun or simply family, I hope this message will remain. It's never too late to get back to the wild, the the elements of the earth that will make you happy. Shed the city, shed those that don't believe in you, cast away the layers of hurt and breathe deep.
The wilderness within you awaits.