Into the Woods

Personal History

The thing about the required three-day camping trip was that I knew it was coming. We’d been informed at admission to boarding school that one day, quite without notice, the spiteful gods of sodden sleeping bags would demand their tribute, and no foul weather, no cunningly worded doctor’s note, no comprehensive catalog of outdoors-related psychic trauma would save you.

I’d been dreading the trip since matriculation and found reminders of its incipient horror everywhere, from the mysteriously popular mountaineering program to the second verse of the school hymn, which informed us weekly that a young rugged-mountains dwelling Jesus Christ didst walk through wooded places, range down valleys and sleep in open spaces. That all sounded a bit hinky to me, though less weird than the hymn’s repeated plea to do thou baptize us with God’s fire, which always came off threathening, like how the Spanish Inquisition might prepare ‘smores.

My name came up for a camping trip in February, about a week after I’d tumbled down the stairs and given myself a concussion, a bruised ego, and a broken heart. I went to the trip-leader–who also happened to be my English Teacher at the time- and pointed at my battered face like, haven’t I suffered enough? And he was like, “Make sure you pack for warmth because it’s going to be cold up there.”

The night before we left, we gathered in the Mountaineering Room, so the English Teacher could inventory the contents of my backpack. The intent was to make sure I hadn’t packed the alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, condoms or anything else remotely fun.  I hadn’t, so I was surprised when he started unpacking the three books and one cocktail dress I’d neatly packed beneath the toilet paper. What sort of English Teacher quibbles with books? And he sneered at the dress.  

“I told you to pack rain pants,” he said.

I didn’t know what rain pants were, exactly, and said so.

 He scowled and handed me an ancient pair of olive drab rubber trousers  and matching slicker from what appeared to be a locker full of surplus gear from the trenches at Verdun. Said pants took up roughly half of my enormous backpack and smelled exactly like a locker room in a bog.  A few of the other students snickered. English Teacher grinned, maliciously. He had a lot of fans on campus. They found him to be charismatic, inspirational, and in the words of a small coterie of my starry-eyed classmates, “totally fucking hot.” I thought he was a smug, self-satisfied eye-roll at best. I was pretty sure he knew it and that had a whole lot to do with why we hadn’t hit it off since Day One.

“Bring your hiking boots tomorrow and dress for conditions. It’s going to be cold and rainy. Very brisk and character-building!”

“I really hate that bastard,” I told another friend on the trip.

“Seriously?” she asked. “He’s so manly. I have, like, such a crush.”

It’s probably safe to admit that I’m not really an outdoorsy person. Or rather, I like the outdoors, but not enough to embrace cargo pockets. I like going for walks or short runs in forests I can easily get out of, maybe  wandering around with a novel, a dry rose, and a picnic basket with baguette and cheese, especially if there is a nearby swimming hole and the weather for it.  I admire mountaineers and rock climbers—I love reading books about them– but at a safe distance, with zero personal responsibility for getting anyone, including myself, safely back to ground level.  

I was raised in a mixed family, outdoors-wise. Mom didn’t own sneakers until Jane Fonda’s Workout and tended to describe any night spent in a hotel without room service as being “kind of like camping.” Dad had long been a runner, a cyclist, a golfer, an enthusiastic athlete since childhood. And his enthusiasm for backcountry hikes, overnight trips to remote balds, single tracks and belay lines only deepened throughout my childhood. I spent hours force marched through trips with the two of them that often featured both picnics and arguments. Dad was very good at taking short cuts that were actually extended scenic tours, and running out of gas on, or near, the Blue Ridge Parkway. Fortunately, Mom had a radar-like ability to locate a historic inn and a resort village with nice gift shops. Things generally turned out all right, but often times only after several tense hours of are we in Virginia? How the hell did we end up in Virginia?  What did I say about buying gas? 

I didn’t much care for a hike unless it ended at a place where I could either visit a castle or get in the water.  The scenic vistas I could, honestly, give or take. “Look at the view!” Dad would say, whenever we’d arrive, exhausted and miserable, at the often-crowded payoff overlook. And I would be like, Wow. I’m so glad I just spent two hours sweating uphill with bugs so we could see the same mountains we literally see everywhere in our day to day life from a slightly different angle.

