Each year for many years I have held the intention to spend time alone camping in nature, offering gratitude for my life and the earth, designing simple ceremonies, and doing whatever wilderness adventuring my body allows. This is my most basic spiritual practice, a way to reset and check my internal barometer.
This August I had a campsite reserved in the Cascade Mountains. However, as time drew nearer, temperatures were predicted to rise above 100 degree F. (38 degrees C.) Then a nearby fire exploded down forested foothills. Time to change plans and cancel the reservation. But these were the days I had set aside in a month full of harvest and volunteer commitments.
Public campgrounds of either the local, state, or national variety are solidly booked these days. The weather forecast indicated that camping near the cool waters of Puget Sound made the most sense. However, there were no open spots anywhere—except first come, first serve. Not my favorite scenario, but abandoning hours of internet searching for availability, off I went in a spirit of trust.
Dungeness Spit Recreation Area overlooking the Straits of Juan de Fuca had some first come, first serve campsites. I caught the first ferry from Coupeville (yes, I was standby status) and lucked into an exquisite site located 20 yards from a bluff overlooking the Strait. By 11 a.m. my site was fully set up. I loaded up my backpack and headed out to Dungeness Spit National Wildlife Refuge.
Dungeness Spit is the longest natural sand spit in the United States. Jutting out into the Straits from the Olympic Peninsula, it is a narrow, 5-mile-long curve of sand, beach logs, and incredible bird habitat. I hiked about halfway to the light house, sat down, ate my lunch, and marveled at the blue expanse of sea and the shore of Vancouver Island (Oh Canada!) across the Strait. My intention for this trip was a modified retreat/quest—insightful solo time, small ceremonies, journal writing, and wilderness adventure.
I had hiked far enough out on the spit that there were no other human beings around—just the seagulls and terns. Pulling out my journal, I began to record my gratitude—always a first day exercise for me on these solos. Even though fully covered and sitting within reach of the shore breezes, the intensity of the sun and heat drove me back to my campsite by early afternoon.
About halfway up the forested, paved path from the beach back to the campsite (a 2/3 mile, incline) I began to feel completely exhausted. Honestly, I wasn’t sure I was capable of walking to my campsite. I staggered on. Once back, I sat sweaty and thirsty in my camp chair drinking and drinking water, beyond the 2 quarts I had carried down to the spit and already consumed. I worried I had Covid. I took a nap. Rising, I still felt completely lethargic—just sat in my chair and began to marvel at the small Douglas fir and alder trees around me, the chestnut-backed chickadees and golden-crown kinglets carrying on their high pitched dialogues in the underbrush, and the distant view of Vancouver Island. After a time, I felt hungry enough to cook up a bit of supper. (I no longer fast from food during these self-designed solo times. I fast from electronics, homey comforts, and my beloved family, but for health reasons do not fast from food.)
By sunset I was feeling like my usual self and it dawned on me that despite camping in one of the coolest spots in the region these hot days and engaging in only very moderate exercise, I had experienced a case of mild heat exhaustion. Obviously, another thing I am more susceptible to as I age and weather intensifies.
As sunset approached, I walked 25 steps around the forested area protecting my tent site to a bench overlooking the Strait. The bench was located along a paved path. Only one other person was sitting awaiting the sun’s nightly journey onto the horizon. There was no wind, just the rhythmic pounding of surf on the beach far below. No sound of footsteps, just the slow, inexorable sliding of the sun on its ever-changing nightly course. I sat in awe of this nightly spectacle. As it began to darken, I turned and rose to go back to my campsite. There were nine people standing behind me in the cathedral of sunset! No one had said a word. A few bowed as I passed by.
My first night in a smaller tent since my back surgery a year ago went smoothly and well. The second day of my solo is usually about listening for wisdom from my ancestors—both recent and long ago. Always I create a simple altar for this ceremony. Again, I hiked out on Dungeness Spit. Again, it was a hot day in the upper 80s (low 30sC). I brought more water and the awareness to REALLY take it easy.
This is a place Christina and I have come before to scatter our son Brian’s ashes and honor the yearly passages since his death in 2013. We are approaching the 10th anniversary of his passing. Sometimes these anniversaries are harder than others. And days can pass now when I don’t think of him. But this year the generosity of his estate enabled his nephew, our beloved grandson, to go to college. The great heart of our son and the enormous enthusiasm of our grandson for this gift filled me with an overload of happiness and profound grief. Mixed together they came out as huge sobs which I had absolutely no control over. Ceremony brings the inside to the outside, helps us pause and bear witness to that which is within us always. It always serves to guide my life going forward.
On the final full day of my solo when temperatures were beginning to cool down into the low 80s F.(mid to upper 20 Degrees C.), I drove to the Olympic National Park to be with the great old growth trees. My choice of trails had been to travel up Hurricane Ridge and hike. However, the road was closed for removal of fire debris. Another surprise. More flexibility required. I decided to hike the Heart of the Hills trail—moderate difficulty, large trees, 4.4 miles out and back, recommended by the ranger at Park headquarters.
However, this was the sign at the trailhead.
Yikes! As I was reading the sign, a pair of women hikers came up behind me and began the trail. I reasoned I was not really alone and headed out a short distance after them, though I definitely gave them their space.
Only at the turn around point by the river did we see one another again. About 30 minutes after seeing my trail friends, I did stop to pick up a large, stout stick for some reassurance. Surprise #5 is that I did not see a cougar!
This surprise could simply be that I was able to have a solo in a public campground that was so deeply meaningful for me. Yes, I did have interactions with a few people, but mostly i was able to practice solitude, deeply held by the natural world of my own bioregion. And in the spirit of the quest, my “base camp” and community back home, Christina and Vivi, welcomed me with long beach rambles and deep story sharing.