I was laying in bed looking up available camping reservations. My new therapist thought camping would be a good goal for me to set for myself.
“Camping sounds like an attainable goal. You get to practice communicating your needs, and try not to catastrophize what might happen.”
I hadn’t gone camping since I was a kid, before I started getting chronic pain in my back. My scoliosis didn’t become a problem until I was in high school. That’s when I started getting migraines, and the frequent pain resulted in me retreating from parts of the world. I felt like my body would betray me at any moment and that brought on a lot of anxiety. I navigated those feelings by myself, and according to my therapist, had done a decent job.
Now I have insurance and a full-time job. So, I can: one, have a therapist, and two, have the time and money to go camping.
“I told you it’s hard to get a reservation at a campground. Too many people have moved to Austin.” David rolled next to me looking at his own phone.
“If so many people are finding reservations there must be one database,” or that’s what my UX research brain was telling me. “Ok, so these are my requirements. There needs to be an electrical socket just in case I need to use my heating pad for my back. I also want running water.” It was important that I communicated this to David. We had been dating close to six months and in that time, I heard many stories about his camping trips and none of them sounded anywhere near comfortable.
“What?” David looked at me over his glasses. An iconic gesture I noticed early in our relationship. “Why do you need running water?”
“This is just a starting point. Maybe you can convert me to the hard-core stuff later. Right now, I need running water. Here, there is a place at Buescher State Park in a few weeks. Does that work for you?”
“How did you find that?” David asked, looking at my phone screen.
“I told you there would be a database.”
We were sitting on my gray couch. “I was talking to Anna and Chance about camping and they are free that weekend. I said I needed to check in with you before I officially invite them,” said David.
“I told them that you haven’t been camping in a while and you might just want it to be the two of us.”
“That means a lot to me that you asked me first.” He was right, changing plans would have definitely sparked some anxiety in the past. But I liked this idea. I hadn’t met Anna and Chance yet and maybe they would keep David’s Eagle Scout tendencies from going overboard. “Yes, I think it would be fun to have them come.”
I stared at my empty backpack then back at my suitcase. Backpack. Suitcase. It felt silly to pack a suitcase for camping but everything would fit in it, even my pillow. But David would make fun of me for packing a suitcase. I started putting my clothes in the maroon JanSport backpack. So, I am technically bringing the same amount of stuff but in separate smaller bags so it looked like less. I rolled my eyes.
In my backpack, I had one change of clothes and pajamas that could be made into another change of clothes if needed. There were some toiletries and my Kindle.
Also coming with us was a massive amount of food. Chance had made a joke about expecting a five-course meal, and David thought it would be fun to oblige. There were rice balls that I had made, egg rolls, salad, and ramen for the main course. Followed by s’mores of course.
“Ya know, for someone who likes to rough it while camping this is pretty fancy. I’ve never made something like this for camping,” I told David while we made the menu.
David met me at my apartment and we started packing things into my car. That’s when we got the text. Chance was sick and they couldn’t make it.
“Well, that sucks. I had been looking forward to meeting them. I was hoping they would keep your ruggedness at bay.”
“I was hoping having them there would make it less likely you would cry and sleep in the car.” That stung a little.
“Wow, do you really have that on your list of possibilities?” I know I wasn’t an expert in wilderness, but I also knew if I was stranded with a group of people, I would not be the first to die. I wasn’t a city girl starting from zero.
“No really, I was just thinking worst case scenario. I guess we can unpack some of the food,” said David.
“Either way, we’re going to eat very well tonight.”
“We are checking in,” I told the lady behind the plexiglass.
“Check-in for what?”
“A campsite,” David clarified.
We got our parking permit and a map. Once we got to the campground I started looking around. I’m always amazed by the fact that 45 minutes outside of Austin there are tall pine trees and orange clay dirt. It is so different from Austin’s live oaks and white limestone.
“That looks like a child wrote that,” I said leaning over the fire pit and looking at a note placed on some logs.
“Here are five logs. Use them wisely. Heart and Clove” the note was written in bright Crayon.
“Do you think it’s from the last campers?” I asked while internally wondering if someone had named their kids Heart and Clove.
“I don’t know, but we have our own wood,” David had gotten the tent out of the car.
“Where do we want to put that?” I asked while putting my hair into a ponytail.
