The Other Animals
Camping solo, I have been spooked awake in the pitch of night in a moonless wooded camp by the scrape of a tree’s limbs, and that rustle of leaves over yonder just as the sun goes down has made me foolishly pack up camp for fear of becoming a bear’s dinner, only to discover a raccoon drawn to the aroma of the salt and vinegar potato chips I probably should not have dragged into the wilderness. But meeting a bear in camp isn’t the worst thing that can happen in the woods. Getting eaten by a bear? Sure.
It began like it always does: one late August weekend I wanted to escape Chicago and go camping. So I packed my camping gear efficiently and minimally into my backpack and tossed it in the car and drove several hours into Michigan, my home state, heading for the coast of Lake Michigan. I headed to the Nordhouse Dunes, approximately four miles of beach dune--the second knuckle on the pinkie of Michigan’s mitt--north of Ludington. Nordhouse was a four wheeler playground until it was reclaimed by the state as a natural preserve. No more wreck-vehicles, but rolling and horizon obscuring dunes, open to hikers and backpackers.
From the parking lot, there are three other cars. There’s room for twenty.
I spend time alone in these days because I am working something out, meditating on plans for the future. I am looking for solitude, to write and stare at the horizon and ruminate on the future. I have recently decided that writing, unlike playing the guitar, is not an activity that I will give up, nor do I want to. I gave up guitar for a month to prove to myself how unimportant it was. It wasn’t difficult. I have published exactly one uneventful four hundred word review of a 449 page memoir, and over several years produced reams of self-reflective journal writing, including poetry of a sort, unrhymed, idiosyncratically grammatical. I am in awe of fellow Michigander Jim Harrison, whose poems I carry with me on this camping trip.
The dream is to publish a novel, of course, and one begins fomenting from the inspiration of that late summer light and humidity that doesn’t settle so much around Western Michigan as it does infuse it with the inexplicable tug of an emotion, a sweaty browed blush. The light is nostalgic, with tones I am eagerly lulled by: I had first been brought here by my parents twenty-five years earlier, and it was then that Lake Michigan cast its spell. The haze that could turn the clouds to steel blue as I dawdled in the warm water of the metallic scented lake so many years ago, is there again. But even threatening weather I regard as comforting, even strangely providential.
I will think: when I look back on this, I’m going to really appreciate this trip, because I always do.
I pride myself in finding a good camp site. The best site is secluded, yet has a dramatic view; is relatively hidden, yet does not hide potential threats. I also operate on a theory that has worked in the past, though this is silly to say since I had never--until after this time--had an opportunity to see if it hadn’t worked for me. But with this approach are a few principles which I take to be of common sense. One of my rules of thumb is, never set up camp in the light of day if you can help it. This applies on solo camping in an open wilderness area. I don’t know if this is logical, if the most seasoned of outdoorspeople would do this, or if they would cop to it if they did. It’s my way of staying off the map.
I fastidiously set up my tent with the entry facing south so I will catch the morning sun and have a decent view down the coastline. I set everything with the scrupulousness of a squatter settling in for the long term, thinking, how can I make the most of my perfect camp? I do this far too soon, long before dark. It is nearly dinner time.
I do not heed my usual practice this weekend at Nordhouse, perhaps because of my sense of isolation and illusion of safety. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, I am proud of my site, the deployment of my camp, my view.
I first started camping alone out of a conviction of necessity (this is an economical way to get by on the road, if you are going to travel for any length of time, say, through Europe, where you hear, “everyone does it,” which I have done), and once having camped solo, becoming accustomed to the freedom and overcoming initial fears about survival and tactics, this became something I did as a point of pride. The scares come with the territory. I put myself into an unfamiliar landscape to learn how I will handle what comes up.
When I was younger, I imagined what I looked like to strangers, obsessively. This was probably not narcissism so much as it was overcoming the fixation that there wasn’t anything odd looking about myself. To many people, it’s a shock and a surprise that anyone should want to camp by himself in the middle of the big ol’ woods.
On this occasion, I realize that I have set up camp against all of my trusted self-exhortations--which in itself is an attempt, I am sure, to push myself to some new level of handling what comes up. After setting up and sitting outside my tent, I am alarmed momentarily at my neglect, but let it pass. After all, it seems empty around here. Or, as I might really say, it’s dead. I decide to make dinner.
I’m an extemporaneous gourmet when it comes to food prep on the trail, and always bring pasta. As simple as it is to prepare, it is always delicious. One reason it tastes so good is how hungry I become; the simplest meal on the trail can often be the best meal ever, as if in this frugality the memory of dinners’ past are completely wiped out.
I won’t get a chance to enjoy my ad hoc pasta primavera this evening.
Just as the water begins to boil, they show up silently, moving in and around my camp area, closer than should be expected and in a manner that feels calculated. There are four of them, mid-twenties or a few years younger.
I think about what I must look like, camping alone, which, if they are aware, as I believe they must be, I cannot offer the illusion that I am not. I have no one to back me up.
