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I Tried Solo Camping at 54 and Learned About Togetherness

Jun 01, 2023

Unexpectedly, the experience made me face my fears of losing my spouse and offered an opportunity for reflection on what that would mean

"I'm scared to drive across this bridge," I texted my husband Shawn, attaching a photo.

It had taken me 54 years to muster the courage to try camping alone, and a bridge in rural Montana was about to be my undoing, because I couldn't drive across it to my planned bike ride. The bridge was a decrepit, former railroad bridge, with metal scraps nailed in spots to cover gaping holes where the timbers had collapsed or shifted, exposing the mighty Yellowstone River below.

I stepped out of my car and paced. Who maintained this bridge? And more importantly, who were the numbskulls who drove across it?

"I'm a little nervous about crossing."

"Take it slow," Shawn replied. "You'll be fine."

Soon, a numbskull in a red truck appeared and drove across. I stood in the middle of the dirt road and a woman around my age rolled down her window. Her hair was in a ponytail, tucked beneath a ballcap — someone who certainly camped alone.

"I'm a little nervous about crossing," I stammered.

"You'll be fine," she said. "I've driven it many times and never had a problem."

"What about those holes with the metal?"

"Well, I do know someone who got a flat on those," she said.

That was enough for me. No. I had a spare tire in my little Toyota, but that didn't mean I knew how to use it. And I wasn't walking to the nearest ranch for help.

I thought about retracing my five-hour drive home. I stared at the bridge and a narrow wooden walkway on one side. It was just wide enough to walk my bike across and start my ride a few miles sooner.

I pulled my bike out of the car, using the tools Shawn packed for me to reassemble my bike. The bike, my tent, and cookstove had required patient tutorials and practice so that I could do these things on my own.

It wasn't that I never learned these things because I assumed he'd always be around to do them. In fact, I frequently reasoned that if Shawn died before me, I'd be fine. I'd be more than fine! I could learn these things. Maybe this trip was a test.

I exhaled as I reached the other side of the bridge and began riding into the Terry Badlands, hoping ironically, to make it to some natural stone bridges I'd read about, carved by time.

I stopped to take photos of towering rock spires, then parked my bike to hike to the bridges. I'd pedaled for hours without seeing anyone, and when I reached my destination, I was euphoric in my mastery of aloneness. Who needed anyone if they could do this?

My conviction that I was "fine alone," began young. My mother was 20 when I was born, and my parents parted when I was two. My mom remarried and added two brothers to our family, and my father remarried and had two daughters. I sometimes felt like I was on the outside of life, looking in; like my siblings and classmates were "real kids" and I was this thing that happened.

"I think I love you more than you love me," Shawn has said several times during our 17 years together, in what is a second marriage for both of us.

"I think I love you more than you love me."

It seems an odd thing to say, like something you should keep to yourself. Still, I've thought about it, and I can't say it's untrue. Partly because how can we measure love and also because it assumes we love each other in the same way, like love is a cup of sugar that can be measured and compared.

But cups of sugar aside, he might be right.

I hold back, ready for that call that he's dead after a head-on collision or a heart attack. I envision getting rid of his tools and clothes and rejoicing that I no longer have to live with someone as comfortable making and living in messes as he is. I can watch whatever I want on TV. I can go on tropical vacations.

And I won't have to wonder if he's going to die first anymore.

I've witnessed friends who loved without limits and after loss can barely function. I've prided myself that that's not me — that no parting will ever destroy me. But is there such a thing as too much emotional independence, while at the same time relying on your partner to check the air in your tires? And what if having someone love you unquestionably is exactly what you need?

I pulled into Makoshika State Park, chose a campsite and assembled my tent. I took a picture and sent a group text to Shawn and my sons — his stepsons.

"Who just put her tent together after wrestling with it for 20 minutes?" I humble-bragged.

"Well … you put the poles in wrong," Shawn replied.


I looked at my tent. It was a bit … tormented in the way the fabric was stretching.

"OK, but we don't tell everyone," I wrote back. "We mention that privately."

"I think we could all tell from the picture," my youngest son texted. "But we love you."

The next day I hiked 8 miles, photographing a rock playground for giants, then sent the pictures to Shawn, letting him know what a time I was having. I was starving when I returned to the car and decided that no one needed to know if I drove to a nearby Mexican restaurant and ordered three chicken and cheese enchiladas — rather than eating what I'd packed.

When I returned to camp that final evening the sky was dark with rain, the campground empty. I was alone, but for the first time on this trip, in a dark way. I zipped my raincoat and read a book as the rain came in misty, then forced me inside my tent.

I won't pretend I rerouted 54 years of emotional wiring while the rain pelted my car.

I soon realized the rain fly wasn't working, and my camping mattress and sleeping bag were soaked. There were hotels nearby, but that felt like cheating. I called Shawn and told him my predicament, but he was distracted, laughing and having fun with our sons in the background.

"I'm sorry that happened," he managed. "You could take everything out of the car and sleep in the back."

I got up and stuffed everything in the back of the car into the front seats, then shoved my wet camping mattress and sleeping bag in. I crawled inside and bunched my coat into a ball because I'd forgotten my pillow. I was fine!

Except for some reason, I was afraid. I locked and tested the car doors. But the real problem was that I missed Shawn. And it had nothing to do with the many ways I relied on him. I pictured myself on the same trip without anyone to share it with. I thought about having no one I loved — or who loved me — waiting at home. I didn't like it. But it also felt hopeful, like maybe that was normal?

I laid there wishing for sleep until morning, then made coffee and pointed my car homeward.

I won't pretend I rerouted 54 years of emotional wiring while the rain pelted my car. But I can suggest that if a bridge ever scares you, stare it down like you mean business, then take a breath and cross it in your own time, in your own way.