Air Supply




Kristin Owens

 
© Copyright 2018 by Kristin Owens


 

Photo of Colorado scenery.

I am originally from New York, so camping causes me great anxiety... air mattresses, moose, and mess-kits, oh my! I contend mankind has not evolved enough to revert back to living outdoors. But since living in Colorado (and with practice,) I now enjoy the peacefulness and solitude of nature. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to upgrade to a yurt and invite good friends along. This essay describes my journey and the hiccups along the way.
 
After five mind-numbing hours at Sierra Trading Post and REI, my husband and I acquired all the necessary gear scribbled on the list. I had no idea the cost of roughing-it equated to purchasing a small Mazda. Three different water filters, assorted weightless pots and pans, flashlights of every shape and size… the pile of equipment was astonishing. We owned tools for any plausible emergency. No, it wasn’t for an expedition to Nepal, but for a brief stint in the Colorado woods. Surprisingly, as the cashier totaled our wares and tried to locate larger shopping bags, I was calm.
 

Some background. For an east-coast girl, the outdoors usually spells trouble. Hiking and camping inherently have the potential of doing without. Without what? Anything that equates to comfort or convenience. I like clean, sanitary water that magically dispenses from a faucet. A flushing toilet. And a comfortable mattress. But after relocating to Colorado, my dreams of vacationing in luxurious 5-star accommodations soared out the window. New nightmares starred hungry bears, torrential rain, and forgetting coffee filters.

My husband knew this and still married me. Not one to duck a new experience, I said I’d try. I’d try to camp outdoors. I’d try to go hiking. As long as we didn’t forget a corkscrew.

Our outdoor adventures started small: an overnight in a state park. Not completely roughing it, but I required baby steps. In the time spent unloading our newly purchased gear and pitching our tent, I had opportunities to ponder random thoughts. First, no iPhone or TV to distract me. Disconcerting! I struggled with the tranquility. Given this new occasion for thoughts to wander, existential questions found their way in and nagged. Such as, why do we camp? To feel more connected to nature? In my modern, tech-centric life, I did everything in my power to protect myself from nature. Normally I spent hours planning for her not-so-funny surprises. Thus, letting nature in was counter-intuitive, an internal conflict providing hours of stress. I wondered, in the end, who would win?

Later that night, securely zipped into a rain-resistant tent, with my headlamp within arms-reach, I dreamt strange dreams. I was floating on a raft down the Amazon with hungry alligators nipping at my feet. My toes were being munched on like free appetizers at happy-hour. I struggled, trying to get away, but my uncooperative raft kept spinning around and around. It slowly collapsed from a hole made by a gigantic alligator tooth. The raft grew smaller as I clawed to remain afloat. Suddenly, my husband shook me awake. He was less than an inch from my face, as both of us had rolled and sunk into the middle of the deflated air mattress. The dog had taken all the covers and my frozen feet poked out of the sleeping bag. I whimpered, “This is not fun.”

In spite of the crappy air mattress, we had a good time. Camping made things simple. Grilled hotdogs and a bag of potato chips provided an uncomplicated supper. The campfire kept us toasty warm. We burrowed into sleeping bags, giggled, and peeked out at the moon’s reflection on the lake. Small nagging distractions disappeared. No internet meant inconsequential pinging became moot. The doorbell didn’t ring. Glancing over my shoulder, there were only trees looking back. I spent an hour thinking without interruption. Peaceful. Calm. I could breathe.

Nonetheless, I got dirty and smelly. But when marshmallows got stuck in my hair, I didn’t mind. I felt like a kid. And that brought back memories of easier, stress-free times. The ever-present knot in my chest loosened and untied itself. Maybe the outdoors wasn’t so bad. Surrounded by plenty of food and my ever-resourceful husband, I really lacked for nothing. I felt safe. In the morning, the crisp and clean air invigorated me. A new day. I concluded I could do this again.

