I flip on the high beams, hunch over the steering wheel glass-eyed and still squinting to read the layout of yet another unknown place. Pavement ends and my Jeep bounces deeper into the hills of Prince Creek Road. Residents in town had described dirt and cattle gates and then voilà, campsites on either side – but the hallway of stunted trees keeps going and going, intermittently broken by wood-post property lines. My foot remains on the gas as self pep-talk falls into rhythm with my rear-view-mirror chile peppers, swinging and tapping the windshield. Finally, the road opens wide – the largest pullout I’ve seen. I swing around and point my nose back towards Carbondale, kill the ignition, keep on the headlights, peer through them as they light up tree and dirt. I crawl into the back to dig for my damn headlamp in one of the plastic totes.
Donned and ready to blind the unsuspecting lurker, I switch the headlights off and step out to inspect the void. There is a small path winding through the trees, possibly a running trail, and a fence across the road, but that’s it. Nothing that remotely resembles a campsite. Still, I crawl back inside the Jeep and prep for bed, drawing the curtains and unfolding the sunshade for the windshield, tuck it neatly behind the visors and into all the corners. I change into warmer clothing and blow up the sleeping pad, roll out the 0° bag, and even start thinking about brushing my teeth when I faintly hear the sound of another car. Up the road, lights slowly appear. I am a woman alone in an unknown space so my hands immediately cover the headlamp, press the power to black.
A large pickup rolls by and abruptly pulls to a stop ten yards away. The red brake lights burn holes into my eyes as I stare from the darkness of my sacred cove. There is a flash of white as the car is shifted into park, the rumbling engine purring fear into my chest; but no doors open, no lights shine my way. Then it’s back into drive and the pickup takes off. I wonder if he or they or she could see my face through my driver’s side window. Did they read the vulnerability drilling pits into my brain through wide deer eyes?
I sit for five minutes and stare into my own head. Then I pull the towel I use as a seat cover, roll down the driver’s window, curl an end over the lip and roll the fucker back up. With trees bordering the passenger side, I felt I was regaining the façade of solitude. So I tried to just do normal. I’ve camped alone before, even in the backcountry of Yosemite with no tent – heck, I’ve lived out of this Jeep for a solid two months. This Jeep has been so good to me. No one will bust a window out here, grab me by the hair and drag me into the woods, will they? This is where my amygdala starts firing nonsense. I decide to skip the teeth brushing so I don’t have to go outside again (ever) tonight. So I huddle inside the sleeping bag and close my eyes.
There’s an eerie emptiness that lingers for a while. I start thinking about the weapons I could use. I have a compact snow shovel, a small hatchet, and a solid tactical knife. Then I start thinking about whether I would actually use said weapons. Are you that brave, Sara? Really? A random car drives by and I bolt up, fingers feeling for the knife in its sheath, but the car keeps on going without a twitch. Thoughts of my husband at home, comfy in our bed, make me homesick. It’s been two years since I’ve ventured completely alone, yet there’s nothing in my gut telling me to run. But why? What am I really doing? The classic vomit of doubt. I start imagining all the bear scenarios, like waking up to a shaking Jeep, and any other ultimatums to leave this place. My heart pounds nails into my chest wall, ringing adrenaline into my throat and ears. So much stress – for what? I should’ve brought warmer gloves, damnit. Nonetheless, I follow through in stubbornness and tell myself to lay down, shut up – I’m trying to sleep.
The morning is cold enough to make me flex with bad posture, feet tucked against the butt – the end of the sleeping bag is a lost cause. It’s 630 am and I wiggle slow. The hum of the hills throughout the night was restless. I remember the faint sound of an engine going by and feeling glad I was asleep enough to not care. But then it came back later as dirt and tire coming to a halt. Immediately upright and awake I used my laser vision to peer through the curtains. It was the Sheriff. He turned on a light then turned it off, and drove away. Well shit, I knew I had nothing to worry about then. Thus, there is a new sense of confidence now, however slight, for the four days still ahead of me.
