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Camping on the Silt Bar

In mid-September, I was back in the Hoh Rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, to co-lead a forest immersion retreat with my good friend Lori. I’d been on the road with my husband JD, and our two dogs, for two weeks and 1,500 miles, so it felt good to settle in one place for a bit.

During the retreat, most participants spend the week in a rustic cabin with a proper kitchen and bathroom. Lori and I, plus one participant, decided to camp out on the silt bar along the river. Ideal, right?

Setting up a tent can be an exercise in humiliation, especially if the tent and I have just met. Normally, after a few set-ups and take-downs, I’ve got it dialed and my confidence soars. In this case, I was borrowing a tent from Lori, which put me in unfamiliar territory. How is it that I can be outwitted by nylon, poles, and zippers? The pictograms and sparse instructions that the manufacturer included seemed deliberately confusing. They list four poles of varying lengths and I only have three. Frustrating to say the least.

I’ve always loved the idea of setting up a tripod and camera to catch a time-lapse story of an event. Somehow it reveals the truth of the situation – in this case, that I’d run around the tent 100 times before she found her true form. A time-lapse would have included Lori coming over to offer help, which would have been hilarious to watch, something akin to a silent old-timey film with lots of hand gestures and laughing.

Once up, I appreciate her beauty against the tall willows and alders. I unfurl my sleeping bag and lay it inside. Simple living. I pause and look around and ask myself, How great is this? So great, I answer, too fast, so I pause again to check in with my not-so-tough-girl-self. Am I good? Sleeping in a tent feels vulnerable and hypocritical - a false sense of security and one thin layer away from total immersion.

I go through a mental list, trying to be as honest as possible: tents do keep the elements out, which can be a good thing if the weather calls for rain (it did) but how can a micrometer of nylon protect me from all that I fear is out to get me during the dark hours? My mind calculates some scenarios. Will I be run over by a herd of elk whose tracks and scat dot this part of the riverbed? Will Mountain Lion pounce on me, mistaking me for a rabbit in her den? Does Bear think I'm the last bowl of blackberries before she readies for a long winter? I shake off my active imagination and decide that whatever I experience under the stars, with that piece of nylon separating me, is meant to be a good teaching.

After we share a tasty dinner with the participants, Lori and I head out to the silt bar to discuss the next day’s schedule. We set up two chairs so we can talk and take in the night sky. It’s dark here. Cloudless and free of light pollution, there is nothing to interfere with stars, planets, satellites, comets, and the Milky Way. It feels sacred in this moment so we quietly watch the sky like people watch tv: intent and open to the messages. Eventually it gets too cold to sit outside so we retreat to our tents.

I crawl inside and into my sleeping bag. I’m wearing all my clothes and a beanie to stay warm. After a long day of packing and guiding participants into the forest, I welcome the rest. I hear Owl and relax even more. Then in that hypnagogic state - right before falling into sleep – I feel something pull and push me. It’s like I’m being rolled or massaged by an energetic force. I’m lucid but also entering real sleep. Both. I first react in fear – what the heck? – but then I imagine saying, I’m not afraid, I’m not afraid, I’m not afraid, and the energy moving my body (figuratively and maybe literally) stops and I drop into sleep.

The next morning Lori and I exchange dreams over coffee. I tell her what happened and that I feel like the land was welcoming back and recalibrating my body. She nods and smiles. It’s all possible, we agree.

The tent might be impenetrable to Elk, Cat, and Bear, but apparently not to Nature herself. Earth or Cosmos – it all finds a way to love and care for us no matter how thick a barrier we construct. Maybe next time I’ll sleep in a hammock or out in the open under the night sky. Either way, I'll be ready for her unique way of welcoming me home.

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