My six-year-old has been asking me about death. She doesn’t know about my phobia, that I live slowed down by fear, even among all this wilderness.
My daughter says, “Can I tell you something?” If it’s anything like what she’s been saying, I’d like the answer to be no. “I don’t get camping,” she says.
The first time we camped alone this spring the ranger handed me a line drawing and said with a glee only another woman could understand, “You can camp anywhere.” She looked at me conspiratorially. “Just 100 feet from any main road and not in a wash. Otherwise, anywhere.”
“It’s all safe?” I asked, even as I wasn’t clear from what I meant.
“Yes,” she said, looking, and I don’t mean in a crazy way, as if she wanted to throw her arms up in benediction to send me forth. I got it. I get it. This is freedom. Another ranger walked by, an older man, and looked at my shoes and my girl child.
“I don’t know,” he said. “There’s a campground on the south end, with toilets and other pads and such.”
Screw him. My hiking boots are in the car. My child can pee on the ground and have her pants back up in less than 60 seconds flat. We’re outta here.
For all that the lack of park structure makes one imagine ATV tracks and trash everywhere, it is pristine; the severity of the landscape keeps people bound by their natural cautions. Immediately after setting up the tent, we whip our shirts off to tanks and bound down a wash to look for snakes. I follow my daughter’s curiosity just past the obvious end of the wash but turn to look where we’ve come from, marking the view. She’s on the ground doing just what I want for her, wondering if the plant she’s looking at ever burned and how long it takes to regrow. I sit with her and then stand at the twilight noise of coyotes nearby.
Funny how different things look in other lights. Funny how fast civilization can be lost to us. The feeling of running and standing still at once. The sound of your voice talking out loud and the dissonance of your mind scrambling for signals. The mundane practicality of water.
“What is it?” she asks.
“Let’s go back,” I say.
“Can we not walk by the coyotes?” she asks. The coyotes are on one of the potential paths between us and our site. Would she walk there if I asked? Of course she would.
We watch the nylon tent push in towards us like a hand is pressing it. Then it sucks back fast and then snaps back in again. We complain for two hours before it gets funny. “It’s like a sail,” I say, suddenly feeling the sweep of it, its roots in the sky miles away. When a pinpoint of green laser light hits the rocks above us, it takes everything in me not to flip to my hands and knees, snatch her off the ground, and run to the truck before she has time to say what.
My emergency mind is scanning for recognition and all I come up with is that some high-powered guns have lasers to focus or maybe they don’t but there’s a Bourne Identity thing happening. Why us? Who knows? I have faith not in news but in statistics, read correctly, which show how many people stay safe. Still, randomness scares me. And all I know for sure at that moment is that my car is between me and the direction from which the light comes.
I hear a light laugh from campers I didn’t know were near—maybe the length of a football field away—with all these miles, there they are. And then the wind dies down with a sigh. My girl sleeps like a baby, she always does. Because I tell her she is safe.
Ghost Mountain. My six-year-old does not know the name of the mountain under which we sleep, because why complicate things? It is the second time we’ve been to this park now and I’ve chosen a spot where I expect no green laser lights, because I can see the approach of every vehicle for at least a mile. Rising at our backs is a foothill of boulders and as darkness falls, bats burst out of them in fluttering waves. “They’re like dark butterflies,” she says and I can’t top that so I just say yes.
“There’s someone over there,” she says. My head snaps up.
“Something,” I say, irritation masking my thudding heart. “Something over there, not someone.” It’s different.
“Is it a bear?” she says. There aren’t any bears here on all this hot flat ground but this is the child who not too long ago, as we walked through a stable full of horses, asked thoughtfully, “So is it ponies that have the wings?”
“It’s a bush,” I answer. “That’s a big fat manzanita.”
“Oh,” she says doubtfully.
We want very much to just sleep on the ground this time. We know the desert will be windy, and as the flapping of the tent was all that kept us awake before, sleeping out under the stars seems like the obvious solution. We are a few hundred yards from one of the most moving places I’ve ever stood, the thousand-year wintering grounds of a local tribe. Standing over the kitchen rock riddled with grinding holes, you can see now part of a modern valley below; I had reception on my phone while I looked at the pictograph that told me nothing except that time had passed.
In any case, this spot feels full of humanity to me, years of crossings underfoot. But none presently there but ours. It’s my favorite: ancestral humans who move me theoretically but can’t bug me now.
I watch my child huddling on the ground in a bright pink sleeping bag that we’d fought over because she wanted princesses and I wanted camo. It’s been two hours of looking at constellations and satellites and whipping my head around every time she says there’s someone over there. I am remembering an article I’d read that says by the time our children are old, it may be impossible to see the Milky Way in the sky due to air and light pollution and incautious development. I picture streetlights shining into the heavens and security lights on bare concrete and border rivers and beams of scattershot non-signals sent into space from the frenzied unintentional culture we are. I think about my arm strength and assess it as not sufficient while I play out horrible scenarios in my head involving meth and men and distance and closeness and car keys and horns honking too late. Oh for a locked door.
