That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Upheaval

What do you do to challenge yourself? What does escape mean in the context of the pandemic? In today’s That Thing With Feathers, Torrey House author Renée Thompson recounts a camping trip with her grandson, navigating the fear of spending a night alone in the outdoors, grappling with the loss of her husband, and pondering the meaning of Murphy's Law.

What Have I Got To Lose?

by Renée Thompson


One day, in early February 2020, before the word pandemic becomes common in worldwide lexicon, I take a half-day workshop in Sacramento with the author Pam Houston. Pam is a writer I’ve long admired, and at the end of the session, I tell her what most appeals about her memoir Deep Creek is her fearlessness throughout—her willingness to go it alone. Over the years, Pam has worked as a river, hunting, and backpacking guide; now she owns a ranch at nine thousand feet in Colorado, and until she married her husband, Mike, she ran the whole damn thing herself. I admire her courage and tell her so. I tell her, too, I want to camp on the American Prairie Reserve in northern Montana, that I want to be strong, to challenge myself, but I’ve never spent so much as a single night alone in the outdoors. Always, my husband, Steve, dead now some fifteen months, was with me. So I’m apprehensive about venturing out on my own.


“What are you afraid of?” Pam asks. “Breaking a leg?”


“No. I’m not afraid of hurting myself, or of wildlife, or any animal, really. I’m afraid of bad men.”


“Then take a gun,” she says. “Protect yourself. You can absolutely do this.” She must see some hesitation in my face, some failure to believe, because she leans forward. “Renée. The worst thing that can happen to you has already happened. What more can they do to you?”


It is a moment, an awakening, and when I go to bed that night, it’s the first time since Steve died that I don’t lock my bedroom door.


It is a moment, an awakening, and when I go to bed that night, it’s the first time since Steve died that I don’t lock my bedroom door.

I spend the next two weeks researching self-defense classes, gun-safety classes, and talking to experts about the prairie. A biologist at Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge, just north of the preserve, tells me she spends lots of nights alone outdoors, saying she takes her dogs with her and gets back to camp before dark. If, for some reason, a red flag arises, she spends the night in her car. I don’t want to drive a thousand miles just to spend the night in my car, so I put the preserve on the back burner and instead consider the reservation I made weeks earlier to spend three nights at Grover Hot Springs State Park in Northern California. I tell myself this is a good plan. I tell myself Grover is safe and I’ll be fine on my own. And then I think: Wouldn’t it be fun to take Kai, my grandson, with me? He’s eight now, old enough to help me haul containers of groceries from the car to the campsite and set up a couple of tents. I’m excited about the prospect, and so I buy all new gear, having given away almost everything after Steve died, certain I’d never camp without him. And then COVID strikes, the state shuts down, and all the campgrounds close. So I sit and wait. And while I wait, I think maybe I won’t go. Maybe it’s a bad idea. Something is bound to go wrong. I think about the commitments I’ve made and haven’t kept since Steve died. There’s that notion I had, where I believed I could take two boys under the age of nine camping simultaneously, when spending twenty-four hours entertaining just one is the most I can possibly handle. Too, there’s that grand idea to traverse the prairie alone. And have I mentioned I volunteered to work as a writer for the Peregrine Fund in the midst of drafting a memoir? Like I need one more thing to do. I don’t. But I see a pattern emerging: Commit. Panic. Bail. And I wonder, what am I trying to prove with these notions of camping? That I’m strong? Determined? Independent as hell? That I don’t need Steve to fall back on? Ask the question, get the answer; for me, they’re one and the same.


The day of our departure, a warm summer morning in August, Kai, his mom Jena, and I load the car, and then Kai and I hop in. Jena kneels in the driveway with my pup, Donner, and waves goodbye as we pull out. Check-in at Grover is two p.m., but if the campers before us have already departed, we can slide into our slot without waiting.


The drive to Markleeville is easy. Kai sits in the back seat, watching a preloaded video on his iPad, while I navigate Highway 50. My Toyota is packed with everything we need for our trip: sleeping bags, tents, groceries, wood for the fire, potable water, propane tanks, cookstove, backpacks and suitcases. (It doesn’t matter if we go for three days or thirty, the amount of gear we need is the same.) Traffic isn’t bad, although I wonder why, during month five of the pandemic, there are so many cars on the road. I assume it’s because Highway 50 is one of two primary arteries into Lake Tahoe from Sacramento and that everyone has the same idea: get out of the house, get out of the heat, get out of the blasted city. We’re lucky to be going at all. Grover isn’t accepting new reservations, but because I made mine in early February, before the virus began to spread in earnest, the staff is honoring my request for a stay.


The car glides along the highway, a black skimmer on water, and I, its pilot, lean back in my seat, shoulders relaxed, as I sip from my coffee cup. I’m bolstered by happiness and the beauty of my surroundings: the sun high in a robin-egg sky, oaks flanking the hillsides. As we rise in elevation, oaks give way to pines and firs of malachite, soldiers saluting the forest.


Kai is smiling. I see him in my rearview mirror, his headphones on, his head bowed. He laughs, looks up, and catches my eye. I wave, and he waves back. And then the green and white sign for Sly Park appears, and just like that, my throat tightens. This is the exit Steve used to take when pulling our trailer, and all at once I am back in the day, back in the arms of a chilly June morning, patches of snow on the ground. I briefly consider taking this route, but I’m not sure I can handle a reverie that so clearly recalls my husband, and so I drive past the exit, gripping the wheel, keeping my eyes on the road.


I briefly consider taking this route, but I’m not sure I can handle a reverie that so clearly recalls my husband, and so I drive past the exit, gripping the wheel, keeping my eyes on the road.

Kai and I arrive at the state park an hour early, but our site is open and ready. The ranger reminds us to watch for bears, saying there have been a couple of sightings this week. “Be sure to put all food into your bear safe before going to bed,” he says. “Don’t leave anything in your car.”


We find our slot—number forty-eight—and I gingerly back in. Kai helps me unload and, because he’s traveled up and down the coast with his mom for much of the summer, knows how to pitch his own tent. I lay two tarps and we each dive in, wrangling poles and stakes and grommets. When we’re done, we stand back and admire our handiwork: two small tents, side by side, flaps open to catch the breeze.


I spread a cloth on our picnic table and break open the cooler. Before we eat, we watch a chipmunk scale the stones surrounding the fire pit and then dig through ashes for crumbs. Two Steller’s jays peer from low pine branches, squawking their yearning for bread. Kai eats a peanut-butter sandwich and apple slices while I eat a chicken salad. Dessert is a chocolate-chip cookie, which we nibble as we spread a map across the top of the picnic table and discuss how we’ll spend the afternoon. The hot spring is definitely on tap—I’ve made a reservation (also required, due to the virus)—as is the park’s icy pool. Before we go, we’ll hike the campground’s perimeter, discovering the lay of the land: neighboring campers, trails to the creek, restrooms (just in case).


That evening, after dinner, I prep a fire and Kai ignites the kindling with a wooden match from the set he gave me for Christmas. We settle into our camp chairs, and when the fire heats up and begins to pop, Kai says, “Buti, are those sparks or embers?” I tell him right now they’re sparks, but later, when the fire calms down, they’ll be embers. We discuss at length the difference between sparks and embers, with Kai posing all the spark-causing possibilities he can think of. “Like when metal hits the ground and a little light shoots up—that’s a spark, right?”


“Right,” I say.


“And, like, under a rocket, when it first takes off, those are sparks, right?”


“Right.”


“But when wood is almost all burned up, those are embers.”