I am alone. In the woods.
Not at the moment you’re reading this of course; in the intervening time I typed it all into my computer. But as I’m writing this, it’s 5:30 p.m. on a Saturday night and I’m writing longhand in a notebook, a near-illegible mix of Palmer cursive and printing. It’s hard to write when you’re crouched over your notebook so it doesn’t get too wet in the rain.
This is my first time backcountry camping. That essentially just means that I’m in the middle of the woods. I’m not camping next to my car, and I’m also not camping next to other people. There aren’t bathrooms or picnic tables or wifi. Just me and the trees.
I’m in Prince William Forest Park, a national park in Virginia, about 30 miles south of DC. Obviously I’m not in the middle of wilderness here. The Chopawamsic Backcountry Area in PWFP is 1,500 acres of forest, with one side bordering on Marine Corps Base Quantico.
But I feel like I’m in the middle of nowhere, despite occasionally hearing a particularly loud truck on the freeway (about two miles away) or a plane flying overhead. But I’m surprised at how not-quiet the woods are. In my mind, alone = quiet. But I’m camping right next to a “babbling” brook, which is actually pretty loud and is even drowning out the sound of the light rain.
It’s just now occurring to me that maybe I shouldn’t be sitting out here in the rain, because these are the only clothes I brought with me, and I’ll want them to be dry tomorrow, not to mention if it gets cold enough tonight, I’ll want to sleep in them.
I am alone in the woods. I know this for a fact, because I registered at the ranger station right before they closed at 5:00, and they told me nobody else had registered for a backcountry permit today. Along with the permit you get a gate key to access the parking lot at the backcountry camping area, so you’re not (easily) getting in here without registering.
I feel very alone right now. But it’s good. The only thing that’s really bugging me at the moment is being so close to Quantico. I’ve watched enough episodes of NCIS that I am pretty much convinced that the base is full of dead bodies and possibly serial killers.
The first time I camped at Prince William Forest Park (in the regular campground, not the backcountry camping), a park ranger told me not to worry if I hear gunshots, as it’s just the shooting range over at Quantico.
I thought I was leaving the city to get away from hearing gunshots. Ironic.
It’s now 6:30 p.m., and in the time since I put my notebook down, four exciting things have happened.
- I jumped across a small creek without falling in.
- I heard an owl, which I don’t think I ever have in the wild.
- I remembered I’m scared of spiders. Saw a huge one on my tent. Ew.
- I inadvertently did something incredibly stupid, but I swear I will never do it again.
The stupid thing: I left my campsite and went into the woods without bringing any emergency supplies with me.
I am normally fastidious about this. Even when I don’t need to be. But a hike is usually an event: I pack everything up (using a checklist), drive somewhere, park, and then hike.
But I already did that all those steps earlier today, and now that I’ve unpacked into my tent, it just feels like going for a walk. Except it’s not. If I had sprained my ankle a quarter mile from my tent, I would have been screwed. No water, no food, no first aid kit, no flashlight, no warm clothes, no bear whistle.
People do know where I am, so I wouldn’t be stuck here forever. And that’s part of the reason campers have to get a permit for backcountry camping. If I don’t turn in my gate key by tomorrow afternoon, someone would probably come look for me. Eventually.
In all seriousness, when I realized what I had done, I checked my cell phone. It still had a full signal, so I could have just called for help.
Unless, of course, the theoretical sprained ankle had happened while jumping over the creek, and I had fallen in. My cell phone would certainly have fallen out of my pocket into the water. Then I really would have been screwed.
It’s quarter after 7, and starting to get dark. It should be quite a while before sunset, but I’m amongst heavy trees, very tall (100 feet? I’m not good at guessing height, but I think they’re taller than the building I work in, which is 12 stories).
As it starts to get dark, I have a few things on my mind:
- Food. I have packaged couscous to cook, and a little canister stove that I will be using for the first time.
- Bathroom. In case I need to leave the tent after it gets dark, I want to plan out exactly where I am going to walk to, so I can avoid tripping on a branch in the dark and falling down the hill into the creek.
- Bears. I knew this is the one thing that would really bother me on this trip. Never mind the spiders; I’m not really scared of them, just sometimes startled and annoyed when I see a big one. And yes I know I just wrote here a couple weeks ago that I’m not scared of anything, but I totally take that back. Terrified of bears.
