When a First-Time Camping Experience Goes Horribly Just Fine

Being “outdoorsy” has never been my scene—nor my scenery. When I hear the call of the wild, I usually send it to voicemail. I am a bona fide City Girl, a creature of comfort, an adventurous soul whose adventures end where Dateline episodes begin. I love short hikes to the bar. I love “camp” strictly as a Met Gala theme. I enjoy watching Naked and Afraid while clothed and secure in my high-rise. I tried stand up paddleboarding once but fell off before I could tell any jokes. 

Amusingly, this rural resistance makes me an outsider in the PNW.

However, I have been known to escape my cityscape on occasion. Only a fool would deny themselves a breathtaking mountain view. Or the cozy vibe of a crackling campfire. Or the rush you get from sharply inhaling freshly drenched earth. But my love for the Great Outdoors remains wildly conditional—like, air conditional. 

So when the man I love very much said, “Let’s go camping this summer!” I pretended not to hear him.

I knew this day would come when I moved to Seattle from New York City five years ago. Against all odds, I would fall in love with a sweet, handsome, bearded man who would indulge all my fancy vices. In exchange, I would need to give one of his favorite pastimes—overnight camping—a fair shot.

I can see the Olympic Mountains from my downtown apartment. While I revel in my long-distance relationship with them, I dubiously agreed it was time for us to meet. Soon after, we landed a coveted last-minute reservation at the Hoh Rainforest Campground in Olympic National Park, and I began preparing for the unknown by Googling my every worry: 

  • “Unsolved mysteries camping”
  • “Bathroom situation in rainforest”
  • “Sleeping bag security systems”
  • “How to prepare a will”

“I promise that sleeping in a tent isn’t so bad,” said my partner, A., as I wondered what other lies he’d told me in our relationship. Tents made me tense—the way you’re just loose in the wilderness like that, begging for something or someone to swiftly paw their way in.  

The only time I attempted to sleep in a tent as an adult was spring break 2006, when my best friend and I tried to save a few bucks in Panama City, Florida, by reserving a spot at someplace terrifying called RACCOON RIVER. Our stint in the bright-red plastic tent, which looked stolen from a child’s playroom, lasted exactly 45 minutes as it collapsed in on us during a pre-party nap, ending any future chance of related pursuits. 

When A. said, “We should pick up a few camping supplies at REI before we go,” it sent shivers down my spine. I envisioned him in the aisles suggesting we buy freeze-dried scrambled eggs and a “poop shovel.” 

The last time I went to REI was five months after I arrived in Seattle in 2018. For a fifth date, a man suggested we do something absolutely deranged: go for a hike together at Rattlesnake Ledge. “Too many threats in the name alone,” I replied. 

“You at least have hiking boots, right?” he asked as I stood before him in a short black dress, black tights and a black faux-fur jacket, holding a dirty vodka martini in a hotel bar. My iPhone consistently autocorrected “hike” to “joke,” so no, I did not, in fact, have hiking boots. I ultimately left Manhattan after 13 years for a change of scenery, and as I walked into the Seattle flagship store that fall, that’s exactly what I was getting. A kind REI employee immediately asked if I needed help, knowing that I definitely did.

“Yes, I’d like Cheryl Strayed’s boots from Wild, please,” I said. 

That’s when they nodded, took me past the athletic regulars, and brought me to the section of the store called: “So Someone You Like Asked You to Do an Outdoor Activity You’ve Never Done.”

Now, in 2023, I’ve had my fair share of open-air adventures, but they have remained entry-level––a few arduous hikes, some day camping, lots of watching other people paddleboard. The best adventures so far have been with A., who is a born-and-bred Washingtonian, and who has shown me parts of this state that make me (briefly) forget that Manhattan and I had such a long affair. I agreed to go camping with him because, while it is vastly out of my comfort zone to sleep outside (on the ground, in a tent, face-first into nature), I take comfort in how comfortable he makes me feel wherever we go. 

Plus, the content. 

During our REI trip, he picked up semi-essentials—bug spray, a better flashlight, a brand-new cooler—and I picked up critical essentials: astronaut ice cream. We reviewed our list to make sure we got everything we needed. 

“Oh, no,” I said, a look of concern on his face. “We forgot to make a reservation at a luxury waterfront resort.”

The drive to the Hoh Rainforest is mostly a PNW signature mix of gloomy grey and vivid green, featuring long stretches of road with zero bathrooms. When nature texted––nature knows better than to call me––we pulled over to test my ability to covertly squat-pee. It was here I realized wearing a cute black jumpsuit meant I’d need to remove almost my entire outfit. Three hours in and I was already starring in my own roadside episode of Naked and Afraid

Two warning signs of bears and cougars

As we neared the Olympics, the fog rolling in from the Pacific Ocean was stunning and haunting all at once—like the visual of me squatting on Highway 101. Even more alarming was the “SOS” that appeared on the top right corner of my iPhone, which I’m certain stood for Save Our Sara. 

