Fourteen dollars?! I thought, my eyes frantically searching the campground placard for better news. Are they kidding me?
To be honest, I was out of touch. I didn’t know the average price of a campsite in the United States. Maybe fourteen dollars was perfectly reasonable. But in the months leading up to this trip, I’d heard sweet rumors of steeply-discounted “hiker-biker” rates being offered at campgrounds, and I’d assumed I would find them everywhere.
This was my fifth day on tour, and my first night camping. I was getting the hang of this ride-all-day, sleep-among-strangers lifestyle, and I liked being special. I enjoyed people welcoming me into their home like I was some kind of celebrity, or even a pariah. What I didn’t enjoy was being treated like just another camper.
I straightened up, feeling my nostrils flare with indignation. I was a cyclist, a touring cyclist no less. I’d ridden all the way from Forest Grove in the last five days, without burning any fossil fuels or polluting the air with exhaust. Therefore, I decided, I deserved a discount. Fourteen dollars was outlandish and offensive. I wasn’t going to pay it.
With my nose in the air, I began circling the campground looking for a group of REI-clad friends to share a campsite with. I reasoned that my tent was tiny enough to tuck into the corner of someone else’s site. Surely someone would want to host an interesting adventurer like me for the night?
I tried smiling and waving at a couple sitting in matching camp chairs. They glanced up briefly before returning to their conversation. One family’s site looked like a yard sale, with kids, coolers, and beach toys sprawling everywhere. I rolled slowly past each site, inventing a reason not to ask for help at each one. They’re too busy, that guy looks too lonely, no one’s at home in that tent, they’ll think I’m weird, their campsite’s already full, on and on until I’d completed my circumnavigation of the campground and hadn’t talked to a soul. By the end of it, I didn’t feel special. I felt rather stupid.
I decided to check out my stealth-camping options. Supposedly, touring cyclists did this type of thing all the time, pitching their tent anywhere that suited them and was hidden from the roadway. It was illegal, technically, but we were cyclists. Touring cyclists. And we were special.
I liked the idea of being a rebel, but was intimidated by stealth camping. Peering into the forest beside the road, I felt the back of my neck prickle with fear. Secluding myself in the quiet forest sounded lovely, but being found there by a creep in the middle of the night was terrifying. That was the trouble with hiding my campsite: no one would know where to look for my body.
That’s what the Spot beacon is for, I reminded myself. Okay, so they’d know where to find my body hours later, after I was raped and murdered. That didn’t exactly make me feel better about stealth-camping. I’d rather have some fellow humans within shouting distance, so someone could come find me before I died.
Seeing a potential spot, I leaned Miya against a large tree trunk beside the road and stepped tentatively into the forest. My eyes searched the shadowy spaces under the trees in front of me until I suddenly felt a burning sensation on my lower legs. Looking down, I saw that I’d stepped into a patch of stinging nettles. I hopped backwards, noticing more and more of the green arrowhead-shaped leaves. They were everywhere. Nettles blanketed the forest floor, interrupted only by a few patches of ferns and the tell-tale yellowing leaves of poison oak.
Nope, I thought, turning back to Miya. Let’s try the campground again. Another spin in the campground, with me peering pointedly into each campsite. Notice me, I begged the people I passed, Ask me what I’m looking for. Ask me if I need help. But they didn’t.
I stopped in front of a woman who appeared to be camping alone. She’d waved when I’d passed by earlier, and had plenty of room, making her my best prospect. I mustered the courage to beam my biggest, most harmless smile at her and ask to share her campsite. She said no. I pedaled away, disheartened.
I found myself in front of the campground manager’s trailer. Just pay the fee, pleaded a shy voice inside of me. I rolled Miya towards the trailer, and a man stepped out.
“Hello,” I called, smiling broadly, “I was wondering if you have any hiker-biker campsites.”
“What’s that now?” asked the man politely, taking a step closer and leaning an ear towards me. He looked to be in his late fifties.
“Do you have a discount for cyclists?” I asked, gesturing to Miya. “I rode my bicycle here. I’m traveling alone, my tent is very small, and I don’t need much room”.
He looked uncomfortable. “No,” he said, shaking his head and looking away. “We don’t”.
“Would you be willing to cut me a deal for the night?” I asked. Inside, I cringed at my own cheekiness.
He chuckled nervously. His wife had joined him now, and I was beginning to feel truly embarrassed. These are all very nice, hardworking people, I thought. Just pay them the fourteen dollars and let’s be done with this.
“You can stay,” said his wife. I blinked. Her husband looked at her. “You can camp right here,” she said, gesturing to an open patch of ground near the trailer. “We’re just about to have some dinner, would you join us?”