The sun is bright but far from reaching the pullout. I sit for ten minutes deciding whether or not to be lazy. I can do the hot breakfast thing with tea like I planned, or I can settle for the granola I just bought and drive back into town ASAP. I start eating yellow sweet tomatoes as I think about it. I open the curtains and peep out. The land beyond me is vast. White peaks loom wide and symmetrical to the South West. All those stout wiry trees flank the East, hills-more to the West across the creek, speckled with aspens. I check elevation and it reads over 7400’. Wispy clouds meld with a blue spring day, at their thickest over the mountain, painting themselves into the ivory skyline. The dull chatter of the creek is all the white noise I need.
A hot mess, I finally go outside, pee oblivion into the grass, pop open the back and set up the Jet-Boil for tea. And since I’ve got that going, I might as well set up the Coleman and fry up some eggs, throw some spinach onto my plate and call it. And brush my fucking teeth.
830am. Yesterday I met Wendy, Pete, and Beth – all very different people. I like Wendy. She gave me her address and phone number just in case I wasn’t psyched on camping alone. Pete had his eyes on me from the moment he started hanging lights outside the Recreation Center. I guess I should mention why I’m even out here. I volunteered to work the 5 Point Film Festival, and last night, after driving 5 hours in the rain, Wendy, Beth, and I hung prayer flags and posters everywhere. You name it – bike racks, bushes, bathrooms. But I could read Pete’s energy and I obviously wanted to avoid it without being a dick (if I had one) or standoffish. Aloof – that’s the word. A woman’s secret weapon and greatest burden when it comes to unwanted attention.
At the end of our shift he handed me a slip of yellow note paper with his number on it, see you around? But I hate confrontation, even if it means making things awkward or worse for myself. So I partook in the conversation as if his intentions were to be friends, because he was a local and he just wanted to offer friendship if I ever need directions or human to platonic human company, right? But it was bold of him nonetheless and after he left I looked down at my wedding ring and asked Wendy if it was that hard to notice. Maybe he didn’t care.
So last night I of course thought of Patrick, his silly quirks, his rhyme and reason. I imagined him crawling into our bed alone and maybe touching my pillow, but definitely thinking of me as he ensued light snoring and a wide sleepy mouth. I thought of his eyes and his smile – everything, it helped me fall asleep, too, despite the cooling creaks of the Jeep and all the random cars. He most definitely gives me strength.
The sun finally reaches the Jeep. I’ve eaten and cleaned up, sip my Earl Grey and I start thinking about where this damn roads leads.
1145am. Rain clouds graze over Glenwood Springs – threads in the distance, new bellies grey and distended. I’ve parked my Jeep in the dirt parking lot next to the Town Hall. Earlier I ran up Prince Creek to see what was up there. Maybe a tenth of a mile more, lo-and-behold, stood official Public Land signs, and another tenth of a mile, all the campsites you could ever dream of. Rookie mistake. Stone fire pits, room to park your car and set up a tent city if you wanted. Then I started noticing paths weaving in and out of the woods and I realized that they’re all single track mountain biking trails. I could tell this place gets a lot of traffic: abandoned tents, trash, beer bottles. Regardless of the abuse, it was enchanting to jog by the creek and along the dirt tracks, through hallways in the trees, some bare and some with reddened leaves, alpine wind at my back.
430pm. I’m texting Kathleen Morton while I shove celery and peanut butter down my throat, and many other food items I don’t remember. At home base again (my Jeep) after helping set up chairs, I’m just down Main Street from the Van Life Rally. Kathleen is a fellow Mountain Standard Field Agent so when I asked the Facebook group if anyone would be at 5Point, she responded with her contact info. She sent me a photo of her retro van so I browse the aisles of homes until I find it.
“Are you Kathleen?” I ask a brunette in a black tank.
