Camping Alone: Listening as the Forest Speaks

I just returned from another night of camping alone, my fourth in the last month. The trips spanned the time from one full moon to the next one. The first couple of nights were filled with sadness about having to camp by myself. I’ve recently lost a couple of camping buddies. However, this latest camp-out revealed a change in mood away from the sadness. The forest spoke to me and it revealed the true value of our public lands.

The two camping buddies I lost are not dead. I just won’t have the opportunity to share a tent with them any more. One is a long-time friend of 40 years, the other is my wife. Their situations are much different from one another.

A recent excursion to Western Colorado took my wife and I to Fruita, Colorado, where we had a wonderful base camp at a local B&B. We enjoyed biking paved pathways following the Colorado River, hiking through the beautiful sandstone cliffs of Colorado National Monument, biking the back roads through wine country, and visiting Arches National Monument in Utah. We enjoyed nature to the fullest.

Biking from Fruita to Grand Junction, CO along the Colorado river
Hiking in Colorado National Monument

It was such a wonderful trip……UNTIL we camped in Northern Nevada! She was uncomfortable and miserable, and thus declared that her camping days are over! She has been a trooper over the years, and has endured many hardships while camping. When we were younger, we were more adventurous and easily shrugged off any discomfort. But this is now. No more would she endure the discomfort of sleeping on the ground or having to endure the cold. And there wasn’t even a proper bathroom around!

roadside camp in Northern Nevada

Over the years, we’ve had such wonderful memorable moments camping together. At least I thought it was for the both of us. I remember holding tight to each other in a thunderstorm with howling winds in the Canadian Arctic; gasping in awe at the Milky Way in the night sky in the Nevada desert; making sweet love on a deserted beach on the North Island of New Zealand on the shore of the Tasman Sea; dipping in hot springs in Oregon under a full moon; and putting up the tent with no rainfly one Arctic summer evening, so that we could look through the tent netting to see the sun set and rise again 20 minutes later! We also shared one sleepless, terrifying night on Chichagof Island in SE Alaska with a Grizzly sow and cubs right outside of our tent for most of the night. But that episode is a whole other story in itself.

On my first night after our trip, I thought about these times as I camped alone. Knowing that we will never have the opportunity to share a tent together again filled me with sadness. But we still have each other! Now it is time to find new ways to share adventures together.

But I still have a need to get away in nature…to explore new places…and yes, to do it sleeping on the ground, even if it is sometimes uncomfortable for my aging body. Lots of my friends don’t understand it, but a few of them still do. But where can you go to do this? For me, I am grateful for the amount of public lands and open spaces we have here in Oregon.

Everyone needs their own special place to “escape” to and recharge their batteries. A place of solitude; a place for contemplation; a place for mental, physical and spiritual renewal. For me, one of those places is Road 7713.

I have several favorite camping places that I visit in Deschutes National Forest. I prefer dispersed camping, so I bring a 6 gallon jug of water, park my car on a seldom used road, and take 6 liters in my backpack and head off to one of my secret places. My car can then act as “Base Camp”, where I can resupply and head off in another direction. One of my favorite roads is a dead end, abandoned spur road that we’ll call “Road 7713“. Now, you didn’t really think I was going to reveal the exact location of my hiding places, did you?

One of MY secluded spots in Deschutes NF

The elevation of road 7713 is a little higher than some of the other roads in the area, so I usually have to wait until late April, or sometimes early May before I can use it as a campsite. Earlier this Spring, my car made the first tracks in the dirt on the more heavily used road that takes you to 7713. When I got there this year, it looked as if nobody had visited the area in decades, even though I had camped there twice last Fall. Enough pine cones and pine straw had fallen to cover up the bare ground where I had last erected my tent.

A small tree had fallen over the road since I last camped there. I got out, moved it out of the way and drove a few feet past where it lay. Then, I dutifully placed it back across the road. Naturally! A hundred yards later, I came to the clearing where I would pitch my tent. I pulled out my folding chair, grabbed a good book, and then opened up the cooler and grabbed a cold beer. The troubles of city life quickly faded, as the cool breeze swept them away. I am so grateful for road 7713!

On the way back out, I used a branch of sagebrush to erase my tire marks and placed a few pine cones across the road to make it look like nobody had been down that route. Then, I placed a long limb across the path and spread some pine straw to cover up my footprints. I always look forward to when the weather turns cooler to camp there. Dear readers, I hope you have a place to escape to that is similar to road 7713!

