We’re in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a tent, two hammocks, two sleeping bags, a knife, a fire place, and food. No car, no phone, no electricity. Just us and the forest. The trees, the sun that shines during the day and the stars that come out at night. The birds and the raccoons that try to steal our food whenever they see the slightest chance.
We’re in the wild.
If I could forever save the smell of my hair, soaked with the unique fragrance of the forest and burned wood; or the dirt that has been stuck under my fingernails; or the taste of slightly burned Marshmallows; or the music of the birds that are screaming and singing excitedly in the distance… All those impressions would tell the story for me.
I still cannot believe that the day has finally come. It’s spring break in Illinois. I was starting to get so fed up with everything during the past week of school – all the responses, the papers, the exams… Then we came here with nothing to do but everything.
The nightly chill slowly but surely starts to fill the air when Luke gets up from his place by the fire and walks towards his car. “You guys sure you want to stay?”
I turn to look at Zach and feel myself smiling as we both nod in unison. Yes. This is exactly what we want to do.
“Alright,” Luke says and climbs into his truck. “I hope you have a great spring break. I’ll see you back at school.”
We stand and look after the headlights of his car that slowly disappear behind the trees. For a few more seconds the engine roars through the darkness; then it goes quiet. We only hear the soft cracking of the fire, the trees that swing in the light breeze high above our heads, and a rustling coming from the dry leaves that still cover the ground – a raccoon, a mouse, or a bird.
Later, we sit by the fire and talk about our day. Hiking at Starved Rock. Climbing up roots and over rocks and balancing over the railings of the wooden bridges that cross the small frozen streams which lead into the river. Sitting at the edge of the rocks and watching the sun set behind the trees. Leaning over and looking after little stones that make their way down towards the deep blue water of the Illinois River that still sparkles in response to the last rays of the day. By the time our conversation returns to the present moment my eyelids are heavy.
Still cuddled up to each other, we awake to the sound of the birds singing from the trees outside of our tent the next morning. The night was cold, the ground still frozen. With stiff bones I climb out of my sleeping bag, pull my messy hair into a bun and crawl outside. The sun is shining through the trees that still need to grow back their green dresses. It must be around ten. What a wonderful feeling it is to only vaguely know what time it is. My phone reception had died somewhere on the way here and I had switched it off before we set up camp.
Zach has started the fire by the time I return from the bathroom. Welcomed by the familiar cloud of smoke I sit down next to him and prepare breakfast: peanut butter tortillas, toast and some scrambled eggs. This, we agree, is all we need for now. It is all we will need for the next days. A handful of red peppers and a box of cottage cheese are still buried in the cold wet ground. At this point we don’t know yet that we will run out of bananas and bread; that on our last two days we will actually need to double check our food supply.
We clean up and set up the hammocks. There’s no need to rush. Nowhere to go in particular, so we make ourselves comfortable and enjoy the company of old friends such as Ralph Waldo Emerson. In the afternoon we visit Jack. An elderly man of eighty-two, he lives with his wife and sells fire wood and coffee to campers like us. Campstore it says in bolt red letters above his garage, and on another sign: Honk horn. Since we don’t have a car we walk up the porch and ring his bell.
“Hey Kiddos,” the little man greets us as he opens the door and shuffles outside. “What can I help you with today?” We buy some wood that he tells us to pick up from the little trailer behind the fence, and ask whether he might have a cup of coffee to warm our frozen bones as well. He always has fresh coffee inside, he tells us. “Just go walk around the garden a little while I make it for you.”
The sun has already started to paint the sky a warm orange. We walk past the woodshed and turn towards the sky, our eyes closed as the warmth lies down on our skin. On our way back home we will witness one of the most intense sunsets we have seen in a while. Turning around and looking over our shoulders every few seconds, it seems like the open fields stand in awe-stricken silence right next to us.
This, I think to myself as I turn from the sky to the man walking next to me and back to the sky, is what pure happiness feels like.