Summer of Stars
This summer, Troy and I spent a stretch of fifty-two nights camping in State Forests and protected wilderness. I write this on the eve of our two-week entry back into civilization, and I don't know what to say, except that I feel an underlying panic with being back in the city that is difficult to process. It's evening, and the sounds of night are drifting through the opened window. That's why I'm writing this now—because those sounds are making me ache.
I wasn't expecting this summer to change the way I viewed life—at least not in the way that minimalism had, or the decision we made to live as full-time nomads—yet living two months mostly off-grid under the stars was every bit as impactful and extraordinary in its own way. I'm coming to believe that life is full of vivid paths to transcendence and expansion that are always waiting just off the main course, for anyone wishing to reimagine their existence.
We began our camping trip in June, departing from San Francisco to travel up The One, weaving high above the crashing ocean. It took five days to get to Portland, though we could have done it in one had we not been so reluctant to leave behind the great Sequoias and the caramel-colored Madron trees.
And as we journeyed, the fog would clear over some flat, common spot and we'd find ourselves surrounded by cliff sides covered in succulents, overlooking coves of sparkling green waters too incredible to leave. I'd sit there and work on my novel, with the gong of tugboats in the distance and the cries of seabirds around me, and feel so content that we'd agree to stay one more night amidst the regal Redwoods that swayed and creaked above our heads, dampening the outside world and nearest city—even the sounds of our own voices.
Eventually, we veered away from the coast and continued north, following a broad rushing river as we climbed through the California mountains. We camped along streams and walked through haunted mossy forests, and were awakened by startling sunrise views from our hammock tent that made us feel as if our lives might not be real. It was quiet, within and without.
We traveled through Portland and found a lovely campground in Washington State near the Washougal river that was part of a series of sites through Washington called the "Discovery Trails." Our host was a toothless, cheerful man named Ed, ever shadowed by his ancient disgruntled dog, and ruled by a wife named Wanda with wide hips and a jewelry business that was purportedly "good enough to be on the in-ter-net."
Our neighbors were constantly changing, resetting the scenes of our lives every few days during the week we spent there. Five trees down was a disgruntled man who chopped wood at all hours of the day from the comfort of his camping chair. He had a quick temper that his energetic son and lethargic wife were constantly dodging. After them, came a lovely lesbian couple with two curly-haired children who were always eating smores and begging their moms to take them for another swim; next was a van full of teenagers in swimsuits, continually flipping long hair over tanned shoulders and exchanging coy glances in tireless flirtations.
It was like watching life on fast-forward, seeing neighbors come and go and come and go.
Every morning I'd wake to the changing light and stumble out of my tent to build a fire. I'd sit in its circle of warmth and guard it jealously, meditating on the silky flames that caressed the wood and changed colors as they gained heat over their luminous bed of coals. Those were still, clear moments—free of the existential questions that had plagued me as of late. The world made sense when I was alone with my breath, watching the fire carve quilted patterns into the wood. I fed the embers until the logs were gone and the first rays of light glowed through the thick mosses that climbed the west sides of the tree trunks.
There were no newsfeeds that could reach us here. No notifications. No updates on the mad world. It was a different life off-grid, and our heart-rates slowed away from the chaos, away from cell signal, and the bustle of cities, and email notifications. It was infinitely easier to breathe, and to be.
After a week, we moved further into Washington to the Yacolt Burn Forest to Cold Creek Campground, which was spacious and eerie, with open views of Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Hood. Every hill and field was covered in wildflowers, with purple blooms swaying as higher than my hips, and thick forests of white daisies waving before the mountain. It was a wild, poignant beauty, still unspoiled by humans.
I met a child there one day. A soft voice called to me, and I looked up from my book to see him there along the edge of the forest, pressed against a tree trunk like a lost boy of Peter Pan, with cheeks smudged and flushed with excitement. He asked if he could hide under our table and scrambled below when I assented.
Next game, he brought his little sister Chloe to hide with him. Then came Paige, and Noah, and Eleanor, and Eva, and Jackson—and about five others—all eager to hide behind our tent, under our table, and down the little trail from our site. They brought us offerings of branches for our fire in exchange for refuge during hide-and-seek—offerings we accepted with gravity. The children were new best friends and generously allowed us into their circles as well, inviting us to their camps for smores, where we were introduced to their families, and the central "mother," who was distributing glowsticks for all the children and the children's new friends that she'd anticipated they'd meet.
