I flip on the high beams, hunch over the steering wheel glass-eyed and squinting to read the land 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, then voilà, campsites on either side—but the hallway of stunted trees keeps going, only intermittently broken by wood-post property lines. My foot remains on the gas as self-talk falls into rhythm with the swing and tap of the rear-view-mirror chile peppers.
Finally, the road opens wide to the largest pullout I’ve ever seen. I swing around and point my nose back towards Carbondale, Colorado, kill the ignition, keep on the headlights, peer through them. The trees grow densely here. I crawl into the back and dig for my headlamp in one of the plastic totes.
Donned and ready to blind the unsuspecting lurker, I switch the headlights off, 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.
I crawl back inside and prep for bed anyway, draw the curtains, unfold the sunshade for the windshield, tuck it neatly behind the visors and into all the corners. I change into warmer clothes, blow up the pad, roll out the zero-degree sleeping bag—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, then abruptly pulls to a stop ten yards away. The red brake lights burn holes into my eyes as I stare from my sacred cove. There is a flash of light as the car is shifted into park. The rumbling engine purrs fear into my chest, but no doors open, no flashlights shine my way. Back into drive, the pickup takes off. Could they see my face through the window? Did they find the vulnerability drilling pits into my brain behind wide deer eyes?
I sit for five minutes, stare into my head. I decide to pull the towel I use as a seat cover, manually roll down the driver’s window, curl an edge of towel over the lip and roll the fucker back up. With trees bordering the passenger side, I regained 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—hell, I lived out of this Jeep for a solid two months once. 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 my amygdala firing nonsense. I decide to skip the teeth brushing so I don’t have to go outside again (ever) tonight. 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; I bolt up, fingers feeling for the knife in its sheath. The car keeps 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 like this, yet there’s nothing in my gut telling me to run. Still, What am I really doing? The classic vomit of doubt. I begin imagining all the mountain lion and bear scenarios instead, like waking up to a shaking Jeep, and any other ultimatums to just leave this place.
My heart pounds nails into the chest wall, ringing adrenaline into my throat and ears. So much stress, for what?
I should’ve brought warmer gloves, I think as I curl up into a ball. I press the air out my nose, follow through with the night in stubbornness; tell myself to shut up, I’m trying to sleep.
The morning is cold enough to make me flex with bad posture. My feet are tucked against my butt—the end of the sleeping bag had become a lost cause. It’s 6:30 A.M.
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 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. The Sheriff. They turned on a searchlight, then turned it off, and drove away. Well shit, I knew I had nothing to worry about then. Thankfully, 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 this pullout. I sit for ten minutes trying to decide whether or not to be lazy. I can do the hot breakfast thing with tea like I’d planned, or, I can settle for dry granola and drive back into town, ASAP. I eat yellow, sweet tomatoes as I think about it, 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 east, hills-more flank the west across the creek, heavily speckled with aspens. I check my phone for elevation and it reads over 7,400-feet. Wispy clouds meld with the blue day; they are at their thickest over the main mountain, Mt. Sopris; they paint themselves into the ivory ridgeline.
The dull chatter of the creek is all the white noise I need. A disheveled knot of hair and bad breath, I finally go outside, pee oblivion into the grass, pop open the back and set up the Jet-Boil for tea. Since I’ve got that going, I set up the Coleman and fry up some eggs, throw some spinach onto the plate and call it. Brush my fucking teeth.
8:30 a.m. Yesterday I had 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 5Point Film Festival, and last night, after driving five hours in the rain, Wendy, Beth, and I hung prayer flags and posters. Bike racks, bushes, bathrooms. But I could see Pete’s energy like the twinkling lights themselves, and I wanted to avoid him without being rude. Aloof, that’s the word—often a woman’s secret weapon and greatest burden when it comes to unwanted attention.
At the end of the shift, he handed me a slip of yellow note paper, with his number on it, see you around? I hate confrontation. Even if it means making things awkward or worse for myself. So I partook in his 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 human company, right? 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.
Last night, I, of course, thought of Patrick, of both his silly demeanor and deep introspection. I imagined him crawling into our bed, alone, and maybe touching my pillow but definitely thinking of me as he ensues dream and a wide, sleepy mouth. This thread of vision helped me fall asleep, despite the cooling creaks of the Jeep and all the random cars.
The sun finally reaches the pullout. I sip my Earl Grey and wonder where this damn road leads.
