By Catherine DiMercurio
Sometimes, water and woods work magic on your soul.
I planned the vacation I could afford. Camping, no hotel room. Driving far, but not so far that gas prices made it unfeasible. Wonderful family and friends to watch the dogs, so I didn’t have to double the vacation price by paying for dog sitters too. I have traveled alone but this was my first time vacationing alone. I have camped before, but this was the first time I camped alone. I have hiked alone before, but this was the first time I was navigating unfamiliar territory alone. This is all to say that as I headed out for the trip, I had some concerns. My anxiety was stacked up inside me like the clothes in my slightly overpacked duffel.
After a seven-ish-hour drive that included some stretches of blinding rain, I set up camp at a Michigan campground in the Upper Peninsula on Green Bay, where I was about thirty minutes from Wisconsin, in a different time zone, and perfectly situated to watch the sun rise over Lake Michigan. As I set up, not long after a downpour and just before a light sprinkle, I felt deliberate, focused. Later, I would recall what was absent from my mind at the time: reminiscences about past trips, those I had taken with my kids, and before that, those we three had taken with their father, before the divorce.
Those memories did bubble to the surface, but they were more like documentary images and less like melancholy stories. There were certainly moments throughout the trip where I fondly recalled other trips the kids and I had taken, moments where I did miss them. But even these moments were drained of longing and rumination. My brain had begun to work differently than usual. I guess that’s why it’s important to break out of our routines and habits sometimes.
For the first couple of days, I found that relaxing was different when I pursued it and chose it, instead of crashing into at the end of a workday when it feels like I can’t do anything else. I chose activities that I was drawn to in childhood summers—like reading big stacks of library books, and playing solitaire; I chose activities that I knew I liked but associated with a past relationship and that I wanted to reclaim as mine—like doing crossword puzzles; and I chose things that I’ve enjoyed for as long as I can remember—like hanging out at the beach, swimming, looking for rocks, lazing in the sun, and going on rambling woodland hikes. I ate when I was hungry, I slept when I was sleepy.
I was, however, anxious about the longer hike I was planning. Navigating the trails at the campground, despite some confusing signage, was relatively easy, as it was situated between Lake Michigan and M35, the state highway. It was always easy to know where you were in relation to those things. But the state forest campground was different. The Cedar River equestrian campground consists of a handful of rustic sites with paddocks and a small network of trails through the state forest. On the third day of camping, I followed a dirt road to the gravel lot at the entrance to camp/trail area, and found the parking lot empty. I checked that I had what I needed in my pack and set out, having studied the trail map one more time. There was a gravel road into the campsites, and beyond the camping area, the woodland trails began. It was on that roughly ½-mile stretch that led from the parking lot that I noticed what I thought to be bear scat. I had read a bit about what to do in the event that you see a bear, and I had read that encounters were rare. A little prickle of panic ran through me. I had stuffed my keys, which I carry on a lanyard, into my pack, but at this point I pulled them out to wear around my neck, hoping that the jangling noise would alert the bear, if there was one, that I was around, and keep him or her away from the path.
My noisy rambling did startle some deer, who crossed the path in front of me. It had recently rained and their footprints were everywhere. And some horse poop here and there. The trails didn’t look like they got frequent use, but they had had recent use.
As I came upon each trail marker, I snapped a picture of the marker and took a screenshot of the time. The trail map indicated mileage, so I had a rough estimate of how long it should take me to make it from one point to another, so I figured that would be a useful gauge if I ever started to feel like I had taken the wrong path. This was largely unnecessary, but it was a precaution that comforted me. Unlike some of the well-used nature areas I hike closer to home, these trails were not intersected by numerous side paths that typically make me wonder if I’m on the right one. Nor were the markers so spread out that I ever felt as though I’d taken a wrong turn. In that regard, it was good, confidence-building foray into solo hiking. The only part that gave me pause was when I reached the section of the trail that extended into a large grassy area. The grasses were long and the trail very hard to make out, as they had been mostly grown over. I also didn’t love the idea of traipsing through knee-high grass and possibly having to deal with a crazy tick situation. It was quite warm and sunny that day and the cool shady forest seemed much more appealing than the broad, exposed grassy plain. I turned and backtracked, and tacked on a couple of the interior loops instead.
I was feeling a lot of things at this point, all of them good. The anxiety I’d had about the hike had melted. I felt strong and capable, peaceful and curious. The Cedar River itself was dark and still. The pines and cedars produced such a clean, sweet scent. I could not identify the birds by their calls, but there were plenty of them, some singing and chirping, some squawking. Eventually, as I made my way out of the woods, I once again passed what I was now sure was bear scat. I’d seen enough of the horse poop in the woods to confirm what I’d suspected from the beginning. A few minutes later, I heard a loud crash in the trees. I had seen no other people on the trail or in the camp, and it was not a windy day when a branch might have fallen, and deer don’t make that much noise. I froze and looked carefully around me but did not see any movement in the woods. I remembered reading that if you do encounter a bear, you shouldn’t run, nor should you turn your back on it. All I could really do was pick up my pace and try to make a lot of noise as I headed out of there.
