Every generation learns that Henry David Thoreau went to the woods to live deliberately, but didn’t have to travel that far to do it. They find out that he didn’t come from squalor, that, instead, he came from a family that owned a business making pencils. That he wasn’t some saint; instead, as Kathryn Schulz once wrote for The New Yorker, he was a “cold-eyed man who saw in loss of life only aesthetic gain.” They learn all that, and they eventually find out that the little house at Walden Pond that America’s most famous man of the woods lived in wasn’t cut off from the rest of humanity — he was less than a mile away from Concord.
We hold writers and philosophers up to nearly impossible standards, especially in the age of social media. So every year or so when another round of “Thoreau was a spoiled rich kid” tweets starts popping up. I find myself getting unnecessarily angry and realize it’s time to sign off for a bit.
But recently, my desire to shut myself off from Twitter and Instagram and all that wasn’t because a new class of 20-somethings had found out that one of America’s most famous thinkers wasn’t the beatific being he’s been portrayed as; it was just an accumulation of 2020. I was stuck in the suburbs and scrolling timelines was the only source of entertainment, and it was frying my brain. So I decided to pull a Thoreau and go camping near my home. Nothing wild, just me, my tent and a few important supplies. I kissed my wife goodbye, walked two miles into a New England forest and spent the night.
The idea was simple: delete my apps for 24 hours to clear my head and sit alone with my thoughts. I kept Spotify, choosing to download a few hours worth of music on my phone. I brought two portable chargers just in case anything happened and I needed phone power, but I shut down my wifi and cellular service. Until I wanted it for a little portable stereo, my phone was to remain in my backpack. For all my needs, I had my Casio G-Shock Mudmaster on my wrist, which really did everything I needed, including counting my steps, serving as a compass and thermometer resistant to any mud and guck that I might have encountered, but thankfully did not. I carried my tent from REI and my backpack filled with enough food and water to get me through the night, and made my way into the woods.
The beauty of a single-evening excursion close to home is that it doesn’t need a ton of planning and preparation the way a big camping trip might. Instead of figuring out how much food I had to ration, I packed a couple of Rxbars, half a loaf of bread, some aged cheddar I don’t need a fridge for, a can of vegan chili, ingredients to make s’mores and, of course, a flask with some Famous Grouse in it. The area I was in had a pretty sizable black bear population, so I brought a can of bear spray for that. Besides a couple of natural fire starters I used for my grill that I’ve tucked away in a plastic bag, my Swiss Army knife, lantern and a little axe from L.L. Bean for firewood, it was a pretty light trip, packing-wise. I didn’t need coffee, since I planned to make it home early enough for that. I had a book (Sightlines: A Conversation with the Natural World by Kathleen Jamie) and a journal, and that’s really it. The walk on a breezy early-October afternoon was pleasant. There was no rain in the forecast and my hiking boots were comfortable enough for the short walk, even if it involved going uphill most of the way.
The walk was really the palate cleanser. I felt a little weird because I was on the side of a road that isn’t really conducive to walkers. There’s no sidewalk, and the cars edged up too close to where I walked, so I cut across an abandoned golf course. It’s about this point that I realize there’s a little hint of the illegal in what I’m doing, and that I am quite noticeable with my backpack and my beard; I probably look a little like a drifter in a town filled with McMansions and multiple country clubs, but I didn’t run into any trouble as I cut across the green and found myself back under the canopy of trees.
There were other dangers, of course. I wasn’t camping on a campground, having found the place where I was headed on a messageboard about “off the grid camping.” It’s located in a state park, but not one suited for camping. So my first issue was finding the area I was supposed to be looking for. This is when the G-Shock compass came in handy. I was looking to go south and stupid city-dwelling me forgot how to figure out which way that is. Thankfully, my watch didn’t. The second time the watch’s functions were really appreciated was when I actually slipped and, plop, my watch hand landed right into what I hoped to the dear lord was a pile of mud and not … something that looks like mud. I walked a few feet to a creek and washed myself off, thankful my slip didn’t end with me seriously hurting myself, and kept walking deeper into the woods, thinking less about Thoreau and more about The Blair Witch Project. I don’t think anybody knew where I was — I certainly didn’t. They knew the general area, and it isn’t like I was cut off from humanity, but still. The fear starts to set in.
