It was still raining the early evening I rolled into Kickapoo State Park. Google Maps led me down fog-enshrouded Steven King roads to get there; flatter than flat in that region of Illinois and perfectly straight. The scene slowly rolling by was eerie and beautiful out my truck window; the occasional silhouette of a tree or farmhouse materializing and then disappearing as I went.
Kickapoo was marked by a slight undulation in the topography. What was that? A hill?! I realized I was driving my vehicle at a slight incline for the first time in hours.
I was surprised by how busy the campground was for such a dreary night, but they had a spot available for me. The friendly fellow at check-in noted my license and wanted to talk Alaska, but I was tired and hungry so kept the conversation going only as long as I needed to without being rude. I stepped out of the warm, bright little registration hut back to my truck in the dim, forested light, its shiny surface still pummeled by rain as it had been for days now.
Maybe I should have found a way to chat for longer.
Rolling into my campsite, I didn’t allow myself to think too hard about how unpleasant the rain was and how I might stay the driest. I pulled out my dinner and staged it on the sodden wood picnic bench: bag salad and bag grilled chicken, shaken with dressing and half a lemon in the bag and dumped unceremoniously into a lump onto a plastic plate. Delicious. The first bite was wet by the time it got to my mouth and I tried to enjoy it … but I also ate fast.
After dinner, I tugged on my rain pants and zipped up my raincoat all the way and went for a walk around the campground. I was grateful, as ever, for my Xtratufs. I observed quiet and cozy scenes of campers gathered round under an awning or pop-up shelter, or TV screens flickering through RV windows. I wouldn’t understand the allure of any of this until I eventually picked up my own trailer a couple of weeks from then. Why not just stay home when the weather’s this bad, I wondered.
When I got back to my own truck and campsite, a small gust of wind inhaled the rest of the rain and it stopped. Drops occasionally plopped heavily from the trees high overhead, but the sky was done. I smiled, both relieved it was over with a good measure of “go figure” that it couldn’t have happened an hour earlier to make for drier dinner.
I was also relieved my traveling buddy, Bailey, who had joined me from Alaska all the way to Chicago wasn’t there for the misery.
This relief was reinforced when I got myself ready for bed and crawled onto the foam-lined platform in the bed of the truck. The entire trip nothing had leaked, but then again, we hadn’t faced this level of consistent, almost comical downpour. The corner of the foam where Bailey’s down sleeping bag would have been laid out was soaked. It must have been pressed up against a small leak on the side of the cab. Thankfully, my side was totally dry.
I made a note to air out that section of foam when it was sunny again, and carefully draped my wet raingear over non-permeable surfaces at the foot of the bed. I holed up with my book and headlamp, and quickly fell asleep.
The pivot from constant friend time and company to solo traveling was hard. I felt like the air was too expansive, and the possibilities too many. I missed my friend, and the excitement of our trip.
I also knew I was entering into a transition period, between the drive down from Alaska and then picking up my trailer, and it was good for me to have this rest from socializing in between.
When I woke up the next morning, it was to a beautiful blue sky overhead and a breeze gently rustling through the forest as the day heated eventually to a warm, spring 70 degrees. I sipped coffee on a camp chair, inhaling scents that seemed purely green and that I couldn’t quite identify. Something sweet; a whoosh of cut grass, something big, earthy, and vanilla-like. The newly budded trees were phosphorescent, that early spring burst of color.
I felt delighted at the idea of having an entire day to myself.
But presence and gratitude suddenly switched to alarm. The coffee kicked in: what was I going to do with an entire day to myself?!
This was the first time in a very long time — maybe over a year — that I had nothing planned; nothing urgent. I didn’t need to clean any house, I had no get together with friends, paperwork to fill out, or work tasks to perform. I wasn’t training for anything.
The day yawned open ahead of me, both exciting but also daunting in its many, many hours.
In my head, I talked myself down. Take it in bits, I said. In hours, activities. Have a list of options of things you’d like to do and see what you feel like. Take it slow. Enjoy it.
Yes, I have to coach myself into relaxing.
That day, I took myself on a run through the state park, enjoying the little hills and winding trails through the woods and threading a series of glittering blue ponds. I made an epic breakfast on the still-sodden but drying picnic table. I pulled out the memory foam from the truck bed and dried it off in the sun. I even plugged in my laptop to the electric outlet provided at the site and wrote about the Alcan adventure; what I would eventually submit as three weeks’ worth of columns.
Then I walked, taking in the waning sun through the endless trees and inhaling more of that intense and abundant spring smell.
Life doesn’t often come to a grinding halt. I am rarely alone for long periods. I’m learning how to shift gears within myself so that I can enjoy it and take it in if and when it happens. Rare though it may be, those days are big and welcome — days where I get to decide what to do and inhabit the space in my own mind as I take in the world around me.