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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 S