11:45 a.m. Rain clouds graze over the neighboring Glenwood Springs as new bellies, gray and distended. I’ve parked my Jeep in the dirt parking lot next to Carbondale’s Town Hall.
Earlier, I jogged up Prince Creek Road to see more. Maybe a tenth of a mile up, lo-and-behold, stood official Public Land signs. 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. I then noticed paths weaving in and out of the woods, and realized they were all single-track mountain bike trails.
The place seems to receive a lot of rogue traffic: abandoned tents, trash, beer bottles. Regardless of the abuse, it was enchanting to jog by the creek and along the dirt through hallways in the trees, some bare and some with reddened leaves, alpine wind at my back.
4:30 p.m. I’m texting Kathleen as I shove celery and peanut butter down my throat, and many other food items I don’t remember. I’m just down Main Street from the Van Life Rally, at home-base (my Jeep). When I asked a Facebook group if anyone would be at 5Point, Kathleen had responded with her contact info.
She sent me a photo of her retrofitted van, so I browse the aisles of homes until I find it.
“Are you Kathleen?” I ask a brunette in a black tank.
“I’m Kathleen!” a woman interjects, hidden to my right. She’s holding a dog on a leash, has dirty-blonde hair that falls in waves. We chat and ask each other what 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, her eyes dart about. I can tell she wants to focus on her work—she’s only here to document the rally. So we wander our separate ways, scope out all the different rigs. There is a mini coffee shop built from a trailer, and the young girl offers me an iced chai. I chug it, even chew on the ice while meandering, don’t care 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. Fuzzy sky, I honestly don’t remember what she says. Maybe it was my prickly nervousness, maybe it was how abrupt the conversation ended when others came to look at her camper. Either way, I take some stickers and chew more ice to ensure people will think I don’t mind being by myself.
“Four dollars please,” the young woman says, spooning hot lentil goodness to the brim. Now, I’m walking around eating 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…I find myself chattering to Kathleen again. Be my friend, my subconscious exudes by way of forced but pleasant giggles.
Pete somehow finds me, and we begin to chat. His eyes look tipsy; he talks about how I can stay in his van if I want to—no thank you, and I blabber about the new farm work my husband just picked up, and Pete is suddenly playing with other people’s dogs and sliding away into the crowd without another word.
My phone vibrates and it’s Sonya. A mutual friend introduced us through social media, since she knew both of us were coming to the festival alone. I’m wearing a sweater with a platypus on it, I read from her text. We find each other by the food trucks, and in the tradition of small talk, I ask her what she does.
I am so wrong to feel that way, albeit instantaneously brief. She is new to writing and just moved to Louisville in October. She quit waitressing to pursue writing on a whim, wants to focus on supporting inclusivity in the outdoor industry.
I relate in more than one way: the newness of stepping into the industry, the fear of networking, the doubt of success. 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. We sit together towards the front, as left as stage-left gets.
Everything dims. The festival trailer alone for the whole weekend makes my heart swell and my eyes shine in the dark. I see Sonya wipe her eyes. Filmmakers speak about their pieces, Chris Kalous emcees, and we watch like starving artists at the table of input and inspiration. Films on freediving, trail running, Fred Beckey, Ben Page and his solo bike trip through the Canadian Arctic, Krystle Wright’s compilation of female badassery, river activist Katie Lee, jockeys, 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 nearby, 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. We meet her and her husband Steve by the stage. Aisha invites us to breakfast with her tomorrow morning at a local cafe named Town. One night of festivities so far and I can’t believe the people I’ve met.
Sonya and I grin ear to ear, despite the downpour of rain, and run to our cars. Empowered, and having bonded over not knowing what we’re really doing here, Sonya follows me in her Honda Civic to the infamous Prince Creek Road.
It’s nearly 11:00 P.M. when we roll into a formal campsite and say goodnight, settle into our respective sleeping bags, sigh relief. I am not alone this time. The rain softly thrums the Jeep. Excitement wedges deep into my lungs, warms me. I want to let the weight of rain pass through me.
The contrast of this night is so striking from the one before. I’m so glad I came. Surrendering to the edge of sleep, I become a rising bird in the night, eager for purpose, ready to filter through the bath of stars and deep water—press my wings, even if it means death by giving everything to chance.
How sweet the sleep came; how silently did the snow.
Continue to Part 2…