Every year, upstate New York gets a few warm, perfect fall days. They’re exactly as they look in postcards or J. Crew catalogues, with green trees blazing red as far as you can see, and you’re supposed to spend them hiking, picking apples, and stirring pumpkin puree into everything from muffin batter to black bean soup. These are almost biological rituals: your body wants all the endorphins and vitamin D it can get before the slushy rain, and then the snow, settle in from October to April.
But during my senior year of college, I spent most of early fall alone in the library, working on the novella-length re-imagining of Peter Pan I’d decided to write for my final project in fiction. On one of those gorgeous days, my friends designed a treasure hunt for each other and went out into the woods surrounding campus to solve it. They asked me to come, but I said no.
I’d been saying “no” to a lot of fun things that semester: birthday parties, for example, and jam-making dates. Some nights, I even avoided getting home from the library until after I knew my suitemates would be asleep. I kept reminding everyone how busy I was with my fiction project, but the truth was, I didn’t know myself why I’d suddenly started craving alone time. I’d always thought of myself as someone who liked company, not solitude.
Those days, I didn’t feel like I knew anything about myself. I didn’t know how I’d survive after next May, when there was no more computer registration system to punch a clear new life plan into every six months. I didn’t know if I still believed in my family’s religion. I didn’t know how to tell my five female suitemates I was pretty sure I was bisexual, and I didn’t know how to stop missing the old friend I’d briefly dated over the summer. I’d never entirely trusted him anyway, so when he’d turned out to be a mean boyfriend, I’d broken up with him and flown back to school. I’d known that wouldn’t be enough to make me forget about him, but I hadn’t expected remembering him all the time to feel this sad.
But God and sex and trust had always been mysteries. Writing, at least, had been something I thought I knew how to do. So what was worse, in a way, was that I was realizing I had absolutely no idea how to write my fiction project. I’d cheerfully agreed when my advisor asked if I could write fifteen new pages per week, and now I couldn’t even write a sentence without stopping to wonder if it was any good. Then I’d panic, because I simply didn’t have a clue. I’d expected this to be the best semester of my life—I mean, my homework was to write Peter Pan fanfic—and instead it was becoming the most frightening.
So I sat in the library, telling myself I had better write a lot, since I was missing out on a treasure hunt to get work done, and instead staring endlessly at a blinking cursor.
Four years earlier, none of this would ever have happened. I was seventeen then, and I was going to be an author when I grew up, and being with my friends was the best part of every day.
Even the time I took off for that summer backpacking trip in the Rocky Mountains, I had the most fun when I was just goofing around with the eleven other girls who were out there with me. You’d have thought the Rockies would have been a teenaged adventurer’s paradise in and of themselves: they’re your quintessential West Coast mountains, young and craggy and highly flammable, and this was a dream way to tackle them, with eight-mile hiking routes to chart and llamas—llamas!—to carry our rock climbing gear. But I’d always struggled with the tension between adventurousness and homesickness, so to me, company mattered a lot. The night our chaperones, Kate and Heather, made us all camp out in separate campsites so that we could experience sleeping alone in the wilderness, I was so angry with them that I seethed inwardly at Kate the whole time she was giving us her safety lecture.
“You should all have enough snacks left to last you until tomorrow morning,” I remember Kate saying in her gentle, mellow voice. Every once in a while, Kate lost her cool and reprimanded one of us in that same yoga-instructor voice, and it was absolutely terrifying. “I want you all to make sure you eat something out there. If you want to try fasting in the wilderness another time, I actually really recommend that. It can be a very spiritual experience. But for tonight, for your safety, be sure you eat.”
The twelve of us, plus Heather, were gathered around Kate in a circle, sitting cross-legged on our sleeping mats. I think it was going to come to about sixteen hours alone: leave around four in the afternoon today, just as soon as the daily storm clouds dissipated, and return to this same boulder around noon tomorrow. I was nodding politely, playing my default part of good, respectful teenager, but inside, I was convinced that this whole solo campout thing was the worst idea of all time.
“One thing you may try tonight, if you want,” Kate went on, “is being naked in the woods. I know some of you said you were interested in that”—a couple of us grinned at Mel, who was mostly the one who had said that—“and a lot of women really enjoy experiencing their bodies in nature that way. And Heather and I also have a journaling projects for you. It’s called ‘Dreams, Dragons, and Trails.’”
I perked up a little when Kate mentioned dragons. All week, I’d been increasingly disappointed by Kate and Heather’s obvious affinity for things like yoga, silent reflection, and the Roses and Thorns game. I’d thought I was signing up for the kind of backpacking my Girl Scout troop did—the kind where everyone preferred giving each other nicknames, singing raucously, and maybe playing an alphabet game if we felt really organized. Kate and Heather seemed to expect us to Find Ourselves in the Wilderness, but I just wanted to play with my new friends, and I was sure my self didn’t need any finding.
Now, finally, Kate was describing a game that sounded like my kind of adventure. But when she explained the rules, my heart sank. The idea was that on one page of our journal, we would list some dreams we wanted to accomplish in the future. Then, on a separate page, we’d list the challenges we expected to have to overcome in order to achieve our dreams. Those were the dragons. Then we were supposed to look at our first two lists together and plan some trails we could take to get past the dragons to the dreams.
Most of the time, I liked Kate, even though I didn’t share her taste in games. She was the exact kind of maternal authority figure I always gravitated towards, especially when I wasn’t at home with my real mom. But this time, I thought, she had gone too far. She had already taken the fun out of backpacking, and now she had taken the fun out of dragons. I saw no commonality whatsoever between facing down Smaug and making a list of “challenges.”