It is a strange culture shared between nomads. The same person who has lived in a neighborhood for seven years without knowing the names of the people next door, will sit by a stranger's fire in deep conversation and bask in the connection that comes when there are no walls, or fences, or ownership of the land beneath one's feet.
Day twenty-five, we moved east through the Columbia Gorge to Olympia; day thirty, found us hiking into the mountainous country to the Sno Bowl, where we stayed at the top of a summit with snow-capped mountains visible at every side (Read about that Here). The smoke from the wildfires in the north eventually pushed us further east, and day forty-two we made the ten-hour trek to the Sawtooth Wilderness in Idaho to align ourselves with the Path of Totality for the coming eclipse. We were so taken with the raw, wild beauty of Idaho, and the unexpected culture and education, that we considered giving up our nomadic ways to stay in the neighboring city of Ketchum, where we happened upon Ernest Hemingway's granddaughter, Mariel Hemingway, speaking at their annual literary festival.
The area we camped (Stanley) was full of glacier rivers and lakes, with clear offshoots populated by darting red Chinooks. The temperature stayed below 35 until after 9:30 a.m when the sun would finally top the mountain and warm our site. It was late August, yet we were sleeping in merino leggings, knee-high woolen socks, doubled sleeping bags, and knit caps, with nothing but the tips of our noses sticking out over the edge of the blanket, making clouds of steam.
In the slow mornings, we went to the big lodge for Americanos and watched the sunshine glisten across the glacier lake. Then to the bakery for cinnamon rolls, and biscuits and gravy, to exchange stories and names with curious locals and fellow-eclipse chasers. We stayed there a total of eight days, and it was all too short.
Day fifty-one—the thunderstorms were bad enough that we were forced out of our site in Idaho and into a hotel. As I dropped my bags on the carpeted floor, I was overwhelmed by the luxury and convenience—by the water that came out of the tap, by showers and plumbing and king-sized beds and hot tubs. By our ability to make the room whatever temperature we wanted it to be, and the outlets everywhere along the wall that we could just plug into.
I was overwhelmed by the surge of information, by access to apps, and text messages, and Wifi and Internet, and news. We were tired, and basked in the convenience—but by the next day, it was already feeling hollow, and my mind was rejecting the chaos that now immersed us.
After the hotel, we spent one more night camping in Idaho before dashing off cross-country to Nashville for a shoot he was slated to work on.
We are staying in a lovely cottage now in the city, but I miss the wilderness. People here walk quickly with heads forever bent over black screens. They drive impatiently in great mass to the towering cement centers of town where they punch in and out of work, anxious to join the great exodus of cars at the end of day to creep slowly back home. It's a cacophony of horns and sirens, joined by the beep of my phone and the corresponding beeps of my ego, and at night the city lights cast a sheen that hide the stars.
I don't sleep well anymore without the hum of the cicadas, and the steady chirping of crickets I'd become so accustomed to. It's strange to have to check my phone to see how cold it is outside, or whether it is cloudy when for two months I could just open my eyes, or stick a hand outside my blankets to know the quality of the weather. I feel as if I've been wrenched from the earth, and when I wake in the night and see a dim ceiling instead of stars, I feel a deep, penetrating ache between my ribs.
So I keep my eyes shut tight when the lights are out, and pretend I can still feel the evening breeze carrying gently through the tent walls, and imagine that I'm back in Idaho, in the cove where we spent our final night, nestled among high golden hills. I can still see our tent resting there, under the oak tree with a river running behind. It's so quiet that I want to cry in relief—I want to stay. I pretend I do. A man fly-fishes in the rushes downstream, and I stand near the river and watch his smooth movements, the line cutting through the pink waters as the sun dips. A family of ducks swims from under an overhang on the water's edge, weaving in and out until dusk falls—and I find I can breathe again.
It's fitting that our last night—our fifty-second—had been here, beneath a vast, clear sky and the brightest canopy of stars I'd seen since Africa. They swirl and sway, and I lay there in my tent, with my hands clasped on my stomach and wonder which of them are still burning and what their names might be. They are too beautiful to let me sleep, so I watched them spin again for hours, and listen to the waters passing near my head. The sounds of the night fill the air with a soothing chorus and lull me to sleep, as I feel the moon crossing right-to-left across the sky.
And so I drift, with eyes shut tight, almost believing that I stayed…almost believing that if I opened my eyes, I could see the galaxies again, shining bright above my head like diamonds scattered against the black velvet skies...