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?”
“But when wood is almost all burned up, those are embers.”
“Correct,” I say.
He’s quiet as he considers this, then just like that, he moves on. “Let’s play cards!” he says, so with the fire warming the cool night air, we move again to the picnic table, pull out the cards, and play six rounds of War. We agree to make the game more interesting by betting with peanut M&M’s. By now, it’s dark and mosquitos are biting. We slap our necks, grab the lantern, and decide to call it a night.
Kai helps me load the bear safe. While he puts on his pajamas in his tent, I douse the fire and then crawl into my own tent. Our shelters are close enough that I can hear the rustling of Kai’s sleeping bag, as well as his sighs, as he gently settles in. We’ve brought books—Joe Wilkins’s Fall Back Down When I Die for me, and Max Brallier’s The Last Kids on Earth Survival Guide for Kai. We have miniature clip-on lamps to read by, and as I flip a page, Kai says, “Buti, will you tell me when you’re done reading, before you turn out your light?”
“Sure thing, Kai.”
Ten seconds later. “Buti?”
“Will you tell me before you’re ready to go to sleep?”
“I will, love.” Then: “Why? Are you scared?”
“A little,” he says.
“Want to hop into my tent?”
He doesn’t respond, but I hear the distinct zip that signals the opening of his tent flap, and soon he’s at my door, sleeping bag and pillow in hand. We spend the night within four inches of each other, me crammed against the wall of the tent, Kai leaning hard against me. It’s as rough a night as I’ve spent in years, and the next morning, I tell him that as much as I love him, he needs to sleep in his own tent tonight. Which means we have a thorough discussion about bears and their cubs and the possibility, remote as it is, that they’ll even think about entering our camp.
“We’re safe, I promise,” I tell him. My voice is strong and sure, but I wonder if I’m asking too much of my grandson.
“We’re safe, I promise,” I tell him. My voice is strong and sure, but I wonder if I’m asking too much of my grandson. I’ve had moments throughout the day when I think this trip isn’t about him or memories we’ll make together as much as it’s about overcoming my fear of camping alone. I wonder if I’ve pushed this adventure on him; if he agreed to come not because he can’t wait to spend a few days in the woods, but because he doesn’t want to let me down. Even an eight-year-old understands what it means to let his grandma down.
The next evening, just before dusk, Kai sits at the picnic table, reading, while I fire up the camp stove and wait for water to boil. (I’ve forgotten how long it takes water to boil at six thousand feet.) As I’m prepping marinara sauce, I ask if he’d like some Gatorade, and yes, thank you, he would. But I can’t get the bottle open. I try everything: rapping the lid against the tabletop, going at it bare-fisted, gouging the cap with a knife. Nothing works.
I glance over at the camp next door, occupied by an older couple. They have a small trailer—bigger than a TAB camper, but not by much—and two friendly dogs. I walk over to the edge of my camp, holler to the woman, “Excuse me.” I hold up the bottle of Gatorade. “If I wear a mask and come over to your camp, will your partner open this for me?”
She doesn’t hesitate. “Of course,” she hollers, waving me over. I grab a mask, and the man meets me in front of his truck. He’s wearing a mask too. His name is Howard, he says, and his wife’s name is Barbara. I hand the bottle to him, and he opens it in a snap. Barbara comes over and we talk briefly. She thanks me for wearing a mask. “We’re seventy,” she says. “We can’t be too careful.” I agree—of course I do—and when I return to my own camp, I discreetly wipe the bottle with disinfectant before handing it to Kai.
The marinara sauce is bubbling now, and I take it from the heat. Over the low flame I place a packet of foil-wrapped French bread. All at once Kai looks up, beaming. “That sauce smells delicious,” he says, and I tell him dinner’s almost ready. He asks if he can have a bowl of marinara on the side, so he can dip bread into his sauce while he eats his pasta. This is something his mom used to do when she was young: stand in front of a pot of sauce, corral a mushroom with a bite of bread, then pop the tidbit into her mouth.
Kai eats everything, including another cookie for dessert. Afterward, he says my cookstove offering might be the best dinner he’s ever eaten, and he’s way too stuffed for s’mores. I’m delighted he’s full and happy, and that evening, when we go to bed, we’re not thinking of bears or marauding creatures, but of bellies too big for our pj’s. We sleep well until two a.m., when a great horned owl wakes us with its echoing calls. “Buti,” says Kai from his tent next door. “Do you hear that?”
“I do,” I say. “It sounds like there might be three of them—one in camp, two farther off.”
We listen a while, agreeing we like the sound of owls; they make us feel safe and secure. And then Kai briskly unzips his tent flap and steps out, announcing he’ll be back in a minute (code for “nature potty”).
I sit up to watch as he carries the lantern into the bushes, then disappears around the bend. He’s growing up, I think as I watch his silhouette. Today, a small boy swinging a lantern; tomorrow, a man, much like his dad. His Papa too. I see my loved ones in him.
The next morning, after Cheerios, orange juice, and coffee, we decide to drive the four miles into Markleeville to pick up a packet of “magic coloring” for our campfire that night, maybe a brownie from the one little café that’s open. Kai hops into his booster seat in the car but has trouble buckling the seatbelt. I hop out to help him, but as soon as I open his door, he slips the buckle into place. When this happens again on the way back from town, I say, “Just wait. As soon as I open my door and get out, you’ll get your seatbelt buckled,” which is exactly what happens. “Murphy’s Law,” I say.
“Murphy’s Law? What’s that?”
I think of an example. “Say you’re in a hurry,” I say. “You’ve got somewhere to go and you don’t want to be late, except you hit every red light in existence. Then some other time, when you’re not in a rush, you pull into the drive-through at McDonald’s, and buy a Coke or a burger—”
“—or a chocolate shake.”
“Or a chocolate shake,” I say. “Anyway, you pull back onto the road and now you’re desperate for a red light, so you can take a bite of your burger. But can you get a red light then when you need one? Nope. That’s Murphy’s Law.”
Over the course of the next few miles, he tests me with various examples, asking, “Is that Murphy’s Law?”