Ultimately I found a spot to settle. My tent went up without a fight, and then I got comfortable.
After several months confined to my Brooklyn neighborhood save for a few sojourns by car into Manhattan and Westchester, being outdoors and alone — not hearing sirens or car horns honking, not having to wear a mask because I’m definitely way more than six feet from any other humans, and just having the silence that nature affords — was … strange. My phone was off, so the world could literally be ending and I’d be stuck in the woods on the verge of becoming some Cormac McCarthy character who has a head start on surviving the apocalypse. This all went through my head because it’s 2020: it’s entirely plausible to be worried about, at best, missing something nuts, and at worst, missing something really, really bad.
But I swore to myself that unless I was in an actual emergency, there was no way I’d turn my cellular on. No text messages, no emails, nada. I was going to cleanse myself with the healing powers of nature for one damn evening, even if it meant I was going to miss another Trump tweetstorm or bored celebrities making another dumb video in which they butcher a great song. Instead, I pulled up the dowloaded Spotify mix I didn’t need the cell towers to listen to and played a version of Scott Joplin’s “Solace,” one of my favorite songs, on low. I just sat there basking in the quiet, in the fact that I was totally alone for the first time in six months. Besides the lingering fear that I was possibly being watched by a hungry bear or a homicidal drifter, I can’t recall a time I ever enjoyed being that alone before. I’d gone camping on my own more than a few times, but the combination of being able to walk right back to the comfort of home while also just randomly picking a spot made the experience all the more exciting. I wasn’t on some great expedition, but I was outside and away from everything. What a wild feeling that is these days.
I gathered some wood, started my campfire, and just sat. It’s the most relaxing thing I can imagine. They say it takes a few days for your mind to adjust to being on an actual vacation. Sitting outside, shut off from everything, I was about as close to zen as I can ever imagine being.
We’ve turned everything into a big to-do, especially camping. Being outside is a natural part of the human experience, yet many of us truly don’t do it enough beyond maybe taking a walk or sitting on our porch with a beer in hand. Camping, we’re taught, has to be a trip. You load up the car with supplies and head out for multiple days, usually to a spot designated for such an activity. And while I always enjoy a good camping trip, I find myself looking forward to my next opportunity to do a single night outside, especially as the nights get a little colder and the news grows more disheartening. The chances of me getting stuck inside are going up, and my opportunities to just get away are dwindling.
Of course, winter camping is entirely possible, although it does take a bit more planning and different equipment. I doubt I’d be able to pull off a single night outside when the temps have dipped to the point I can see my own breath. It’s doable, but not optimal. I’m looking for as low a lift as possible.
So I’m planning my next single-night camping trip right now. This one I will probably have to drive to get to, and it will probably be on grounds designated for sleeping outside, which sort of eliminates the element of danger, besides maybe catching a cold. When I first realized that, I wondered what the point was. My first single-night camping trip was spontaneous and chill. It was in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t have to see anybody.
But then I really got to thinking about it, about all the “nature is healing” jokes I’ve been seeing on Twitter lately, and it dawned on me that the point is that I escape my day-to-day and turn off my phone (even if it’s just for a dozen hours), and I try to get back to being myself, a person in the world. Maybe, I think, Thoreau was on to something — that the only thing that really matters is just getting away from what you know. It doesn’t have to be an adventure; it can just be a simple excursion that helps realign your way of thinking.
“Wherever I sat, there I might live, and the landscape radiated from me accordingly,” Thoreau once wrote. These days, just sitting and living sounds like the most perfect little getaway imaginable.