It has been two years ago this spring, and I haven’t forgotten her. If she told us her name, I don’t recall it, but I can still see in memory her pale blue eyes, those that are unmistakably of the very old, faded by years and sort of glassy and with lots of crinkles at the edges.
It was the first and only time I’ve gone to Fort Pickens National Park campground over in Florida, a popular beach area and perpetually filled with campers. I was standing at the edge of the blacktopped campground road, having been chatting with a number of ladies of our women’s camping group. Quite suddenly this car was beside me–a small, green boxy-shaped vehicle–and I looked down into the pleasant, doughy face of an elderly woman. Clearly very elderly with those eyes. She held up a piece of paper and asked, “Can’t you help me?”
The paper was the roughly drawn map of the campground they give you at the ranger station when you check in. “This map is confusing,” I told her, wanting her to know I found it so, too.
By then a couple of my camping friends came over to chat. She told us that she had been to visit her daughter in Louisiana and was on her way home to middle Florida, a trip she made several times a year. While with her daughter, she had enjoyed some sort of bug observations with bug scientists. I envisioned lightning bugs, but can’t truly recall that part. My mind was stuck on her driving such a distance and home again, and camping all by herself. I glanced at the passenger seat several times to make certain I hadn’t made a mistake. Nope, there was no room in the passenger seat or the entire vehicle for another person. Every inch was crammed with stuff.
A couple of us helped guide the woman to her campsite. Our women’s group had plans, so it was later, when I walked my dog, that I noticed a tent had popped up beside her little car. I wondered if a ranger or someone had brought a tent and set it up for her. Had she really set it up by herself? She was nowhere in sight.
That evening a camper friend and I saw the woman sitting at her picnic table and ventured over to chat. The flap of her tent was open, and I saw a cot set up inside. It was hot and she was sleeping in a tent on a cot.
We plied her with more questions, which she kindly answered while sitting on that picnic table bench with her feet barely touching the ground. She had just turned ninety years old. Whenever she drove the trip to Louisiana to see her daughter, she took the same route and stayed at the same campgrounds. She had no reason to hurry or drive long distances. There was no one waiting for her at home. Yes, she set up the tent, it was easy. She had camped all her life, in both campers and tents. She used to kayak and only quit kayaking in the past several years because her friend and paddling buddy had “got herself a man” and didn’t go with her anymore.
“You travel and camp all by yourself?” I restated the obvious, still wondering at her.
“Well, I have to. I don’t have anyone to go with me,” she stated flatly.
And I nodded in understanding.
The next afternoon her tent and car were gone, the campsite empty, as if she’d never been there. I was disappointed not to catch her either putting up the tent or taking it down. Not to mention stowing it in the car, which had to be a feat in itself.
So here it is two years later, and I still think of her. Sometimes I wonder if she wasn’t an escapee from a nursing home. What kind of woman camps alone at the age of ninety? With heat growing on the Gulf Coast, when I enter my camper and flip on the air-conditioner, I think of her in her tent. I think of her sleeping on that cot. I’m like the princess with her pea–I am on the third, and plush, innerspring mattress in my camper because the first two were horrible to my notion.
This is a photo of historic concrete steps remaining at Fort Pickens. The flowers flourishing in the cracks remind me of that ninety-year-old petite woman with giant gumption. She had not let any trouble, heavy loneliness, or aches of aging defeat her, but simply kept on doing what she could and wanted to do. She had not given up.
As I remember her, I am helped to not give up. I pass along her story to help you not give up, too.
Grace and peace,