On my first night of camping alone after Nevada, I naturally headed back to road 7713 again. A light snow had recently fallen and the air was clean and crisp. I planned to walk as far as I could down the road which road 7713 branches off of. The full moon would be rising at twilight, so I planned on starting the hike in the daylight and returning under the full moon. I also brought a book I wanted to finish reading.

The “Main Road” that connects with road 7713

In the daylight, I sat down under a pine tree and finished reading “An African in Greenland”, written by Tete Michel Kpomassie, a man from Togoland in West Africa who read about Greenland in his youth and yearned to go there someday. I first heard about this book from a blogger in the United Kingdom, who has a blog called “A Year of Reading the World”. Her name is Ann Morgan. If you are interested in good reads from other countries and cultures, I recommend following her website. http://ayearofreadingtheworld

Being alone in the quiet forest allowed me to travel to Greenland virtually. The book was so well written, I feel like I was on the ground there. I also can relate to the author who sometimes feels out of place as an African living among the Inuit people. I sometimes feel that way back in town….but not out here in the woods!

Traveling to Greenland on Road 7713

I put down the book and listened…..Silence in the forest does have a sound. It resembles a buzzing sound…Is it the sound of the Forest speaking to me? The sound is similar to tinnitus. How do I know? Well, I have tinnitus in my right ear. How do I know that it is the Forest speaking to me and not just tinnitus I hear? It is because the buzzing has a slightly different pitch to it. I heard that same sound in the forests of my youth, long before I ever had tinnitus. The difference between the two sounds are akin to the difference between a flute and a piccolo. Both come from the woodwind family and have similar, yet different sounds. Or the nuances between the languages of Slovenian and Croatian…both are similar, but different enough to be distinguished from one another to a trained ear.

What are the tree saying to me? Since the sound is the same pitch as the sounds of the forests of my youth, but only louder now, does that mean that the trees are yelling at me? I imagine that they are shouting, “Help Me!” This has been another brutal summer with continued drought and smoke from forest fires. The climate is changing and they dealt with the smoke that was the ashes of their brethren from neighboring forests. They tried to absorb as much CO2 as possible via photosynthesis, but couldn’t keep up and were choking in the process. I imagine them saying, “Hey, we’re rooted here and can’t just migrate away like you can. So, please DO something!”

As I was pondering this, a pair of black-capped chickadees landed on a nearby branch and stared at me for a moment, before flittering away. Their brief gaze seemed to suggest, “Did you hear what they said?”

I got up and started walking down to the road that 7713 branches off of. I’ve never traveled more than a mile on it. I started walking to explore it further.

Walking down another road to Nowhere

The road continued deeper into the forest and then turned uphill a bit. The amount of snow increased in relation to the elevation and the direction of the slope orientation. Finally, the road abruptly stopped. I was expecting this road to go somewhere. I sat in the snow at the end of another dead end road and thought about where my life was going; where we are all going as a society. I’m grateful for this solitude to ruminate on these things. They say that change is the only constant in life. How will the forest and I, reinvent ourselves in, and adapt to a changing world without fundamentally giving up who we are?

The end of the “Main” road

The second night I camped alone, in a new location, I lamented the loss of another tent buddy. A friend who I’ve shared many wilderness experiences with over the years, has spiraled deep into Trump world and its conspiracy theories. While I can respect various points of view, I can’t go where he is going. I’ve tried to maintain the friendship by concentrating on what we have in common and not engaging in any toxic political rhetoric. But he simply cannot refrain from constantly going on political rants and diatribes. In a way, my old friend has died and has been replaced by someone I do not know…

I cogitate on this as I sit and stare at a lone Juniper tree, more than 60 miles away from my home. It seems that with the increase in population in Bend, I have to go further and further afield to get away from it all.

My old friend and I shared multiple trips to Alaska, trips to Canada, Iceland, Norway, and the desert Southwest. I love him for sharing those wonderful moments with me. But never having the opportunity to share new moments in the future makes me sad.

The lonely place I am at is culturally in Greater Idaho, but geographically still in Eastern Oregon. Citizens in this area want to secede from Oregon and join Idaho for political reasons. As I sit in my camp chair munching on potato chips, I wonder…”By eating chips and enriching potato farmers in Idaho, am I in essence somehow aiding and abetting the loss of Oregon’s land to Idaho?”

Eating Potato chips in “Greater Idaho”

I hear pecking on a nearby tree. Is it a woodpecker or a common flicker? If only I were an ornithologist, I would know. But alas, I am but a geographer, a generalist who knows a little about most things. Although I know what general type of bird made that sound, I admire those specialists who know the exact species just by hearing a sound in the woods.