“Typically, you want to find a flat place that doesn’t have too many roots or rocks.”
There was that twinge again. I knew this. We both started looking at the ground.
We decided on a spot in the back of the site. Looking at the ground with all of its bumps and crevices reminded me of something. I debated on waiting to tell David until later but decided it wouldn’t accomplish anything.
I looked at David, “I thought of something we forgot.” I perused my lips. “The sleeping mat.” David had brought over his sleeping mat for me to try a few nights earlier. After confirming I could sleep in it without my back hurting, I had put it behind my couch out of the way, and there it still was. “I have my yoga mat in the back of the car.” I offered it as a crappy replacement.
“I should have remembered that. You can use my other mat and I will use the yoga mat. I have slept on worse.” I didn’t doubt that.
“Do you know how to set up a tent?”
“Yes, but let’s pretend I don’t.”
We started unwinding the poles and laying the tarp out. David taught me how to angle the spikes right so they would support the tent before hammering them into the ground. In no time we had a tent.
Behind our campsite was the pond —How big does a pond need to be before it’s a lake? —, we went to go look at it and it was dry. The dirt was cracked and filled with broken clamshells. There were happy white birds jumping around in the middle of the lake where I assumed the dirt was still wet.
“Do you want to find a trail on the map and go hiking?”
“Yes, let’s do that.”
Ten years ago, there was a big wildfire here. It tore through farms and multiple state parks. Slowly things were growing back, but the hike was filled with black burnt trees. It looked like huge pieces of charcoal had been plunged into the ground like stakes. The foliage that was alive was no taller than my knees. It would take generations for the forest to recover to what it once was.
David was hiking like it was a sport. Looking forward and following the trail with his long legs. I looked at the ground and trees. I had brought my camera and was looking around for worthy things to capture. If David got too far ahead or if I was stopping to take a picture I would whistle and he would come back.
We found a couple who were looking for their car and we pointed them in the right direction of the parking lot. After that, it was only us and the wildlife.
By the time we got to the top of the hill, it was sunset. The bright orange sky was a beautiful backdrop to this black forest. We still had the other half of the hike to finish. We both had flashlights but David didn’t want to use them right away, allowing our eyes to adjust. I put my camera in my backpack and continued to follow David. If I was really slowing down, like when we were going up an incline, David would go behind me allowing me to set the pace. By the time we got back to the car it was properly dark.
Once we were back at the camp, we started making dinner. After starting the camping stove David went to start the fire. I was in charge of cooking the egg rolls. I had never cooked by headlamp before. I didn’t like the limited light but it was very doable.
David yelled and started stomping his feet. “Did a spark get on you?” I asked.
“No, there are some fire ants by the pit. They are trying to get away from the fire. But they didn’t get me.”
I had moved on to reheating the rice balls I had made the day before. “Here, have an egg roll while it’s hot.” I handed one to David.
“These are good. We are going to have to get these again.” I agreed.
After the ramen was done, we sat by the fire and enjoyed our feast for two.
“Do you like the sietan?” David asked. I had never had this meat substitute before. I had been having fun calling it Satan.
“It’s good. I would eat it again.”
“After this do you want to go on a night hike?”
“What, we just did wasn’t a night hike?”
“No. Now it’s dark. Or we can go on a snipe hunt.”
“What is a snipe?”
“A small mouse. They like to burrow by buildings. We can go look at the empty venue up the road.”
“Ok, but s’mores first.”
David had been to a wedding here once. The venue building was made of deep red stones and it looked like it could hold over a hundred guests.
“So, we are looking for burrow holes by the foundation?” I asked.
“Yes, but snipes are endangered so we might not find one.”
I shrugged. If David wanted to look for a small mouse in the dark, so be it. I shone my light between the foundations and the ground. It wasn’t too long before I found a hole.
“Here is a hole but it’s not by the foundation and it’s not a burrow.”
David pulled back the grass over the shallow hole. “Wow, one must be around.” I squinted my eyes in suspicion. I knew this hole was made by a creature looking for grubs, not one who was making a home, and I knew David knew that too. But I shrugged it off.
I got closer and continued to search the base of the building. I thought I saw something. I kneeled down and moved some leaves around. When I stood back up there was a toad no bigger than my fist staring back at me with his bright gold eyes. “Well hello there. Well, I found your home.” He was sitting on the edge of some kind of water spillway that went through the building.