At the car, I kept an eye on the woods and changed out of my hiking boots into a pair of comfortable sandals. The black flies had come out so I didn’t linger long at the car. As I drove away, I had the sensation of something heavy inching itself off of my chest and slinking away. Something heavy that had been there for a long, long time. Deep breaths felt different. More expansive. Sweeter, as if I was still inhaling what the trees had exhaled. I know that compared to what a lot of people do, this six-mile hike alone in the woods was no big thing. But for me, it was about facing a collection of fears, and I had done it successfully. I felt at once elated and grounded. It is a feeling that I’ve had in the past, but only with other people, typically with men I’d once been in love with, when I experienced a feeling both of being safe and exhilarated. Being able to cultivate this feeling on my own, to give this gift to myself, was significant, and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt that way by myself. The whole trip made me feel this way, but it ignited on this hike.
We all experience challenges in our lives differently, so I’m not sure how relatable this experience might be. But because of some of the events of my past, I have over the years developed such self-doubt and self-criticism that life has been very confusing and painful at times, both in relationships and out of them. I’ve worked so hard to dissect it all. To understand all the reasons this came to be, and to try and untangle these knots. To have this experience of feeling safe within my own skin, comfortable and pleased with myself, happy, eager, curious, and calm in my headspace, my heart . . . I wasn’t sure if it was possible for me. Long ago, I read Emerson’s Self-Reliance, in which he says, “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” Is this what it felt like? How long had it been since I’ve had this feeling? I couldn’t remember. This wasn’t just about trusting your gut, this was about trusting who you are.
And as the trip continued, my brain continued to empty itself of anxiety. It pulled away from me the way the waves crashing against the rocks near my campsite were pulled back into the lake. At the beach, the water was clear and cold, and I had the sensation of it taking something from me that I didn’t need or want anymore. The lake was big enough to hold it without hurting anyone, this prickly darkness I’ve carried. I felt both the warm water near the surface and the colder, deeper water that came from far away.
I’m not a great swimmer and deep water is at once fascinating and scary. I like to be near it but not too immersed in it. At this beach, and all public beaches on Lake Michigan, and the other Great Lakes as well, there are signs about dangerous currents. This beach had a flag system so that the safety, or lack thereof, could be communicated to potential swimmers by someone reading the conditions. There was another sign about the fatalities that had occurred. In short, I did not take the risks lightly. Maybe it was for these reasons, though we only had green flag days, that the beach was often deserted. Maybe it was because the temperatures were a little cooler than most people like for beach days. But I reveled in the lake, grateful the waves were calm enough that the beach remained open. I would hike a mile and half from my rustic tent site, past the modern campground, to the swimming beach most days of the trip, and hang out for hours, reading my library books, doing crossword puzzles, and jumping into the water whenever the sun warmed me too much.
The lake is magic. I felt like a creature with dormant or depleted powers who was close enough to the source to have them rejuvenate. I know that sounds crazy and I’ve been reading too many books about witches and fables. But I haven’t felt that myself in so, so long. When I took pictures of myself, I could see it in my face, the recognition, as if I had returned after a long, blurry journey. It was as if I’d happened upon an old, familiar friend I hadn’t seen in a while.
I don’t recall if I’ve ever spent a birthday alone before, but I turned 52 on a sunny Sunday morning sitting on a rock, gazing at the lake, and enjoying the sun. I felt good. I made decadent birthday pancakes for lunch, after spending the morning at the beach. I chocked them full of chocolate chunks, leftover from chocolate bars I hadn’t used for s’mores. I topped them with vegan butter and maple syrup and cherry jam.
This trip was a meditation, in a way, or, how I imagine mediation should be. I want to say it was effortless, and it was, after a few days. But at first, I had to work at it, just like when I sit down on my yoga mat and try to let my thoughts drift by, acknowledging them but not attending to them. Most of the time it feels so effortful, and often ineffective. I had to keep asking myself what I wanted to do next, keep checking in. A hike? Sit by the water? Read? Eat? As the week progressed, I soon found myself moving toward one activity or another, or no activity, and having fewer conscious thoughts about what I was going to do. I found my rhythm. Things felt natural. Familiar.
So much has changed in my life since my divorce, has kept changing. I’ve had major shifts and false starts, and trying over, and over. And so often, in the course of adapting and readapting, my circumstances felt so unfamiliar, and I felt so unfamiliar. I’d remain in relationships flawed in all the wrong ways for far too long, hoping that at some point we’d arrive at the place where it felt familiar. Safe. I kept looking for myself in the face of other people.
I’ve learned that that which is familiar is not always healthy or safe. I also realize now how vital it is to continue this journey toward feeling familiar and safe to myself. To be the source of that. I’ve always tried to provide that in relationships and always expected it in return, never realizing the impact its absence was having within me. I don’t know if I’m there, because everything shifts and changes so rapidly, and progress gets eroded. But I feel as though I’m closer than I have been in a long, long time.