I Went Camping Alone—This is What Happened

“You may be wondering how I got here. I must say, I’m rather wondering that myself.  Why would anyone so suddenly and willingly plunge themselves into such discomfort? I have OCD and I’m afraid of the dark. And yet, here I am, tent camping out on this rainy island, alone, and by some strange miracle, I am perfectly at ease.”

A week and a half before going back to Kenyon for my junior year, I made my latest in a series of impulsive decisions: I decided to go on a camping trip. By myself.  

For most of the summer, I’d been suffering a mental block. My creativity levels were abysmal. I wasn’t able to focus on anything—I couldn’t read, I couldn’t write, I couldn’t study, and I could hardly even play the piano. My anxiety had been spiraling out of control. The notion of reaching out and communicating with anyone was exhausting.  While I was excited to go back to school, I was equally apprehensive that the mental strain would break me.

What I needed was a mental cleanse. I needed a forced departure from all the external forces in my life, so that I could truly focus on only myself. The cheapest option? Camping out in a tent.

It wasn’t the first time I’d ever been camping, and after thirteen years of Girl Scouts, I should hope that I’ve acquired a decent skill set. Still, until now, I’d never been responsible for every single task and I’d always had help should I need it.  

Alas, a mere three days after the idea first came into my head, I packed up the car and drove two and a half hours to Kelley’s Island State Park.

I didn’t go in expecting to have some sort of grand revelation or to come home a “new person.” While I was setting off alone, Kelley’s Island is full of families and the campground layout is fairly open. Plus, there’s only so much you can accomplish in a three-day retreat. What I did accomplish, however, was, in its own small way, quite profound.

One of the easiest ways for me to think is to write it out. I documented how I’d been feeling lately and words suddenly began to pour onto the pages of my journal, articulating what had been stumping me for so long. As I wrote, I found clarity, silence and, above all, acceptance.

“It’s been raining on and off all morning, and I’ve been sitting in the car, sipping a can of cold-brewed coffee, reading a book while snuggled in a flannel and a fuzzy blanket, ignoring how badly I could use a shower. I can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it all.  Moreover, the stillness washes over me like a balm. I haven’t felt this in such a long time. Slowly, this great knot in my chest begins to loosen, such that it would be cliché if it weren’t true, and the tension I didn’t realize I’d been holding on to washes off with the rain. My hands quiver at its absence. I laugh again.  t’s not perfect, but it’s something. I’ll take something over nothing. I’ll take something over everything. It’s a start.

And finally, finally, it is quiet.”

The most surprising thing: how okay I was with all of it. I pitched the tent, started (and maintained) campfires, essentially slept on the ground because my air mattress had a hole, and lived with a fine layer of grime all over me. My OCD had made me a little extra weird about germs lately, so the fact that I was able to go about my day without feeling the need to wash my hands every time I touched something that had made contact with dirt was actually a huge accomplishment for me. A small army of bugs had collected on the outside of my tent, but I put it out of mind long enough to take the tent down when it was time to leave.

Practical matters aside, my retreat freed me from the shackles of responsibility. I had no cell service, no internet, and no to-do list. I didn’t have the option of numbing my brain by scrolling through Pinterest or Instagram, nor could I have read or answered a single email or text message even if I wanted to. Only I had the power to decide how I spent my time, and I could do so free of obligation, guilt, or judgment.  

This small scale gave me a window of insight into something I’d been struggling with for years—trying to follow the “right” path, the path of “success.” I’m someone who should have taken a gap year between high school and college, but I didn’t. I was too worried that people would see me as stupid, or weak, or a failure. I’ve been so obsessed trying to do things “right” that I ignored what it was doing to me. I even had those thoughts while I was camping; was I really getting the “camping experience” if I didn’t tick off every box? Was it a waste of my time to sit and read, or to accidentally go on a walk all the way to the other side of the island? Was I missing out, somehow?

The short answer is no. I was not missing out on some essential experience. What I was doing was listening to my own needs, no one else’s, and following through. The only person I needed to please was myself. And that felt so freaking good.

I close with some snippets of what I scrawled in my journal on the ferry ride back to the mainland:

“Am I changed? I don’t know if I’d say that, but I’m much more relaxed. I have accomplished something.  A few somethings, actually. Not the least of which was proving that I can, in fact, do this. I may not be a fan of bugs or dirt or sweat or chemicals, but that doesn’t mean I’m too weak to last on my own in a tent on an island, or anywhere else.

…I could say that I’m reset. Cleansed of something, if only temporarily… I am trying my best with what I have now, and it doesn’t have to be perfect. I don’t have to do anything. I have a say in how I live, and there’s no right or wrong way to do it. Just because one path or motive seems right for the moment does not mean that any other path is wrong. It’s just different. It’s honest.

Choices happen and then they are over… I chose to go on this crazy, stupid, impulsive journey, and I chose to come back. I didn’t choose everything that I am, but I can choose which of those things I want to be. And it’s okay for that choice to be different every day. No one’s shackling me to the person I was last week, or two years ago, or today. Only I get to decide, and I DO get to decide. I know that now.

I have very suddenly realized that for the first time since I can remember, I am not afraid. I don’t feel the urge to run, or even hesitate… I wondered if I could handle [moving forward], or if I would just crumble. I think now that I can. And I will.

And one day, it will be beautiful.”

Image Credit: 1, Emily Wirt