David came back to look at what I was talking to. “Good find.”
We did manage to find one burrow that was small enough for a snipe, but no one was home. After that disappointment, we sat on the picnic tables on the veranda and looked at the stars. I pointed out the limited stars I knew then David took a turn.
“There are deer behind us. Can you hear them?”
“Yep.” I confirmed, “it sounds like a lot of them.” They continued to snap branches and eat undisturbed.
“Wow,” we said at the same time as a shooting star crossed the sky.
“Not as good as that one star we saw in the summer,” I said leaning on David’s shoulder.
“No, but that one would be hard to beat.”
“Do you want to get up yet?”
“Not yet.” I was awake but my eyes were still closed.
“How did you sleep?”
“I woke up and heard some Coyotes but they were far away and, in that direction,” I pointed behind my head. “So, I fell back asleep. How did you sleep?”
I slipped my legs out of the sleeping bag.
“I’m going to the bathroom.”
None of the campsites here looked familiar even though I had been here before when I was young. But the bathroom was another story. I had a memory of women lined up waiting their turn to take a shower. The smell of antiseptic and soap in the air. I went back and forth on whether this was the actual bathroom. Maybe all the state parks had the same brown tile and layout. I liked this memory. There was a sense of female camaraderie. Women trying to get clean. Moms trying to get their kids clean before we all slept on the ground.
When we got back to the camp, we started making breakfast tacos. Well, David made breakfast tacos. I had an idea for a still-life picture and was picking up different colored rocks. After I rinsed the rocks, I sat down at the picnic table and started organizing them.
“I was thinking we would clean up camp and go for a hike. There is that other trail that should be really pretty. There isn’t any elevation like the hike last night.”
I looked at the map, “would you call that three miles? My hip isn’t supper happy from sleeping on the ground. I probably have a little over a mile in me.”
“Ok, how about this. I will clean up camp, you sit there and drink your tea. I’ll drop you off here,” he pointed to the map. “Park the car and meet you there. Then I will drive us back to Austin.”
“Yeah, that would help. I do want to go on the hike.” My therapist would be proud. I was sharing my needs and we were making it work.
“What are you doing with those rocks?”
“I am going to organize them in a monochromatic order and take a picture.”
There was a lot of red and I put them next to the yellow and orange rocks. I put a few back and found some other rocks that were more suitable. Once I was satisfied, I got out my camera and started taking pictures. David was folding the tent.
David dropped me off where the trail met the street. There were charcoal trees and yellow flowers. I would have plenty to photograph until David met me back here.
I surveyed my options. There was tall grass that came just below my knee but it wasn’t thick. If I get off the trail I can see where I am walking. There were a few black trees that I wanted to get closer to take a picture. I placed my backpack on the trail where I could see it then tenderly stepped through the grass.
I found a black tree on the ground. It looked like it had fallen and shattered like glass. Two small butterflies landed on one of the shards. I had to keep reminding myself that it was December. It was December but I was wearing shorts. It’s 80 degrees out and there were butterflies.
I took pictures of the small yellow flower and the one bright red tree. I was leaning behind a tree taking a picture of a mushroom when I heard a whistle. I whistled back and made my way back to the trail. We kept whistling at each other until David saw me.
“I think I made good time.”
“You did. I wasn’t here for very long and I got some good pictures.”
We started down the trail we hadn’t been on yet. I used to be very good at direction and knowing where I was. Over time it’s like my brain decided it needed to throw that knowledge out for something more important, like all the lyrics to Taylor Swift’s All Too Well the ten-minute version.
It wasn’t long before the trail in front of us led into a full-grown pine forest. This is what the whole park would look like if it hadn’t burned away. The brown trunks of the pines reached dozens of feet up. The ground was littered with pine needles. The change in landscape was like night and day. One second there is a breeze on your face and you can see for miles around. Next, the sun is hiding behind full-grown trees.
“The smell of pines always reminds me of my aunt’s place,” I said to David behind me.
“It’s so beautiful here.” I looked back and saw him looking up at the canopy.
“I know you don’t like picking favorites, but what was your favorite hike?”
“I liked backpacking in the Grand Canyon. Colorado is nice too.”
We talked about hikes and landscapes for most of the trail. We saw a buck who wasn’t very happy to see us. Every now and then I would take a picture but after a while, I was behind David and had gotten quiet. David noticed.
