I’ve mentioned here before that I have next to no camping experience, but also that I got a tent for Christmas. One of my goals for 2016 was to take the tent out into the great unknown- “into the wild”- and use it, and I’m here to report that I survived my first ever, solo-camping trip.
I would almost go so far as to say that not only did I survive… I thrived. Though that might be pushing it a bit. Still, I’m racking my brain to think of something that went wrong, something I was woefully unprepared for, something that made me say, “I’m never going camping again!”
There was nothing. I wish sleeping on the ground had been a little more comfortable… and three days without a shower is a little much (there were cold water showers at my campsite, but I chickened out)… but this is camping. Being clean and sleeping comfortably are things I do in my every day life, and if a little dirt and discomfort were my biggest worries, then I’d say that my camping trip went pretty well.
But really, this trip ended up being about so much more than learning how to sleep and eat outdoors. It was elevated to another level by the location: Cumberland Island, a barrier island off the southern coast of the US state of Georgia. At 17.5 miles long, it has stretches of undeveloped beaches, salt marshes, maritime forest. It was designated a national seashore (and national park) in the 70’s, and is largely unspoiled and unpopulated. There is no bridge to the island- you need to take a ferry- no paved roads, no amenities. There are a handful of private homes but most of the island is designated as a wilderness area. There are birds and turtles and raccoons and armadillos and several hundred wild horses, that roam all through the island.
I’d anticipated that I would be blogging while I was there- that, since I was alone, I’d have nothing to do in the evenings and would use that time to write. But somehow, the days just slipped away and before I knew it, the sun had set and it was 8pm and I was ready to tuck into my tent with a cup of wine and cookies and my book (yeah, I brought a bottle of wine. I liked the idea of toasting my camping success each evening! So, not totally roughing it just yet).
Now I’m back, to my comfy and cozy apartment, and I imagine that I’ll devote a few blog posts to this trip. So here is part one: “Beware of the raccoons!”
I heard this warning multiple times- from a girl on the ferry ride over, from a park ranger giving us an orientation when we got to the island, from campers who had been there before.
“The raccoons are sneaky,” said an 11-year old girl on the ferry. “Last year, they took our pasta, and that was my favorite meal!”
I never got the name of the girl on the ferry, but she befriended me instantly (I always seem to make friends with the kids), and talked my ear-off on the 40 minute ride from St Mary’s to the island. She told me that this was the second year her family was camping on the island; she reported that last time, she’d pet both an armadillo and a horse (statements that I’m now questioning, considering how fast armadillos scurry away and by how many times we were warned to stay away from the horses). “I love this place,” she said, a slight southern accent to her voice, her blue eyes opened wide. “I hope we get campsite eleven again, that’s the one closest to the beach.”
As she talked, I found myself growing increasingly nervous. I’d felt the nervousness in the days leading up to my trip, and on the night before I began the long, 12-hour drive down to Georgia, I questioned what I was doing. Laying in a warm bed, four walls around me, a kitchen full of food and a bathroom with a hot shower, I wondered why on earth I was going to go camping for 3 days. This happens to me from time to time- I decide to do something and throw myself into the preparations, then just before it’s time to leave I get overwhelmed with the reality of what I’ve gotten myself into. I begin to think I was crazy to want to try something new, I begin to think that it would be so much easier to just stay home.
But that’s just fear talking: I hear it a lot, but I’m getting used to how it sounds. I’m also getting used to ignoring it, and then going and trying something new anyway.
By the time I was on the ferry my nervousness was mixed with excitement. Dozens of people were crammed in the cabin of the ferry- it was windy and cold outside, so we all squeezed inside, standing in the aisles. As the 11-year old continued to talk, I looked out the window: we were surrounded by blue water and strips of green land, deep colors with sunshine washing over everything.
Once the ferry docked at Cumberland Island and we all unloaded our stuff, the day-trippers went off to rent bikes, to trek over to the beach, or the ruins of the old Carnegie estate (more on that, later). The campers had to gather together for a quick talk from the park ranger, and then we were assigned campsites.
I felt a little awkward, sitting among groups of people: families who were loud and laughing, couples sitting close together with great, hulking backpacks. Everyone seemed surprised to find out that I was alone, and maybe moreover, that I was a girl and I was alone. But the woman next to me smiled and introduced me to her college-aged children, sitting behind us. And the 11 year old girl was in front of me, and gave me a high five and whispered, “Good luck” when I went to the front to get my campsite.
I chose the smallest site, and set off for the half mile walk to the campgrounds. I was loaded down with my stuff- my Camino pack on my back, a smaller backpack strapped to my front, a large duffel slung over my shoulder. But as soon as I moved away from the office building and began walking down the path, all of my fear left me, and I walked with a big smile on my face.
I was surrounded by so much beauty: a hard packed sand trail, bordered on both sides by a dense layer of palmettos- “little palms”- with their long, bright green leaves. Overhead were the twisting, gnarled branches of live oak trees, covered with draping Spanish moss, and the sunlight filtered through, giving off a shimmery, magical kind of light.
And once I got to the campgrounds, it was even better: those palms and the the Spanish moss were everywhere, creating natural borders between the sites, and a canopy of branches and moss casting shade over the ground. My campsite felt perfect- just the right size for one or two people- and I was able to set up my tent in a little area that was tucked away, totally invisible to anyone passing by on the path. I quickly stored all of my food in the food cage, and loaded up my pack with basic hiking/exploring supplies: lots of water, items for lunch, a first aid kit and a towel for lounging on the beach.
Just before I set off to explore part of the island I looked back: to my tent, hoping that I staked it down right, that a gust of wind wouldn’t knock it over. And to the food cage that held all of my food for the next three days, that I hoped was secure and raccoon proof. To the picnic table and the fire ring and the draping Spanish moss. This was home for the next few days, and I felt amazed and lucky that I had gotten myself there.