For those who seek the lonely places of the earth

Seeing Stars

A jaunt in the mountains teaches a six-year-old about the sky she thought she knew.

This post is a throw-back to one of my earliest trips with Alison, about a year before meeting Carl; I wrote this shortly after we returned home from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but then I set it aside and never ended up doing anything with it, since As We Wander did not yet exist. As I re-read this now, I’m amazed by the differences in my point of view. Tennessee no longer seems so far away, and the fragile-seeming six-year-old who accompanied me there is now an adventurer of her own right. The fears that plagued me on that trip have turned out to be irrelevant- meltdowns have definitely occurred and surely will again, but the travel bug has taken firm hold; as long as there are places to explore, we will be there to explore them.

October 2015- Cosby, Tennessee
We weren’t far from camp, where we had spent a terrible night before. It wasn’t a problem with the campsite; it was clean, the trails were close, and the neighbors were friendly. Problem was, we’d lingered too long in Gatlinburg. As we walked down the crowded sidewalk of the Parkway, I was caught in a memory of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where a sixteen-year-old me landed half a lifetime ago to go backpacking in the Rockies. The first night we’d spent in the open air. It was awful, too, and the problem was the same one that we ran into in mid-October Tennessee: the cold bit and I was woefully unprepared for it. As I lay on my back in the sleeping bag that had seemed so warm at home, I stared at the sky, shivering and dreading the long night ahead; but suddenly I understood why we hadn’t put the tents up. Above me stretched vistas that I’d never before seen. In my hometown, the night sky consisted of the Big Dipper, a handful of other scattered stars, and the moon. But here was the entire Milky Way, laid out for my analysis and my leisure on that long cold night.

Hanging out at the Gatlinburg aquarium

We finally left Gatlinburg and headed toward our campsite in Cosby, Tennessee. It was late, and camp still needed to be set up. With my six-year-old asleep in the car, I set up the tent using my headlamp. Alison woke up in the car, crying, and I couldn’t find the front of the rain fly, so finally I haphazardly threw it on the tent and secured it as it lay, intending to fix it in the morning. I grabbed the sleeping bags and a couple of blankets out of the car and we both fell asleep fast, tired after our full day. This trip was a first, of sorts. We had gone on a camping trip at Mammoth Cave earlier that year, which was a closer to home location and a much more forgiving itinerary (see Returning to the Wild, the website’s very first post), but otherwise, Alison had not traveled since visiting my sister in Colorado by air in her infancy and had never spent so long in the car, especially as we would have to make it a round trip in only two more days and drive the eight hours back again. We were also on a strict budget, mostly allotted to gas, as I explained to her: we were going to do things, not buy things. If she could get through those, then we’d be able to travel often – even as a working single mom with a first grader.

I found myself suddenly awake at about two o’clock that morning. The chilly evening had turned downright cold, and I could now see that the fly I’d struggled with was on the tent backwards, leaving several inches of window mesh uncovered. I got the extra blankets out of the car, threw one over Alison, and one over myself. It was another hour or so later that I awoke again to the sound of crying: my daughter, still mostly asleep, had rolled out of her sleeping bag and blankets and was shivering in her nightgown against the tent floor and the cold ground. I gathered up the blankets, pulled her close to me, and fought back the idea that I’d taken her too far from home.

When we awoke again, sore and chilled, it was daylight. Alison looked tired, but cheerful. It was forty-six degrees that morning, the trees just beginning to shed their green and expose their flamboyant alter egos. The mountains towered around us, clouds hanging from their peaks. This was our only full day in town; the next morning we would be back on the road toward home, rounding out a thousand miles with the round trip, and then back to work the next morning. Hypothermia was now a non-issue, but another anxiety hung over me: What if she refused to sleep in the tent again? The hard ground in the cold woods admittedly didn’t have much draw. Or if she wanted a toy left back at home, or her friend, or a tablet, or any of a plethora of things that can make a tired six-year-old go nuclear? What if she wanted to go home, right now?

Hiking in Cosby

It was afternoon. We’d gone into town for breakfast, but had soon found ourselves back in the woods. One reason I’d picked the Cosby campground was the fact that it abutted the Appalachian Trail; I looked forward to possibly hiking a piece of it, although I had already accepted the fact that we would not get particularly far. We set out from camp down the connecting trail. It went steadily uphill, and after only half a mile or so we both were tiring. Alison was becoming voluble, so we took a break; she sat on my lap, and instantly fell asleep on my shoulder. Part of me wanted to march on to the scenic overpass that was only about a mile ahead but my heart went out to the sleeping child and we headed back to camp, where we stayed at the fire in our camp chairs until evening. She sat coloring, with a barbecue fork holding a hot dog balanced over the fire, then staring dreamily into the distance. Again the thought came to me. What if, at the end, she decided she didn’t like to travel- How would I relate, when I rarely dream of anything else? If I had to decide between the road, and the little girl with the big brown eyes whose forgotten hot dog I rescued from the flames, I would forever regret the loss of whichever one ended up left behind.

Cozy at camp

Dark was falling, then. This was my last chance to make an impression. In the morning we’d be packing up and headed home- there would be no more time for exploring. I put everything away, then spoke to her.

“Put your shoes on, kiddo,” I said, “we’ve got one more thing to see.”

I went to a good school, but the finer points of my education came from the road. Some skills, like patience and perseverance, aren’t things that can be learned well in a classroom; they require uncomfortable situations. And one starlit night in the Rockies, I learned to love the journey, with all its discomforts, for the mysteries it can reveal.

We walked in silence. Alison trotted along next to me with her own headlamp bobbing with every step, her small hand clutching mine. She had asked where we were going, and I responded, a night hike; looking up, I could see the diamonds we sought, peeking out from the negative space between the branches of the trees around us.

We reached a clearing, away from camp and cars and lights, and sat on a rock in the center. “Turn off your headlamp,” I told her, “and look up.”

There was a moment of fumbling as she tried to find the switch. I turned mine off too. I heard a gasp.

“It’s beautiful,” she breathed. Her arms stole around me and we watched the sky together. As I hugged her back, I knew that all my worries had been unfounded- she was in as much awe as I. We drove a thousand miles to see the stars, and it was worth every foot.

Junior Ranger Ali

We returned the next day, as planned, and in the car, she colored, watched videos, then we sang along to the radio together. We were both belting out Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild,” one thousand miles under us, as we pulled up to the house. She ran to put on pajamas while I unpacked the essentials, and as I put her to bed, I couldn’t help but smile.

The world calls to us, and we will answer.

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