Most tents need rain covers. These were my first thoughts waking up half-submerged in a growing puddle of rainwater on an Outdoors Club trip to Smoky Mountains National Park last month. Pastel daylight filled the tent like smoke, and the morning thrummed as rain slapped the plastic exterior. I could tell that water had infiltrated my sleeping bag, but I needed to start moving to get a sense of the damage. Flipping over, I realized the water had only permeated my end of the tent. Going outside seemed like the only course of action, but I didn’t have a raincoat; I couldn’t even use the cotton coat that I’d brought because it was my pillow overnight, and was now nearly 10 times its normal heft in water weight. Tired of staring at my sleeping tent mates, or perhaps just trying to find solace from my self-recriminations, I decided to relocate my misery outside. I twisted myself free from my water-logged bed and dragged the zipper down the wall of the tent.
In many ways, being in the outdoors has been the focal point of my experience at Kenyon. Trips like these are fundamentally different experiences than anything else on campus. Everyone I know and I conceptualize time spent outside in a entirely different manner than our day-to-day campus experiences. One of my outdoors leaders once told me, “You really appreciate everything you have after you finish camping.” Her response is telling: there is something truly instructive about time spent outside, but nobody pretends that it’s always strictly “fun,” or that it won’t sometimes be downright miserable. Perhaps that’s the point. Maybe, when we live in a ecology of control like Kenyon, one where we carefully mitigate what challenges us and overindulge in what pleases us, the experience of being wildly impotent against nature’s simultaneous wrath and caress is uniquely fulfilling.
The tent door waved like a seaside flag when I stepped out into the storm; I reached back and sealed it, then turned myself towards the clearing in which we’d made camp. The wind swept like a massive undulation under my feet and the rain matted my hair. Torrents of water smeared my clothing into my skin; my body shivered and swelled, and my teeth rattled. I teetered on the edge of concession, but where was my white flag? Inside the sleeping bag filled with water, or lying down on the freezing ground? Rain, like so many things in nature, is something that you can’t run from. You can’t even gaze upwards and watch it happen — you’ll just get an eyeful of water. So I searched for landmarks: the campfire from last night, the woodpost that read “Campsite 24,” the trees ornamented with our food-bags. I started walking in circles to warm myself, singing songs under my breath. The album Currents, by Tame Impala, popped into my mind. Kevin Parker once said of his album, “You can’t control it. There are these currents within you.” That day, I felt the same.
How should we characterize moments like these? Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher, liked to describe these kinds of powerful natural occurrences as “sublime,” or like a wave function. They induce a “movement of the mind” that “may be compared to a vibration, i.e., to a rapidly alternating repulsion from and attraction to one and the same object.” Standing in the Tennessee rain, I thought of the time my roommate and I sprinted to Peirce when it started storming. We arrived out of breath, drenched and excited. Then, like now, the storm was, at various turns, an obstacle, thought provoking and a source of happiness. There was something intrinsically freeing about how effortlessly I experienced these feelings, the way nature took power out of my hands. I couldn’t control the frigid bombard, so all that was left was to admire the way the stream below our campsite bulged, capturing fallen branches along the embankment, and follow the raindrops as they slowly percolated and dribbled from the leaves. I was almost thankful I had the time to experience the storm — when my groupmates awoke they were perplexed by my cheeriness. I thought they wouldn’t have the time to reach the conclusion I had but when we were on the trail drying in the sunshine, somebody asked,“Why did it feel like a good day?”
I signed up for the Outdoors Club Fall Break trip in search of that positivity. Unfortunately, we had a grueling commute in store: Eight hours of driving to reach Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and we had to get going at 6 a.m. to make good time. I set my alarm for 5:30 but woke up at 4:45. Knowing if I sat down I might clock out, I paced the Caples hallway for 30 minutes listening to music; my patience eventually wavered, and I left pack in hand. The air outside was crisp, and the concrete behind Farr Hall was dotted with spotlights from the streetlamps. Cats, raccoons and skunks sprang onto the illuminated pathway, then ducked back out.
