It was a busy Saturday afternoon at the Wilderness Information Center for the Olympic National Park. I needed a bear cannister and camping permit for my weekend adventure at Second Beach on the far west coast of the Olympic peninsula. As I stood in the crowded information center, a friendly park ranger regurgitated his spiel telling the 3 groups of campers ahead of me the exact same thing – make sure you lock the bear canister because the clever coastal raccoons have figured out how to open them, hang your permit on the outside of the tent, don’t set your tent up on the low side of the high tide line, and don’t poop on the beach.
When it was finally my turn for the obligatory camping orientation and questionnaire he asked how many in my party, I cheerfully replied “Just me!” Instead of continuing full steam ahead to the next part of his well-rehearsed script, he paused, looked up at me, and gave me a refreshing smile. I suspect he was used to giving the same spiel to the same visitors over and over again – the young couple trying their hand at this outdoor recreation thing, the international tourists checking out America’s famous National Parks, the group of young guys looking to drink beer and toss around a frisbee or football, and the family where at least one person in the family would rather be inside away from the dirt and bugs. But a woman by herself?! That was right up there with driver’s that use their blinkers – they are out there, but they are few and far between.
As I was leaving the information center with a bear canister and camping permit for one, I had a terrible realization. OH SHIT! I’ve never been camping by myself before! I have no idea why I didn’t fully realize this before, but all of a sudden I was panicked under the weight of camping solo for the first time. Made-up fears began running through my head. I couldn’t find my tent and had my backup tent which I had never set up before, what if it had a hole or was missing poles? What if I couldn’t figure out how to set it up? What if there weren’t any camping spots left? What if I was that person that had way too much shit (definite possibility if you know me)? What if I was that person that was grossly unprepared? What if I had a run in with some nefarious folks? What if someone didn’t listen to the park ranger and they pooped on the beach and I set my tent up on it? What if a wily raccoon figured out my bear canister and stole my wine and cheese?! What if people could see I didn’t know what I was doing?
Worst of all – what if I drove all the way there and chickened out?
What if? What if? What if?
All of these fictitious fears, some more laughable and far fetched than others, ran through my head as I made my way through the parking lot. Thankfully, that brave travel-savvy chick that saved my bacon before stepped forward once again, took control, and told fear to get in the back seat. My confident and capable alter-ego reminded me that I hike, road trip, and ski by myself all of the time why should camping be any different. She reminded me that I’m a seasoned international traveler, and ran around Iceland for a week solo. She reminded me that I survived the Bridger Ridge four times for crying out loud. With her as my co-pilot and fear in the backseat, I figured I could handle camping on a crowded beach for one night.
As I pulled up to the parking lot at the Second Beach trailhead, fear tried to climb out of the backseat and drive. The parking lot, overflow parking lot, and roadside were full of cars. Crap! That’s going to be a lot of people to witness my inexperience. The “what ifs” came back in full force. Before even getting out of my car I considered leaving because it was too busy, and I began negotiating with fear – what if you just walked down to the beach and saw with your own eyes that there were too many people and nowhere to camp? If you did that, then no one would blame you for chickening out. You can’t help it if there are no camping spots left. BINGO! Guilt-free escape plan!
My alter-ego came to save the day again, with a hard elbow she sent fear to the backseat once more. It was almost like my brave alter-ego was a mom who reached her limit. She had me by the ear and in her scariest “mom” voice – you’re sleeping on that beach whether you like it or not. NOW GET MOVING! I grabbed my pack and headed towards the trail.
As soon as I got into the woods, I was reminded of the enchanting beauty of the coastal forest. Alright! I can do this! I was cheerfully walking with my giant pack on the short 3/4 mile forested trail to the beach. I eagerly said hello to everyone I passed on the trail. I quickly realized that no one was saying hello in return. In fact, they were barely smiling or even looking at the person warmly greeting them on the trail. This was very odd, and fear saw this the perfect opportunity to stick its head up into the front seat. Fear was talking in my ear saying things like Westsiders are stuck up jackwagons that can’t even say hello and hikers in Spokane would never be this cold to another hiker! Nonetheless, I continued to smile and greet others on the trail as I made my way on to the beach.
