I was standing at a counter filling out paperwork to camp on one of North Carolina’s barrier islands when the ranger reminded me what day it was— May 15, my 40th wedding anniversary. In 40 years I’d managed to reconfigure myself from the wearer of the long white gown to the bearer of the backpack full of gear.
Nothing beats an island for turning inward. I found my campsite behind a twenty foot dune. Everywhere blackberry bushes grew absolutely flat against the ground, the white sand reflecting heat and light to ripen the thousand shining berries. It was a milk-and-honey moment. Scattered among the blackberries were blooming yellow cacti. Beyond that, live oaks and scrub sculpted by wind and weather— beach bonsai.
The wind was constant and it was hard to light my stove and keep it burning, but I nestled between two dunes and cooked supper while watching dolphins breach close to shore. For dessert — foraged blackberries.
There was the outbreath of sound coming from the ocean, but muted by dunes and in the thickets many birds calling to one another. Colors shifted in the shadows cast by the dunes. Backlit by a softspoken sunset the dunes turned lavender, and the grasses jade green. As soon as the sun slipped away I sank into my sleeping bag. Not long after, a group of coyotes began to sing together close by. It was a sound-surprise– mournful, sustained, intoned by several voices. I wondered if they would sing all night, but it was just one brief incantation, a couple of bars, and I never heard from them again.
Numb from driving, from noise and the world, I settled into a kind of deep inertia. I spent the next day sitting on the beach and staring out to sea. Instinct told me to make this trek, and which book to grab on my way out the door–an amazing choice, as if it had been curated just for this moment. Not a novel, but a book about reverence, nature, and living a spiritual life in a human body. I liked that part best— how walking, cleaning, loving, driving, cooking –the everyday things we do with our human bodies, are how our spirits are accessed.
At the end of the day I felt a little more alive and took a beach walk, discovering shells and seaweed like Medusa’s hair. A formation of 25 pelicans flew overhead, and a shorebird went plunge fishing nearby.
I began to notice there seemed to be a noise louder than the sea, but the murky sky hid the source from view. Later I found out that arms and bombs are tested at Camp Lejeune nearby. A fisherman told me that a bear had swum over to live on the island and changed his mind when the bombs started.
Camping is a lot of fun if you like puzzles and solving problems. There is always some hurdle you have to overcome using whatever odd bit of stuff you happen to have with you. Cooking in the wind became a little easier as I began to figure things out. My son Gordon taught me to carry a 3-M tape that can be anything from a bandage that will not come off in water, to the hinges that hold a windscreen made out of art panels together. My windscreen did the trick and I was able to make noodles with Alfredo sauce, and marinated steak, one at a time on my tiny stove.
Then there was chocolate and moonlight and a few bright planets. I had fun sending a group text to my sons, with a little video of my surroundings. We talked about gear and what was working in that environment and what wasn’t. They gave advice. They made me laugh.
My backpacking mentors, Dick and Jim, had taught me well and my first solo trek was almost flawless. I had everything I needed except binoculars and a windscreen, and brought very little that I didn’t need. That’s what my mentors call good planning… nothing extra. I was lucky to have such excellent teachers. They gave me the gift of confidence.
On my third day I painted the dunes and the sky on the panels that had been the windscreen. I experimented with a big brush and speedy application. It was challenging as the paint dried as soon as it touched the surface . If I slowed the drying sand would blow into it. One piece picked up so much sand I had to wash the image away. As it is, they all feel like sandpaper to the touch. The more I painted the more I wanted to paint.
The last afternoon it began to rain. I sat under my sun shelter and worked on capturing the soft grays during the long afternoon.
Back in an actual house the next evening, I found the television grating and the road traffic too loud. I didn’t want to connect to the computer and the urgent emails related to business. I saw how badly I had needed that return to self. The contrast was stark. Just sitting and watching the sea. Reading. Painting. All five senses firing. I felt some mysterious opening in the vicinity of my chest.