In the World But Not Of It

Over Columbus Day weekend, I went camping in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. That might not sound Earth-shattering, but I had a truly transformative experience. So, just what transpired?

When I lived in Eastern Connecticut, which was most of my post-college, early-adult years, I would camp in New Hampshire several times a year. One friend showed me a national forest tent site in Lincoln, and another got me interested in skiing Tuckerman’s Ravine on Mount Washington. I would go whenever I needed to get away from the daily grind, and the season made no difference. I have gone during the height of the summer’s heat and humidity, when no over-the-counter mosquito repellent would deter the parasitic creatures, and only standing in the smoke of a wood fire could preserve my circulatory system’s contents. I have gone during the depths of winter when I made the mistake of removing my snowshoes to pitch a tent and found myself submerged to the waist in white powder. I have heard howling winds outside my tent driving the chill factor into the double-digits below zero. I have seen the rinse water freeze on my newly-washed dishes in a matter of seconds. Friends and family who knew of my obsession never struggled to come up with birthday and Christmas presents of camping gadgets.

Then I got my current job and moved to the southwestern part of the state. Suddenly, my beloved White Mountains were an additional two hours’ drive away. My vacations now corresponded with school breaks, so I could only go camping when the sites were at their most crowded with families. My wife is a good sport, and she has gone with me on a few occasions, but (reasonably) she would rather have a real bed and a hot shower than a foam pad and an icy river. So, in the last decade or so, I have camped less and less often, instead focusing on closer and more comfortable recreation that we can enjoy together. The last time I determined to re-visit my old haunts, which was three years ago, a steady rain began just as I started my three-mile hike in, and when I reached the tent sites it showed no sign of letting up. I don’t mind being cold, but I hate being wet. I turned around, hiked back out, and drove the five hours home the same day.

Out of fear that I was getting soft and losing my edge, I determined this year would be different. I checked and re-checked the weather forecast for Lincoln, and it remained, “Cool but dry.” I dug out my old gear, re-stocked my food supply, and drove to New Hampshire. Even though it rained for most of the drive, I somehow knew it would be dry when I arrived. It was! The fee for the camping permit had not changed since the Clinton administration! And how can I describe the foliage? Absolute vivid peak, as if someone had electrified a Van Gogh painting. Wonderful, variegated colors covering every bit of mountain side and valley floor. Like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

Or had I? remember that episode of Family Guy when the residents of Rhode Island cower in fear of the influx of leaf peepers from the cities? It turns out this was not even slightly exaggerated. I think everyone in the greater Boston metro area had converged on this bit of the world.There were distracted drivers, oblivious pedestrians, and more people taking pictures with telephones on sticks than at the Rio Olympics. I experienced a few minutes of trepidation when I had to circle a multi-acre parking lot, in which I have never seen more than a handful of cars, to park and start the hike. But I eventually found a space, and after a mile walking into the woods, I had left the crowds and craziness completely behind.

After that, the experience was exactly the one I had been craving. I hauled water from the Pemigewasset River to supply my camp’s needs. I foraged for dry firewood to keep me warm. I ground coffee to make high-quality espresso over the camp stove (some things are non-negotiable). I had to drape my rain shell over my sleeping bag because the nighttime low temperatures were lower than predicted. I felt alive. I felt virile. I felt competent.

That was not the transformative experience.

It turns out there is a down side to such a trip: coming back from it.

Imagine: for three days, you go to sleep because it got too dark to read the words in your (printed) (on paper) book. For three days, the only lights you see during the night are the star Vega shining through a small gap in the trees and the Moon casting silvery shadows among the foliage. For three days, you get up and dress because there is enough light to cook the breakfast you just retrieved from a steel bear-proof box (because bears will rip you and your camp apart if they smell food). For three days, the only sounds you hear are the wind rustling through pines, the river gurgling over rocks, and owls plaintively calling to each other in the inky darkness.

Back in the “real” world, you go to sleep because you need to be somewhere looking presentable first thing in the morning so a client can insult you. You need to close the blinds to block out street lights from your tired eyes.  You awake because an electronic device makes a hideous noise until you turn it off. You eat your breakfast because that’s what was on sale at Trader Joe’s, and it’s what you can reach in the cabinet. The only sounds you hear are presidential candidates calling each other names and holier-than-thou partisan pundits repeating the insults.

I wish I had stayed in the woods.