Our car comes to a halt before a log in an inlet beside a back road. The log is used to stop off-roaders from tearing up the earth, but this is not our intention, so we gather our things and step into the bristling scrubland. We look to the shelter of a large mound of earth, and clear a space beneath it. Just earlier, I had been listening to a story of a reporter who was stranded in Afghanistan, hunted by the Taliban. There are no bullets flying at us now, yet I do not feel entirely alone, or entirely safe.
My partner unpacks the tent and we set it up together. The blue rainfly waves “hello” to anyone whose eyes might wander this way from the road, but there is no spot that is entirely hidden. Yet, so far, not a single car has passed, and we are cautiously hopeful.
We are camping alone and without money. In California, the going rate for a campsite is twice what our meager budget allows us to spend on food each day. We look for public land that does not expressly forbid camping, but even with this precaution we sometimes find ourselves in places where we are unwelcome.
Though it has been the norm for hundreds of thousands of years, camping without filling out a form has lost popularity. It’s not that way everywhere. In India, sleeping in train stations, by rivers, or under trees is normal for traveling middle-class families, who often go long distances on pilgrimages. In the US, however, it is not the norm. Many people don’t understand what we are doing, and their default reaction, it seems, is suspicion. We were once chased from a campsite with guns because someone mistook my flashlight for a fire burning in a dry field. So we are hesitant about camping so close to the road, especially in such a desolate place.
So we pray. To the spirits of the land, to keep us safe. We pray that we may be hidden from wandering eyes, protected from all harm and given a space to rest our heads for the night. We sit for a long time, looking out over the stark and beautiful landscape, watching the mist fall. It covers us, shrouding us like an invisibility cloak.
We wake up refreshed. Several trucks rumbled by at night, but took no notice of us. Now, a few birds pierce the air with their song. We pack up quickly, but stay a moment before leaving. To each place in which we rest, we also offer a prayer of gratitude. It goes something like this:
Thank you for providing us rest last night. For protecting us from all harm and shielding us from those who might see us and not understand. For welcoming us into the midst of your ecosystem. For the peacefulness of this place. Thank you, thank you for the gorgeous amazing sunrise, for the beauty that fills my heart with joy. For allowing our bodies much-needed rest, and for rejuvenating our minds. Thank you.
Gradually, as we camp more and more in these out-of-the-way places, we begin to feel we are more a part of these spots than we are of the roads and gas stations we stop at along the way. We feel more a part of the land itself than the society that grows on it. The fear dissipates, and we remember that humans have done this for a long, long time. This is land upon which so many have stood, upon which others will walk long after the dust of our bodies has blown away.