They scatter around my camp, trapping me in a square: I sit at my cook stove in front of my tent. Two of them are far enough behind in my periphery that I can’t easily see the group all together unless I turn my head around and look, which I realize will betray my fear, which I would prefer to not do. The other two are clearly blocking my escape should I need it. They don’t say anything, just look at me with a glint of deviance in their collective eight eyeballs--and my mind is racing, random thoughts come into my head.
I’ve seen their type before. The kind of post-adolescent wraiths who’d made a frequent and inconvenient appearance in my life at inopportune times. These are a sub-species of the genus bully, otherwise known as the kind of kids who bit the tails off lizards--or maybe it was the heads--and talked the tale up in gym class as the epitome of their life’s aspirations. The ones who listened to Heavy Metal in their drop out step- brother’s dens and found motivation to carve, with near religious fervor, pentagrams on their notebook covers. They didn’t need to smoke whatever that was because the basement den was draped in a perma-haze of weed smoke.
In other words, trouble.
It might be a gut instinct, but my suspicion of their narrow view of the world heightens my alarm.
They are here to do something stupid. I can count on this.
They wait, milling around my private campsite . . . they have come into my camp. My personal camp. They don’t speak, and it is the longest, most ridiculous, mind-wracking time. They don’t speak and then one of them does, who is either their self-appointed leader or else had elected himself in the moment out of a logic of hubris. Meaning the other three will fall in line, or they will egg each other on to the varieties of intimidation.
The leader, with a stomach turning, self-satisfied smirk, speaks up. “Pretty nice little set up you’ve got here.”
This rings in my ears. Elevates to worry everything I’d been brooding about since I first thought of a million reasons why I should never camp solo.
It’s something in the tone. With this annoyance at being called to defend my private tent site, I run through the series of missteps I made against my own carefully culled camping procedures. The absurdity of feeling threatened calls to my mind all of the prohibitions against engaging with strangers that terrorized my childhood.
Girding myself to not reply in a way that projects my racing heart, face hot, I strategically weigh my response. I parry with the silent I-am-standing-my-ground-and-not-showing-fear statement, as if it is the most normal thing in the world that they are there in my camp, my pretty nice little set up.
“How’s it going,” I say, voice dry as the sand beneath my feet.
I am being goaded into asking them what they want. But I will not. I simply stop and become, like them, impassive, waiting.
The water is just shy of boiling, so I turn off the gas. Clif bars for dinner. The best meal ever.
We remain this way for long stretch of minutes. As the time trudges on I realize several things. First among them is that something needs to happen, and I am not going to instigate it. They will act, and I don’t allow myself to think that far. I will wait them out. This is essential. This is a stand-off. My only resolve is to hope they leave. Momentarily buoyed by my budding hubris--a quality usually reserved as a pejorative when acknowledging a misadventure--I begin to think they have no plan, just intimidation. Their having no plan is as bad as having one. They are capable of following any whim of which the one presented might be a kind of test of their hubris. One of them might surely decide to step up to it. The final straw for my not having been thoroughly intimidated by their presence, may be to do harm to me.
I will not relent.
Everything in my gestures says, you insinuated yourself into my camp, now it’s your turn. I’m waiting. I am convinced that I am going to get them to think that they have merely interrupted my dinner.
In the periphery, I notice one of them taking an interest in my gear. He can take it, what can I do? It’s too late to fear.
Within that knowledge, that recognition--these are fellow Michiganders, on the fast track to . . . what?--hell, they’re just like me but without a thought about the future. Thus, what I am doing here looks excessively, fundamentally, like everything they are afraid of. This is the basis of my fear of meeting strangers in the wilderness.
They’re not afraid to be threatening, but it becomes apparent--or I would like to believe that my acuity of human nature has evolved to this fine point--that they can’t quite act if they don’t know whom or what they are dealing with. To them, after all, on their terms, I am just another animal.
We are like animals on high alert, hackles raised, ready to attack or defend our territory. Thus, as animals, we can read fear or threat in the eyes of another, and I try not to betray mine. I would probably lose this fight.
Once, a few years earlier while returning to may apartment in Chicago late on a fall evening, I was mugged. What I recognized with startling certainty, and what strangely gave me some sense of composure, even a misplaced satisfaction, was how frightened the thug was who demanded money from me. I could see fear in his eyes, as he fumbled with my wallet looking for cash. Sure, I was scared--but he was terrified.
This waiting, silent, while they mill about in my private camp, is maddening. It cannot last. Someone has to give in. I will not. Because I sense they realize this, I say nothing.
I decide that their plan--if they even have one--has fallen apart. I maintain just enough of my readiness without giving away that I recognize this, deferring to their number.
The sun is beginning to set, and at some point I sense they are going to leave. They’ve scared me enough; even as everything in their postures indicates to me that they are intent on it, they do not act.
With that--with nothing, really--they leave. I am shaking when they go. But I am not “out of the woods yet,” to use a phrase that seems inordinately apt. They know where I am. They will return, of course, when it is dark.
All of which makes me recognize that I need a back-up plan.
