I recently took a weeklong solo road trip across Southern California where I camped in various beautiful places. I was off of work at the time, unlike my boyfriend, so I took the opportunity and ran with it. I frequently camp and hike with my boyfriend, friends, and family, and there’s nothing like good company. There’s nothing like cuddling under the stars with the one you love or singing around a campfire with friends. But as I learned on this trip, there’s also nothing like solitude in wild places. As a woman, I have always been hesitant toward this sort of solo adventure, which comes with frustration and anger toward the patriarchal world that creates fear in otherwise adventurous women. But with a carefully planned itinerary to what I deemed were safe places, a knife in my pocket given to me by said boyfriend, and all my camping gear loaded in the car, I embarked. Here are eight things I experienced.
1. Non-human kinship. My first stop was Santa Cruz Island, part of the Channel Islands National Park. This island rises out of the sea eighteen miles west of the coast of California, requiring an hour-long boat trip, so only the committed adventurers make the journey (which costs a deterring $35 each way). While I resented that hefty fee, I realized that it would give me a sense of security, with the thought that criminals and rapists probably wouldn’t be found on this island. Just harmless outdoor enthusiasts.
Out there on the island, there was a lot of land, and few people to inhabit it. As I hiked through rolling hills, cloaked in golden grass, I’d go miles without seeing humans, and often no animals, either. Just a labyrinth of enveloping topography. “Just.” But occasionally, I’d come across an adorable Channel Island Fox, or a sparrow hopping around, or a soaring raven. The sighting would instantly bring me glee, companionship. Since these creatures and I share the gift of mobility (unlike dirt, rocks, shrubs), I was struck by the similarity, more than the difference, between us in a way I had never experienced. I locked eyes with the fox, smiled at her, appreciated the convivial moment, the exchange of senses, the perceiving of one another. And we both went along our separate ways.
2. Raw human connection. There were two other young solo travelers on Santa Cruz Island with me. Their names were Jessie and Ben, which I didn’t actually learn until we said goodbye on the boat ride home. Yes, there were so few people that I could count the number of solo travelers on one hand. Naturally, we were drawn to one another. We instantly had a sort of camaraderie. The couples, families, and friends on the island had each other; they weren’t seeking anyone else to talk to – so they didn’t talk to me, and I didn’t talk to them. I thought about how I was often in their shoes when I traveled in groups, not really meeting anyone new. But now, when I encountered another solo traveler, often after hours of silent and solitary exploration, we’d immediately start talking to each other. We talked about our experiences hiking, about our lives, about the animals we’d seen, about anything that crossed our minds. These conversations felt like something essential, like eating or drinking, satisfying a hunger or quenching a thirst. The virtues of not having cell reception.
3. Vulnerability. Back on the mainland, I drove south to San Diego, spent a lovely evening with my cousin, then headed to California’s largest state park, Anza Borrego Desert State Park. It didn’t take long to escape the urban suburbs into rural ranches and then the vast nothingness (which is really more somethingness) of protected land in the Colorado Desert. I arrived to the park, set up camp, and headed out on a short, mellow afternoon hike. It was hot and dry, my lips already chapping, as I chugged lukewarm water out of my Nalgene. The goal of the hike was to reach a palm oasis in a canyon, a sought-after anomaly amidst cacti, barren soil, shrubs, and rock.
As I settled into a walking rhythm, a thought popped: rattlesnakes. Of course I was in their country, how could I forget? Suddenly all my senses went wild and I felt vulnerable. My ears became alert to the slightest rustle that could’ve been a rattle; my eyes scanned rock crevices for any slithering motion. I tried to cultivate this alertness while letting go of the accompanying nervousness, but hell, I was a human hiking alone, late in the day, and I didn’t think to bring a stick. (There weren’t any around that I could see.) But the beauty around me could still be swallowed: giant red boulders, cholla and barrel and beavertail cactus, little blue lizards, direct sun on skin, occasional breeze, a yellow finch hopping about, and mountains ahead, dry and defiant. Everything in pale, pastel tones. The landscape felt so alien to me, as a current inhabitant of the lush northern California coast.
And just as I began to feel harmonious, with the sound of a trickling stream reaching my ears and informing me I was approaching the oasis, I rounded the bend and there was the thing. Patterned tan and red in muted color like the trail, the rattlesnakes’ body slithered across, as long as the trail wide. I became as vulnerable and animal as ever, turned around as fast as instinct could function, and headed back down the hill. I paused some yards away, and stared upward toward the palm oasis. I resigned myself to admiring it from afar. There’s nothing wrong with being a little afraid sometimes.
4. Loneliness. Loneliness can happen when you’re alone, and it sure did happen to me. My night in Anza Borrego was one of the windiest I had ever endured. Once the sun began to slip away, it just got windier and windier. At one point, my tent ripped its stakes out of the ground and tumbled several yards before I caught it, and I staked it back in with a little more tenacity and care. To cook my package of ready-made curry lentils, I had to position my stove beside my car as a windbreak and hover my body over it, trying to protect the fickle flame. It took 45 minutes to boil – but those lentils sure did taste good. And I realized afterward that it was a good thing it took so long, because once the food was eaten and the dishes were clean, it was dark and there was nothing to do. The wind became difficult to bear, the stars sparse due to the bright moon, so I got in my tent at around 8PM.
