FIND­ING SPACE

Fit City camps solo, lives to tell about it

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - Pam Le­Blanc

I’ve slept un­der the stars at the bot­tom of the Grand Canyon, be­neath shoul­der-toshoul­der pines on the John Muir Trail and in view of glaciers in Mon­tana.

Through years of pound­ing tent stakes and bur­row­ing in sleep­ing bags, though, I’ve al­ways camped within scream­ing dis­tance of friends or fam­ily. Af­ter all, you never know when a griz­zly might at­tack or a tent will mal­func­tion.

But I’ve de­clared 2017 my Year of Ad­ven­ture. I’m do­ing things that scare me. I’m trav­el­ing alone more than ever — and that’s OK.

So when I headed to Big Bend Na­tional Park re­cently, I de­cided to camp solo part of the time. I loaded my tent, moun­tain bike and hik­ing boots into the truck with vi­sions of that big star-stud­ded West Texas sky in my head.

I silently thank my par­ents reg­u­larly for tow­ing the pint­sized me to parks and pitch­ing tents from Michi­gan to Texas. We slept on bunkbed cots (true!), leaped into lakes and ate bread topped with orange slices and brown sugar that my mom toasted over a camp stove.

Since then, I’ve stared out of tent flaps in the shadow of Mount Whit­ney, braved fiery thun­der­storms along the High Sierra Trail, lit my head­lamp in the Grand Te­tons and gazed into camp­fires all over Texas. Once, I nar­rowly avoided crush­ing a palm-sized taran­tula loung­ing just out­side my tent with my bare foot and lived to tell the tale.

By now, I know my big­gest camp­ing en­emy isn’t a for­ag­ing bear or a knife-wield­ing psy­cho — it’s the chat­ter in­side my head. That chat­ter can get pretty loud at times, though, and that’s why I de­cided to ease into solo camp­ing. In­stead of head­ing di­rectly to a re­mote back­coun­try site in the mid­dle of the desert at Big Bend, sur­rounded by scratchy cac­tus and howl­ing coy­otes, I drove to the Rio Grande Vil­lage camp­ground on the park’s east side.

I’d wade in, in­stead of do­ing my usual can­non­ball, and leave the bear wrestling and javelina joust­ing for the next trip (com­ing right up, guar­an­teed).

I found a spot at the edge of the camp­ground, where scrappy mesquite trees

and thorn-stud­ded cac­tus shielded me from other campers. I popped up my tent in about three min­utes, climbed in­side, stared out­the flaps and won­dered why this had ever made me even slightly ner­vous.

I know what I’m do­ing. While back­pack­ing the John Muir Trail with my hus­band in Au­gust, we adopted dif­fer­ent du­ties. He cooked din­ner and break­fast; I set up and broke down the tent. I might go hungry for a few hours, but I’d have shel­ter.

Still, I imag­ine things. I once lay in a tent in the back­coun­try of Yel­low­stone Na­tional Park and lis­tened to some­thing — griz­zly? — stamp, breathe heav- ily and chew some­thing just a foot or two from my tent. I froze in place while my hus­band snored through the whole episode, which was caused — based on the hoof­prints out­side the tent the next morn­ing — by a hungry deer. Ev­ery crack­ling twig or howl­ing coy­ote makes me feel very, very alone in the dark.

Iw an­ted to camp alone to re­con­nect with na­ture and prove to my­self that I’m ca­pa­ble and self-re­liant. Do­ing things on my own em­pow­ers me. I love how it feels when I load our speed­boat onto a trailer or fix a flat tire on my car. I know I can han­dle things — that I don’t have to call any­body to get me out of the usual jam. (And trust me, I face a lot of jams in this rapid-fire life of mine.)

Plus, camp­ing alone means you don’t have to im­press any­body. You can be your­self, with no par

ent-spouse-friend roles to fill. You get to do what you want, when you want to do it. You can walk around in your un­der­pants, eat din­ner at mid­night, write po­etry, roll in the mud or just sit and think.

In the end, my first stab at solo camp­ing came off per­fectly. I at­tempted to take pic­tures of my glow

ing tent un­til my cam­era gave out. I lis­tened to owls hoot. I walked around and gawked at the night sky. I sniffed in a lot, suck­ing up that spicy, tangy aroma of the desert.

I highly rec­om­mend it. And I can’t wait to do it again — ma­raud­ing rac

coons and gi­ant furry spi­ders be damned — in the real back­coun­try, with­out the safety net of other campers nearby.

If you’re tempted by the thought of some alone time with Mother Na­ture, heed th­ese tips: For your first solo trip, con­sider camp­ing some­place you know well, where you feel com­fort­able. Here in Cen­tral Texas, En­chanted Rock State Nat­u­ral Area (hike around the back­side of the gi­ant gran­ite dome for some soli­tude), Ped­er­nales Falls State Park, Colorado Bend State Park, Mother Neff State Park and McKin­ney Falls State Park all of­fer eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble camp­ing.

If you do de­cide to head into the back­coun­try — and that’ s on my list next — pack light . You’v eg ot no one else to share the load. Con­sider car­ry­ing a per­sonal lo­ca­tor bea­con. I used one called the DeLorme In­reach when I back­packed the John Muir Trail last year. Also, make sure you carry the “10 essen­tials.” The Moun­taineers, a Seat­tle-based out­doors group, came up with the list in the 1930s; the group’s cur­rent list is based on a sys­tem ap­proach and ap­pears in the book “Moun­taineer­ing: The Free­dom of the Hills.” It rec­om­mends

bring­ing nav­i­ga­tion equip­ment (map and com­pass), sun pro­tec­tion, in­su­la­tion (ex­tra cloth­ing), il­lu­mi­na­tion (head­lamp or flash­light), first-aid sup­plies, fire (wa­ter­proof matches/ lighter/can­dles), re­pair kit

and tools, nu­tri­tion (ex­tra food), hy­dra­tion (ex­tra wa­ter) and emer­gency shel­ter.

Be­fore you strike out, think about what’s go­ing to make you ner­vous. If you’re wor­ried about bears, carry a bear vault to store your food and stash it 100 feet from your camp at night. I fit ’ sak nife-wield­ing mad­man, carry Mace.

Tell some­one where you’re go­ing, and make sure you’re healthy — both phys­i­cally and men­tally.

The soli­tude might do you some good. And you’re safer out in the woods or desert than you are driv­ing down the high­way to get there.

CON­TRIB­UTED BY TANA SHOLLY

Pam Le­Blanc pho­to­graphs Big Bend Na­tional Park in the dis­tance at sun­set from Ter­lin­gua.

FAM­ILY PHOTO

Pam Le­Blanc (left) learned camp­ing skills along­side her sis­ter Nancy dur­ing fam­ily camp­ing trips in Michi­gan and Texas.

PAM LE­BLANC/AMERICANSTATESMAN PHO­TOS

Sun­rise from the na­ture trail at Rio Grande Vil­lage Camp­ground at Big Bend Na­tional Park.

Pam Le­Blanc pitched a tent at the Rio Grande Vil­lage camp­ground at Big Bend Na­tional Park.

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