My 24-hour Solitary Camping Retreat
Published on September 7, 2011 by guest author: Tatiana Zarnowski

I spent a night camping alone on Cape Cod the other weekend, right before the hurricane hit.

I didn't stay long enough to have any good stories; no destruction, no heavy winds, no storm surge. For me, it was just an exhilarating swim in the glass-clear bay on a sunny Friday afternoon (during which I laughed like only a child or a crazy person can), putting up a tent by myself for the first time (someone should have taken a video and posted it on YouTube) and finally going to sleep to the deafening chorus of insects.

Since I was a child I've fantasized about living in the woods by myself and emerging a more self-sufficient person, and this is the closest I've gotten so far.

I decided to go after I got the itch to see the ocean, or at least, some big body of water. But I didn't want to make a big production of a trip to the beach, with a hotel room and vacation days. I just wanted to go and spend a few hours. By myself.


Though I decided to brave a little rain and possibly heavy traffic on the way out of the Cape, there were definitely signs that others had decided against doing so. The state forest campground where I stayed was surprisingly empty. The man at the front raised his eyebrows when I told him Friday afternoon that I was there to check in. For a second I feared he would turn me away right then.

But he leafed through his printed-out sheet of paper and asked for my last name. "At least you'll have one good night," he said.

Everyone on the coast knew for days that the hurricane was headed their way, and had time to prepare -- to either leave town or hunker down. The information and preparedness marked a contrast to the other time I vacationed right before a hurricane: a trip to New Orleans in August 2005.

Residents did have a day or two notice to evacuate the Big Easy before Katrina hit on a Sunday. But it definitely wasn't more than that, because the week before, my friend Megan and I saw all the sights for a few days and then, on the Wednesday before the hurricane hit, we boarded a Greyhound bus bound for Houston.

We planned to come back on Friday and fly out on Saturday.

No one was talking about the hurricane on Wednesday or before. No one knew. No one was ready.

I was a reporter at a small daily newspaper then, and when I came back to work that Monday to photos of the destruction on the Internet, my editor breathlessly asked if I could write something about my experience.

"I didn't see anything," I said, shaking my head. I had no good hurricane stories -- I never made it back to the airport, but had to fly out of Houston instead. I didn't see the crowded Superdome-turned-shelter, witness any looting or police shooting. I didn't even see one storm cloud.

But I did see things in New Orleans, just nothing that would have interested an editor.

Waiting to board the ferry across the Mississippi to Algiers one night, Megan and I chatted with a woman also in her mid-20s, a New Orleans transplant who loved the city passionately.

"The people here are the best anywhere," she said. "I wouldn't want to live anywhere else."

That was the feeling we got almost everywhere during our visit -- that despite the heat, threat of flooding and throngs of drunken tourists, residents loved their city dearly.

On the ferry, Megan asked a man about the New Orleans neighborhood of Algiers, what we could see there.

He stood alone on the boat, never sitting down, staring out across the water as he leaned against the rail like a man weary and ready to be home.

"There's not much," he said, then paused. "There's a park along the river, a path."

We were over-excited, drunk on the cool night air and the crisp darkness.

"Great! Let's go," I said.

He looked at each of us, sizing us up.

"I'll go with you," he said as the ferry docked.

"No, that's OK, really," Megan protested.

But he did, leading us to the riverside park. We walked atop the earthen levee, on a lighted trail that I imagined would be popular with joggers and bicyclists in the daytime. But we saw almost no one at night.

His voice slow and his eyes far away, he told us about himself. He drove a truck on local deliveries, had a few kids. Some lived with him; another son lived with his mother, the man's ex, in Florida. He seemed to ache for this son, who was getting in trouble and was so far away.

We walked then in silence, staring at the black water gliding past. I couldn't believe that the embankment on which we stood was the only thing holding back this river from the city.

"Doesn't the water ever overflow the levees?" I asked.

He shook his head. "They always say it might. I don't believe it. My mother's lived here all her life, and it's never happened. The old-timers, they'll never believe it."

He walked us back to the ferry, stood between us and his neighborhood. My eyes roamed the small houses on streets behind him. I felt adventurous; wanted to explore. But he shooed us back onto the ferry.

Only much later, when we came down from our vacationers' high, did we realize how much he was looking out for us, two white girls who had no idea where we were going or what places were safe.

Now, I can't think about Katrina without wondering what happened to the man with the faraway eyes. Was he home in Algiers, which escaped flooding during the storm? Was he out working? Were his children safe, and his mother? Did he evacuate, or stay in his city? I think he probably stayed. I wondered all this again as I hurried to check out of the campground in Cape Cod as the sky spat rain Saturday before the storm was expected to arrive Sunday.

I was anxious to get on the road, but I couldn't help from driving back to the beach. Just one last time, I said to myself. I came all this way.

A man stood at the entrance.

"I just want to take a quick walk on the beach," I told him, fearing, again, that he would turn me away.

"Make it really quick, like 10 minutes," he said, stuttering with nervousness, either because of the storm or having to deliver bad news to people. "They're closing the gates soon; I don't know when."

There were no cars in the parking lot. I bailed from my car as soon as I had it in park and I ran, shedding my shoes once my feet his sand. Gulls gathered like a colony of social sunbathers at the shoreline. Killdeer skittered around, their graceful legs never staying still for more than a second.

The northeast sky was gray. The sand was dense and damp beneath my feet. And I couldn't contain my happiness at being in such a vast, beautiful place alone. It was some sort of special gift that I was the only one here. It was just me and God. Or me and nature, or me and the gulls. Me and Irene. Arms outstretched, I ran in crazed circles barefoot.

I ran up to the water, which was less clear in the darkening sky than it was the day before. My sides heaved as I breathed in the misting air. After a few seconds' break, I completed my running circle. My glasses were speckled with droplets and my jeans hung heavy in the humidity.

My feet reluctantly went back into the thongs, and I ran not quite as fast back to the car. Driving past the gate again, I waved to the stuttering man at the gate, and this time he smiled. I did too. How could I not?

Tatiana Zarowski lives in Ballston Spa, N.Y.

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