In fairness, I think the activities Kate and Heather had planned for our ten days in the backcountry ended up meaning a lot to some of the other girls on the trip. Most of them seemed to like doing yoga every morning and confiding their Roses (best things that happened) and their Thorns (worst things that happened) every night before bed. Most of all, they loved the M&M game. That was when we all sat in a circle and everyone took an M&M, and depending on what color your M&M was, you had to tell a different type of story about your life: a big struggle you faced for blue, a person you admired for yellow, a romantic memory for red.
People willingly bared their souls during the M&M game. They talked about being raped, about being abandoned by a parent, about watching a sibling cope with an illness. We were all crying by five minutes in, and in retrospect, the tears really did seem like they might have been healing tears for some of these girls. At seventeen, though, I didn’t understand that tears could heal. My own tears that day were those of sadness, homesickness, and frustration. I was distressed to learn that so many girls my age had experienced such terrible things, and I kept worrying about a friend back at home who was battling an eating disorder, and if we were going to talk about such depressing things, I didn’t see why we couldn’t at least eat the M&Ms.
I’d been mopey ever since we first started playing the M&M game, three or four long days earlier. I fretted about my friend and I missed my mom. The only times I felt better were when Chelsea was making up teeth-brushing songs, and Bailey was showing me her poetry, and Mel was calling every noun “that thing that looks like a penis.” And now Kate and Heather were forcing to go on this stupid solo campout, and every second of it would suck.
Kate didn’t understand any of this. “Any questions?” she asked. And when there weren’t any, she and Heather started leading us, two at a time, to the campsites they’d picked out for each of us.
I must have been one of the first to be led out, because I don’t remember sitting and talking with everyone else about what we were going to do for the next sixteen hours. I do remember, as I followed Kate into the woods, being jealous of the girls whom I knew were going to break the “no iPods” rule that night. That kind of rebellion was beyond my seventeen-year-old self, even at her surliest—especially now, since I’d calmly complied with Kate and Heather’s request that we give them our cell phones and iPods for safekeeping at the base camp before we started hiking.
Kate turned and smiled at me when we got to my little campsite. “I think you’ll really like this space,” she said. “It’s one of my favorites. I call it the Land of the Mushrooms.”
I smiled back and looked around. I don’t know how Kate knew how much I loved the golden-orange fungi we’d been seeing so many of that week, but I did—they made me think of fairies. This little campsite also had a nice clear space just the right size for my lean-to, and a log that looked perfect for sitting on.
I really did like Kate, and I also liked Heather, who had a lobster stuffed animal Velcro-ed to her backpack and pronounced every –tion word as if she were speaking French. “We’re gonna need a little navig-ah-see-ohn here,” she’d say, or, “We’re pretty far away from civili-zah-see-ohn.” I didn’t want to spend sixteen hours alone when I could have been huddled around a campfire, knowing they were taking care of me.
But Kate hugged me and went back to the rock where everyone else was waiting, so I settled into the Land of the Mushrooms.
Solo camping turned out to be neither as miserable as I’d expected nor as revelatory as Kate and Heather seemed to believe. I set up my lean-to with minimal difficulty and munched some trail mix, a Girl Scout delicacy of nuts, raisins, and tiny bits of sweet and salty junk food all tossed together in a Ziploc bag. I had no interest whatsoever in fasting. At some point I took all my clothes off, because I did have a little interest in being naked in the woods, but the Rocky Mountains can get chilly even in August, so I put my clothes back on pretty quickly. I attempted yoga. That summer was the beginning of about five years of trying to like yoga.
Eventually, I sat down and wrote the “Dreams, Dragons, and Trails” lists in my journal. I don’t remember exactly what I wrote, but I’m sure becoming an author loomed large in the “Dreams” category. Back then I was pretty clear on the trail I’d take to get there, too: I already had a list of small liberal arts colleges with well-regarded Creative Writing programs to apply to, and I figured I’d minor in Environmental Science, so that I could use environmental journalism to pay my bills if I hadn’t already written a best-selling magum opus by the time I graduated from Oberlin or Hamilton or Grinnell.
I was vague on what my dragons would be. People had been telling me since I was eleven that writers never made any money, but back then I just assumed I’d find some way around that, or that it wouldn’t matter as long as I was doing something I loved. When I was an obedient seventeen-year-old spending my summers on Girl Scout trips, it hadn’t crossed my mind that not making any money might really scare me one day, or that the biggest dragon of all would be my own doubts that I was a good enough writer to beat such intimidating odds. Back then, self-doubt was something I’d only learned about secondhand, from a friend who ate ice and lettuce, and from the M&M game.
The morning after solo night, we all tramped back to Kate’s boulder, emerging from the woods from twelve different directions. Kate beamed at me as I left the Land of the Mushrooms behind. “You look beautiful,” she whispered. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, so I didn’t tell her that I’d already felt beautiful before. As far as I was concerned, nothing had changed that night.
Back then, my dragons were too far away for me to fight them off properly. During my senior year of college, they were too close. It would be a few more years before I started feeling confident about making decisions as a writer, and even now, that dragon grows a new head every so often—a “You-only-wrote-one-paragraph-this-week” head, or a “How-can-you-call-yourself-a-writer-when-you’ve-never-read-Moby-Dick?” head.
That’s why sometimes, you don’t need to slay the dragon. Sometimes, you just need to make it stop roaring for a while, so that you can get a little work done and go home.
At the end of that day in the library, one of my friends texted me to ask if I could meet them at the dining hall when they got back from their treasure hunt, and this time, finally, I said yes. And when I headed out into the twilight and found them returning from the woods, singing Taylor Swift songs at the tops of their lungs, I remembered what I’d learned in the Rocky Mountains: that I fight dragons best when I don’t fight them alone.