When the winter solstice hits, we trek out into the unforgiving wild and camp. There’s not much rhyme or reason to the location — a grove of trees circling an empty clearing is the ideal, though we’ve settled for rocky outcroppings looking down at frigid streams and wind-swept knolls rolling up to rocky peaks. Part of the magic is not knowing where we’ll land.
Last year, we found ourselves on a plain dotted with mammoth rocks — some lanky with crooked backs, others rotund and pocked with inexplicable holes. I joked it looked like a poor man’s Stonehenge, fallen apart at the seams: “Guess our druids aren’t built for this kind of work.” Nobody laughed.
We set up a tent in between two rocks I dubbed Asterix and Obelix. It was an A-frame made for two people, but we somehow managed to fit four of us inside. Not that we spent much time in it anyway. The goal was to disconnect in the oblivious open — to let go of the burdens and pains dragging us down. The best way to do that, we found: Release it all to nature, to God, to the universe (whatever omnipotent omniscience you happen to embrace) — and realize that in the spark of everything, our burdens amount to nothing. As one of my best friends told me during my first outing: “It’s not about us feeling small. It’s about recognizing the small-ness of the crap we carry with us.”
Many have mocked this little ritual. They just don’t get it. “Smoke some peyote,” they suggest. “Try some salvia. Why the f*** go out into the middle of nowhere to unburden yourself?”
These are the same acquaintances who carp about anxiety and stress on the reg. Their solution isn’t letting go so much as it is escapism. I get that — I do. And most of the time I do the same. But there’s less to escape when you can let the worst go.
Back to our ritual…
With the tent setup, we tucked into our pre-packed dinners — PB&Js, brownies, CapriSuns — and watched the sun quickly fade to nothing behind the mountains. It always feels lonelier in those descending moments. Like the sun is done with us, escaping. We’re left to the darkness. Not to enjoy so much as to survive until the sun comes back again.
This kind of angst always makes us introspective. If I’m honest, it’s the perfect formula for unburdening. That and a healthy dose of peaty Scotch. For a few years now, we’ve all been bringing flasks filled with Laphroaig. When dinner is done and the fire is lit, we stand in a circle around the flames and sip. We stare in silence, watching the fevered orange and jaundiced white reach this way and that — bursts of light and heat trying to get away. And we let our minds wander.
There’s a point in these hypnotic moments when senses forget their boundaries. When the smoke of the fire tastes like the peat of the Scotch and the haziness of our minds reeks like ash. It’s when the worst comes out.
Last year, I was the first to break the silence: “My friends baby me. It makes me sick. I feel like I can’t handle my own life.”
No one looked up. No nods or murmurs of support. Eyes were fixed on the fire. This wasn’t a time for cheerleading. Nobody needed that — the unburdening was for ourselves. We were only there to hold each other accountable, to keep us fixated on letting go.
“I cheated on Mark. It wasn’t even an accident. I wanted to. I wanted to make him angry. And jealous. To feel something for me.”
Stretching orange, and red, and yellow. Crackles. Coughs. Flying embers. Bitter bites of wind.
“My brother hit me and I haven’t told my parents. I don’t want to see him ever again — but I’m afraid I’ll have to.”
In the glow of the fire, you could see our eyes glaze. We sipped, almost in unison.
“People keep disappearing from my life. I think I’m incapable of being loved.”
Fanning flames, giving up their escape, slowly caved to the wind. Crawled back to the ashen wood.
Nobody said anything else. Chirps echoed behind us.
Eventually, the fire died. In silence and with empty flasks, we made our way to Asterix and Obelix. To the tent, where we packed in like logs. We stared up at the canvas with darkness all around until slowly, silently, we fell asleep.
The next day, we spoke very little. We had more PB&Js for breakfast, along with some tea. And while the sun was high in the sky and the day relatively warm, we each hiked out in separate directions.
I ended up in a thicket of gnarled trees. I stood in the center and looked up, tracking the piney digits of each glorious evergreen stretch higher and higher, reaching for something, anything. I felt like an interloper at first — small, out of place. But after a few minutes of quiet — nothing in that still and natural world rejecting my different-ness — I began to feel a sense of peace. As though, however alone and ignored in my adopted thicket, I had freedom to let my self-awareness fade and explore what all the trees were trained on: the up, above, and beyond.
I can’t tell you what time I made it back to the tent. Light was fading already. The others slowly made their way back after me and we worked together to build another fire. This one was the most important: the opportunity not to unburden but to burn what didn’t serve us. We each brought something to incinerate — something of deep emotional importance. As the ritual went, when we tossed this thing into the fire, we tossed our burdens with it. Out and off with the pain, the anxiety, the ache. Onward, just a little lighter.
The wind was worse that night. Not just cold, but incessant — like an invisible cat of nine tails, whipping across the plains. We were determined to light our fire, to see our ritual through to its end. But the fire wouldn’t catch. It would glow with bright orange efforts for a few short minutes, then the wind would extinguish it.
This went on for hours. The four of us — standing in a circle around the pyre, clutching our emotional baggage — each took a pass at lighting. Round and round the circle we went. We must have tried half a dozen times each. Our hands were red from the cold. We shivered. But we held our ground.
For a while, anyway. Until one of us knelt down by the base of the wood, teepeed neatly above a mess of twigs, and tucked a one-eyed quilted bear into a spot between the logs. Slowly, we followed his lead, somehow understanding this was our purge — the only way to unburden. If the fire wouldn’t light, we’d leave it all for the wind.
When it was over, we stood for a moment around the unlit logs, eyeing our tainted talismans. One by one, we peeled away, back to the tent.
The sky was clear that final night, and the moon beat down on the walls of our tent. The wind kept up its racing, growing louder as we settled into night. You could hear a plaintive plea sweep the darkness, like the sound of a thousand aches lashing against the stones.
In the morning, we escaped that wilderness for home.