Just us girls. Camping in the wilderness without the Seans. Two Seans. I have a Sean, and Alexa has a Sean. It just ended up that way. I told her when she was single that she didn’t necessarily need, but could use a Sean to keep her warm at night. It wasn’t hard to look. We all grew up in the same town a few miles away from each other on blocks named after trees. We’re good people. Or at least I like to think so.
But back to camping and rocking out in nature with our vags out. Not really. I mean, our vags are in our pants, but they’re as swampy as a bowl of French onion soup after hiking all day.
I built a fire for the first time ever, and we roasted seasoned vegetables over it. Mushrooms, zucchini, broccoli, red peppers. Alexa used lemon and garlic powder to season the vegetables and slapped them down into a homemade tin foil bowl. She wrapped them up tight. She calls these things “hobo pockets,” which as a word is mildly offensive, but quite wonderful as a meal.
I feel full and toasted around the edges. My center is as mushy as the potatoes we gobbled up. We weren’t sure the potatoes were ever going to cook. But they turned out to be worth the wait.
I’m thinking about that phrase “having a friend at the end of the world.” I know there’s a movie with a similar title. But I’m not talking about the movie. I’m talking about Alexa and me. We’re two friends, and it’s not the end of the world, but if it was, I think I’d be okay on this melded, moss-freckled rock in the heart of the Shawnee National Forest.
Alexa came up with the idea to go camping without our doting, lovely boyfriends, so we hopped in her car and drove the five hours, just to say we set up camp and lived. And lived we did.
At first the ground was hard and refused our stakes. We forgot to bring a hammer. We used our hands, grunted with our entire bodies. Alexa used her car’s window scraper. And I used a wine bottle, which wasn’t the brightest idea. We dragged the tent farther into the campsite, and eventually we landed on a spot that would take.
Unfortunately, the only camp site that was available when we arrived was the one next to the outhouses. This is our luck. And so, the wind wafted the worst smell known to man, his own excrement, of course. Nothing hangs on the nose more than our own shit. It’s kind of funny, actually. Alexa and I like to think of ourselves as regular older poopers, and the campsite fits. And the thing about bad smells, as Alexa reminded me, is that you get used to them the longer you’re around them.
Alexa packed up a real feast: pita chips and hummus, buns, vegan sausages, and loads of vegetables. She bundled everything together in a basket like it was a Christmas package for us to unravel together. Complete the scene with an open fire.
I am overcome with gratitude and s’mores-layered love for my friend who always thinks ahead and crosses items off lists. This is a very true characteristic about her. She’s punctual, prepared, and sometimes a little anxious about how the future will play out.
As a whole, Alexa is one of those people who has a feeling but can’t quite put her finger on how genuinely beautiful of a person she is. She has had to grow up very fast in household with a single mother with severe untreated depression. In the beginning of our friendship, I recall a cynical, but loving Alexa who doted on her mother and her every whim.
Eventually, she loosened the string around such a tightly bound tangle. She, as an only child, did this much later than some. But like all of us, there comes a time when we have to let go of our parents’ hands for their sake and our own. I know this from Alexa and myself, and well, a lot of people.
I realize as we roam the Garden of the Gods wilderness — dry, dusty, and laundered in long, thick brush — that I’m proud of my friend and myself for getting along in world we define as our own.
Last night, we ventured down the gravel road leading away from our campsite. We let our heavy heads sag from our necks as we surveyed the stars that were so close to our faces they could stick to our flesh. We were standing on the inside of a purple marble. The stars blinked. And some of the blinking stars turned out to be planes.
I peered into the pitch black road. I was suddenly cold and hyperaware of the darkness, but held onto the lantern, the stars and planes, and the length of time it took for me to realize that I couldn’t possibly die alone in that moment standing next to Alexa. She would be there to help testify the life I lived and the life she played a significant role in.
