A solitary camper finds brilliance in the woods
I woke up listening, watching, as you do in the woods. It was around four in the morning and I was lying on a sleeping bag. There, 30 feet from my borrowed tent, through an opening in the leafy canopy overhead, I saw a cone of moonlight beaming in the darkness, warming the floor of those pond-side woods. It was three feet in diameter, a shaft of light so bright it seemed artificial.
I was in Lee, a stone’s throw from Upper Goose Neck Pond, a wilderness pond with no buildings and not far from an Appalachian Trail hut, a two-story affair with bunks inside. In a couple of hours, in the light of a new day, I’d meet the caretaker, Nancy, who, in the quiet custom of people who work in the woods, would welcome me and show me the potable water, the outdoor dishwashing station, and the clotheslines. She asked only that I not use the clothesline on the west side of the hut. There was a bird nesting there, a phoebe, and we wouldn’t want to scare it.
I didn’t want to frighten anything, and I wasn’t interested in being scared myself. I’d just spent my first night alone in a tent, and Nancy was the first person I could tell that to. I had paddled in here the day before and set up camp, then paddled away to a friend’s cottage on Lower Goose Neck Pond, where I got a ride in his car to the Appalachian Trail. It was early afternoon by then, but there was plenty of daylight for hiking back to my campsite. Still, I got lost twice, and it was nearly dark when I followed the last white blaze to my tent, reaching my destination 15 miles later on foot, instead of what should have been 10.
A friend who is an experienced camper had told me to find a spot where I could be alone—to insist on absolute solitude. I was looking forward to it. But as the date of this first solo camping trip approached, I had horror-movie thoughts of lying alone in the woods, vulnerable to any random menace that might wander by, while I was separated from hungry bears or weird humans by only the thin nylon of a tent. I wanted to be alone—but not too alone.
I liked that there were some other people at Upper Goose Neck Pond. At the same time, the place is completely protected from cars. There are no roads, so you either have to paddle or hike in. There’s nothing you can do about the airplanes overhead, and they were flying in such volume I couldn’t shake the thought of them that first day. I asked Nancy about the planes—“Where were they all coming from?”—and while her answer seemed dubious at first, in time I would turn it over and realize that it could be instructive. “I’ve never even noticed which way they were going,” she said about the planes. “I prefer to listen to the sounds the birds make and to the wind in the trees.”
That’s what I mean by instructive. Sometimes you have to use your imagination to fill in or smooth over the incursions man has made on the natural world. Imagination is what came to me that first morning, when I woke up to see that column of light. There was the temptation to find meaning in that strange cone of light, of course, and being alone in the woods, there wasn’t anyone to distract me from that. A column of light, a ray of moonlight focused like a spotlight, a pinpoint radiance so close to my tent? I was certain of what I’d seen, and was in awe of it. Still, there was no place for it in my prior experience and, it being four in the morning, I found it easier to think that it was not real, that it was just some funky illusion that belonged to the world between waking and sleeping. So I looked away. And when I looked back, it was gone.
What remains is a memory, a remembered instant that can mean something to me, when I let it.