One thing you should know about Second Beach is that between the edge of the forest and the beach is a sizeable debris field of giant driftwood logs that you have to carefully walk across and climb over. Walking across round unsecured balance beams with a heavy pack all the while having an audience of a couple hundred people is not the ideal scenario especially when fear is being a loud-mouth nuisance backseat driver. So I channeled my inner Olympic gymnast and teetered my way through the maze making it to the beach without grace but most importantly without incident.
I was shocked to find a spot for my tent quite quickly considering how many people were there. I set down my pack and pulled out my tent. With the protection of the forest, there was no wind at the trailhead or on the trail; however, it was quite breezy on the beach. I hadn’t even taken my tent out of the bag before a wonderful woman, who had been relaxing in a hammock nearby, came over and offered to help me with my tent. I laughed nervously as I verbal vomited on her that I had never set up the tent before or camped by myself. I know I talk a lot, but you should hear me when I’m nervous! I might as well just yelled “DON’T JUDGE ME! I’M NERVOUS!” but I’m sure she read that between the lines anyway.
This woman was a saint. Not only did she help me set up my tent in the wind, but she commended me on being brave enough to be adventuring solo. She said she never meets other women who are traveling solo. We shared a little bit about ourselves and adventures as we set up my tent. She gave me tips about the high tide and pesky raccoons. I had to go back to the car to grab a few more things, namely my food and water, and since it was such short hike I probably overdid it on bringing creature comforts. Between the wind and the tent stakes not holding well in the sand, I was nervous my tent was going to blow away even with my all my crap in it – including but not limited to a backpack, a sleeping bag, 3 books, 2 pillows, a giant air mattress, a pump to blow up said air mattress, and a camp chair…I gave you fair warning that I (1) over packed per the usual and (2) didn’t shy away from the comfort items. Patti, the Saint, offered to give up her comfy hammock and book, basically, her relaxing beach time, to hold my tent down in the wind while I went and grabbed the rest of my stuff. A completely selfless act for a complete stranger, like I said she was a saint.
I returned to a tent still intact and a new friend. While setting up the rest of my little camp site, the beach began to take on a pleasant life of its own. The people on the beach were very different than the people I encountered on the trail. In the campsite to my right, they were singing “Build Me Up Buttercup” and cooking corn on the cob over a fire. Then to my left were 3 other camps – a lovely family and 2 young couples each on their first camping trips together. Everyone was saying hello and offering to help each other. I paid forward the generosity Patti showed me by helping the young couple next to me set up their tent. They offered me dinner and a spot around their fire. The beach was bustling with people excited to be living life to the fullest. This was turning into the beach version of a hostel and I loved it! As far as the non-friendly hikers that I encountered on the trail, the only logical conclusion I can come up with is that they were so heart broken and distraught to leave such a wonderful place that they couldn’t muster up the energy to say hello back.
With my fear subsiding and surrounded by happy people with a zest for living, I was able to sit peacefully soaking in the view and the soul-renewing energy that comes with sitting by the sea. I read, journaled, took pictures, and made new friends. As the sunset, I sat around the fire with new friends sharing stories of adventure over wine and food. We gazed in amazement at the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon. We sat in awe watching the perfect crescent moon stained red by the wildfire smoke slowly melt into the ocean. We made wishes on every shooting star that streaked the star-filled night sky. It was perfect.
To some people, this weekend adventure might sound lame and some might think I’m a baby for being scared to camp “alone” around so many people. To others, this might be wilder than anything they believe they could do. And to some, it might be too dangerous for a woman to do something like that all by herself.
But here is what I know…
I am not the most skilled or experienced. I am not the bravest. I am not the wildest. I am not the most extreme.
However, I am brave more often than I realize. I am more capable than I give myself credit for. I do things that a lot of people are too scared to do. I am constantly strengthening my mind and expanding my comfort zone. I am doing my best to be my best.
This weekend adventure is exactly what my soul needed. I am happy I took time to get grounded after a whirlwind action-packed summer. I love that I experienced such generosity from strangers, and made new friends. I am proud of myself for following through with something new and scary, and I didn’t let fear get in the way of enjoying such a cathartic and magical place. Doing things like this helps me learn how to keep fear in the backseat and not let it drive my life – it’s okay for fear to be the annoying backseat driver as long as it doesn’t actually drive. I am grateful that I am learning to listen to my inner voice that is brave, confident, and capable – she’s not a Chatty Kathy like fear and sometimes I have to listen really hard to hear her, but she ALWAYS has my back. Most importantly, I am grateful for those around me who inspire me and encourage me to continue to grow.