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Alone, No Phone, in the Woods on Election Night

By Pat Tompkins

Nov 19, 2020

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Look up at the redwoods and just...breathe.

Photo by R. Andy / Shutterstock

Look up at the redwoods and just...breathe.

Also: No laptop. No TV. No news. I felt at peace.

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It’s Election Night 2020. I wake up at 3 a.m. and somehow feel . . . serene. Not a sentence I had expected to write, but much of 2020 has been unexpected. I wasn’t pinged awake by some news alert—America’s path forward is as-yet unclear. (I had no cell phone. I’d spent a week in Europe on my own without one two years ago and didn't miss it.) Rather, it’s the stillness that startles. And the towering redwoods that surround me.

Back at home in the Bay Area, I sleep with ear plugs in every night, hoping to drown out the car culture (or rather, lack of culture)—that nightly cacophony of hopped-up muscle machines, racing on my residential street. With the roar around me and the year we’ve all had, I was desperate for a change of scene. So back in August, I decided to book a proper outdoor escape in Big Sur, along California’s central coast.

Know that I’m not a camper. I’m barely a glamper. My days of roughing it ended decades ago. I’d stayed at a Motel 6 back when the name actually reflected the cost. I’d had uncomfortable nights sleeping on train seats in Europe. As an eight-year-old Camp Fire Girl, I’d spent two weeks away at Camp Singing Waters in rural Louisiana. I liked the activities—horseback riding, archery, shooting BB guns—and slept in a log cabin with bunk beds. The next summer I returned, even though Singing Waters referred to a small “lake” of artesian water, meaning it smelled of rotten eggs. As the decades passed, I held firm to the conviction that if we were meant to sleep on the ground, we would never have invented Tempur-Pedic mattresses.

These days, I splurged occasionally if the hotel was in a particularly scenic location or was the only place available, like a national park lodge. And as a longtime editor, the term glamping gave me pause. It’s a 21st-century portmanteau—glamorous camping?—that’s an oxymoron. Yet doing something new attracted me.

There was a single night in a single tent—at Ventana’s campground—available in the next three months: Tuesday, November 3. Election night.

Twenty years ago, I’d sworn I’d never travel on election night again.

* * * * * 

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In early November 2000, I spent a week in Yelapa, Mexico, a seaside village reachable only by boat. I was there for an ashtanga yoga retreat, sweating with 20 others, none of whom I knew. My room: a palapa with mosquito nets, occasional electricity, a toilet that would not accept toilet paper, and a shower stall constructed of recycled beer bottles. Rustic, remote, far from the news.

This was my first visit to Mexico and the poverty of the village gave me a sense of why people would want to leave. The rusticness had some appeal—no cars or newspapers, for instance—but this was not paradise. After daily morning yoga, I swam in the bay, its waters fuel fouled by big party boats from Puerto Vallarta that blasted a weird mix of old Stones songs and Mexican disco late at night.

The day after the 2000 U.S. presidential election, I was the only one among the yogis who approached the resort’s owners to ask, “Who won?” They had a radio.

The expat Americans said, “They’re not sure.”

“What do you mean they’re not sure?” I’d been confident my candidate would win.

“It’s really close. It all depends on Florida.”

Wait, Florida? Carl Hiaasen territory? The state whose governor happened to be the brother of one of the candidates? This was too bizarre to be fiction.

We know how that worked out. I was home more than a month before George W. was officially declared president. And I vowed, half jokingly, to never be away again during an election. Being far away when such a dramatic, unprecedented event occurred threw this yoga practitioner off balance.

This year, I knew there wouldn’t be a clear winner the next day, but I was glad to ignore the news. Glad? More like thrilled to escape the rancor, the pundits, the lies, if only for a short time.

* * * * *

How am I not cold? I’d envisioned an endless night in the woods huddled under the covers (a very long night, given the recent return of daylight savings time). But my Ventana tent comes with a small space heater. The website also promised electric blankets; at check-in I learned that they were not available, courtesy of COVID (too much hassle to wash frequently).

Also more glamp than camp: The tent has a charging station (though I travel sans laptop and phone) and better lighting than most hotels. I had wondered how brushing my teeth would work. I figured there’d be a few water stations on the grounds, so I brought along a metal flask. The bathhouse with the showers was too far away to visit in the dark. And with towering trees blocking much of the sky, it was dark by 5:15. I’d figure something out. O Pioneer!

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But no. On the wood porch of my tent, along with two Adirondack chairs and a firepit, is a sink built into an old wine barrel. Beside one spigot with cold, drinkable water is another with super-heated water, ideal for making tea. (Go nowhere without tea bags.) Bliss. I’d also packed an insulated mug with lid, like a real camper. With no café within walking distance, this was good news. Especially given what I’d learned in the afternoon when I paused at the Big Sur Bakery for iced tea (yes, November, but temps were in the upper 70s). The bakery’s website said it opened at 8, but its hours were now 9–5. A long wait for coffee.

My tent also includes a grill outside, but I’d brought no food to cook. Although my night vision isn’t what it was, I drive the grounds’ dark, narrow, windy road back to Highway 1 to a café for a salad. I return to read a novel by the light of small LED lanterns. At bedtime, the space heater is on beside me. And socks on my feet, but no ear plugs.

When I wake up in the middle of the night, I hear nothing but the relaxing gurgle of a brook mere feet away. Unzipping my tent, I see a nearly full moon directly overhead, shining through a small break in the canopy of redwoods. I am entranced. With my binoculars, I search for stars but branches block most of the sky.

After admiring the moon, breathing the fresh air, and giving thanks for the quiet, I sleep well until daybreak. I stroll to the bathhouse, featuring six stalls and heated floors. Roughing it, this is not. Most of the half dozen tents nearby remain dark. The moon lingers. I make tea and sit by the firepit.

As I relish the peacefulness, people in the nearest tent burn bacon, an aroma that suggests real camping. People in another tent apparently are sending out smoke signals. Sipping my tea, I recall my vow about travel during a presidential election. Never say never.

Maybe I got lucky with the temperature and quiet. The sound of the long plastic entry zipper of the tent nearest me reached my ears, but the occupants’ voices were indistinct. Airplanes overhead were a distant reminder of the outside world.

Only that morning did I notice my tent had a name. A small wood sign above the entry read: Portola. This portal into another world was a success. And the word glamping now worked for me. It is derived in part from glamour, but not in the Hollywood celeb sense. Glamour originally meant magic.

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