As I set up my tent a few yards from their trailer, I was tingling with excitement. I was the luckiest girl alive, to be hosted by kind people for the fifth night in a row. Gratitude was dancing through me in giddy waves, and at one point, when my hosts were both inside the trailer and out of view, I did a wild little victory dance. “I love my life!” I whispered to the Douglas fir trees, standing with my arms overhead, reaching towards the sky. A grumpy muscle twitched in my back, but I was too much in love with the world to care.
My hosts were Frank and Debbie, two very Christian retirees who’d decided to manage a campground for the summer. For dinner, I joined them at their little table inside the trailer. After an earnest prayer to our Lord Jesus to bless this food and protect me on my travels, Debbie fed us something she called Chef’s Salad. I fairly swooned when I saw that the pile of iceburg lettuce was strewn with tomatoes, shredded cheese, chunks of ham, and slices of hardboiled egg. Ahhh, protein! I ate every bit, and when dessert came I still had room for Debbie’s blueberry cobbler with whipped cream.
The conversation flowed smoothly between bites. Frank and Deb were full of questions about my bike tour, and I was curious about their lives as campground hosts. When I asked if they’d had any difficulties with campers that summer, Deb’s eyes went wide.
"The hippies who come up to use the hotsprings... oh my,” she said, and I felt a sudden prickle of discomfort. “Those girls all want to go in there naked, and I've seen some of ...everything. I tell you what, I've really had my eyes opened this summer.” She looked meaningfully at her husband, who shook his head. I smoothed my hands over my hairy thighs under the table and tried to arrange my face in an innocently-curious expression. I could only imagine the tattoos, body piercings, and dreadlocks that she was referring to.
"Yep," he replied, "they had some kinda... uh... I don't know. A 'hippie fest' I guess you'd call it. About three weeks ago. And the hotsprings was just crawlin' with them".
I opened my mouth to say, "You mean the Oregon Country Fair?" but then shut it. Better to nod, smile, and finish the last of my cobbler. I was being hosted and fed for free tonight, and I didn’t want to screw this up.
That night, I lay awake in my sleeping bag, excited at my good fortune. Frank and Deb were angels, bearing gifts of free camping and home-cooked protein. My bed was surprisingly comfortable, with the thin foam of the camping pad cushioning the ground beneath me. I snuggled down into my sleeping bag, feeling warm and safe with my protectors close by in their trailer.
The next morning, they insisted on feeding me breakfast. My enjoyment of the steaming bowl of cream of wheat and slices of cinnamon toast was only slightly dampened by their parting gift: a leaflet emblazoned with "The Bible: You Have God's Word on It". I guess my vibrant tie-dyed T shirt had given me away, and they suspected that I'd been naked in a hot spring at one time or another. I smiled, thanked them, and agreed to read the leaflet. (Which I did... and it put me to sleep very quickly the next night).
As I pedaled away from the campground, feeling like a million bucks, I thought maybe I’d surprise everyone, myself included, and bike all the way to Jim’s house that night. I’d connected with Jim through Warmshowers, and he and his wife had graciously agreed to host me for a night at their home in Sisters, Oregon. It was a sixty mile ride over McKenzie Pass to Sisters, which would be my longest day of cycling yet. The first part of the ride would be the hardest, with twenty steep miles up to the summit, but after that it was all downhill. This is doable, I thought gleefully, smiling into the sunshine that spurted through gaps in the trees. The air smelled fresh, like dirt and pine needles and possibility.
That’s when my period hit me like a sledge hammer. Just a few minutes after leaving the Delta Campground, I felt unusually wet in my shorts. I pulled over, propping Miya on a tree before creeping into the forest with my Diva Cup. I’d used the Diva Cup many times, including on camping trips, so I was no stranger to standing in the woods with my pants down and my hand up inside myself, arranging the silicon cup so that it wouldn’t leak. Finished, I tugged my shorts up with my left hand. My right hand looked like I’d murdered someone. This was an unusually heavy flow.
I rinsed my hands with my water bottle, using a little drop of soap to help clean up. My shorts needed the same treatment, but I decided to wait until the next bathroom facility came along. I would need plenty of water to wash these shorts.
Hopping back on Miya, I began to pedal. I’d better get moving, if I was going to make it all the way to Sisters in one day. But my gut felt bloated and heavy, and the longer I pedaled, the more I began to hurt.
A dull pain bloomed deep in my pelvis. It spread and deepened until it felt like someone had hold of my guts and was pulling and twisting downwards. “Ow!” I cried out every few minutes, surprised at how much I was hurting. Typically, the first day of my period was the most painful, but this was worse than usual.
I got the feeling that the Diva Cup might be leaking, but I didn’t dare stop. I was afraid to look. I pictured all the blood and pain and filth collecting in my bike shorts, mashing against the seat as my legs pumped up and down, creating an unholy mess. Suddenly, an unladylike flatulence erupted from me, relieving some of the pain in my gut. I couldn’t help laughing, even as my organs shuddered in agony. This was disgusting.