On some level, the outdoors were a cunningly-placed piece of polar fleece lodged in the gears of my parents’ already troubled marriage.  Especially after Mom ditched the artist smock for shoulder pads and took a job heading up a downtown redevelopment non-profit coincidental to my previously fashion-conscious corporate father chasing a midlife crisis with a few weeks at an Outward Bound program. He came back quoting John Muir and pairing socks with sandals. Every new camping utensil added to the household inventory felt like a gauntlet cast. Mom looked great and happier than I’d ever seen her. Did we know she’d been interviewed for a story about Local Businesswomen?  Dad sniffed at her new hair and new outfits and talked about how freezing alone in the wilderness with nothing but a journal and a handsome leather-bound collection of woodsy koans had really helped him work through whatever he was going through. His experience had been transformative. It stood to reason that if we could just read the right poem, or see the moon, waxing gibbous, somewhere over Table Rock, our lives would also change forever and for the better. A few weeks alone in the great outdoors would be just the thing to, say, invigorate his depressed klutz of an adolescent daughter who  spent most of her time trying to figure out how fast she could shed these little town blues get invited to a loft party in SoHo.  

“But I hate camping and I genuinely don’t believe  suffering makes you a better person,” I would say.

“But you’d learn so much about yourself,” he would respond. “Let me read this Frost poem to you again.”

Would I learn so much about myself? I doubted it. My Brownie troop leader, a terrifying blonde Valkyrie type, had tried to convince me of something similar years before after explaining there was no Girl Scout Badge for knowing the history of the  Algonquin Round Table or which members of the Stuart Dynasty were likely gay. “Why don’t you focus on survival skills?” she asked, then led the group in a rousing rendition of I’m Happy When I’m Hiking. At the penultimate verse, she slapped me across the back and send me sailing face first into the center of the grass. I’d dust off my skirt (never pants and never the uniform, I hated the uniform) and shuffle along behind the rest of the troop. As we MARCHED OFF INTO ADVENTURE  I’d fume silently, ego bruised, wishing I could be transported away to a world where I never had to pretend to like roasting marshmallows again.  

The camping trip left after lunch on Saturday. I wore several layers of sweaters over several layers of crushed velvet leggings, because I’d been starving myself to impress a boy with Poetic Bangs and didn’t own a pair of jeans that fit at the time. I also didn’t own hiking boots at all, which seemed normal and not a big deal, until I arrived at the school van and saw that everyone else on the trip did.

English Teacher looked at my shoes—purple Chuck Taylor’s. “Really?”

“I also have field hockey cleats,” I said. “But if you think it’s going to be a problem, I’m 100% fine just not going.”

He sighed and pointed me to the van.

My fellow campers were drawn randomly from new students and upperclassmen who’d managed to avoid making the trip until now. By some dint of circumstance, roughly 80% of them were my fellow castmates in the winter play, a magical realist musical about witches, religious hypocrisy and sexual violence in Appalachia, which was just about as weird and borderline problematic as it sounds. Earlier in the year, the ancient, conservative drama teacher and the equally ancient, conservative headmaster had conspired to censor the script of the fall play (a light-hearted 1950s parlor comedy) of every word that had even a shadow of double-entendre. We all quietly thought it was unusual an administration that strongly objected to the word “balls” in any context would greenlight a production that featured an onstage gang rape in Act Three. Maybe because it’s folksy?  After all, my Appalachia taught me that any horror could be countenanced so long is it involved a banjo, a calico bonnet and the word heritage.

We spent much of the van ride up the cold, ugly gray drive up the mountains running lines in dialect and flirting with the male lead, a practical joker and horror film fan, who’d managed to accidentally stumble into being crush-worthy on account of his Byronic hair. We were deeply obnoxious in the way only true-blue theatre kids can be. The five or so other students did their dead level best ignore us, save an energetic rich kid from Taiwan, who’d managed to smuggle in a boatload of electronics, hair gel and cologne, all of which he viewed as essential to his plan of both scoring a girlfriend and warding off bears. He told us repeatedly how much he enjoyed Broadway and how excited he was for the show, “Will it be like ‘Phantom of the Opera?’” he asked.

“It will be like Hee-Haw but with more interpretive dancing,” I told him.

He looked puzzled. I guessed they didn’t have Hee Haw in Taipei.