At least here on the east coast, we only have black bears, which are not nearly as bad as grizzlies. If I were camping on the west coast, I wouldn’t be writing this because I would have climbed up a tree the last time I heard a strange noise (yes, I know that doesn’t actually help).
Black bears very rarely attack humans, as long as they don’t feel threatened. If you see one, all you need to do is make a lot of noise, and they generally go away (thus, the bear whistle).
I was worried about the bear possibility, but at least I thought I would be able to hear one coming. But now, between the babbling brook and the light rain, it’s hard to discern other noises. Snapping twigs? Not sure.
And are there sasquatches on the east coast, or are they just in the Pacific Northwest?
It’s now 8:30 p.m. and I’m in my tent. The intervening hour has not been particularly fun, but it’s been interesting.
I had no trouble starting the stove, since I practiced at home. My stove has an automatic starter. Woosh! I was a little scared I would set the forest on fire, but I think since everything was soggy from the rain, I didn’t have to worry. When I practiced at home, I had a fire extinguisher within reach, just in case.
My first challenge was trying to get the water and couscous in the pan without adding bugs or the little chunks of stuff falling off trees (it’s still raining a bit). I fished out a couple of the bits, then realized my hands were probably dirtier than the bits. Then I decided it would be easier to just stop caring. Problem solved!
Everything was fine until I tried to stir and instead tipped the pan off the stove and spilled half my couscous. Luckily it was a 2-serving pouch, so I still had plenty to eat (and I did bring along a few Clif bars for backup). But trying to scrape couscous out of wet leaves? Not so fun. So that’s why you aren’t supposed to cook close to your tent.
Next, the couscous bits, Clif bars, and my toothpaste all went into a bag (“stuff sack,” they call them, in wilderness terminology). The bears I keep imagining I hear actually do exist somewhere, and they are occasionally spotted in this park. So all food and trash gets to hang from a tree branch.
I should have practiced this part at home, but I live in the city, so the only tree in my yard is pretty much directly adjacent to a bus stop, and I wasn’t about to do this with several people watching. It’s bad enough looking silly in the middle of a forest, where I’m pretty sure the trees would be blocking anyone on the marine base who might have long-range binoculars. (If I can’t see them, they can’t see me, right?)
But back to the tree. The way this is supposed to work is you have a rope (I do) and you tie one end to your bag and one end to a rock (whoops. it’s dark! how do I find a rock?) and you find a tree branch, at least 15 feet off the ground. You throw the rock over the branch, grab the other end of the rope, and hoist up your bag. Tie the end of the rope to the tree. Theoretically, the bear can’t get your food, as long as the bag is at least 10 feet off the ground, the branch is too thin for the bear to climb on, and the bear doesn’t untie the bag.
It was hard to find a branch of the correct height…. how high is 15 feet? That was easy to figure out — a little less than three of me. Which seemed kind of high to throw a rock over, when you essentially have to throw straight up.
I couldn’t find a branch of the correct height, but I did my best. The bottom of the bag is supposed to be at least 10 feet off the ground. My bag ended up being only about 6 feet off the ground, and I seemed to not know how to tie a knot, except a square knot which proved to be sort of useless.
I’m glad there’s nobody around, because the whole bag/rope concoction looks pretty embarrassing. Hopefully a bear will come tear the whole thing down. Just kidding! But if she’s tall or motivated, she can have it. I don’t think she’ll be all that impressed with my smooshed-up couscous anyway.
If I was truly in bear country, this would be a lot more complicated. You’re not supposed to cook anywhere near your tent, and you’re even supposed to change out of the clothes you wore while cooking, and then not put those clothes in your tent, because they’ll smell like food.
The main problem with bears, when you’re camping, isn’t really that bears are going to come after you, the human. What they want is your food, and they don’t care if you’re in the way. You don’t want to be stepped on by a 500 lb. bear.
So by 8:30, it was pretty dark and I was getting kind of jumpy, so it seemed like a good time to go inside the tent. It’s now about 9:15. Writing longhand is slow. Incidentally, what you’re reading is very close to what I originally wrote in my steno book, with only minimal editing. (Yes, that last sentence was added later).