Miles later, I wasn’t laughing anymore. My innards felt squeezed beyond repair, and diarrhea was imminent. “Paradise”, read a campground sign ahead. I turned off the highway, gasping and groaning. “Paradise,” I murmured mindlessly, pedaling into the campground and heading for the bathrooms. I ran into the stall in a fog of pain, and the horror that was unleashed from my body will forever remain a secret, shared only between myself and those silent bathroom walls.
I emerged lighter, but weak and still hurting. I walked with slow steps to Miya, and pushed her towards a picnic area. My vision was limited, and I looked out on the sunny day through the dark tunnel of my pain. I honed in on a group of wooden picnic tables nestled amongst velvety green bushes. One table’s flat surface was flooded with sunlight. I leaned Miya against it and clambered up, groaning as I lay myself back onto the warm wood. Being horizontal was ten times better than riding my bike. I decided I would lay there until I died, which probably wouldn’t take long.
The sun gently warmed my aching belly, coaxing the muscles to loosen their grip. “Paradise,” I breathed, eyes closed. I conducted a mental inventory of my bags, searching for relief. Had I packed any ibuprofen? No... Normally I didn’t use pharmaceuticals, preferring instead to snuggle on the couch with my roommate’s hot water bottle, sipping raspberry leaf tea and chewing on ginger root when my cramps were bad. But never before had I experienced this level of anguish, where it felt like every organ in the lower half of my body was trying to shrink itself small enough to squeeze out through my vagina. It was as if my guts had taken a sudden offense to bike touring and had decided to “abandon ship”. I wanted drugs.
I became vaguely aware of some picnickers entering the bathroom I’d just vacated. Silently, I apologized to them for the stench I’d left behind. I wondered if they were carrying pain relievers, and I fantasized about tiny ziplock bags tucked into their purses, containing precious pills called Midol or Advil. I was ready to take any of them, all of them. Just make it stop hurting, I begged, as another cramp dug its claws into my torso.
I let myself melt into the worn wooden planks of the picnic table. A second wave of diarrhea was beginning to bubble in my gut, but there was no need to panic about that now. When the time came, I would rise and go to that conveniently-located bathroom. Even in the depths of my pain, it did not escape me how blessed I was, to have found a warm place to lie down, near a bathroom with running water. What would really top it off, I thought wistfully, is for an angel to approach me and offer some little white pills.
I heard a thunk nearby, then the sound of someone walking away. I tried to raise my head, but activating my abdominal muscles sent a cramp tearing through me. Exhaling through the pain, I turned my head to the side instead, and peered groggily at the table next to mine. A cooler had appeared on the bench.
As I watched, a man came into view, carrying another cooler. Wordlessly, he set it on a third table. “Hello,” I said, sounding more perky than I felt.
“Hi,” he responded, glancing over at me.
“Am I in your way?” I asked, dreading his response.
“No, no,” he said quickly, “you’re fine.” He left again, reappearing moments later with a large tupperware bin.
“What are you getting ready for?” I asked warily, pushing myself slowly up to a sitting position.
“Oh, just the rafting tour,” he said, pulling a roll of paper towels and a stack of disposable plates out of the bin. “I’m with a tour company, and we feed everyone when they pull the boats out here”.
Great. I pictured myself sprawled on the table surrounded by picnicking tourists, lying there among their plates like some kind of sacrifice. “Well, let me get out of your way,” I said, sliding myself gingerly off the table. My guts protested the change in position, and once again gravity pulled the pain deep into my pelvis.
“No, no, you can stay. You’re fine,” he repeated. Whatever, I thought miserably, grabbing Miya and pushing her out of the sunshine. It was time for me to hit the bathrooms again anyhow.
I stayed in Paradise for hours. After a second stint in the bathroom, I found a different picnic table. It was tucked in the bushes, in the shade but quiet and safe from any rafting groups and their passive-aggressive staff members. I rolled out my sleeping pad and lay on my back, my lower half still throbbing. This shall pass, I kept reminding myself. The pain was getting better already. Cradled by the pad beneath me and the quiet forest around me, I dozed off. When I woke, a thousand green leaves were quaking in the river breeze, tickling the blue sky overhead.
By the early afternoon, I was weak but comfortable. I hauled myself into the bathroom for a final clean up, changing into my blissfully clean pants and finally washing the scary-looking bike shorts. I strapped them onto the outside of my bedroll, so that they hung off the back of my bicycle. They’d flutter behind me as I rode, a sign of victory. Behold, this is the monster I have vanquished.
I didn’t want to camp in Paradise for the night. I had entertained the idea, as I’d laid on the picnic table, being crushed from the inside out. But now that I was feeling better, I wanted to get out of there. I didn’t want to enter that bathroom ever again. I’d keep riding, and leave all this pain and blood and crap behind me.