My next few nights of camping alone bring a change in perspective. As I leave town, I feel less rueful and more like I’m going to my second home; a place for contemplation and contentment. This time, I headed back to another “Road to Nowhere” that I posted about back in April, titled “Discovering Nowhere”.Discovering NOWHERE : Have You Been Missing Out on Experiencing a New Special Place?

Back to the original Road to Nowhere

This time, I veered off the road to Nowhere to take a cattle trail into the forest. The sun was getting lower in the sky. The nearly full moon would be rising just before the sun set. The skies were clear and it would be cold tonight!

Down a cattle trail into the forest

I walked deeper into the forest on the trail. There were signs that a motorcycle must have come through here sometime this year. But with the amount of pine cones and pine needles in the trail, nobody had come through here in quite some time. I looked for a suitable tree to lean against or a stump to sit on to work out some things that were on my mind.

deeper into the forest
a quiet, restful place for contemplation

I found a pine tree about the same age as I was and sat down next to it. The sturdy tree braced my back and the five inches of duff and pine straw cushioned my bottom. A light, northerly breeze wafted against my right cheek as I stared through the forest toward the low-lying sun near the western horizon. In the next hour, I came to many conclusions as to how I was going to teach an upcoming class I am preparing for in Winter term on Sustainability. Ideas I get out here are so much more clear.

I know that people in cities come up with great ideas. There are many other good places for contemplation in urban areas (libraries, community gardens, meditative spaces, etc.). I value all of them, but none are as valuable to me as a quiet place in the woods. I write my thoughts in my notebook, which I will translate into my syllabus and assignments on the computer once I get back to my suburban home. But the sun will soon set, so I need to walk back to an open space and take some photos.

A quiet place in the woods

As I come to a clearing in the woods, I see that the nearly full moon is already high above the horizon. As the sun sets in one cardinal direction, a quick turn and a glance reveals the rising moon. What a beautiful experience to have them both at the same time!

Rising Moon

A song from the play “Fiddler on the Roof” comes to mind. I substitute the lyrics of “Moonrise, Sunset”, for the actual words from that song.

Sunrise, sunset (x2),
Swiftly fly the years,
One season following another,
Laiden with happiness and tears.

What words of wisdom can I give them,
How can I help to ease their way?

Now they must learn from one another,
Day by day.

Moonrise, Sunset!
heading back to camp in the moonlight

As I walk back to camp in the moonlight, I speculate on the value of the lands I am walking through. It is impossible to put a dollar value on them…they are PRICELESS!

Although someone had previously built a fire ring where I was camping, I did not make a fire, even though it got very cold that night. I switched from drinking beer to boiling water for hot tea. I sat in the chair until the moon was overhead, not wanting to go to sleep and miss any secrets that nature might whisper in my ear. After a long while, just to keep warm, I walked down a dirt road in the other direction for a few more miles in the moonlight before finally crawling into the sleeping bag on the ground next to the car.

The following morning the temperature read 25F. After boiling what little water that was still in liquid form, I made a strong cup of coffee and set out to re-create my moonlight excursion. A low, light veil of semi-transparent fog artfully decorated the landscape. The low, rising sun backlit a few high clouds and painted them shades of red and orange. With fingers frozen, I tried to snap some pictures. I was alone, but feeling lonely no more. The same forest that was freezing my fingers was also warming my heart and soul.

a morning stroll
The art of fog
A sunrise painting high clouds

By the time I got back to camp, the fog was starting to lift. Time to pack up and head back to syphillization (civilization).

a camp close to the road to Nowhere

My time left on this planet is but a short time; maybe two more decades at best. The forest, by contrast, seems timeless. But even that is not true. In her book “Timefulness”, author Marcia Bjornerud discusses how “thinking like a geologist can help save the world.” The book discusses how knowing the rhythms of the Earth’s deep past and conceiving of time as a geologist does (and as some geographers also do), can give us the perspective we need for a more sustainable future.

Spending time alone in nature can give us the spiritual and intellectual nourishment to allow us to go back and function in our broken human world. However, we must be still…and be opening to listen to her. If we do, we have a glimmer of hope. May each of you find peace in and strive to protect those special places!

With that, I decided to take the long route of slow dirt roads back home. I stopped only long enough to either take pictures or remove someone else’s trash.

fog lifting on the road home
What is the value of this land???

6 thoughts on “Camping Alone: Listening as the Forest Speaks

  1. I’m so glad you are posting again! I have started walking in the evening with Felix, letting him talk to the moon and stars. I enjoy night hikes and am happy to share them with him. I am glad I am not the only one who enjoys a good night hike.


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