Newly inspired, I was game for a longer jaunt. I figured the more the merrier, so we asked our adventurous next-door neighbors along for a weekend get-a-way. These folks have seen the world – the intimidating non-European parts like Nepal, Antarctica, and Bhutan. Also, we had previously day-hiked together, resulting in epic picnic lunches. I knew they had their priorities in order. Plus, they had nicer gear. And they could cook.

Being late in the season, an empty campground awaited us and we claimed it all to ourselves. All sixty-two spaces. We laughed loudly, let the dog run free, and spread ourselves out. How glorious to sit with a glass of wine, squint in the sun, and watch the trees sway on the mountain sides. I contentedly relaxed balanced on my camp chair, while approving the vistas. The guys spent the afternoon drinking seasonal beers and shooting slingshots at a target in the trees. The gals read six months-worth of magazines and chatted. No agenda.

Again, with the fresh air and space to breathe, my mind opened up. I contemplated, why do modern humans feel the need to rough-it? To prove we still can? Primal needs certainly must be met; food, clothing, and shelter. But as a society we’ve become horrifically soft. Drive-through’s, Amazon, Alexa. We want everything fast and cheap. It’s a wonder we survive. On that note, did Maslow ever camp?

I’m not certain if the four of us actually roughed-it that weekend. We may have slept in tents, but our meals were Michelin-star quality. For dinner, we made hobo pies; sliced potatoes, exotic spices, and grilled steak steamed in aluminum foil over the fire. I brought Austrian wine, a Grüner Veltliner, and although not an ideal pairing on paper, we all declared it fantastic. Desert was a tower of designer cookies from a local bakery. Next morning at breakfast, we ate pancakes with real maple syrup and fresh blue berries. Certainly no one starved.

Just when we finished a meal, the clean-up dance began. We boiled water, washed dishes, dried with the still-wet dishrag, re-puzzled mess kits, disassembled stoves, and stowed all in the car. Only to start the next meal minutes later. Though stuffed as we were, the sandwich maker made an appearance at night around the campfire. White Wonder bread with the cheapest no-name pie filling, squirt butter, and voilà - a pie!

As we burned our lips, tongues, and fingers on scorching hot pies, childhood memories came racing back. Each of us had camped in varying degrees as children and we compared long-forgotten memories. Whose father told the scariest ghost stories? Which state parks did we camp at? How many stickers on the station wagon? More sidesplitting stories and laughter. Our commonalities or differences didn’t matter. So much to talk about, we also liked each other well enough to listen.
Later that night in teeth-chattering 25 degrees, elk partied and bugled at the next camp site over. Scared to die a trampled death, I froze in my sleeping bag and clutched my lip balm thinking of new names for my husband. This was not the way I wanted to go. My entire body petrified in fear, refused to move the slightest inch... elk don’t smell fear, do they? Do they eat meat? Why is the dog still snoring? Doesn’t he hear them? Why did we even bring the dog? The next morning, my husband dismissed my concerns and grumbled that I hogged the air mattress. When I refuted, he showed me the zipper mark embedded across his forehead from the tent window. Apparently, our sleeping arrangement still needed work.

Like the previous adventure, the air mattress (in addition to experiencing night terror while listening to wild animals fornicating) was my chief complaint. As the four of us packed up on Sunday afternoon and with my belly full of eggs benedict, we vowed to make camping an annual event. Once home it took hours to unpack and clean everything... the smell of campfire smoke had permeated throughout the gear. I had no postcards or souvenirs, only great new memories.

I reflected while unzipping sleeping bags and hanging them off the patio to air out. Solitude can be unnerving, yet I was learning to welcome the quiet and peace with nothing between me and the outside but a tent canvas. With each trip into the unknown (and all the ambiguities) I was learning flexibility. I was bending and not breaking.

