Skinny Dipping in Alpine Lakes
We are Animals
As I sat in the dimming light, I looked skyward at the tall ponderosa pines pointing upward in silhouette, their darkening green so iconic we call it forest green, the last color seen after the blue of sky fades. The ducks by the lake raised their call, perhaps to signal to their brood it is time to bed down for the night. Even they know that night is a time for night creatures. The wind was easy. I heard the river tumble down the canyon. All was quiet and still. This was the peace we always seek. I released my tension into the earth even as I scurried to put all my scented items out of reach from bears before turning in for the night. My headlamp glowed inside my tent as I zipped into my down mummy bag. I listened with vigilance into the darkness, but there was nothing but wind and water.
For all my talk of being a nature girl earth mama, I am still frightened of sleeping in a tent in the woods. The more people with me, the less frightened I am, but with only one or two people and even my guard dog amongst us, I feel anxiety as the sun descends and twilight encompasses me. I can’t say exactly what about it frightens me—a mad man hiding in the woods waiting for sleep to overcome me, a hungry bear who sniffs my face cream, a Blair Witch like spirit or a Big Foot—it doesn’t really matter. It’s not about the what of it, it’s the feeling of intense vulnerability. Nothing between me and the night forest but a thin veil of blue nylon, more scary because I can’t see out and perhaps less scary because others can’t see in.
As a woman, I am already vulnerable in the world. As a woman, the night time is already a space that can feel unsafe if unfamiliar. For women, no public space is a safe space from men. This has been ingrained in us throughout time, this idea that we are unsafe and need men to protect us. It has been one of the main tools of oppression. We need a father/husband/brother to take care of us because other men are dangerous. This is why even though there are less violent crimes against women than there are against men, women feel less safe in the world.
Of course, many women overcome these fears and live big fulfilling fearless lives on their own. And many women feel comfortable sleeping alone in a tent in the woods, but I do not need to take a survey to determine that the majority of them do not. I hike alone a few times a week. I feel fairly safe during the day with only minor trepidation in new places. But I know that is not true for most women. Many women don’t have the opportunity to explore nature as freely as they’d like to because they are afraid of being alone in the woods, day or night. The same sense of vulnerability prevails. Even I prefer to go with my dog though she might do more harm than good if she antagonizes a bear and runs away from it right towards me. It’s only a sense of added company.
I believe it is more than just being a woman that induces night time stress for me, but also my separation from nature. For thousands of years, society has ingrained in us this sense of separation, humans versus nature. We have consistently built civilizations by means of destroying, also known as conquering, the wilderness. This is our human legacy.
We forgot that we are the wilderness. I may be encapsulated in this blue bubble sheathe of a tent, but I sleep on the cold ground like an animal. I do not need to fear what I am. The fear is false. All the world of nature sleeps outdoors in the elements. It is normal, only I am the weird one, the wayward daughter who has forgotten her wildness. It is up to me to remember.
My sleep in the tent was fitful as I suspected it would be. The forest was silent, not a snapping branch, not a growl from my canine. Completely peaceful. But sleeping on the hard rocky ground is never restful for me. The few pads beneath me did not contour to my curves, hips and shoulders—my neck over tilted into an awkward crick, all this requiring multiple tossings, frequent awakenings. My brain sees a tent and asks of me attentiveness even in the silence, listening. Only the sound of my dog licking her paws. My husband said I was snoring, but I awoke as soon as the zipper on his sleeping bag was pulled. I rolled around doing some sleeping bag yoga to try to smooth out all the creaks in my body before opening the tent to the sunlit forest canopy. The sun still had not arisen over the mountains. Mist settled heavily below the peaks. Instant coffee and instant oatmeal. Fill up our water bottles and hit the trail.
Cabresto Lake is a manmade lake with a small concrete dam grandfathered into the Latir Peak Wilderness area. The rugged road to the lake has patches of asphalt long decayed. Usually popular with the local fishermen, we had the lake to ourselves this morning.
Starting at 9,000 feet in altitude, we followed the rumbling creek upstream through the thick lush brush up the canyon from Cabresto Lake along an overgrown trail. New Mexico had a great monsoon season this year allowing us to creep out of drought, and we had all the flora to show for it. Wildflowers glowed in all their August abundance—yarrow, goldenrod, bluebells, wild celery, coneflowers, hare bells, wild roses and mountain aster. Currants dark and ripe. Later up the trail, a plethora of mushrooms bigger than my hand, including the red with white polka dots, psychedelic fly agaric that looked like perfect fairy toadstools. I could hear the devas singing in the alpine meadows in mid-summer glory.
Over five miles and 2,000 feet of altitude gain later, we arrived at Heart Lake. I was exhausted and sweaty. My body ached. My shoulders stiff from the weight of my pack. My calves sore from the climb. Surrounded by pines and tall grass, crowned by Latir Peak, the setting was postcard picture perfect. The waters looked clear enough to drink. Instead of drinking, I took off all my clothes and waded it. No surprise the water was frigid.
The lake was shallow near the banks and the floor of the lake was too rocky for my bare feet, so I only went in far enough for a refreshing waist high dunk. As my body submerged, I surprised myself with the sound that emitted from my own throat. I had involuntarily released a feral howl, a call from my own deep nature. I was animal after all. In response, my howls echoed against the mountain tops. And I howled again and again. No one anywhere for miles but us and the wild.
My husband stayed on shore laughing at my shrill shrieks and photographing my glaring white rear. Exhilarated, I returned to land where I sat pant-less eating my lunch, reluctant to apply civilized clothes to my animal suit.
A simple moment like that can make the struggle of climbing up the mountain and a hard night’s sleep all worth it. A call from my animal spirit to jump in and immerse myself in the wilderness butt naked and screaming with life. I may not be very good at being an animal, but I still desire to nurture that part of me that remembers its wild self. Moments of immersion. Moments when I forget my programming and remember that I am not separate from nature. I am nature. I am an animal.
The timelessness of a still lake with a soft breeze on a sunny day. There is nothing our man-made world has that can mimic that sensation of slipping into wholeness, encompassing stillness. It is all there at once, everything in one moment.