Several books of poetry were all I brought for company. I had finished the only novel I brought on the trip a couple days ago. And as I soon learned, poems are lonelier than prose. I read some poems from each book, enjoyed them, but found that I couldn’t read a whole lot of them– they began to lose all meaning if I tried to do that. So I was left sitting in my tent, listening to the wind, missing my boyfriend very much, and waiting for sleep to take me to the calm and promising morning
5. Fear. My third and final wilderness was Joshua Tree National Park. I drove long stretches of hot, empty highways, along the Salton Sea and past date palm orchards, all beneath a blazing sun. Once I entered the park, I climbed in elevation as I transitioned out of the Colorado Desert and into the Mojave. The Mojave let me I know I was inside of it by greeting me not just with fields of Joshua Trees, but looming dark clouds that got darker the further I drove. I saw a lightning bolt crack through the sky and into the ground some number of miles ahead of me. I tensed up. I wished there was someone else in the car, wiser than me, whom I could ask if it was safe to be driving in the middle of the desert amidst a thunderstorm. Someone to comfort me or at least egg me on. My campground was in the center of the park, and I committed myself to keep driving toward it. Huge raindrops began to fall, faster and faster. I mobilized my fastest windshield wiper speed and all of my determination and courage (okay, I know that sounds a little overly epic, but since I was by myself, I allowed myself to feel as epic as I wanted to.) Through the storm I went, and there was clear sky on the other side, thankfully over my campsite. I planted my trusty tent amidst huge, friendly boulders, and set out on another late day hike.
I found Ryan Mountain. It looked like a good, easy mountain to climb, and it was. Ryan Mountain rewarded me for my earlier valiant courage with 360-degree views of desert and sky, studded with sculpture-like, or maybe creature-like, Joshua trees. I watched the wind push the distant rain clouds, the same ones I had driven under, which in turn pushed shadows, all across the landscape like a multi-tiered act of puppetry. And so my quivering body understood the thunderstorm, which had filled my body with fear earlier, as a gift. The sky was full and alive, and the beauty I experienced could not have been so complete without the sensation of fear hitting me first, re-sensitizing my body to the wonders (and dangers) of the wild world.
6. Anonymity. Like at Anza Borrego State Park, I got in my tent early and fell asleep early too. A few hours later, I woke up. My watch told me it was past midnight. My campsite neighbors, two men likely in their thirties, were still up, playing pop music out of their speakers and talking. At first I was mad. Quiet hours went into place at 10PM, and I worried I wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep. I cringed at the thought of having to go out there and tell them to pipe down. So I lay there, and began to listen to their conversation. The nighttime desert quiet made it easy to hear every word. Since I hadn’t talked to anyone all night, it felt enticing to listen in – a little bout of anonymous social interaction. Soon I could tell they were flirting with each other. They had spent the day mountain biking together and had cooked a special dinner to celebrate – they had even set up strings of white lights around their campsite. And then I heard them tell each other they loved each other for the first time. I heard them decide, with giddiness and romance, that they wanted to be in a relationship. Alone in my tent, my heart soared at this random, beautiful, and utterly human experience that these two men had no idea they were sharing with me. Some time later, I fell asleep with a smile on my face.
7. Limitlessness. On my long, lonely drive up Highway 5, back to my Santa Cruz home, I felt limitless. Throughout the trip, time had slowed down and opened up. This may have been the first time in my life that I operated on no one’s schedule but my own. I woke when my body was ready, I ate when I was hungry, I wandered freely, I paused for however long I needed to fully experience myself and the landscapes that enveloped me. I was undeniably excited to return to my boyfriend and my friends; I craved laughter and comfort and companionship and the touch of my love’s skin.
I returned home feeling like I could do anything. I felt capable, confident, adventurous, strong, and brave. I felt like I was on top of the world. On my trip, I learned that Santa Cruz Island is the largest island in California. Over the course of my journey, I found myself to be the largest island in my own body. I found the joy of fully inhabiting myself.
8. Womanhood. Back at home, I had a very certain sense that this experience was important for my spiritual well-being, especially as a woman. Women tend to be more lacking than men in this type of journey, this type of freedom and complete self-autonomy. Many women never get to feel the sense of limitlessness I described. Or if they do, it is temporary. I am grateful that I never had to use the knife I carried with me on this trip, that I never felt threatened by any human – just a rattlesnake and a lightning bolt. It was always in the back of my mind, though. I tried to camp close to other people, but not so close that they would notice me and give me any unwanted attention. I was always on the lookout, I was in a constant state of vulnerability that comes with womanhood in our patriarchal world.
I’m also grateful for the equipment that I have: my tent, my camping stove, a reliable car. These are things that allowed me to be self-reliant, and not everyone has access to them. In fact, most people don’t. Feeling limitless is a privilege, and I want to share it with all the women, all the people, who deserve it but don’t ever get it.
This trip was a long time coming: why had I waited so long? I want to work to create a world in which women never have to be afraid of camping alone. When I was younger, I used to wish I had been born a man, so that I could feel more confident venturing by myself into the wilderness. Now, I want to create a world in which women never doubt their strength, ability, and safety any more than men – of course everyone is vulnerable in wilderness, and humbleness toward danger is essential. But gender should never be debilitating. Women belong in nature. That’s why I need feminism.