In 2003, a year after I retired but when my wife was still working, I took Anna, our dog, and headed west to see some of the country I’d visited in times past. Anna and I camped most of the time, and one particular night I remember finding a small Bureau of Land Management campground on Antelope Reservoir in eastern Oregon. We could see a long way across the reservoir and surrounding desert landscape. I remember preparing dinner while Anna, sitting at the edge of the campsite, watched the landscape for signs of life.
We were alone. Eastern Oregon is high desert country with few towns or visitors. We were in Malheur County, which is about 14 percent larger than New Jersey but has only 0.3 percent of its population. Besides, it was late September and most people were at school or work.
The campground had a few sites, one pit toilet, and no trees or high brush. It appeared not to have been used in months. It was perhaps the most exposed campsite I’d seen, and we could feel every breeze and every degree as the cold desert night settled in. The stars appeared slowly, a few bright ones at first, then an unlimited panorama of starlight against black sky. In the clear dry air, they seemed close enough to grab.
I wasn’t familiar with desert wildlife and we were exposed. I ate dinner with a constant eye to the surroundings, watching for movement. When we retired to the tent, I still felt vulnerable. But soon I fell asleep into the cold night. I woke once about 2 a.m. I could sense Anna shivering on her pillow next to me. The temperature was below freezing, though I didn’t know that until dawn. I took an edge of my down blanket and pulled it across her. She gave a soft sigh, stopped shivering, and lay still until dawn.
When we crawled out of the tent and looked over the cold landscape, we saw a huge flock of Canadian geese on the reservoir. Lifting off in near unison, honking in affirmation, I assume, and appearing as silhouettes against an orange sky, they circled and headed southwest.
I felt renewed and strong there in the cold, watching the geese. Being in nature as it lives and moves affects us positively, especially as we age. Research now shows that many health problems—dementia, depression, heart disease, anxiety, among others—surrender partially to time with nature.
Beyond the science lies the spirit. People who visit nature regularly, who feel at home in one or more natural environments, know they make contact with the infinite—something deep, expansive and elemental—out there.
I’m 71 now, and most of my camping is memory. Early today, at home and out on the back deck in the darkness, listening to the trees move in the breeze, sitting quietly as the night gave way to day, I remembered the night in the high desert of eastern Oregon. May you have similar moments and memories.