The sun drills through the orange shell of my sleeping-bag, illuminating the camp scenes on its worn flannel lining. Despite a sharp rock in my back, I think, for a flash, that I am at home where my unzipped bag is my quilt. I hang on to that moment because I know, once I emerge from my cocoon, I will have to shoulder that heavy pack. But, cold as the night was, my bag’s now stuffy, so I stick my head out and catch my breath. I am ten years old and waking twenty feet from the edge of a rocky outcrop overlooking …
Nothingness. Vast, then dropping, like a lost bowl, to tiny trees that slope to the edge of the newly distant lake. Another mountain rises behind, backed by thin clouds grazing a pale blue sky. I drink this moment as if I will never drink again.
They wake. My top-heavy pack looms over my head. The same leaders who volunteer to remove things from the fairylike girl with the blond braids and weak smile’s pack, who unbidden lighten her load every half mile, refuse to even check mine. It doesn’t matter. O.K., it does, but it doesn’t more because I can’t do anything about it; I signed up for this and I don’t know how lucky I am.
I don’t know that such a thing would be impossible, illegal today – sending a group of girls, strangers, all hovering around age ten, up a mountain, for four days, with two guides who couldn’t have been more than seventeen, if that. We see no other hikers, and (in 1976) there is no way to contact anyone should something go wrong. On the other hand, nothing does. Do we sleep in tents? No! We are exposed. But do Grizzlies raid our supplies, cougars attack us? Also no. Besides, the camp itself does not have tents.
The week before, when (after a welcome speech featuring a group vow to always accompany your campmate to the toilet in the dark) Julie and I set up our campsite, it was tarps on the ground, duffels against a tree. Julie squared our tarps to right angles and—despite my very scientific protestations—aerosoled a perimeter of Raid around them. I slept with my arms overhead and—despite Julie’s Raid—woke to mosquito bites on bites, my arms swollen in a landscape of red rubbery bumps, no spot untouched (so grotesque that bragging rights outweighed the itch). My tarp was an old blue shower curtain, Julie’s a proper green drop cloth. The idea was, if it rained you’d tie a rope between two trees, then use one camper’s tarp as a tent and the other for ground cover. We agreed that Julie’s tarp—being larger and bendier, (and, I realize now, more fashionable)—would be the tent, but it never rained which was good, because I took my shower curtain with me, up the mountain.
Our leaders provided backpacks and, after we filled them with our own stuff, distributed mess kits, snakebite kits, camp stoves, and food amongst us. Tall for my age, I received an adult pack. Also, while my brother had taught me to stuff my sleeping-bag in a tiny sack that, when filled with day clothes, became a pillow, the other girls brought actual pillows which (as you know) are both space-consuming and light.
Was this a Gold Award project? Did our leaders, long-legged and confident, scoff at the map. “We can make this. Easy”? Despite our lack of uniforms, badges, or cookies, this was a Girl Scout Camp. To their credit, our leaders honored the motto: Be Prepared. The reconstituted food was less disgusting everyday, and there was enough of it. Still, while that blond girl was definitely a weakling, why, when I begged them to check my pack’s weight, wouldn’t they just shut me up by humoring me?
The injustice stamped that particular bend in the river (where, filling our canteens, I shared my brother’s theory that animals pee upstream) in my mind, destining me to recall forever the third girl’s laughter. It was the one time we dug a hole for a toilet and she reported that it was now full of bees. (Yellow jackets dancing over counselor-created dog-do: an incongruously suburban scene). Last in line, I went behind a bush.
Was there a fourth girl? I’m not sure. The hike was arduous. No one else wanted to sing (and, despite my repertoire of showtunes, I was banned from singing solo), but it still beat the disappointing drama club and wildlife sessions starring tabby cats at the main camp. Our leaders marched ahead, worried (legitimately) that we’d never make campsite before dark. We straggled behind, not talking (which cannot be right, when did I ever not talk?) because we were separated by pace. Aside from ledge-night, when the other two girls performed the baby-brushing-her-teeth skit, there was no time for anything but hiking, eating, and sleeping.
But I loved it. It was the mountains, the wilderness, even if we couldn’t stop to look at it, even if we never saw more than a chipmunk, and I didn’t make friends with the other girls, even if no one liked me, even if they wished I wasn’t there (but then who would have carried the excess in my pack?). I was as happy on my own as I would later be in cafes the world over, and waking up thinking I was home, only to be transported to that breathtaking ledge, remains one of my favorite memories.
Five days later I return. Re-squaring my tarp, Julie tells me that every morning, for one glorious moment before opening her eyes, she thinks she’s home. I say next week we’ll believe we’re at camp, and we giggle as if I’d never left her to wake strangers for help locating a bathroom in the night woods. I don’t know what happened to Julie, but this is the second time she’s popped up in my writing, which is funny because we weren’t that close. Or maybe we were and I didn’t notice, which makes me wonder what else I’ve missed while off hiking on my own.