I was lying diagonally across the flattened tent barely holding it down while I tried to hammer the first stake into the ground. The wind was gusting so hard I feared it might blow the whole tent away, wrapping around me and dragging me through the desert.
This was the first tent I bought as an adult. Sized for four people, it was the cheapest option, but I would be the only occupant, a reality that weighed on me more and more the longer COVID-19 and its collective trauma stuck around. That’s how I ended up in a one-woman struggle with nature in Far West Texas—that remote area in the Chihuahuan desert where Texas dips into Mexico along the jagged line of the Rio Grande.
At first, I was okay in the pandemic. I was single, but working from home freed up time for new hobbies, and I stayed in touch with friends and family. However, after two years, it seemed everything in the world that could go wrong had gone wrong, and I was trying to remember who I was.
I was claustrophobic, but also paralyzed by my inability to fill the empty space around me. Wasn’t I supposed to be enough on my own? Wasn’t I supposed to not need anyone else to be happy? I needed space from the stranger I had become in solitary confinement. I needed sky and open road and, according to a wise old woman in one of the gazillion books I had read, I needed to go camping.
How camping alone in the middle of nowhere cured my pandemic loneliness
I got the first stake in, but the ground on the opposite side was solid rock, so I pulled the stake out and moved the tent, hoping for softer ground a few feet away. This time, two stakes went in but the others hit rock. I moved the tent four times and bent every stake I had. Finally, three stakes were kinda sorta in when my mallet broke in half. I had been relieved to even find the mallet among my camping stuff. I probably didn’t even look through my supplies before I left. I’m the kind of person who gets bored with planning, hops in the driver’s seat and floors it, trusting myself to figure it out as I go.
At least, I used to be that person. Now I was anxious about everything, alone in the dirt while the sun set, hungry, achy, and surrounded by insufferably happy families and couples.
I picked up a rock and started hammering the last stake with all my strength. A pair of smiling young women passed, and I resisted the urge to hiss at them and went back to my neolithic assault on the last stake. My hands were bruised and swollen, but the stake didn’t budge.
I sat in the dirt again, ashamed of how alone I felt, how weak I was, when a woman offered me a hammer. The last stake went in easily and I drove the other three more securely into the ground. People will help you. I’d forgotten that.
The tent held through the night, and I woke up surrounded by fog and wasted an hour choosing a hiking trail. Going down to the open desert would be a long drive, and visibility on the road was barely ten feet. I finally settled on a trail close to camp, but in the parking lot, I lingered, nibbling on a snack, checking the laces of my boots, and rereading the warning about bears.
I thought about how a few years before the pandemic, alone in Peru, I hadn’t even hesitated before climbing into the car of a stranger whose Spanish I barely understood. Protestors had halted the trains out of Cusco, so the stranger drove me across town where I climbed into a van, more curious than cautious, content just knowing that, eventually, I’d arrive somewhere. But by 2022, I had spent two years alone marinating in fear, and now I was terrified of a cloud.
Finally, I stepped onto the trail, unable to see through the fog whatever it was I was climbing towards. The view from the top an hour later was supposed to be one of the best in Texas, but I couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead. I didn’t care though: I had made it. I celebrated with selfies and several more snacks. On the hike down, the fog lifted enough to glimpse the desert below. I felt the fear and loneliness start to lift, too.
Karen Petree is a writer who covers feminism, mindfulness, creativity, travel, and culture. When she’s not working, she's usually making art, wandering around a bookstore, or documenting the daily life of the world's cutest dog. If you can't find her online, check the nearest taco truck.
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