Tonight was supposed to be the whole “supermoon” phenomena, which is one reason I wanted to be out of the city (you can’t see anything there with all the bright lights). Every year or so, a full moon coincides with the point when the moon is at its closest approach to the Earth. The moon appears larger and brighter than usual.
But I didn’t think about the fact that there would be trees blocking my view of the sky. Plus, I think it’s too cloudy. The peak of tonight’s supermoon is supposed to be at 11:35 p.m. — if I’m still awake, hopefully I’ll be able to see something. There’s also supposed to be a meteor shower visible, from the earth passing through debris from Halley’s Comet.
Normally when I camp, I leave the rainfly off so I can see the sky, but you can’t really do that when it’s raining. Ugh. Everything is damp and muddy in my tent. My hair is wet. I hope my hair isn’t muddy. I was going to sleep in my clothes, but they’re wet and muddy. I was also going to use my sweatshirt as a pillow, but it’s wet. Not muddy though.
I feel relatively calm right now, but I somehow started thinking of The Blair Witch Project when I got here, and it’s kind of been stuck in my head. Remember when that movie came out in theaters, and everybody thought it was real? Scary.
It’s also not helping that I was watching The X-Files on Netflix this morning. Luckily it wasn’t an episode involving anything in a forest.
I had been reading for a while on my iPad, but now I’m writing in my notebook in the dark, because I’m at that wonderful point in the evening where I’m kind of terrified. Will I be able to read what I wrote? Who knows. There is definitely a trick to writing in the dark.
So I heard a noise… like someone is out there. Or something. A noise like you hear in the movies right before something really scary happens. But of course this is the woods. There are lots of things out there, and they generally have more right to be here than I do. I don’t think I heard a bear; not noisy enough. Could be a raccoon or something. Could be a serial killer. That’s why I stopped reading and turned off the iPad, so there wouldn’t be any light coming out of my tent. Although, I would imagine if there’s something bad out there, it can probably see in the dark anyway.
But now, I no longer hear anything — and I’m turning the light back on. Hmm. Turns out my handwriting is actually better in the dark than in the light. Probably because I was writing slower.
I’m still a little scared. I can’t remember exactly why I thought this would be a good idea. I probably felt like I needed to prove something… that I’m tough enough to spend the night in the woods alone. So now I’ve done it (well, I’ve almost done it).
By tomorrow morning I’ll be miserable (probably cold, wet, and muddy), but by Monday I’ll be over it, and I’ll get it into my head that this was an awesome adventure (but no… I wrote it down! It was scary and miserable!)
But then, a lot of things we do in life are for how we remember them afterwards. When I think back to all the adventures I’ve had, most of them weren’t all that great as they were happening. The bus in Guatemala with the chickens? That careened around sharp curves on narrow roads with 100+ foot drop-off on one side? Not fun at all!!! But it’s a great story to tell. Sometimes, the fun you have telling a great story over and over makes up for how ridiculously miserable the original experience was.
I love that I can hear the babbling brook just down the hill from me. Its 10:10 p.m. now, but I’m not sleepy. I wish I was… I wish I could go to sleep and wake up when it’s light out and when I don’t have to worry about bears anymore. But I never sleep soundly when I camp. The noises are unfamiliar and I tend to wake up a lot. Once I woke up when I was camping in Shenandoah and there was a skunk right outside my tent!
I can tell that I’m tired, even if I’m not sleepy, because my writing feels less coherent.
I’ve decided to use the damp sweatshirt as a pillow — really no other option. I’m a little cold, but my jeans are wet so I’m not putting them back on… sitting on a damp log to write didn’t help. This is why you aren’t supposed to wear cotton when hiking; it takes so long to dry. I do know better on that one, I’m apparently just too lazy to buy proper pants.
My shirt is damp as well, but I can’t bring myself to not have a shirt on. My tent has screen windows and just my luck I’ll wake up to some Marine peering in. At least the lower half of me is well encased in a zipped-up sleep sack (basically a light blanket with a zipper), so the damp pants situation isn’t a big deal.
I think it’s cloudy enough that the moon viewing is definitely out of the question… but at least I have a babbling brook.