I was the first to arrive at the Outdoors Club Acland. When everyone was present, we started loading into a black van. My friend Seth and I sat on the ends in the back row. A small, first-year cross country runner, Andrew, squeezed into the middle. The ride was predictably quiet early on; then we started playing music, and eventually there was some conversation.
The talking really started when reached Pigeon Forge about seven hours in. Previously unbeknownst to me, and everyone else in the car, Pigeon Forge was also Dollywood — the home of the country icon Dolly Parton, and the site of a massive, garish theme-park/hotel/tourist-trap erected in her image. We were sandwiched between two long strips of kitsch attractions: a sinking Titanic restaurant, upside-down hotels and Dolly Parton’s Lumberjack Adventure. It was surreal.
The lot where we parked the van seemed meek by comparison. The trail was well-trodden gravel, approximately the width of Middle Path, and stretched alongside a stream that alternated between river and creek. As the walk progressed, we divided into three sub-groups moving at independent speeds.
Seth and I comprised the middle group, and Andrew reprised his role traveling between us. We chatted for a while; when we noticed the way the groups were separating, Seth commented that I could use this moment in my story to “symbolize the intrinsic separation between people.”
“Maybe they just don’t want to walk with you,” I joked.
We passed over a wide wooden bridge, and Seth asked me what I’d been reading for the trip.
“Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler. It’s about a member of the Communist party in Russia. He eventually gets purged by the party because he began to doubt the party line—”
Seth interrupted me mid-sentence: “Did he do anything?”
“No, that’s the whole point. He’s killed because he begins to have doubts about the party’s philosophy. It has to do with the Sartrean idea of good faith. Have you heard of that?”
Visibly tired of my grandstanding, but with nowhere to go, Seth said “no.”
“It has to do with the notion that our ideas have power in defining who we are, and creating reality. In the context of Darkness at Noon, any doubt among the Communist Party members is seen as the precursor to an inevitable dissent. If someone believes the Party is at all flawed, they will act accordingly. The protagonist ends the book saying, ‘Maybe humans weren’t meant to think things to their logical conclusions,’ and then when he dies, he ‘drifts away into the great unknown.’ It’s positioned as a moment of liberation; an escape from the controlling grip of over-intellectualization.”
“What was the protagonist’s name?”
I was disappointed. “I honestly don’t know.”
“Do you always base your life on the arguments of books that you can’t accurately remember?”
“Usually, yes.” I found out later that he had read the book for one of his classes, and didn’t know the details himself.
Moments later we reached a point where the river suddenly terminated its parallel run, snaking across the pathway and under a large bridge that we crossed to reach a wooded trail. We took a detour off this new path to a winding and rugged clearing that would deliver us to the campsite. The way was narrow — we were forced into single file, and out of conversation.
Thoughts on Seth’s comment populated the silence: How did I miss something so basic about Darkness? I felt like I had a strong grasp on the philosophy of the work, but did it matter — or could it even be right — if I couldn’t recall something as simple as the main character’s name? I wanted to control what it meant, like we so often do with our experiences at Kenyon, and in doing so, I simply applied selective tunnel vision to whatever substantiated my claims. That seemed like a grand offense standing in the middle of the Smoky Mountains National Forest, a sacred place where you can hardly control anything at all. Nature, like the storm to come, is a symphony of feelings and meanings, an experience of comfort and discomfort coexisting in unison.
By the time we made it to the campsite it was already getting dark. We’d stay in this camp again for the third and final night — the rainstorm would happen on the morning of the second night. We pitched our tents before it got too dark, squeezing four to a tent around 7:30, when the light was already almost entirely gone. Andrew told us about how he used to be a Boy Scout, and then he turned his sleeping bag head-first down the campsite incline. I must have woken up 14 different times that night.