Heather Osborn

The first time I heard of solo camping it was like a revelation to me. I had hungered for so long to escape, somehow, the ideals of the people around me, the preconceived notions forced on my by society, gender, age, ethnicity, and even by the many masks that I had worn. I longed to escape these expectations, to elude society and her demands if only for a moment, to learn who I was apart from her siren songs, what I wanted and why. I longed, like Thoreau, to "live my life deliberately," and to learn what the words "only that day dawns to which you are awake" meant.

So I fled to the wild places of the Earth, those few wildernesses left to us. I began to drive. I drove straight up north through Alberta, amidst its endless grassland and eternal horizons, spotted by smatterings of forest. After a time the pampas faded a little and I was driving alongside woods of thin trees and crowded soil. Finally, I came to a small mining town, teeming with jovial workers and black-gold. It was the place where the road ended, where the highway stopped and I could go no further.

My mind was so focused, so intent on my journey that my memories of those long hours of driving seem almost surreal. But still society pursued me, still I was unable to find the solitude and the nature that I so desired, to learn what it is like to live only for survival and love and passion, to learn what it is to dance beneath the stars and know truly that no one is watching, to simply lie on the ground and listen to the heartbeat of the Earth, and to discover whether this is where I was ever meant to be.

Yet my fanatic's passion would not let me rest and I drove up and down the streets, knowing, somehow, that my journey was not over. Then I saw an outdoor supply store and knew that the beckoning wilderness still called me: I had to go on. So I bought a pack, food, supplies, even a tent, and asked the man at the shop where I could go "to be absolutely undisturbed." I think I even told him something about needing to find my oneness with nature, or understand myself and humanity. I laugh to remember the look he gave me, but with that he gave directions - a hunters trail that was now unused except by Native Americans who went there to seek their spirit guides. I thanked him and, after long hours of searching, I found it: a small dirt road and an even smaller trail leading off of it. Leaving my car parked alongside the road, I began to walk.

Soon, sooner than I would have thought, my feet began to ache and I tired and the water I carried became so heavy... my resolve weakened, and thoughts flashed through my mind. This is silly, stupid. Why can't you think about things at home? Journal, meditate... why come all this way to this harsh and barren world just to dwell within your own mind - and then I stopped. For that is what I had been doing. I had come all this way but was living, seeking only within my own head.

So I sat down at the edge of the trail I had been following and for the first time I looked - really looked - around me. I eased the heavy pack off my back and reached out to caress the white bark of a birch beside me. I ran my hands along the grass - so green - then lay back against it to feel its gentle fingers easing my weary body. Through the leafy canvas I stared up at a vivid sky sprinkled with white clouds, and, heard, all of a sudden, the silence of the forest. I can tell you now that this is truly not silence at all - it is sprinkled with many sounds, rustling leaves and a gentle breeze whistling through the trees, birdsong and the buzz and flutter of insects. But to my urban-wearied mind it was silence - a beautiful, natural golden silence, more vivid and powerful than that felt within libraries, museums, and churches of our world that hold silence as a sacred code. I must have lain there for hours, sometimes speaking aloud, to myself, or the forest, or perhaps God, sorting out some of what I was feeling, just a hint of what I may be. It was beautiful to feel the breeze against my skin and earth beneath my back, and, as the sun began to set, I arose and danced alone to its silent rhythms.

Right there in that tiny clearing off a deer trail I wrapped myself in my sleeping bag, and careless of weather or predators, slept beneath the star sprinkled open sky that sparkled with promises of untold wisdom.

The next day I woke early from the chill in the air and rising sun in my eyes. I got up and washed my face in water I had carried on my own back, and actually cooked a meal with my own hands over an open fire that I had created myself. And then I got up and walked, this time not walking to be going, but simply walking to be being. I stopped often, to bury my face in flowers, to dance in fields, to write in the tiny notebook I carried, or just to sit in silence and think or meditate. Again I slept alone beneath the stars, this time removing my clothes completely, and, for the very first time in my life, I was naked outdoors and felt the breeze caress my body in a way that was purely sensual. The days began to blend together, no longer separations of living during work and play, then ending as I went to bed, but all purely life, sleeping when I tired, eating when I hungered, and in some small way learning who I was.

I found myself, after a couple of days, hugging trees, thanking them as I used a convenient branch to pull myself over a muddy spot. I could lay for hours finally understanding not how small I was in the great wild world but how necessary I truly was. That this tapestry of life all around us is made up of tiny stitches, tiny lives, and that each one is irrevocably a part of the whole - each one makes it what it is and without even the least of all creatures the whole would be lessened.

And then one day I heard a distant roar, and unthinkingly pursued it. I came to a river, gentle here where I stood but distantly I could see it rage in fierce joy of freedom. I smiled and stripped off my dirty clothes, gasping as I plunged into the frigid water - then laughing, laughing for the pure joy of it. I leaned back, letting my body float to the surface, and realized that this was my journey's end. I had not discovered all that I came to find, but I had found what my heart sought. I smiled up at the clear northern sky, suddenly feeling the scent of winter in the air, which northern people tell me never truly goes away. Somehow it felt stronger now and I knew I must return. This stage in my life was, for the moment, over. Gently pushing my arms through the clear water, I smiled at its cool caress. I was not saddened because, at that moment, I was content.

© Heather Osborn

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