clean enough

I'd to talk a bit here about what it’s like living out of a tent. I’m writing this a bit out of synch since I’m sitting at a campfire with the Snake River about 100 yards off and the Teton mountains to my back.  Tonight is my first night in a free camp spot care of the National Forest Service.  I’m alone, though there is a tent set up across the way with a box sign with “Occupado” written on it.  The folks that were here before me said they hadn’t seen anyone come back yet so I’m gonna guess I’ll be alone for at least a night or two.  

The first time I camped alone like this was just a few days back outside of Moab on my way to Grand Teton National Park.  Well, I was alone until about 30 minutes before I went to bed when a family showed up and camped a little down the way.  That place was surreal in that it was by a geyser that was an out of the way attraction and sat on the Green River.  It was desert, though, so pretty open and hot.  But silent.  So silent.  I heard everything that was happening around me and, really, there wasn’t much going on.  But to camp like that was both equal parts exhilarating and terrifying.  When a car drove by, I was a little on edge, wondering who was in it and if they might be a threat.  But everything was always kosher - they either stopped to check out the geyser for a bit or drove on past.  Like I mentioned before in regards to bears, experience breeds confidence, so having one almost entirely alone camping experience led me to this place here, which, let me tell you, is by far, one of the best campsites I’ve stayed in.  It sits on a bluff overlooking the Snake River and there are mountains and forests on all sides.  And it's free.  After paying an ungodly amount to be out in the open with everyone at Gros Ventre Campground in Grand Teton NP, this seems almost too good to be true.  

Now that I’ve spent the last six weeks of mostly camping with a smattering of staying with friends here and there, I have a decent handle on this life.  And now that I’m about 2/3 or so through the trip, it’s becoming difficult to picture what it will be like to not be on the road.  Being settled in one place seems so foreign right now.  Having a daily routine seems odd.  As weird as this might sound, not being able to spot the Big Dipper in different parts of the sky as I go from place to place is a bit discomforting.  

Up until this adventure, I was fairly predictable.  I’ve never been a spontaneous one per se, though I also wasn’t averse to adventure.  But I had a steady office job and, while I had far more vacation days than I’d ever had before and put them to good use, I never did anything “crazy” like this.  I never abandoned life for an extended amount of time for experience.  And maybe that’s how this trip came about.  Maybe I’d had it inside of me all along, but life’s responsibilities kept it at bay until eventually it couldn’t be sequestered any longer and I had to act.  Something was missing and it seemed like I had to go out and find what it was.  Sometimes you need a complete departure from your world to silence all of the extraneous bullshit and finally hear the dark matter of your life.  

Having come from New York City, arguably the hardest place to find quiet in America, to being alone almost all the time has not been as hard as I thought it might be.  I figured I'd get lonely at some point, but that’s not a feeling I’ve yet experienced.  It’s fairly easy to stay connected nowadays, even when you’re camping.  I had a conversation at a trailhead in Arches National Park with a new friend, Valerie, about that.  She was on the road for a month and we talked about how surprising it was that there was so much cell service availability while we’ve been camping.  It’s a double-edged sword because, on one hand, we both had a desire to be forced into disconnection.  There’s a richness that occurs when you have to be with your mind and that was something I expected to have a lot more of.  On the other hand, though, when you are out by yourself, especially for me since I’m out for so long, it’s been nice to stay tethered to the world in some way.  It’s helped sustain a very new long-distance relationship that I started with my boyfriend, Isaac, just before I left Brooklyn - something that I clearly was not expecting at all (life has a great sense of humor sometimes).  It’s been fun to share my experiences with family and friends along the way and gain encouragement when I’ve had a tough time here and there.  Maybe more than anything, it’s allowed an ease of referencing the Internet and other helpful travel apps when I’ve literally had no idea what the next move was.  Tent camping doesn’t allow you the same freedoms of living in a van or converted SUV - you have to work a little harder to figure out where you’ll sleep at night.  That’s definitely not allowed me to be as spontaneous sometimes as I would have liked, but I’m also okay with that.  

But still, when you are forced into introspection, that is when it gets good.  Perhaps there is a sadness to that - the forcing part - because it’s so difficult to just turn your mind off nowadays.  Or to switch it to a different channel, so to speak, and that is so new to us as a society…as a people.  Up until about 10 years ago, we had no other choice most of the time.  When you were away from your home and computer, you had to make do.  While I have absolutely benefited from the internet in my hand and apps to help guide me along my path, I also realize that it’s harder to put your phone down now.  I’ve found at times, especially in the beginning, having to make a deal with myself - put your phone down for this amount of minutes.  I think it’s become easier as I’ve gone along, partly because this part of the world I’m in now inspires so much reflection and quiet gazing, so I'm feeling more pulled to focus on that than I am social media connection.

Anyway, I seem to have gotten a bit off track.  I guess that everything above does tend to fall under the umbrella of “what it’s like to live out of a tent,” but I was planning on this being more and a tangible post and not quite as philosophical.  