We loaded out of the van behind a trout hatchery in the Pisgah National Forest. The weather conditions were marginal, at best, 45 degrees F, slowly deteriorating from Portland Drizzle to full-on West of Ireland. English Teacher signaled us toward a trail. “We’ll go a few miles up before we make camp,” he said, and tramped off with a blithe Happy When I’m Hiking spirit in marked contrast to the February gloom.

I sighed and knew I would have felt better if I’d brought the dress.

Here’s a secret: I actually kind of love the forest. Green is my favorite color and not just because most of its related words—lush, verdant, ripe, lavish, abundant, tender, flourishing, verdurous—are so delicious.  Some childhood overindulgence of fairy tale, folklore, and my old ballet teacher’s fondness for the Fairport Convention had long planted (no pun intended) in me a romantic notion of the woods. I liked the notion of hidden places, a world at the margins of things, under cover of darkness, just outside the bounds. Mystery. Pleasure. Rebellion. Danger. These are a few of my favorite things. I wanted nature to be a deep, dark secret, a place of wild adventure and hedonistic abandon, not, like, a strategy to achieve better health and clarity of purpose.  The woods were a place where the rules didn’t have to apply. I wanted outlaws and shapeshifters. Robin Hood and Tam Lin and whatever charismatic devils used to spook the Ancient Greeks and the New England Puritans. Sometimes I was sure I could even seem them—the satyrs and dryads, goblins and old Gods darting between the branches at the navy-blue hem of dusk, but only peripherally. Head on, they vanished. Head on, you were crazy, they were figments, and a nice morning hike might help you process your feelings, learn about responsibility, and burn some calories before bathing suit season.

I wasn’t really alone in this. That anything and everything could happen out there was a point well understood by the youth of Western North Carolina, if not our Thoreau-ified parents. They may have been going off for meditation workshops and Iron John– themed bongo retreats, but we all knew that the woods were essentially God’s gift to petty criminals.  The forest was  where you smoked whatever you were going to smoke and rounded third base with whomever you were going to round third base with and knew there was a reasonably good chance no one would find out about it unless you attracted the attention of a nearby ranger. Our overprotective mothers warned us about the woods. People get murdered and raped. And sure, there were criminals.  There were slasher movies. There were bears. There were muggers. There were assholes with neck tattoos that made meth or started forest fires (usually unintentionally) or were into things like bowhunting, white nationalism, fiscal responsibility, and trying to hit on you outside of a National Forest campground bathroom. There was always some dude you knew who swore they’d run across a Bigfoot or a satanic ritual or a domestic terrorist while getting wasted by a waterfall on the edge of the Smokies.  There was also a non-zero % chance of stumbling upon your Latin teacher making out with your classmate just over the overlook wall on the Blue Ridge Parkway. You rolled the dice. That was part of the deal.

Few of those risks were ever cited by adult camping aficionados. They seemed mostly concerned with constructing tents and burying excrement. For them, the outdoors were a copious set of things you could not do, places you could not go, things you could not touch, precise protocols you had to follow.  I was once reduced to tears by an adult horrified that I might pick a handful of Queen Anne’s Lace beside a trail to crown myself Titania-style as I shuffled down the path. Don’t you know, they said, as they shook me, that you are destroying the landscape. That you are ruining this beautiful place for people that actually know enough to be responsible. You should be ashamed of yourself.

I should, but I couldn’t be. I picked up the crown from where it had been flung to the ground and defiantly wore it home, thinking the whole time that  I never met a person quicker to suck the joy out of nature than an outdoorsy adult determined to make you appreciate the outdoors.

The first morning I woke on the trip sandwiched into a damp tent between my friends, Ivy League and the Dryad. I felt generally damp, and the root under my sleeping bag had left a gnarled-looking welt in the non-battered side of my face.  I made some noise over lukewarm oatmeal breakfast about how it might be advisable for me to take a medical pass and return to civilization. English Teacher would hear nothing of it. “We have a strenuous five-mile hike this morning,” he said. “It’s sure to make you feel better.”

