August 1, 2022
Sleeping in the woods isn’t for everyone. Most folks don’t care for lugging camping gear, setting up a tent, lighting a campfire, sleeping on hard ground, freeze-dried food, insects, forest noises, late-night and early morning chill. Not to mention using campground restrooms, or the forest as restroom.
Still, any of us may at some time be moved to walk in the woods, breathe the sweet air among tall trees, and bed down listening to the wildlife. The forest makes no promises. It may, or may not, transport us from our present moment, convey mystery, purity, the impulse to good. It may lighten our burdens and carry us to grace.
Table Rock State Park is near us, astride the craggy south profile of Pinnacle Peak, the state’s second-highest, at 3,428 feet. I thought our grandsons, ages eight and five, would enjoy camping out. For memory’s sake, if nothing else. They liked the idea. Mom came along to ride herd.
If you were a Boy Scout or Girl Scout you’ve done it. Camping with friends may leave fond memories or nightmares. The adult Scout troop leaders soldier on, some enjoying, others dreading those nights in the woods, recalling their own experiences. Once the tent is up, the sleeping bags rolled out, the evening meal finished, the camper sits, maybe with others next to a warming fire, maybe shivering alone or with a buddy in his or her tent in the dim glow of a flashlight. The forest night closes in.
The local residents, the tree frogs, Junebugs, katydids, hoot owls, other things, start their evening concert. It can be raucous, deafening. The wind moans in the treetops. Looking up, the camper sees the dark silhouettes of tree limbs swaying against the dying light. Then, unless there’s moonlight, only blackness. Others may be lying asleep in their tents nearby, but the darkness of midforest can be a lonely darkness. Then too, it may rain.
As a high-school kid I went to the big Philmont Scout Ranch near Raton, in northern New Mexico. Ten of us hiked steep mountainsides and bright aspen forest for twelve days, collapsing each afternoon at a scheduled campground, scooping water from mountain streams and adding, when we remembered, the water-purification tabs we carried to counter the water’s high metallic content. Most of us got sick anyway. We were glad when it ended.
I camped out for a week along the Finger Lakes in northern New York, years later in Tennessee and around Virginia, with my son’s Scout troop in Goshen near the state’s western boundary, solo near Edinburg in the Massanuttens. Sandy and I camped in springtime at a pretty spot called Caroline Furnace in Fort Valley, between Luray and Front Royal. I slept in a tent two or three times in deep West Virginia woods. On our long road trips we camped in West Virginia, Illinois, Oklahoma, Arizona, Texas, Missouri, and South Dakota. I’ve slept in tents in bone-chilling cold and pouring rain.
We set up camp, the four of us, on the best site we could find at Table Rock. We were at a high point well away from others. We had two tents, one for the guys and Marie, a smaller one for me. We walked downhill to a spur of the Palmetto Trail, which crisscrosses the state. The boys led us on a hike until they got tired and hot and turned around. I lit the camper stove to scorch my freeze-dried dinner, the kids wanted sandwiches. Afterward we stopped at the lake, a few visitors still swam and waded. Beyond the swim area the lake shimmered in the fading sunlight.
Back at camp we stuck marshmallows on sticks and cooked them for s’mores, the traditional fun camping treat. I lit the lantern, we talked for a while. The boys know school starts in three weeks. We turned in with the darkness.
The night air hung densely, the woods was still. At dawn I heated water for coffee. Campers stirred at nearby sites. We ate breakfast, packed, then stopped again at the lake and walked a bit. I hiked alone up a trail among the tall oaks and sycamores along Carrick Creek, which rushes down Table Rock mountain to the lake. No one else appeared. The forest remained, true to its nature, a chapel, a place of peace.
At home as I unpacked I thought of a night seven or eight years ago, high in Virginia forest, far from the nearest town. It was May but the night air felt like December. It can be like that in mountains. We huddled together in our sleeping bags, but I couldn’t sleep. I stepped out of the tent, shivering, stamping my feet, my breath forming vapor in the cold. Brilliant starlight reflected on treetops. I lit a fire and rubbed my hands together. Soon dawn broke, the sun rose high and golden.
We headed back to our lives in the suburbs, to the congestion, the commuting, the strip malls, the world we had lived in for 28 years. But I remembered that wilderness place and the sublime purity of the cold that mellowed and faded as the new day emerged. It brought to mind a day months earlier when I met a pair of hikers burrowed in their sleeping bags in a foot of snow along the Appalachian Trail. They crawled out of their tent and shook my hand, smiling.
Nature, God’s first creation, untouched by the rough handling of humanity, never abandons us. It may reveal both elegant and fearsome truths of our world. Forbearance, bearing up through bitter, bracing gusts of mountain winters and pungent warmth of hothouse Southern summers may yet teach the meaning of hope and faith. We may depart sustained and strengthened for a while, sometimes a long while. Then we return.