According to the map on my phone, there was another campground two miles further. Two more miles would bring my daily ride to a total of twelve. A tired smile tugged at my mouth as I recalled my excited fervor that morning, when I’d believed sixty miles was within my grasp.
I pedaled away from Paradise, pushing up the mountain determinedly. My uterus seized a couple times, but otherwise let me ride in peace. I rolled into the campground with shaking, sweaty legs. To my dismay, every site appeared to be taken already.
Before I had the chance to worry, a tiny woman bounded up to me. "The campground’s full!” she cried brightly. She had very curly red hair, a wide smile and even wider eyes. “But you can share our campsite if you'd like! There's plenty of room for two tents over there". She pointed to a site nearby containing a tent, a car, and a gloomy-looking man.
“Thanks!” I mustered, feeling my quads quiver with fatigue. She lead me over to her husband, who didn’t smile when he shook my hand.
“Don’t worry about Ivan,” she said quietly as she escorted me to a corner of their site. “He’s having a tough time. There was a family with some dogs here, and he got pretty upset. He was bit by a dog as a child and has a phobia.”
“Oh no,” I said earnestly. It sounded like a miserable phobia to have on a camping trip. People loved bringing their dogs into the forest.
“He’ll be alright,” she assured me. “I’m really glad you’re here.” I glanced at her, confused. “You’ll be a good distraction. Please join us for dinner?”
I grinned. This was all starting to make sense. “I’m happy to be your distraction,” I told her.
That night we feasted on sweet potato stir fry with organic coconut oil. This is camping food? I thought, shoving the sweet orange slices into my mouth. Apparently Ivan and Sandra were vegetarian. I was grateful that I’d loaded up on protein the night before.
My hosts were fresh from a three day vacation at Breitenbush Hot Springs. They regaled me with descriptions of the natural hot springs and the delicious organic, vegetarian meals they’d been served there. “It’s just amazing,” intoned Sandra, “Being out there, under the stars, at night, with someone you love.” She leaned over, smiling at Ivan. He returned her grin, and reached for her hand. He was a handsome man when he smiled. I ached for Arlo.
“How long have you two been together?” I asked.
“Seventeen years, now,” replied Ivan, not taking his gaze off his wife. His face was as radiant now as it had been gloomy earlier.
“Where is your sweetie?” asked Sandra, fixing her luminous eyes on me. “Arlo, is that his name?” Hearing his name aloud made my heart feel squeezed.
“Yes,” I said, past the lump in my throat. “He’s back at school, still.”
They waited, holding hands, looking at me.
“He wanted to come,” I continued. “But... I really need to do this trip alone.” Ivan and Sandra looked puzzled. “Traveling alone is just... so... different,” I tried. “I learn so much about myself out here. I can’t get the same kind of growth with a travel buddy.”
Sandra nodded, and to my relief, smiled. “I think it’s wonderful, that you’re giving yourself space to do this within your relationship,” she said, her giant eyes glowing in the twilight.
“It’s really important,” added Ivan. “We admire you.” The lump in my throat got bigger.
The next morning, Ivan hugged me. It happened so quickly that I didn’t have time to get my defenses up. Normally I put one leg in front of the other, or wrap an arm over myself, or at least stick my butt out and just touch shoulders with the other person. But Ivan and Sandra had walked over to say goodbye, as I was strapping down my bike bags in preparation to leave. I’d turned towards them, all smiles, and before I knew it Ivan had raised his arms and stepped towards me, his body filling my view and blocking out the morning light. His dark jacket felt like a black hole, sucking me in. I had just enough time to squeeze my eyes shut before he engulfed me.
We pressed together, making contact down the full length of my torso. My head was cradled between his chest and shoulders, as his arms wrapped me from my ears down to my shoulder blades. He held me long enough that I couldn’t hold my breath the whole time, like I normally would. I had to exhale into his jacket.
I felt overwhelmed, and tears threatened to flood my eyes. I shut them tighter, fought the lump in my throat, and begged this moment to end, now, and also last forever.
When he let go, his wife smiled. “You’re our angel,” she said.
I barked with laughter, and snorted. It helped keep the tears at bay. “Me?!” I cried, “You shared your campsite with me and made me dinner!”
“But you were here when we needed you most,” she insisted, her large eyes boring into my soul. Do not cry. “You were the perfect distraction”. I tried to maintain eye contact with her, but it was too hard. Her eyes could see too much of me, too much of what I wanted to hide. Between the hug from Ivan and her bulging stare, I was about to fall apart.
“I better get going,” I said, turning towards my bike. A smile was plastered over my face like a mask. May you only see my sweetness, I prayed, as we thanked each other, yet again, for being angels, and I rolled off into another bluebird morning.
Damn hippies, I thought, sniveling pitifully up the mountain.