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Comfort Zones

May 19, 2010

I had a weird day out in the woods yesterday.  I woke up at 9am, intending to spend the entire day hanging out with some trees, but ended up lolly-gagging around the house most of the day.  Around 3pm I finally decided that I’d go anyway, so I packed up rather quickly and took off.  I enjoyed the daylight hours, and passed them various ways: wandering around, looking for a good place to set up; figuring out how to get to the stream to get water without getting sucked into knee-deep mud; eating a few cattail shoots, which I realized just yesterday are edible further up (when they’re young) than I though, and which are delicious—they taste a little like cucumber; and collecting/cutting firewood, doing other camply chores.

Knowing that it was going to get pretty cold (40°F) I decided I would set up only half of my tent (to be used as wind protection, I guess, and to give me some small illusion of “safety”) and have a fire burning nearby all night long.  Never having done this I knew it would definitely be an interesting experience.  I was expecting to be a bit more comfortable with it though.

In the past few years I’ve made several steps outside of my (then-current) comfort zones.  One of the first outdoor-related steps was buying a tent without a floor.  Won’t bugs and/or, god forbid, snakes get on me? I thought.  As it turned out, that wasn’t a big deal at all.  Another was ditching matches and lighters altogether, preferring instead a firesteel and a few different tinder sources should I fail to find any.  This, also, was not a big deal—in fact, it feels empowering and makes me feel …  honest.  I have to make good fires from the ground up every time.

Anyway, sleeping didn’t go very well.  Fear isn’t an accurate description of what I was feeling, but it wasn’t entirely far from that.  I felt very exposed, vulnerable.  After it got too dark to do anything else, probably a little after 9 o’clock, I got another fire going and decided I’d try to get to sleep early.  For a little while it was simply sounds that kept me up, and uncertainty at those sounds.  At dusk, when there was still a little light, an animal walked by where I had set up at a distance of maybe 150 feet.  It was too dark, and the animal was too far away, to tell what it was, but it was dark and I judged it at the size of a smallish medium-sized dog.  But a lot beefier.  One of my first thoughts was it looks like a wolverine.  I’m pretty sure it wasn’t, since the odds of that are incredibly small, but that’s what it looked like in the dark and at a distance.

So while things were still jumping and moving around, every noise made me think Oh shit that wolverine-like-thing is going to maul my face while I sit here wrapped up in my blanky.  My heart rate jumped considerably and I was actually scared once when I heard a noise literally right behind my tent, but it was a squirrel.  After that, noise stopped bothering me (and later I had the pleasing experience of hearing an owl while it did its who hooting).  (And actually, I think I heard some coyotes howling later too, which briefly turned into wolves, which briefly freaked me out.)

I still couldn’t sleep though.  Impossible situations kept running through my head.  I felt too exposed.  I considered putting on the other half to the tent, but as I thought about that realized I’d then become somewhat cold.  I figured that even if I didn’t sleep, all I’d have to do was wait out the night so I could go home when the sun came up (even though my original intent was to go out for two nights).  I could either build up a big fire and sit by it, or read my book by flashlight for a few hours.  But as my wood got low I realized I wouldn’t be able to have a fire through the night without getting more, and, curiosity getting the best of me I checked the time.  12:59am.  I’d been trying to sleep for roughly four hours, and another four hours of the same didn’t sound appealing.  I gave it a little more time, and after what I assumed was another hour and a half I checked again.  1:31.  Fuck it; I’m only a few miles from home, so I’m going to sleep in my bed tonight.

The decision to go home was one I had considered throughout that half-hour.  I was uncomfortable (back pain), was going to get cold if I didn’t do something to change it, and I knew I wasn’t going to fall asleep.  I locked my bike up about 150 paces away to the south in a straight line.  Find my bike, get on the two-track that was another 40 paces or so from that (next to a huge clearing), and I’d be fine.

Well, having walked that straight line three or four times during the day, I figured it’d be no problem.  At night, though, I ended up going the wrong direction, getting lost, and thinking It’s OK, because even if I can’t find my way out I only will have to sit a few hours and wait for the sun to come up.  After walking further than I needed to, I turned off my flashlight and looked to the sky.  I looked for where the trees thinned, figuring I could walk that way and reach the big clearing.  Well, I did, but ended up reaching a small clearing (actually an area with a bunch of fallen trees and brambles).  This was aggravating because it was the wrong clearing, but good; if I hadn’t stumbled across this area I would have had no idea where to go.  Since I could see the stars now, I found the north star and realized I’d been walking east instead of south.  (I started going south-southeast, probably, but obviously that changed).  I reoriented, walked in the direction I felt I needed to go (southwest), and occasionally turned off the light to look for the trees thinning again.  After about 10 minutes (I walked way too far in the complete wrong direction to begin with) I found the large clearing I was looking for and was OK.

To sum up: On the one hand I feel defeated, having failed to do what I set out to do.  On the other, I feel  accomplished having found my way out of the woods at two o’clock in the morning, by myself, with nothing to go by but instinct and stars (eventually).  The funniest part about it, to me, was that even though I had gotten myself lost, I kept my cool.  I knew that I would have no problem finding my way out, even if I did have to wait for the sun.  So even though I feel defeated because I’m not cool like Mick Dundee and I can’t sleep in the middle of the bush with nothing but a hat and a fire, and even though I’m never going to have any awesome communal experiences with wolf packs, I took a pretty big step outside of my comfort zone, and that’s a pretty sweet feeling.  A lesson I might have learned: It’s OK to go into the woods to “rough it” and “be badass” with other people.  Had someone been with me I would have felt more comfortable with everything, and might have even got some sleep.

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