“How are you doing?”
“Getting a little tired,” I admitted. “How much longer do you think?”
He stopped and pulled out the map. “Where do you think we are on the map?”
I inwardly groaned. I was not going to be good at this. I could hear cars up and to the right of us and we were in what might be called a valley. I pointed at a spot on the map. “Close, I am pretty sure we are here. Which means we have more than a mile to go.”
As we kept walking, I took an internal inventory of my pain and energy level. I didn’t like what I found. If I was a gas tank I had less than a fourth left. We still needed to drive home and unload everything.
I kept looking around for a nice place to sit down. That patch of ground. That big rock. We came upon some freshly chopped trees. I sat down on one of the logs. “We are going to sit here for a bit,” I declared.
I had picked up a piece of red flint on the trail. I began rubbing it on the bark of the log. A small gash appeared.
“No, leave no trace,” David quoted and tried to rub my work away.
“Are you still friends with anyone who was in your troop?”
“No, it was small, which I liked. But I’m not sure what they are up to now. If you will excuse me. I am going to go see a man about a horse.”
I had learned this was what guys would say before slipping behind a bush to use their envious gift of peeing while standing up. I grabbed some bark from the ground. Pine bark is flat and can be as wide as a bar of soap. I carved into it. It broke so I picked up another one. This one held and I started making the letter B. David returned.
“The road isn’t that much further. When we get there you can wait while I get the car.”
We walked the last of the trail in silence. My introverted brain needed to recharge. I had been doing a lot of new things, and things that might as well have been new. My capacity for adventure was limited, unfortunately.
“Ok, here is the road.”
“What?” I looked around and didn’t see any yellow flowers. Where was the tree I spent a good five minutes taking pictures of? “This isn’t where we started. I can show you the pictures of…” I trailed off. The yellow flowers, along with everything else I remember were on the other side of the small road. “Oh, never mind,” I said sheepishly. “I need food.”
“I’ll go get the car. I don’t think it will be as fast as last time.”
“Don’t worry. I’m not going anywhere.” I took off my backpack and leaned against the trail marker. David disappeared and I decided gravity wanted me to sit on the ground. I sat criss-cross on the dirt. Again, I had to remind myself it was December. I was wearing shorts. But it’s December. Staying true to myself I started poking at the plants and rocks at my feet. It wasn’t too long before I felt a pinch on the upper, way up, part of my leg. I slapped it, but I didn’t need to look at my hand to know it was an ant. Not a fire ant, but I stood up.
I was done. I still needed to keep enough energy to still function as a human and not yell or cry at anyone. Suddenly there was a black fuzz ball making its way across the street. It was an asp. The pokey caterpillar was traveling at a crazy speed. He seemed to be just as confused that it was December as I was.
I heard a car getting closer so I got off the road. I was very glad to see it was David. “Do you want to grab a picnic table and eat the leftover roman?”
“Yes, that sounds like a good idea.”
After cleaning up in one of the bathrooms we sat down at a concrete picnic table and started getting everything out. David went to get our waters out of the car. I heard a familiar buzz. A bee and his friend wanted my lunch. I covered up the dish and they went away.
David came back, “there are some hungry bees around.” I informed him. “This campground looks more familiar than the other one. I can imagine Baylor climbing that big tree, and playing capture the flag on that field.”
“Capture the flag was the best.”
“Did you ever play with more than just two teams? Sometimes we would split the field into fourths. It would get crazy.”
“No, we never did that. I don’t know if I would have liked that.” The bees came back and we covered up our food. “So, do you think you could do this again?”
The bees left. “Yes, I feel like I accomplished a lot. I was good at telling you what I needed and what my limits are. We also did some compromising on the hike. I could definitely do this again.”
“Maybe next time we can pick a campsite where the car is more than a few yards away.”
“That sounds doable. I also still need to meet Anna and Chance.” We packed up our lunch and threw away our trash. It was time to leave. “Do we need to check out or something, or can we just leave?”
David laughed as he got into the driver’s seat. “It’s not a hotel. We don’t need to check out.”
“I don’t know. I just thought they might appreciate knowing we didn’t get lost on the trails. There are still gaps in my camping knowledge.”
“About that.” David started the car. “There is something I need to tell you about the snipes.”