On Monday, March 5, I heard my first thunder of 2014. It was the 125th day of the year, one of the first shirtsleeve days of 2014. I'd been in Dickinson for an early evening meeting. My soul is ragged these days. I'd promised myself I'd bend down in prayer before a crocus (pasqueflower) before the day was out, and I have learned to measure my mental health in reverse proportion to the number of days since I was last in the badlands. So on a whim I drove to Medora, into Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and then into Cottonwood Campground. I'm keeping what I call "last minute camping equipment" in my vehicle through the summer.
Given the rapid industrialization of western North Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt National Park has emerged as the one last pure sanctuary where, as long as you are facing inward from its boundaries, you can climb up over a ridge and be sure you will not see a fracking rig or an array of storage tanks on the other side. There is something deeply, even profoundly, comforting in knowing that the National Park will always be able to deliver that spiritual solace—a quiet landscape left alone by man's hustlings—no matter what happens beyond the park perimeters.
There were just five occupied campsites in Cottonwood campground. Three of them had large RVs, and there was one other tent a few hundred yards away. RV and fifth wheel folks tend to spend their time inside their portable houses, which begs some questions, but makes them ideal campsite neighbors.
Part of what makes tent and backpack camping so enjoyable is the way it forces simplification on our lives. If you have to carry it on your back, you are not going to take much, and much that you think you need you soon find that you don't.
It was a "short notice camping trip," so all I had was a blue and off-white tent, a lightweight air mattress, a sleeping bag, water, an exquisitely elegant and miniature gas cooking burner, two miniature pans, a plastic knife and spoon, a small salt and pepper shaker in one reversible cylinder, a Swiss Army Knife, a butane lighter, one food packet, two small bars of chocolate, a miner's lamp that you attach to your forehead with its elastic headband, and a book. I had a backpack, too, but this was car camping, so I barely needed it. This whole ensemble weighed less than twenty pounds. There is something purely delightful in assembling all this miniature high-tech gear. I was roughing it, but roughing it at the top of a very ingenious industrial pyramid.
Nor is such gear cheap. Making any important thing lightweight is an expensive challenge. I just made an itemized list of the gear described above, and the retail price—if you were starting tomorrow—comes to $1,385.40. The backpack ($450), tent ($250), and sleeping bag ($250) are the big ticket items, but once you have them they will last for twenty years or more, if you aren't infected with a raging itch for newer, lighter, more ingenious gear. I can hear my father saying, $1400 would buy a lot of hotel rooms, and they throw in the shower and toilet.
As soon as I had picked my campsite (a very complex enterprise in an organized campground, fraught with second-guessing, backtracking, and lingering misgivings), I walked down to the sacred Little Missouri River. It was up, but not greatly up, and flowing as calmly as it ever gets. I reckoned I could walk through it without wetting my chin, but it was now just an hour before sunset and I didn't want to have to start a fire at my campsite. I never light fires when I am alone. It feels self-indulgent and, though I know it is silly, I don't like the feeling of being exposed alone in the firelight with darkness all around me. I put up the tent (four minutes), and threw my sleeping bag over a bush to air out. The air mattress is one of those self-inflating units.
In honor of the 17-day hike I took on the Little Missouri River a few years ago, and in pursuit of simplicity, I decided to cook a freeze-dried meal from a plastic pouch. You can buy them now at any good outdoor recreation store. They are surprisingly tasty. I chose Chicken & Rice, but if I remember correctly the Lasagna and the Kung Pao Chicken are the best of the lot. All you do is tear open the top of the package, pour in 14 ounces of boiling water, seal up the packet (it has a double ziplock), and let it stand for about ten minutes. Voila: a hot camp meal that occupies a space somewhere between "not bad" and "surprisingly good." I wouldn't recommend it for a date, but on the whole I wouldn't recommend camping with anyone who isn't as eager to do it as you are. The 6 a.m. sullen, sleep-deprived, "I cannot believe you talked me into this," "this is going to be a very bad hair day," look is priceless, but you do wind up paying a price down the line.
After supper, I folded and tucked all the miniature gear back into the appropriate satchels. This is an important part of the ritual, for it reminds us of how little we really need in life, how easily our basic needs can be met, and how much more graspable and manageable life is when we reduce it to lowest terms.
For a while I read my book—a novel by Dickens—at the picnic table, using my nerd headlamp. For a while I stood silently in the juniper trees listening to the concert of a half a dozen species of birds bedding down for the night. And listening to the strange comings and goings of the breeze—a long period of complete calm followed by a little flow-through of purposeful air, and then two more soughings through my campsite, a longer one and a shorter, at long intervals, but never rising to the strength of wind. I remembered John 3:8: "The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit."
It is a little eerie standing there all alone on the banks of the Little Missouri River, ears on special alert, trying to drink in the spirit of place of the Great Plains, trying to identify the sounds of quiet (crickets, frogs, owls, bats, small rustling mammals in the dry grass), and puzzling over the way the unhurried breeze now visits, kissing the tops of the trees, and then slips away like a living presence.
An hour later, cocooned in my down bag, I heard the first rumble of 2014 thunder off to the west. As I dozed in and out of sleep the little starter storm crept in to my tentsite, and gave me two outstanding "just over your head" ka-booms, no interval between the flash of lightning and the thunder retort.
It was just scary enough to be perfect. It was the sound of a much-anticipated summer in North Dakota.