It’s now 10:55 p.m. and it’s really dark.
I’m not scared anymore, but I’m sure one more strange noise could put me over the edge again. If I was at home right now, I would be getting up to get a snack. Probably a glass of milk, which seems to help make me sleepy. But here — my food is all in a bag in a tree. And if I went outside my tent right now, I’d almost certainly be eaten by a bear.
I hear birds — I guess there must be nocturnal birds. I didn’t know that, other than the owls. At home — I keep thinking of home — birds like to roost on the porch roof right outside my bedroom window. They start chirping at about 5:30 in the morning. I know this because I like to sleep with the window open in nice weather, and they wake me up. I get up, close the window, go back to sleep.
Writing like this is actually very relaxing (if only I was sleepy!). Right now I’m feeling content, and it was worth a few hours of unpleasantness. In the morning, I don’t know if I’ll feel the same…
It’s 2:00 a.m. and I was asleep but now I’m wide awake again. It’s a good kind of awake — not the kind you usually have in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep but you know you have to wake up in the morning. Now, I’m just awake because I am. Because my mind has too much in it to turn off right now. I have nowhere to be in the morning, although I’m sure the sun will wake me up when it rises.
I think I’ve been awake for at least a half hour. And I’ve been thinking all that time; I haven’t turned on a light or my iPad or tried to do anything else until now. I’m surrounded by this noise of water: a babbling brook that’s close enough that I feel like I’m in the middle of it, and rain that’s lightly trickling on and off.
And I hear a new noise that I wasn’t hearing earlier. I think it might be crickets, or maybe tree frogs. They sound kind of similar and I can’t generally tell them apart.
I wonder if I should read some more to try to go to sleep. Sleep seems elusive right now… I want to sleep, but maybe I just am supposed to be awake to hear the brook and the rain and the tree frogs and whatever else may come along.
Being alone in the woods makes me feel so insignificant. And that’s actually a good thing, because it makes whatever issues and questions I’m dealing with in my life feel insignificant too. It’s easy to forget this feeling of clarity, so I’m glad I’m writing it down now, in the middle of the night in the middle of the woods.
It’s 5:30 a.m. and apparently it’s morning in the forest. I love morning when camping, although the lack of sleep at this point is bugging me a bit.
It’s cold — I definitely was underprepared for this. Well, actually, it’s only about 60. That’s far from being cold enough to freeze; I’m just mildly uncomfortable. 60 is what my programmable thermostat is set to go down to at night in the winter — of course, that’s when I’m tucked in under a nice warm down comforter.
The still-soggy pants are now a blanket for my legs; the still-soggy sweatshirt a blanket over the rest of me. That left me no pillow so I’m trying out my backpack — it has a hard frame and makes kind of a sucky pillow. Oh well. At least most of me is mildly warm as long as I stay curled in a fetal position.
The morning birds are starting to make a racket. And the owl has chimed in (wasn’t he nocturnal?)
7:30 a.m. It’s light out, I’m warmer, I wish I’d gotten more than a few hours sleep, but I’m getting up. I’m exhausted and want to go home.
It’s noisy in the forest: unbelievable all these birds. My clothes have mostly dried out, but it’s still raining. I’m trying to figure out how to go outside of the tent in the rain to go to the bathroom without getting my clothes wet again.
I didn’t sleep well, I think mostly from being too cold. A few times I woke up from what felt like disturbing dreams that I couldn’t remember.
I totally need to get over myself: 60 is not cold. But I am looking forward to getting out of here and in a 30 minute walk I can be back in my warm, dry car with the heater cranked up.
My bear bag is still up the tree, so I guess either the bears never found me or they were too short.
I did so many things wrong during this camping trip, but it was a good learning experience, and I’ll do better next time.
I’m writing this part a few days later, and reflecting on what I wrote. I was right that I would mostly forget the miserable parts — I have — and only remember the awesomeness. I guess that’s the way our minds are supposed to work. The good stuff needs to take precedence over the bad stuff, or we’d never get by.
A year ago I never could have imagined I would be camping by myself in the woods. But now, I’ve done it, and it’s not such a big deal anymore to be alone in the woods.
So for next time, I’ll be needing more alone and more woods. Another adventure to look forward to.