This has been a whacky, lark of a summer to be sure. I’m currently trying to block out the fact that a trip to the Minnesota State Fair is simply not in my cards this year. The last of the garlic crop just recently made it’s way into the curing shed – a record late harvest. I was stunned to find myself picking and freezing snap peas well into the second week of August. Peas! In August! Meanwhile I cannot grow a zucchini this summer to save my life. And clearly I have not been in the pig pen writing nearly as much as I like.
About the only constant this summer held was my highly anticipated respite to the Boundary Waters. It’s the one week I count on to let my body work and my mind rest. And this year’s trip couldn’t come soon enough.
Rounding up the necessary gear and preparing food for the trail has become such a systematic ritual that I can generally do all of the preparations in less than a day. But the one thing that always stumps me is what to read on the trail. I’ve finally broken myself of the habit of bringing more than one book, so the one I choose needs to be just right. Engaging enough so I’ll stay awake for a chapter or two after a day of paddling, but not so gripping that I hover in my sleeping bag with a head lamp for half the night. Ideally it should be just the right length – certainly not so short that I finish before the end of the trip, but anything much over just means extra weight to portage. The older I get, the more this matters.
I stopped by our used bookstore a few days before the trip and found a handful of contenders. In the end, I settled on Willa Cather’s My Ántonia. I’m sure I must have read this classic in high school, but with all due respect Mrs. Richardson, I have absolutely no recollection of it. It was a tad on the thin side, but I decided to risk it. And I’m glad I did. Cather swept me straight away to a simpler, slower – albeit harder – time on the plains.
Only fourteen pages in and I bonded hard with little Jimmy Burden who had just been spit out onto his grandparents’ farm in Nebraska.
I sat down in the middle of the garden, where snakes could scarcely approach unseen, and leaned my back against a warm yellow pumpkin…The earth was warm under me, and warm as I crumbled it through my fingers…I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.”
I was struck that wilderness camping – living outdoors, pairing down necessities to the essentials, and simply focusing on the day’s journey – brings me true, entire happiness. And, like Jim experienced in the pumpkin patch, I do not crave anything more. Living like this, even if only for a week, sheds everything that isn’t real. There is no time for things that deliver false or partial happiness. Turning up a tube of lip balm to meet cracked, weathered lips is happiness. Watching an orange sun rise through a filmy mist on the water is happiness. Diving into the tent to escape a relentless cloud of mosquitos is happiness.
Every trip to the Boundary Waters reminds me of how surprisingly simple it can be to let ourselves experience complete contentedness. Camping certainly isn’t everybody’s trigger, but we all have one. It’s just a matter of knowing how to access it.
For me it is the uncomplicated lifestyle that camping delivers. It makes for a challenging reentry into the “real world” when your biggest responsibility for a week is to keep a daily turtle tally. Still it’s a job I indulge in thoroughly. Turtles are notoriously bashful. The key to spotting them is to be quiet and move slowly, just like a turtle. No matter how turtle-like you become though, you can only get so close before a sunning turtle scuttles from its perch and plops into the safety of the cool water. These turtles, I’m certain, know what it means to be dissolved into something complete and great. When things get hard, I try and imagine my life as a turtle.
This year’s turtle total was eight, a little low, but still respectable. Number seven the only one who wasn’t camera shy. But all eight of them reminded me to live deliberately, to soak it in, and to not want to be anything more.