“No – ”
“I’m Kathleen!” interjects a woman hidden to my right. She’s holding a dog on a leash, dirty-blonde hair that falls in waves, and she welcomes me with a big smile. We chat and ask each other about the work the other does, because that’s what small talk is I suppose. I tell her I just joined the freelance writing bandwagon and she tells me she runs Tiny House Tiny Footprint and contributes to Van Life Diaries. But the conversation dwindles and her eyes are wanting to focus on her work – she’s only here to document the rally. So we wander different ways, scoping out all the different rigs. There’s a mini-trailer coffee shop and the girl offers me an iced chai. I chug said iced chai and even chew on the ice while meandering, not caring when people look my way. The goal is to kill time until the evening film program, the first of the weekend. I meet Jen Altschul from Duct Tape Then Beer and even ask her if she has any advice for the lost, budding freelancer. I honestly don’t remember what she says. Maybe it was nerves, maybe it was how abrupt the conversation ended when other people came by to look at her camper. Either way, I took some stickers and chewed more ice to make people think I didn’t mind being by myself.
So I browse the food trucks for a tasty bite and count my cash – $8. Everything is over ten except a bowl of lentil soup. “Four dollars please,” the young woman says as she spoons hot lentil goodness to the brim. Now I’m walking around eating real food and looking like I know what I’m doing, where I want to be, and who I’m on my way to talk to. It’s all about how confident you look, isn’t it? But I find myself chattering to Kathleen again. Be my friend, my subconscious exudes by way of insecurity. Pete somehow finds me and we chat. His eyes look tipsy and he starts talking about how I could stay in his van if I wanted to – no thank you, and I start mentioning the work my husband does and Pete is suddenly playing with other people’s dogs and walking away without another word. My phone vibrates and it’s Sonya. A mutual friend introduced us through Facebook since she knew both of us were coming to the Festival alone. I’m wearing a sweater with a platypus on it, she writes. Thus, we find each other and in the theme of small talk, I ask her what she does.
“I’m a writer!” she says, and for a split second my heart sinks – of course right? Because everyone is nowadays so what the fuck do I think I’m doing? There’s no way I’ll ever make it. But I was so wrong to feel that way, albeit instantaneously brief. She expresses how new she is to writing, having just moved to Louisville in October; how one day she quit waitressing to pursue writing on a whim, focused on giving voice to diversity. I obviously relate in more than one way; she looks at me with her green eyes and accepts me as a stranger turned friend. We click. And somehow, having come with no agenda, she gets a hold of a spare ticket and we sit together towards the front, as left as stage-left gets.
Everything begins. The trailer alone for the whole weekend makes my heart swell and my eyes shine in the dark. I look at Sonya wiping tears from her eyes. She and I are definitely on the same page. Filmmakers talk about their pieces, Chris Kalous emcees, and we watch like starving artists at the table of input and inspiration. Freediving, trail running, Fred Beckey, Ben Page and his solo bike trip through the Canadian Arctic, crawling babies, Kyrstle Wright’s comedic compilation of female badassery, river activist Katie Lee, jockeys, Chocolate Spokes, a one-eyed surfer, and a letter to Congress for wilderness conservation written back in 1960. The night ends with a spoken word piece by Wade Newsom. Then I realize Krystle Wright is sitting near us, so when the lights come on I ask Sonya to take a photo of us. Krystle giggles and smiles, her Australian accent so fitting for her kickback personality. What a crazy place this is.
Iconic figures in the industry stand around in small circles of chatter. Sonya has been in contact with Aisha Weinhold, founder of No Man’s Land Film Festival and owner of a gear shop in town, so we meet her by the stage with her husband Steve. One night of festivities so far and I can’t believe the people I’ve met. Aisha invites us to breakfast with her tomorrow morning at a local cafe named Town. We grin ear to ear despite the downpour of rain, running to our cars. Empowered and having bonded over not knowing what we’re doing here, Sonya follows me in her Honda Civic back out to Prince Creek.
It’s almost 11pm and we roll into a real campsite and say goodnight, settle into our respective sleeping bags, sigh relief. I am not alone this time. The rain is soft and wonderful. Excitement wedges deep into my gut, warms me from the inside out as I let the weight of the world pass through me – the contrast of this night so striking from the one before. I’m so glad I came. Surrendering to sleep, I am a rising bird in the night, passionate and eager for purpose – ready to filter through this bath of stars and dark water, dip my wings in, even if it means death by giving everything to chance. How sweet sleep came, and so did the snow.
Continue to Part 2…