The first night camping at Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument was mystical, invigorating and potentially embarrassing (if our neighbor Sean has the video). The air was so crisp and the moon so bright that the spell cast by Mother Nature conjured up repressed primitive spirits. Raucous laughter and loud conversation about existential and silly things amid a monster cloud of Cuban cigar smoke to the tune of tinkling tin cups was nothing that the four of us and our two dogs could control.

The second night we almost got killed (at least, that was the scenario we conjured up), and that was fun, too.

Frivolity upon our arrival in the wilderness was not automatic. I mainly worried on the way about bugs and whether we would get one of only two first-come-first-serve tent sites at Sandbag Stream Picnic and Camping Area on a holiday weekend four hours north. When we did secure a spot at this repurposed gravel pit, I worried about pitching a tent on a giant sand dune in the woods – and I worried that whoever might occupy the adjacent site for the night would be annoying, or worse.

Bugs were no problem, and neither was Sean from Kennebunk. He pulled up in a big truck around 5 p.m., threw a backpack on the second campsite’s picnic table and spread out on the ground a rich ivory cotton sheet with black paisley print and red ribbon trim. “It’s like my lawn chair in a snowstorm,” he said disarmingly, jumping back in his truck and taking off again to do a hike.

By the time Sean returned to camp for the night, we were so deeply ensconced in ancient pagan rituals we barely noticed him crank up what looked like a ski rack on the cap of his truck into a second-story palace-like tent with lights that created an artsy silhouette. We never heard a peep. Whatever Sean spent his night doing hopefully involved earplugs. When he left the next morning, we had the place to ourselves.

The second day of camping was chock full of natural beauty, fresh air and sunlight that surpassed the previous night’s moonlit majesty. We were lulled into camping confidence as we hiked and hydrated and decompressed with cicadas, warblers and chickadees.


Following a rigorous day of activity, the men chopped wood and prepared the fire while Martha and I took two beers down to the pond to get out of their way. Another Coleman-cooked feast made us giddy, and we happily dashed into our tents as the first raindrops began to fall. Like the Queen of Sheba, I had s’mores delivered to me by my doting husband, clad in his full rain gear. It was lovely. Sleep came easy and early to our exhausted bodies, and my heart and mind beat in sync with the melodious pitter-patter of the showers and the snoozing of our pooped yellow Lab at my feet.

It was about 1 a.m. when the thunder started and pelting sheets of rain moved in. Lightning followed, and for about four hours I lay awake racking my brain trying to remember the name of the Faraday cage phenomenon – that theory we heard about in high school that it’s safe to be inside a metal car in lightning – and wondered whether it even applies to a Toyota Prius.

Hearing footsteps outside snapped me out of it. By then it was around 3 a.m., and I naturally assumed it was a bear circling the tent and regretted immediately the s’more delivery and resulting crumbs and leftover chocolate inside the tent. Our “watchdog,” meanwhile, was out cold and snoring. Making a run from the tent to the Prius to avoid electrocution was now off the table.

According to Martha, it was killers – probably from Massachusetts – not bears wandering around in the dark.

Without access to our arsenal of jackknives and s’more sticks, Jim did what any self-respecting camper would do in such a crisis. Quietly reaching for his car keys, he took aim through the tent, pulling the trigger to lock their Honda, hoping the sudden chirping of the horn and blinking of the lights would surprise and fend off the intruders, and it did.

When dawn finally arrived and brought with it the courage to finally exit my tent, I experienced exaltation. We made it! Drinking black coffee from tin cups and recounting our stunning tale of survival in the wilderness was rapturous. I was a changed person. I loved our sand pit and was grateful for its drainage. Bugs, neighbors, not getting a spot – none of these things that I thought I feared mattered.


Camping tests mettle, and we passed. Every red-blooded American should camp. It reminds us who we are in challenging, unfamiliar situations. Camping in the North Woods reset my moral compass and reminded me what I want to carry around on my back.

Cynthia Dill is a civil rights lawyer and a former state senator. She can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @dillesquire

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