Camping with Strangers
By Jennifer Pharr Davis
Mammoth Cave NPS Campout
It had been a long day- six hours in the car, a lengthy cave tour, a couple miles of “above ground” hiking, and setting up our campsite- before I finally managed to get the kids settled in their tent. You’d have thought they’d be exhausted. But instead, they were acting a little “extra,” having way too much fun with their new headlamps to care about sleep. At least the campsites next to us are empty so we can go to bed without any noise. No sooner had the thought crossed my mind than I heard a set of wheels crush the gravel pullout just south of us. (I should’ve known better than to jinx the campsite by appreciating the solitude. It’s a sure-fire recipe for company.)
Charley and Gus continued to enjoy the kaleidoscopic light display of their technicolor kid lamps while I pressed on through our nightly prayer-and-lullaby routine. That’s when I heard Brew striking up a conversation with our new neighbors. Noooo! Don’t make friends. I’d planned to fall asleep right after the kids and I had no interest in being social.
But right after Smug Thought #2 entered my brain, I heard another vehicle approaching. The headlights illuminated our tent as the pickup turned into the campsite just north of us. The door of the truck opened and shut, and the voice of a young boy with a thick country accent announced the following fully cliché and heartfelt phrase: “Ahhh… just smell that fresh air.”
I couldn’t help but smile. As long as he didn’t get crazy loud, this kid had won me over.
Turning back to my own kiddos, who had finally turned off their headlights and stopped flopping around in their sleeping bags like a pair of wrestling seals, I kissed them goodnight and crept out to the adjacent “grown up” tent.
As I settled into the firmness of my foam pad and snuggled up in the down loft of my sleeping bag, I caught snatches of conversations from both directions. It was clear that Brew wasn’t just making friends at our neighboring campsite; he was also helping them set up a never before used (and gargantuan) car camping tent. Ugh… my husband is so nice. Definitely the better human in our relationship.
In the opposite direction, the father-son duo had begun stringing up a tarp that would eventually stretch over their entire compound, truck bed and tent included. The dad spoke in hushed whispers but the son rattled on eagerly with every opportunity to help. “Can I, Dad?… Let me tie that… I got this end…” The forest silence was filled with Brew’s project management and a kid wanting to do everything possible to help his dad.
I thought the neighbors and noise would be annoying, but instead, it was weird… unfamiliar… almost foreign. I’d spent the past twelve months avoiding people, creating layers of separation through masks, walls, and screens. The subtle psychological impacts of avoiding others and creating bubbles with only our closest friends and family made listening to the nighttime routine of strangers feel intimate, almost illicit. But in the time it took Brew to erect the palatial accommodations next to us, the emotions tied to my unintentional eavesdropping transitioned from discomfort to amusement and eventually left me feeling warm – or perhaps that was my 20 degree down sleeping bag – either way, I don’t think the rising sense of gratitude and connection can be credited to our outdoor gear.
Most of the time I like to fall asleep listening to the insects and spring peepers, but after the past year, it was wonderful to have the voices of strangers on either side of us.
Here’s to peeling back the layers.