After some traffic delays at the campground entrance, we located our site, which happened to be the only spot without a tree to keep us cool. There was zero shade, except the shade I was throwing at A. for (unknowingly) reserving this tiny circle of hell. The closest tree was bare and featured a sinister little raven that let out a gurgling croak upon our arrival as if to say: Good luck, suckers. 

We set up the tent—OK, he set up the tent—and I took cover by a patch of shade near the river to chug water and contemplate my life choices. Around 2:30pm, in defiance of the raging rays, we plunged our ankles into the freezing-cold Hoh River. The arctic dip was a welcomed relief. This is around the time I knew any efforts to maintain a level of chicness would be thwarted. In the heat, I abandoned my jumpsuit, white tennis shoes and perfectly styled hair and transformed into Al Fresco Barbie, sporting bike shorts, a tank top, socks, chunky slides and an unruly bun. I looked down at my ensemble, somehow already covered in muck, and realized, Oh, so this is how it happens. The earth whispers: You are the dirt now. And you accept your feral fate and become one with nature. 

After we cooled down, we did the one-mile Hall of Mosses trail, which was gorgeous and delightful and uncomplicated. (I like my men like I like my hikes.) The visitor center had a sign outside that read: Today’s Special Program: MUSHROOMS, which we were disappointed to learn was informative and not experiential. I also caught a glimpse of the information board with all its wildlife warnings—bears and cougars and critters, oh my! 

For dinner, I poured heaps of cabernet sauvignon into plastic wine glasses and helped A. make chicken breasts, red potatoes and asparagus over the fire. “Well, here we are,” I said, gesturing at the scene (raw meat rotating on a pole) and the scenery (tiny bugs buzzing with curiosity) and my entire camp costume (formerly a woman, now just a dirt trap). “We’re doing it. We’re really camping!”

A. took it all in and said, genuinely, “I love it. It’s perfect.” 

When the sun finally set and the stars debuted across the navy velvet, we sat in matching chairs with heads back, savoring the red wine and the scent of damp pine. We watched the campfire smoke billow over the mountains, pointed out constellations and talked about the moments we knew we loved each other. The evening had its own soundtrack: the soft hum of fellow campers; the crisp chorus of dancing flames; the soothing river stream; Phoebe Bridgers playing quietly on my otherwise useless phone. I sighed loudly and thought quietly, Fine, camping’s not the worst

Then I thought, This is how they get you! This idyllic setting was just a giant distraction from the real reason we were here: to brave sleeping with Mother Nature. We took one last trip to the bathroom around 10:30pm, guided by his comical headlamp and propelled by my anxiety to get back to the tent before Bigfoot kidnapped me and made me his wife. 

We climbed into our nocturnal nylon nest, and I slid into my brand-new hot-pink sleeping bag, then we kissed each other goodnight. A. slept soundly, comforted by his family history of having countless campouts. I lay wide awake for hours, eyes the size of the moon, discomforted by my family history of having a wild imagination—simply waiting for a bear or cougar or campground killer to unzip our vulnerable villa and take me out in an off-brand way. 

I started wondering why so many of us are fearful of the unknown. I know there are campers who feel at peace in the thick of the thicket but would feel tormented by a night roaming my cosmopolitan confines. Maybe we are all just walking around thinking, “That lifestyle isn’t for me,” assuming the worst, sticking to what we know best. But where has that ever gotten us?

Before I knew it, I was waking up with the sun, which quietly hissed, You’ve only got a few hours before I set you two aflame. Emerging from the tent felt like emerging from the womb—tired, a little confused, just happy to be alive. We celebrated a night of survival with French press coffee, a fresh fire, a cool 58-degree breeze and 360-degree mountain views. 

“We don’t even know what’s happening in the world right now,” I said, sipping coffee and looking at my brick of a phone. “I bet we haven’t missed anything,” A. said, confidently, even though both of us devour the news every morning. 

And he was right, I wasn’t missing anything. OK—maybe I missed access to a shower and my down comforter and lodging that was up to building code. But not the scrolling, not the city sirens, not the daily luxuries I rely on. And maybe that’s all camping is––maybe it’s anticlimactic; maybe it’s just a good excuse to disconnect with the world and reconnect with the earth, if only for 24 hours. Maybe all the silly fear I projected on an overnight experience was grounded in the idea that someone who likes the finer things in life couldn’t possibly be just fine without them.

We took one last freezing footbath in the Hoh River and then packed up. The raven, still perched in the naked tree, watched as we took down the tent, and let out one last little cry that sounded like a threat: You’ll be back. 

My first time wasn’t exactly love at first (camp)site but it was more than just a one-night standoff with nature. Upon my return to Cell Service, USA, my dad texted a quote by photographer Frederick Sommer that has stuck with me: “Some speak of a return to nature, I wonder where they could have been…”

I’ve been making my way there, I think. All I had to do was move across the country, adapt to an epic change of scenery, fall in love and embrace a willingness to let the area outside my comfort zone become second nature. The stars simply had to align. And when they did, I was lucky enough to see them so clearly. 

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