On top of this, I extend my fear of death, my horror of that unknown. Just because I can. I’m already going down the rabbit hole, so why not bring it too? It’s always there. Because it’s dark and I lack control of the situation and my daughter is more dear to me than my fear of death scares me, and I feel maudlin tears roll down my cheeks into my ears in the dark. I am somewhere between the teenage martyrdom of imagining my own death and who might show up at the funeral (What will I wear?), and the painfully grown-up epiphany that tells me this, all of this, is all there is and it has to be enough because, claustrophobically, there is no alternative. I am in full-blown attack as I hear her mumble through the nylon of her sleeping bag, “I’m scared.”
I am too.
It turns out the tent cannot protect me from anything, really, except myself. I need it between me and the reality of the sky.
In the car a few minutes later, I see her with her head on the seat, eyes open and face turned up, sleeping bag wrapped over her head like a small Russian stacking doll. She is watching the stars.
When we camp alone again, it is because I have again finally had enough of waiting for other people to say yes. We set up the tent and then because she has decided she will not tolerate flies—could have told me before, by the way—she will not walk the trail to the creek I know is nearby. We stare at the tent and sit in the sun. Of course there are flies here, too. An hour ago we were getting gas at rush hour on Foothill Boulevard and now there is silence.
Lately, my six-year-old has been asking me about death. She doesn’t know about my phobia, that I have no answers, and that I live slowed down by fear, carry it everywhere. Mostly, luckily, she asks me in the dark, before bedtime. I am of course trying to avoid passing on the legacy of this horror. I have cobbled together some version of what I believe and what my husband, he of the chaos theory and energy-never-dies and I’m-not-worried-anyway school of thought, says that he believes.
We go to church —not Mr. Chaos Theory, but the kid and I, because I was comfortably raised Episcopalian and it still fits, lovingly traditional but with gay rights and theology debates and wine parties. Still, my best bet for death marries my religious leanings to my practical self. I pray for consciousness of a kind I cannot imagine, but must ground it in what I presently know: life continues only cyclically, amen. We become part of all things, I tell her. We are all everywhere, I say. We will still be here.
But looking at her swatting flies out in the nature I’d deified, I knew it wasn’t good enough. I felt the ground drop out from under me as the blindfold was pulled. I didn’t want to be everywhere. And I damn sure didn’t want to be left alone here, not any part of me. If I can’t wash her hair wherever I’m going, if I’m not her mother, it isn’t good enough. If I can’t be with the humans heaving in their fly-swatting aggravation. And so I am well and truly screwed.
It won’t be windy up here in the trees so we’d sleep in the tent. Like that’s why. That I hear coyotes as we lay down is standard. Even with no one in sight I know just how many steps it is to the car, and I know where I’ve set my keys in the dark. I am pissed at myself for this new habit, but there it is. If she is going to trust me, I am going to have to be trustworthy.
Maybe an hour passes before I wake back up. We’re both awake, and I watch her not move as an intimately familiar noise continues—the slide of a touch on the nylon wall of the tent.
The coyotes are here.
This time, now that it’s a possibility, she doesn’t know to ask if this might be a bear. I can picture for one hot second the only bear I’ve ever seen in the wild, hunching its way up to the tree line at the top of a field in Maryland. The thought of that keeps me frozen. Also, I imagine myself saying to her, “I’m going to yell now. Get ready, it’s going to be loud,” and then know that she’d hear the fear in my yell and it would scare her much more than the slow wet sliding sniff already has.
Who the hell do I think am I? What right have I got to scare this child so often? While I try to prove to myself I can what?
We lay there holding hands. I have my useless out-of-range pacifier of a cell phone in my hand.
She admits to me she doesn’t get camping and there in the midst of my deep crisis of faith in nature and God and the story I’d built for myself about being content to be part of all things crumbling before me, I’ll be damned if I don’t either. We listen for a long time to the coyotes exploring our campsite, my arm around her, lying together in a long line down the center of the tent.
When they go, I listen to the silence for another long time. I consider again my strengths and weaknesses.
In the morning, we are exuberant in the sunlight. We are brave. We make fire and coffee. We carry our individual existential crises around lightly in the light.
Later that summer, we camp, finally, with others. She pees on the ground at the least provocation, and carries paper in her grimy pocket to write down things she sees. I drink cups of whiskey at the fire, my favorite thing, which I don’t do alone with her on my watch. When the coyotes howl, other children shriek and she smiles. As I set up my tent, the friend of a friend watches me snap and thread together pieces as I talk animatedly to him.
“I can’t do all that,” he says. “I never camp. I mean, like, I have never camped. Glad you’re next to my tent.”
Liz Stephens has two anthologies to be released this fall: Dirt: A Love Story by New England Press and Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction by Norton, edited by Dinah Lenney and Judith Kitchen. She is the author of The Days Are Gods, a memoir published by the University of Nebraska Press.