I stood at the base of the steep, steep mountain that Em and I had just hiked 6km down, and I felt a sense of peace that I hadn’t in weeks. The cool ocean breeze dried the sweat on my skin, and the waves crashed into a little cove where we’d be camping that night. We were totally fucked and at risk of dying, but we didn’t know it yet. In that moment, everything felt perfect.
Before we left on our trip, we imagined moments like this, the power that comes from hiking into the woods with everything you own on your back, and the feeling that you can do anything. Two years before, we spent a month hiking and camping through Iceland, and while we hadn’t done any hiking or camping since then, we were right back into it now, the confidence that comes with knowing how to survive in the wilds, and the joy you find in the simple things like a meal you cook on a fire or a hot cup of tea in the morning.
Em began to set up the tent while I blew up our sleeping pads, falling back into the routine we’d had on our month in Iceland, knowing we knew what we were doing and that we’d finally have a good night on our trip where nothing had seemed to go right for the past three weeks.
I blew up Em’s sleeping pad first, then mine. I’d bought a new one before we started our trip, and in the rush to get on the road, I hadn’t thought to take it out of it’s bag before we left. I knew camping gear, and I knew exactly what sleeping pad would be the best, anyway so why bother checking it out?
Only now I was at the bottom of a mountain, 6km from our bus, holding the exact sleeping pad I wanted, only instead of it being an adult-sized medium, it was a child-sized medium.
I blew the pad up, anyway hoping it would grow somehow, then lay on it on my side, I would have sucked my thumb if my hands weren’t so dirty.
“I’m a little baby,” I told Em, curling so that most of my torso fit on the pad.
“Shit,” she said.
“It’s past the 30-day return time, so I guess this is mine.”
“Sleeping on a hard surface is good for the spine?”
“Something like that.”
Em went back to the tent, and I pulled out our water filter next. It was an old one that Em had used camping as a teen, and it was another thing we hadn’t thought to test before we left on our trip. Now, we were 6km from the nearest tap and after years of storage, the hose on the water filter had melted closed.
“I hope you’re not thirsty,” I told Em. I held up the water filter and then the one liter of water we had left in our bottle.
“We can just boil water if we need more,” she said, standing back from the tent and looking out at the mountain we’d climbed down and the ocean in front of us.
She was right, we absolutely could have boiled water if we’d remembered to bring fuel for our stove.
Em and I surveyed what we’d brought with us, and then looked up at the mountain. Even if we physically could make it back up that day, we couldn’t make it before it got dark, and the park rangers had given us detailed pamphlets about moose, coyote and bear attacks and how they were common in that area.
I looked at Em who seemed brave and confident even then, and then I looked at the mountains again which seemed closer and bigger and darker now, and I wondered if they wanted to kill us, and I thought maybe they did.
“What do we do?” I asked Em.
“We camp,” she said. And so we did.
We sat on the beach in the early evening and played cards and wrote in our journals. As the sun set, we ate cold beans and veggie dogs and rationed sips of our dwindling water. As the dark came in, so did the mosquitoes, so we sat in our tent and looked at each other for a bit and hoped that bears wouldn’t eat us in the night.
In the morning, it felt like someone had taken my bones out in the night and had sanded them raw.
“Do you think as a birthday present you could break my leg so I could be airlifted out of here?” I asked Em, rolling off my child-sized sleeping pad for the 28th time in eight hours.
“It won’t be that bad,” she said, only it was that bad.
Instead of the oatmeal and tea we’d had planned for breakfast, we had granola bars and tiny sips of water, and by the time we made it the 6km straight up the mountain, three hours had passed and both of us had almost passed out more than once. We’d broken down and were drinking river water filtered through our teeth and had been sharing a single carrot, passing it back and forth for the past hour, and finally, finally, finally, our bus came into sight.
At first, I wasn’t sure if it was real or where I was or if I was alive anymore, but as the trees thinned and we stepped into the parking lot, the whole thing came into view, purple and white and absolutely magnificent.
It had a bed and a stove and a jug full of water and more food than we could eat in a day. I collapsed beside it, and Em did, too, and for a second, I couldn’t believe that such luxury existed and that it was ours. Before this, Em and I had talked about selling our bus, using the money we’d saved and going on a blow-out trip through Europe because bus life was too hard. Now it seemed ridiculous.
“We have a bed,” I said to Em.
“And movies on our computers.”
We sat for a long time, too tired to move even if we wanted to, and when we were ready, we went inside and for the first time on our trip maybe, it felt like home.