It was pouring on Day 2. What I would call tropical conditions. Gales of wind and a soaking rain, like a late summer storm except it was maybe 40°F. I put on the mildewed slicker I’d also borrowed from the school ( I eschewed the rain pants on principle, though they were also too big) as we climbed through a labyrinth of laurel and rhododendron, up a series of steep, narrow, rocky trails turned waterfall in the downpour. My lack of hiking boots and general clumsiness already put me at the far back of the column. The Chuck Taylors and  40-pound pack combination left me well-nigh abandoned, flailing with Sisyphean repetition and repeatedly sliding helplessly back in the cold mud like I was reenacting the Kathleen Turner half of the mudslide scene from Romancing the Stone.  

English Teacher had no patience for my ineptitude and forged on with the rest of the group as I tried wipe mud from my eyes and thought maybe it would be better and easier if I just died from exposure there on the mountain, like a cursed child in a myth. English Teacher assigned his new wife, who’d come along on the trip, to spot me. She was young, less than a decade older than I was, and still settling into being a faculty wife at a boarding school. She was surprisingly nice to me, funny, patient and similarly bitter about the terrible weather. She didn’t chide me when I rounded a corner, rain stinging me in the face, and yelled, “I fucking hate this bullshit” into the foggy black and white void of the winter valley below and for several moments of the seeming hours-long hike, looked like she might agree with me.

We arrived at the campsite maybe forty-five minutes behind the rest of the classmates. The responsible, less theatre-y ones were setting up their tents. Dryad and Ivy League swarmed me as I walked into the clearing. They had a plan to run topless through the woods. “In praise of the Earth Goddess, and, to, you know, let off steam,” said the Dryad.

“We waited for you,” said Ivy League. “

I was sore, exhausted, covered in mud, soaked to the bone, and it’s possible the cloud obscuring our mountaintop campsite was now producing sleet. Running topless through the woods was a completely stupid idea, maybe an expulsion offense, and would serve no purpose but to make us colder and wetter. But at this point, it seemed very much like something English Teacher would hate us for doing, so Why not?

We made the universal signal for bathroom and headed round the bend. Taiwan was with us. “Gender equality,” said the Dryad. “And he has electric socks that ward off bears.”

Aren’t the bears hibernating? I disrobed under a laurel. I hung my sodden garments from the branches and stood, shivering, arms wrapped around my still new-ish boobs, in the snowy white void of the sleeting fog.

“Count of three,” said Ivy League.

One. Two. We ran down in other side of the mountain, arms outstretched, panting, laughing, hysterical with the cold. After two laps, we were spent. We returned to our clothes, dressed silently and walked back to the campsite, where our fellow campers had started running lines again.

As we rejoined the group, one of my fellow campers, wished for a cigarette, another, a native New Yorker, broke his monologue to state emphatically that this camping trip was the worst thing that ever happened to him. I waited for someone to accuse him of overreacting. No one did. I gave his arm a squeeze. I felt understood.

That night we ate boxed macaroni and cheese, al dente to the point of being indistinguishable from cheese-powdered gravel. English Teacher invited us to tell our favorite scary stories over cold hot chocolate. Leading Man started reciting the plotline of “The Shining,” but got distracted talking about his top five horror special effects. Occasional Hippie laid out what was likely to happen to all of us in nuclear winter. Token Evangelical discussed how none of us would survive The Rapture. I put my hand up to discuss how almost no one in our generation would ever be able to retire, when English Teacher cut us off. “Let’s turn in for the night,” he said. “Big day tomorrow.”

He and his wife shuffled off along with the responsible, non-theatre campers to their well-constructed tents around the campsite. The rest of us bunked in an oversized splintery lean-to of a camping shelter, recommended only by its actual roof and elevated plank floor. We slept eight of us head to head, girls surrounding the leading man, stroking his hair, continually trying to cop a cuddle. If it had been warmer, or Leading Man less admirably restrained, the scene inside the camping shelter could have probably gone in a different way. As it was, I imagined myself saying, stop trying to have an orgy, about seventeen times before I realized it would be unnecessary as most of the culprits had finally fallen asleep.