(Alexa. Wearing a checkered hoodie and green rain boots, about to walk her her golden retriever in the rain. It’s the image I’ve come to associate with her more than anything else.)
But this trip has given me so many more images to preserve like jam. There was a moment last night when we were talking. We had a bit of wine, and all of a sudden Alexa broke out in a sweat and laid her head on the picnic table. She told me she was scared she would pass out. I was overcome with a sick, frozen fear, and my mind raced. We were after all in the middle of nowhere and without cell phone service. How smart of us, I criticized in my head.
I ratcheted back and forth to conclusions. Food poisoning. Altitude sickness. Some wild bacteria. I finally reached the conclusion where I would be no where and nothing without her. I asked her if she needed me to run for help. But she assured me she just needed to rest her head for a while.
I thought maybe it had been my fault. I had been telling her about my family and struggles. Maybe it was too much to hear. That noise makes me dizzy too. Sometimes I feel I say too much and the weight of words fall on Alexa, who takes the brunt of my conscious fears and levels of distrust. I said nothing and wondered if I was too heavy of a friend, and then Alexa lifted her head, and said, “WHOO, I think I just needed a good sweat. I feel better.”
She felt better, and I felt drunken relief and sober joy.
In the morning, we finagled out of our tent and drank cold coffee. We decided to drive down to a gas station where we’d have service and could call our boyfriends to tell them we were alive. Alexa drove, and we kept cracking jokes to cover up the wrong turns. But soon enough, we both admitted to each other we were lost.
“I don’t remember that barn, do you?” we asked each other. We drove alongside rows and rows of Illinois’ finest fucking corn that started to look like a blurry sea.
Alexa and I have a habit of getting lost together. One time, we almost got locked in a forest preserve, another one in rural Illinois, past dark. We saw a deer on our wrong way back to the car. And Alexa couldn’t getting over me calling it “a total deer.” In most cases, our wrong turns tend to be worth it.
As suburb folk, so much of Illinois is beyond our reach. Barrels of hay, windmills, and busted down barns. Driveways that run deep into low hanging greenery. Dusty, desolate towns. Men on tractors and underneath cars, covered in the grime of work. Women sitting in lawn chairs, smoking. Kids waddling around in diapers. We drove through one town that was completely dedicated to something called “Mule Days.” Signs with mules are displayed on lawns across the town of Enfield, Illinois.
Alexa, a vegan, made quick, painful eye contact with the cows we passed in trucks. I could tell she was also getting nervous about being lost, and told her that we always find our way.
2 and a half hours later, we eventually found our way back. We didn’t waste any time on our embarrassment as we threw water and snacks into Alexa’s back pack. She let me carry the camera, and I let it dangle on its strap from my shoulder.
We climbed jagged steps and grabbed hold of tree trunks to help us along the trails. Our calves began to scream, and perspiration clung to our lower backs. The stones, which were formed millions of years ago, have lizard skin. The red and silver patterns swirl and twist and shine like molten lava. Some stones reminded me of layered paper flowers. The largest boulders could each be their own landmark. They sit on top of each other in clumsy, yet sturdy ways. Leaning, bowing, bending, rolling stones piled and piled one on top of the next.
I didn’t know what I was doing, really, but I snapped picture after picture. We ran into a group of people who were resting next to their horses. I asked to take a picture of this man and his horse. Alexa laughed and told me it was like I had never seen a horse before. I’m pretty much this way in every new setting. It’s all context.
A small creek kept us company while we ate lunch — peanut butter and banana sandwiches. I paced back and forth to prevent the flies from getting too cosy on me.
By the time we arrived to the campsite, we were stumbling underneath the weight of our exhaustion.
Right now we’re sitting next to each other on rocks and writing. I’m sipping wine from a coffee mug, drinking away my body’s aches. It’s getting darker, and after the taste of the stars last night, I’m hungry for more. They could be dessert.
This is the land of the gods, and we’re two awkward, but strong goddesses keeping a close eye on our steps.