The next year, I wanted to try something a little more comfortable and less exposed to marauding wildlife. I did some research and learned a fun fact: Mongolia is approximately 6,189 miles away from Colorado. However, it turns out both have yurts. Yurts are basically treehouses for grown-ups. Round in shape, they have a floor, walls and a roof, which provide a nice layer of protection from outside animals, unless they know how to knock. Yurts are popular and tend to rent fast, so by the time the four of us got ourselves organized, a walk-in option with a parking lot approximately ten minutes away was the last choice for the season. We booked it for a weekend in September.

We found a wheel barrow in the parking lot. After three trips rolling over uneven ground, we finally schlepped all our gear to the yurt. Obviously, we brought too much. Each couple, thinking about the luxury of extra space, packed two of everything. This resulted in four lanterns, four frying pans and lots of alcohol. I didn’t complain.

It turns out that yurt in Mongolian means home, and ours was just that. The yurt came equipped with all the essentials. Locked bear box for food on the outside porch. Table and chairs for both outside and in. Brooms, dishtowels, everything needed to keep the yurt clean and tidy. Two charcoal grills, a wood burning stove with two cords of firewood, and a gas cooktop with a large propane tank underneath for plenty of hot eats. It also had an outhouse. It was yurtastic!

We oohed and ahhed at this latest upgrade. Then abruptly stopped and sucked in our collective breath. Bunkbeds. The website touted sleeping for four, but bunkbeds never crossed my mind as a conceivable option. I hadn’t slept in one since Girl Scout camp in 1976. Quickly, terror filled my heart as I envisioned the whole thing collapsing, and my husband’s obituary reading, “Cause of death, chunky wife.” Still... it was better than an air mattress.

Our earlier conceived cooking plan went into effect; each couple prepared one dinner and one breakfast. I brought chili and cornbread, which was easy to heat on the stove. Dessert followed with the sandwich makers. Boxed wine and beer bombers made for lively games of dominoes the rest of the evening. Silly stories, teasing, and new jokes to laugh at. Clutching our sides, we howled into the wee hours of the night. This kind of fun usually happened to other people.

Unfortunately, the next morning I woke up with laryngitis. The small cold I brought with me turned into a rampaging plague. Having had so much fun the night before, I hated to leave. But, I also didn’t want to infect everyone else in such tight space. Reluctantly, my husband and I loaded the wheelbarrow with our gear and headed back to the car. I gazed longingly at our sweet yurt off in the distance as we drove away. Our neighbors stayed, enjoyed the beautiful scenery and lovely views from the porch. The fabulous Colorado fall colors were just beginning to pop. They said it was dull without us and not the same. Apparently, more is merrier.

Change is good. After three years in Colorado, my hiking boots are nicely scuffed. Our garage is filled with outdoor gear. But most importantly, we have life-long friends. Ones we have seen in the same set of clothes for three days. I am still ambivalent about camping, but my anxiety-level has certainly decreased. If I forget to pack something, I am now 99.9% positive our neighbors packed theirs, and definitely a spare. Also, my reference points for camping include a lot of laughing.

 And as a bonus - it’s pretty outside. Blooming wildflowers. Rippling brooks. The changing leaves on the hillsides. The wilderness, unbelievably, provides an opportunity to reset expectations. Camping and all its inconveniences remind me about the value of living more simply. An air mattress is a good tradeoff for the experience. The trees, water, mountains... an unlimited air supply. I just needed a reminder to breathe it.


Kristin Owens has published over four dozen articles and personal essays in magazines such as Writer’s DigestOutpost, and Mind+BodyHer piece, “Notes to My Neighbors” was published in the short fiction anthology FLASH! Her first manuscript ELIZABETH SAILS was selected as a Judge’s Favorite for the 2017 Ink & Insights contest. A full-time writer in Colorado, Kristin is a member of the Northern Colorado Writers Association, the Lighthouse Writers, and a steadfast weekly critique group. Her complete portfolio can be found awww.kristin-owens.com
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