Sleeping Bag Therapy

How is it that a nylon sack stuffed with feathers or polyfill can restore balance in a sometimes-twisty world? One “bag night” can deliver therapeutic benefits beyond anything chemical or funky mushrooms. Spend a night out in fresh air tucked into a sleeping bag and you’ll find your blood running with more vigor and neurons firing with improved clarity.

To provide data in support of my premise, I provide one night this spring when four adults and one quick to worry German Shepherd set out for adventures beside Anthracite Creek. I firmly believe everyone has some nagging voice in their head that criticizes, fears, or just makes a nuisance of itself. We all went to the national forest with our own set of issues and sleeping bags.

One of us was ready to take the leap and start the solo camping lifestyle. Well, not solo, because she always has her best fur friend nearby. The campground at Erickson Springs was a perfect place for that first night—small, rustic, and near a beautiful stream for meditation and soundtrack. We chose a campsite for her on the edge, isolated from others by a cliff band and some tall spruce trees. When you haven’t spent your entire life camping there are so many things to learn—from paying for a campsite to how to open the bear proof dumpster. I watched little brother review the basics with his sister. She asked us to ignore her while she set up her tent and established her homesite for the night. When she was ready, the rest of us supervised by the now very curious dog, were eager to see how everything fit together. Two sleeping bags, one small and pink for a lucky canine, were perfectly positioned for a night’s rest. Home for the ladies looked cozy.

That’s when another campground lesson presented itself. Our campground rookie walked to the bathroom and returned with a little bit of panic showing in her eyes. The standard warnings about camping in bear country on the bulletin board had her on edge. “Is this really bear country?” “Yes, you are in Colorado.” “Eeh.” That’s when we reminded her that it is indeed important to keep a clean campsite but realize that there will always be that one campsite that is the bear bait. Don’t be that campsite and all is well. Plus, the quick to grumble shepherd will keep critters well informed of her presence. Whatever their lingering anxiety was, we had little concern about leaving the two of them for the night.

Home for the rest of us was down the trail. The borrowed gear was loaded into our nephew’s loaner backpack. He had done this once before with this uncle on a woodsy trail in Missouri well before adulting. The two of them had a grand time back then and our nephew would forever wonder how on earth ramen could taste so much better on a trail. Now college was in his rear view mirror and life was a series of puzzles yet to be solved. Time in the mountains and desert with us was peeling away old layers and revealing a new energy. The last step was to walk him into the hills and sleep under a starry sky and world of dreams.

Our trailhead was a short drive from the campsite (there’s a method to our madness). The quick lesson on how to get a backpack properly hitched onto your back was followed by a trailhead shot of whiskey for the three of us heading down the path. This new tradition has stuck ever since that afternoon, always with a nod to those that are only walking with us in spirit. With trekking poles extended and shoelaces tightened, the humans were escorted down the trail by an expert on keeping her people together. The five of us walked together to the bridge over the aquamarine water of Anthracite Creek. Here we split into the backcountry and frontcountry crews, which clearly had not been preapproved with the German Shepherd. As three of us walked away we heard the whines of a forlorn loved one left behind, and a few “good griefs” from her mama. The mourning cry lasted for more steps down the trail than seems feasible. That girl does not like separation from her people. We had miles to go. She had to go back to camp to supervise their big night.

We walked beside the creek, stopping often to admire the scenery. Dark Canyon is narrow, and the trail hugs the crystalline stream as it tumbles over rocks and logs. There are tall, colorful cliffs to be admired at bends of the route, and boulders to scale for hero pictures. Our nephew was joyous and playful, and we were caught in his infectious happiness (and thinking we maybe should have put more in his pack). There is nothing better than leading someone to self-awareness. By putting him on that trail, with our gear lashed onto his person, we had led him to moments of confidence and hope. Miles kept rolling and his giddiness grew, as did the weight of our packs.

It was June and we were low enough in the mountains during a dry spring to enjoy early wildflowers. The pink cliffroses, creamy thimbleberry blossoms, and the purple Colorado columbine were prolific, and the walk smelled of a perfumed blend of tea party with grandma and a meander through the botanical garden on a path beside tumbling water. It was a unique experience, aptly described by our nephew as “walking down the aisle of an exquisitely decorated garden wedding.” The petal strewn path was fit for princesses but trod by us.

Campsites in a narrow river canyon are not easily found, particularly for two tents. We passed a few occupied prime spots filled with fishermen that gave us a wave, realizing we were walking our nephew past the bliss zone into the “holy cow are we ever going to stop walking” zone. Luckily, before we crossed into frantic, we found a lovely little meadow flat enough to set up home next to the creek. When tents were set, and layers added as the June evening turned cool in the canyon, we sat down to watch light dance on the water while we ate dinner.

My issue in that moment was anxiety induced by sharing my personal space with others. As the years go by I find myself less and less tolerant of anyone but my husband in my bubble. Two weeks of sharing space with extra humans and a canine had me at wit’s end. The walk had done much to ease that tension—we always walk our own pace and leave space for processing the experience in solo mode. I’d arrived in camp happier. The banter between the three of us beside the rambunctious creek was particularly fun–reminiscing and dreaming over additional shots of whiskey and a sky full of wishing stars. It would later be described as the only time I’ve let someone else so easily into my bubble, and I acknowledge it was different and nice. The last of my jilted nerves relaxed as I crawled into my sleeping bag that night.

Everyone slept that night, in sleeping bags at two locations. The two of us were awake next to the creek well ahead of our nephew. I did a little fishing, no catching. It was a glorious crisp spring morning. When our nephew emerged, we had coffee by the creek. There wasn’t a lot of talking, but there was abundant smiling despite that frustrating feeling of having to leave that safe spot of peace behind. We packed everything back into our packs and started the walk towards the rest of our party, wondering where we would encounter the eager pup looking for her people.

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The flowers were just as intoxicating in reverse and the views no less inspiring. At one lovely twist in the trail our nephew stopped, turned back towards me, and announced “I like this version of me.” I like him too. Truthfully, it’s a rare person that I encounter out on a trail after a night in a sleeping bag that is unlikeable, but my nephew was different that morning. He had an extra glow in his eyes and ambitions in his mind. I encouraged him to bottle up that feeling and take it home, use those memories to push through any challenge, and return to the reward of mountain time whenever necessary.

We crossed the bridge at the beginning of the trail and emerged into the clearing. The German Shepherd raced to greet the three of us as if we had been missing in Timbuktu for weeks. She raced in circles not sure how to spread herself between these three beloved humans. We swapped stories as the packs peeled off our backs and sandals went on feet. The night in the campground had gone well. There had been no bears, and the camping family across the way had been “the one” that made everyone else poster children for good camp behavior. The sleeping bags had treated them well, even if the camp stove had been a bit of a spoiler.

It was one night in Colorado spent in sleeping bags. Five of us carried different issues into the sacks but all emerged with rest, gratitude, and new ambitions. It convinces me, we need more bag nights. It’s cheaper than therapy.

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