Leaving Nordhouse tonight is absolutely out of the question. I would still have to hike back to my car which is in the direction they had come from, north. If and when I get back to the car I will have to drive and find a place to stay. This is as much a challenge to my pride and self sufficiency as the inconveniences they’ve now foisted on me. There’s nowhere else to go, and I’m not getting a motel. If they return to my site and see it abandoned, they could think they have scared me away, that I have left, that their mission has been accomplished. So be it. But I am not going to leave.
Just beyond dusk, the sky is now the luminescent blue of a gas flame I would normally feel cheered by (or at least resolved about regarding my security), but for having my camp seen--rather, found. Invaded.
On the other hand, they might not have gone very far. They might be within a dozen yards, waiting for me. I turn out my light and let the dark come on, deliberating about my options. I wait, alternately trying to peer into the distance to see if any shadow is lurking. I listen, for that unwelcome tell-tale and hair raising tone of human chatter. I look, without my light--they will certainly need light, at least we have this in common--they cannot see me. Unless . . . . I don’t go there.
Without hesitation, I know what I have to do. Another surge of confidence buoys me because, though irritated by the necessity of having to move camp, under cover of darkness, no less, I know I can do it. I have to. I’ve moved for less, that raccoon.
I hastily pack up camp, buzzing from adrenaline and animal fear, counting on their not returning while I am dismantling the camp. Yet another reality I take some comfort in: in the gathering darkness I will see their lights. At least I would by now, and thus, since I have not, I can hike out, south, away from the direction they had come from, but I must do so carefully, without my flashlight.
With my backpack unceremoniously packed, I stumble forward without light for perhaps a good hundred yards, padding my way across the sand dune. Another couple hundred, and my resolve is strong.
I hike for twenty minutes, confident I am far enough away and thus hidden so that they can’t find me if their lives depended on it. Is this merely an illusion of safety? I wait and linger over several prospective sites on a flat area of dunes, hopefully sheltered. I can barely see ten feet around me, even now with my light shielded and held low and scanning. I have no idea if I have a view, and that I am thinking about this makes me stifle a laugh. I am as good as safe. And more so than any other time I can recall in the past camping alone, I will manage to sleep soundly that night, having heeded my original rule of thumb. Just one more unknown out of the way.
I awake washed in that first light, the tent above me aglow. I stick my head out and discover the view I’d been hoping for when I set up. Maybe better. Down below my camp the dune stretches along the blue and green glassy coast of Lake Michigan.
The familiar late summer overcast of a Michigan sky canopies to the horizon, but it is still somehow bright, and the weather cannot ruin my trip now.
I haven’t packed any rain gear. The temperature drops ten degrees when the first coins of rain slap the dunes. If I wear my only pair of jeans to stay warm they are going to get soaked to the knees. I opt for my shorts.
Knowing Michigan weather it will get worse before I can muster the patience to wait it out. I briefly flash on the memory of my interlopers and feel a small, yet heavy, dread. I do not want to cross paths with them ever again.
For the second time in ten hours, I hastily pack up my camp.
The rain is steady. I envision the hike back. How far do I have to go? It is at least two miles, an easy hike in normal circumstances. But with the rain, I have the inspiration to wrap the tent’s fly around me. I skip the trail so as not to backtrack to where I first set up camp, and hike the curve along the coastline.
As I walk the shoreline of Lake Michigan, secure and self-satisfied, I review this trip of lessons. Follow your own guidelines, for one. Because if you do, no one, you can be reasonably sure, will come to your camp let alone find it, unless they happen to merely stumble across it. And if the latter, how many people stumbling into your camp are really looking to bother you? I recognize the flaw in my logic, but I believe the only people who really want trouble are the ones who go looking for it. And perhaps lesson number two: prepare for cold weather. And rain. The combination.
Cake walking the hard beach back to the parking lot, I am convinced I achieved what I had set out to do, though I hadn’t done much writing, or contemplation of anything. Perhaps because of the strangeness of this encounter, I make no note of it in my journal from this time. Instead, I only mention Molly the cocker spaniel (her owners, a friendly couple, called after her), whom I met on the trail from the parking lot and who quite contentedly followed me for a few dozen yards on my initial hike into the dunes.
I look a bit like a sodden superhero with my yellow cape. So like a superhero, (to what, to whom?) I think I can handle the circumstances thrown at me, and I am emboldened, sort of brave and definitely proud of myself for my resourcefulness in facing the unknown. The tent fly is keeping me dry--enough--and shields me from the chilly wind. I am ready to head back to Chicago.
If I can only find the trail from the beach through the woods back to the parking lot. The conditions, as I note with a shudder of glee, are right for hypothermia.
About the Author: Robert Detman is the author of the novel Impossible Lives of Basher Thomas(Figureground Press, 2014). The Survivor's'S Guide, short stories, was a semi-finalist for the 2013 Hudson Prize from Black Lawrence Press. His writing has appeared in the Antioch Review, Akashic Books Thursdaze, Word Riot, Spork Press, Decomp, and various other literary journals.