Outside there was high lonesome wind, raindrops, the sound of imagined beasts and goblins. I drifted off asleep with my hand outstretched and woke with a start when it ended up in someone’s hair (Taiwan’s). Sometime in the night, I stumbled over the prone bodies of my friends and went out with toilet paper to relive myself in the woods. I willed something to happen, dream-long style, there in the dark woods above the campsite.  If you want, I’ll tell you that I saw something—a spectral figure, a silvery stag. I’ll even throw in an epiphany, some recognition of the divine that shined through the fog and dropped some life-changing truths that forever altered the course of my life. I could write this story. It would be fiction. Because the only thing that happened was that I dropped the flashlight and had to root around, crab-style on the ground for both it and the toilet paper like I was doing an acrobatic slapstick bit. I fell twice. I spent some time wringing water out of the toilet paper and trying to get wet pine needles off my thighs. When I got back to the shelter, I accidentally stepped on Dryad’s hand.  I worried I might start my period while still in the woods until I finally fell asleep.

In the morning, we roused and wandered off to relieve ourselves in the cold gray dawn. It wasn’t raining, but the fog had thickened. We stood at the edge of the clearing and tried to squint through to see the distant mountains.  

“I’m pretty sure there’s a big rock over there,” said the Dryad. “I think I saw it yesterday.”

We admired the invisible landmark. English Teacher directed us to find something useful to do. Ivy League and I watched one of our classmates, a daughter of my parents’ friends, kneel at the stream to wash one of the macaroni pots. She had the most perfect hair—glossy, dark chestnut brown curls—and somehow managed to look glamorous in a bandana.  I felt a twinge of adolescent jealousy because I didn’t need to be told that I didn’t look glamorous.  I knew I looked like I felt, which was like hell, but wetter.

On campus, they dropped us out of the van by the mountaineering room. English Teacher asked if we’d enjoyed the trip. Truthfully, I told him it that everything about it had sucked and I would go to great lengths to make sure nothing like that ever happened to me again. He opened his mouth, like he was considering a demerit, but his wife gently put ha hand on his shoulder, like, let her go.

He nodded, lips tight, and watched me exit the van, headed for the showers in Dryad’s dorm, where I’d wait for my mother to get off of work and pick me up. English Teacher would give me a B+ in his class for the term. I never made Bs in English.

I always figured it was because I hated the camping.

Postscript:  Not including sleeping on floors, I’ve been camping once since the three-day. It was in a camper in a campground with a restroom, in August, by shores of a silvery lake in the far southwestern corner of North Carolina. I was with my non-outdoorsy mother and stepfather. We made a French dinner on a gas grill, drank a really nice bottle of Pinot Noir, and slept on clean linens. There was hot water in the bathroom and I did not have to shovel poop.  No one quoted Nietzsche or talked about personal responsibility. The whole deal was highly acceptable, nicer than many places I’ve stayed while traveling. Would camp thus again.

In an ironic twist, part of my adult day job is writing about outdoor adventure. Growing up on the carabiner of the Wilderness belt in Southern Appalachia gave me the language to wing it. I regularly find myself channeling all those adults that used to torment me in grade school as I extol the virtues of doing a lot of things I would honestly prefer not to.

It’s not all bullshit. I still love the forests. I manage to find myself there, most days, especially on summer days, when the leaves are out and it genuinely feels I’m swimming in all those adjectives– lush, verdant, ripe, lavish, abundant, tender, flourishing, verdurous.

The summer after the camping trip, just down the mountain from the shelter, I was out in the woods for the day with Dad and my sister, I waded out downstream from a swimming hole, and tucked through gangly branches, and literally stumbled upon a secret waterfall in a pink laurel filled ravine. It’s narrow stone terraces rose high and as a castle rampart and twice as delicate, all silver and green, between the shining waters and the late spring lichen in the deep woods. Even though it was June, the cold winter stirred a mist when it hit the bright sunlight; it wove through my legs like a gossamer hem. It was so beautiful I didn’t know what to do, so I sang to it.

I was tired when I got back to the swimming hole–back over the rise and up the river–where my father and sister had disturbed a blanket of fallen laurel pedals to float over the pale green limestone stones beneath the breathlessly cold water. I wanted to tell Dad that I’d found the door in the back of the wardrobe and gotten a whiff of something otherworldly. Like, is this the reason you love it out here so much?

“I found a secret waterfall,” I said. “Do you want to see it?”

Dad turned to face me, one eye on my little sister in the water.  “Seems kind of a ways down the river and we need to leave soon. Maybe instead of showing me, you should write about it.”

I guess I did.

The Author

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