I’ve really started to realize how little you actually need when you live this life.  When I packed up my car back at the end of May, I had no idea what to expect so I brought a lot of shit with me.  A lot of supplies for contingency plans - if it rains, if it’s sunny, if I want to get real fancy for dinner, if I won’t have a shower for several days and need to use dry shampoo, if I get bored and need to take up a hobby.  I just didn’t have any idea what to expect and, though I did limit myself by whittling down what I brought through a few decision rounds, I still ended up with way too much. For example, I hate reading on a Kindle.  I only read actual books.  So, thinking I would have a lot of time on my hands, I brought probably 30.  When I look back on it now, it’s so ridiculous.  But, I just didn’t know what to expect, so packed for a worse case scenario type of situation.  

There is something kind of freeing about realizing how little you actually need.  For some people, there’s a real drive to acquire.  I wouldn’t say I’m the worst at that, but before this, I definitely wasn’t the best either.  Living in New York for me was funny in that you don’t have a ton of space to, say, fill up a typical American-sized home, but you’re also surrounded by a lot of “cool,” too.  Everyone is stylish as fuck and gadgets abound so the extraneous is in your face often.  But, when you get out here, you realize how little you need to get by.  A camp stove, a pot, a spatula or two, a cast iron skillet, a few knives, stuff to make coffee, a few cups, paper plates and plastic cutlery, your sleeping gear, water, a backpack for day hikes, tools to make fire, a camp chair, a head light, some clothes, general hygiene stuff.  These are the things I use daily.  I have a lot more with me and some days I access those things, but I could really do without them if I needed.  Obviously when you make a home for yourself, there are things you’ll need or want that you don’t when you’re living out of your car.  But, I would be hard-pressed to think this life of little I’ve lived for the last four months won’t impact my future in a dramatic way.  I think it’s re-jiggered my approach to acquisition.  I imagine I will be much more thoughtful with buying things going forward and the question of “do I REALLY need this” will come into play more often.  

The other thing I’ve really started to notice is the concept of “clean enough.”  This is an umbrella term for several aspects of life right now - cooking, clothing, hygiene.  I know to some folks this might seem gross and that’s okay.  The concept might have seemed gross to me before I got out on the road, too, but, it's a motto I've come to live by.  When you don’t have easy access to a kitchen sink a few feet away from you, the idea of thoroughly washing all of your dishes is one of the bigger pains in the ass you can imagine.  There have been campgrounds that have a place to wash dishes, but those are few and far between.  And they might be a few minutes walk away, which also doesn’t seem crazy to someone reading this at home.  But when you have to pile all of your dirty dishes up, make sure you have all your cleaning supplies, wash and then precariously balance your cleaned and dried stuff on a sink edge or sometimes the floor while you get the rest done, well, it really makes you reevaluate what is dirty enough to need a wash.  “I used that knife to cut vegetables and if I wipe it off, that seems clean enough to me.”  This is a sentence I’ve said to myself several times.  If it looks clean, that pretty much meets my standard at this point.  This is also where the concept of not needing much really shines through.  I’ve found ways to make all kinds of stuff work just to cut out dirtying another dish, utensil or pan.  It’s also why my cast iron skillet is probably the most useful tool in my kitchen bin.  It’s gotten enough use now that I can pretty much wipe it out after I finish cooking and it’s good to go.  When it reached that point, I can’t tell you what an accomplishment it was.  

Clothing is another area.  When I lived in an apartment, had an endless supply of clothes, and did laundry on the regular, I’d throw a shirt in the hamper after wearing it for a day.  Out here, though, my threshold for dirty has increased exponentially.  I’ve easily worn shirts four days in a row.  Pants?  Forget about it - they can go forever.  Especially when hiking comes into play.  Why put on a clean shirt and leggings I haven’t worn before just to get out and sweat in them?  It doesn’t make sense.  So, really, you don’t need much.  When I’ve done a batch of laundry, it’s been kind of a reset and that feels great.  But I have way too many clothes with me for as many times as I’ll wear things over again.  

Then there’s hygiene.  I’ve touched on this before with showering, but it extends elsewhere.  I can’t tell you how religious I was about washing my face before living on the road.  I can probably count on two hands how many times I’ve gone to bed without washing my face and, usually, that was the cause of alcohol consumption.  There have been long stretches here where that just hasn’t been an option, though, so you make do.  You clean yourself when you can.  I’ve brushed my teeth pretty often, but sometimes that gets skipped, too.  You just don’t have access to things on the regular that make being clean a necessity and that hasn’t been much of a problem.  I’m not saying this will change my hygiene habits when I live in a home again, but I think it’s made me appreciate it more for sure.  It’s okay to go a few days or a week without a shower if you don’t have access to one.  I’ve figured out how to make it work.  And when I do finally get the opportunity to get clean?  Well, it’s made me feel like a million bucks and I don’t think I had that feeling before - it was just part of my routine and I didn’t think about it.  I’m sure that will happen again, but I think I’ll always have this experience to call upon and that will probably change how I think about it going forward.  There will be a little bit more gratitude.  

This life has stripped away the excess and allowed me to focus on the necessity, both philosophically and in the day to day.  I think it’s given me a greater insight into what all you actually need in this world and I’d be surprised if it hasn’t produced a forever change.