“How’s the van?” Clint asked me in a moment of catching up that had been few and far between recently. The van was new as of two weeks ago.
“It’s great!” I exclaimed with enthusiasm. “I actually got to spend the night in it earlier this week.” I paused; “I hated it.”
This earned me booming laughter and another big hug from the bearded man standing behind the coffee shop in Redmond.
Let me pause right there. People always say that “hate” is a strong word to use in a situation but it was the only word I had on the tip of my tongue that seemed to describe the intense feelings I rode through that evening: loneliness, horror, disgust, pain, discomfort, and revulsion. It was not an easy night, but how do you tell someone those things in a single sentence story. You “hate” it.
I had found my way out to the Dungeness Campgrounds on the Olympic peninsula after dark. I had another hour before the gate would be closed and there were lights on at the unmanned registration office. I found my way to the second loop where the only lights were coming from the building with the toilets and showers. Everything else was so dark and quiet. I backed my van into a space and didn’t even bother to set up a tent. I had come with the intent of sleeping in my van with the idea that it would at least be on par with sleeping in a tent.
It was too dark to explore the area much and too wet for my dachshunds to walk without getting soaked and muddy bellies. I made an excursion to the nearby bathrooms and noted the showers that took a quarter for every two minutes you wanted to shower. I circled back around the the van and dried off the pups before settling into the nest of blankets I had created.
As I rooted through the bag of food I packed, I felt mostly disinterested in food. It could have been the late lunch I had with George before dropping him off at the shellfish hatchery earlier that day. Or it could have been in part due to the serious changes I had been making in my life lately. My hands connected to the box of gluten free, crunchy, chocolate-creme cookies and I didn’t resist. I had found my dinner.
Sitting there on the sleeping pad, blankets, pillows, and attentive dogs while I ate cookies, I almost felt as if I had run away from home. My memories of being six years old came back to me. I thought of playing with Allison and the two of us deciding to run away. We had gone off into the woods by her parents house and were hiding out in a stump in the rain. Crouched there we ate the Oreos we had packed to sustain us. Her mom rang the dinner bell and our act of rebellion was to continue to sit in the woods within earshot. We had run away. It wasn’t until the sky started to darken and the Oreos were gone that we came back to her house and got an earful from her mother.
I was in my van that evening by choice. The people at the hatchery where George was going to work were welcoming and had plenty of spare rooms. They offered to have me spend the night with my dachshunds. They had converted these old Washington State offices into a cozy home under the watch of a little red haired, three legged pup named Ranger. It was a bachelor pad that had received the warm touch of design from the woman married to one of the men there. She had even begun to create a yoga room.
I couldn’t really explain my panic or the feeling I got to flee. I saw the angle of the sun indicating it setting on the horizon. The clenching in my chest told me I wanted to head west. I also had this van I wanted to try to sleep in. It was time to leave so I left with a quick hug, leaving George and Brandy to their next workaway adventure to grow algae among the geoducs and clams.
The drive took me north from there. I tried to turn down several state and national park roads since the peninsula is scattered with them. Each were closed, gated, or washed out. I wasn’t having any luck with the winter season in the Olympics.
Continuing north, I finally turned west as the dark set in. I was on that familiar stretch of the 101 that goes throughout Sequim. The same one I like to take when I head out to the Pacific Ocean. That was when my luck changed and I had found the open campground where I had parked to sleep.
Sitting there in the dark with a couple of LED button lights, I realized I hadn’t even brought a book to read. I could always write in my journal and my violin sat quietly in its case reminding me that there were different ways to stay entertained. I laid back for a minute, turned off the light, and just enjoyed the quiet solitude with the rain drops beating ceaselessly on the metal roof of the van.
Time passed and I was aware it had grown cold. Brought back by the chill and the sound of the raindrops, I realized just how dark it was. If not for the unending sound of the rain and the uncomfortable temperature, I might have thought I was back in the float room I had tried a few weeks before. I felt that moment of panic where my body remembered just exactly how afraid of the dark it was.
I felt the sudden clench in my chest of sudden loneliness. It was dark and no one would seek me out. My last day of work had been Monday, so I didn’t even have coworkers to wonder if I’d gone missing. I wanted to flee. To get out of the woods, the dark, and the cold. I wanted to go home. But where was home? This was it. This was the life I chose.
The hilarity of that phrase caught me off-guard and removed me from my panic. I thought back to the couch surfing musician I had hosted near the beginning of December. He stayed with me for two days but we only interacted for under an hour. I remember asking him about how it was touring and leaping to the conclusion that if he was still doing it, he must like it.
“This was the life I chose,” he told me gruffly. He explained it didn’t matter if he was happy. He chose this. But there was something in the way that he said it. The martyr. The man robbed of the life he thought he wanted by the choices he made and he had nothing left but to continue to chew the bitter pill.
So I realized that perhaps this was the night I chose, but I was still chosing. This was the life I could still choose (or not). The gate to the campgrounds had already been closed so no one could go in or out. I might have to get through this night, but after that I could still choose to go nearly anywhere I pleased.
I buried myself under blankets to ward off the chill that had seeped into my nose and snuggled closer to my shivering dachshunds. I began to imagine how I might unfold a bed in the van that wasn’t so connected to the chill of the floor and how I should have brought five more blankets. I thought of the rain as ambassadors to the stars I couldn’t see behind the clouds. It was a place of deep dark out on the peninsula but since those sparks of light were hidden by layers of moisture I imagined that each spatter of a drop was writing a map of the stars. I closed my eyes and instead of sitting in that metal cage, I explored the universe.
I awoke later to my face outside of the blankets, a cold nose, and a strange alarm from my right hand. I raised it up and I could feel nothing. I tried to move my fingers and nothing moved. I waved my arm and my hand flopped around. More curious than frightened I started massaging my right arm with my left hand. It was almost like touching someone else but I felt a tiny register and my conscious mind realized that my most of my arm had fallen asleep. “Oh, this is going to hurt,” I acknowledged.
I knew that if the hand and the arm were that numb, it might even take a while for all the blood to get flowing back in. I massaged it and slowly began to flex my fingers when the tingling, jabbing sensation came through. I trembled, massaged, and gestured through clenched teeth as I imagined yet another map of the stars. At least my dogs had ceased their shivering during my thrashing about the sleeping pad.
So it was that I spent the night. Sleeping, turning, massaging, and being restless. I didn’t remember any dreams and I got up once in the night to let the dogs do their business while being fearful that a bear or some other predatory animal would come leaping out of the dark to snack on a little wienerschnitzel.
When morning came, I didn’t spend much time wandering about in the mud. I started the van with the dogs curled in the seat up front under the heating vent and began my exodus from the peninsula by way of Kingston.
As I drove back east, I was excited for the adventure the van could open up by taking myself on the road. However, I discovered two things about myself during that night alone in the dark with my dachshunds. I didn’t want to travel alone and I wanted a place to come home.